Morocco Boasts Stability, But Critics Say The Price Is High

Apr 17, 2016
Originally published on May 4, 2016 3:10 pm

Compared to the rest of the Arab world, Morocco is doing pretty well. It may be an authoritarian monarchy but foreign investment is up, the country has a new and improved constitution and most importantly it's stable in a region awash with chaos.

And that's why many citizens of Morocco who protested or supported protests in 2011 say that for now they're just fine with the way things are. This as critics of the regime say the space for freedom of expression is at an all time low.

Maati Monjib, a historian and writer in Morocco, is an advocate for democracy. And because of that he's in trouble with the state, accused of trying to "undermine state security."

"It's like a prison now," he says with a laugh.

He jokes about the metal door with bars he had installed at his office. He says it's to keep security agents out after noticing someone had been breaking in at night and unscrewing the door knob.

"They took out the screws, visiting us without our permission or permit, just to look and also to intimidate us," he adds.

At the Ibn Rochd Center for Studies and Communication, a center Monjib founded for media training and political advocacy, the place is empty. Monjib was forced to close the office after being charged with other journalists for trying to destabilize the state apparently because they were teaching people to use a smartphone app for citizen journalism. If convicted, he faces five years in prison.

His case has been a cause for international human rights groups and it's part of what he says is a negative trend for freedoms in his country. For now, the trial's been postponed.

"Today in 2016, the situation of freedoms is worse than in 2010 before the Arab Spring movement in Morocco and in other Arab countries," he contends.

It's not that Morocco wasn't touched by the Arab uprisings that swept through the region in 2011. Moroccans protested and demanded greater freedom.

But in keeping with a trend throughout the Arab world, Morocco and other monarchies maintained tight control and the kings have all survived. In contrast, authoritarian leaders with no claims to royalty were ousted in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, while Syria remains locked in a nasty civil war.

Morocco's King Mohamed VI promised significant reforms, and the country now has a new constitution. Morocco had elections and the protests stopped. But as conflicts around the region escalated over the past few years, activists in Morocco have been increasingly threatened or arrested.

Monjib and other human rights groups say it's the worst it's been in more than 20 years.

He Monjib says his fellow Moroccans seem to have accepted the crackdown.

Asked if he feels isolated by these developments, he says, "I didn't feel isolated during 2011 and 12 but because of civil wars in Libya, the situation in Egypt, in Syria, in Yemen, in Iraq. The population is listening less to free voices than before."

Many Moroccans are afraid of instability here if the leadership feels threatened.

"They say we can't put our country in danger by asking the regime things it can't accept," he says.

He acknowledges the country is not as repressive as many in the region, but it's easy, he says, to be the "best of the worst."

Moroccans grumble about unemployment and lack of services but when they look around at the problems in the region they tend to say they appreciate the leadership of the king.

"I'm very happy that I'm in Morocco and not these other Middle Eastern countries," says Hannah Khalouki, a teacher in Casablanca. "It's all thanks to our king who protects us from a lot of attacks and from all these problems."

The government says Morocco's found what it calls a third way between reform and instability.

"It's a process of democratization. It's a process of gradual but also significant political and institutional reforms," says, Minister of Communication Mustapha El Khalfi.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Morocco, there's a struggle for democratic reform and an activist facing trial. It's a familiar story in that part of the world. But the twist is that many Moroccans aren't outraged and don't have much of a problem with an ongoing government crackdown. The country is doing OK by regional standards. It's not in chaos like Libya or Syria. And there's no widespread unrest.

NPR's Leila Fadel met the activist who's facing pressure from the monarchy's security services on one hand and on the other, shrugs from his neighbors.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Maati Monjib is a political historian and writer in Morocco. He's also an advocate for democracy. And because of that, he's in trouble with the state, accused of trying to undermine state security. He lets me into his office.

MAATI MONJIB: It's like a prison now (laughter).

FADEL: He jokes about the metal door with bars he had installed at his office. He says it's to keep security agents out after noticing someone had been breaking in at night and unscrewing the doorknob.

MONJIB: They took out the screws, visiting us without our permission, without our permit, just to look and also to intimidate us.

FADEL: We're at the Ibn Rochd Center for Studies and Communication, a center Monjib founded for media training and political advocacy. It's empty. Monjib was forced to close the office after being charged, with other journalists, for trying to destabilize the state apparently because they were teaching people to use a smartphone app for citizen journalism. If convicted, he faces five years in prison. His case has been a cause for international human rights groups and is part of what he says is a bad trend for freedoms in his country.

MONJIB: Today, in 2016, the situation of freedoms is worse than in 2010 before the Arab Spring movement in Morocco and in other Arab countries.

FADEL: It's not that Morocco wasn't touched by the Arab Spring that swept through the region in 2011. Protests erupted with demands for freedoms. King Mohammed VI promised reforms, and today, the country has a new constitution. Morocco had elections, and the protests stopped.

But since the wars around the region escalated over the last two years, activists in Morocco have been increasingly threatened or arrested. Monjib and other human rights groups say it's worse than it's been in more than 20 years. And Monjib says his fellow Moroccans seem to be OK with the crackdown. I ask if he feels isolated as, what he calls, a free voice.

MONJIB: I didn't feel isolated during 2011 and '12. But because of the civil wars in Libya, the situation in Egypt, in Syria, in Yemen, in Iraq, the population is less listening to the free voices than before.

FADEL: Many Moroccans are afraid of that instability reaching home if the regime feels threatened.

MONJIB: They say we can't put our country in danger by asking the regime things that it can't accept.

FADEL: He acknowledges the country is not as repressive as many in the neighborhood. But it's easy, he says, to be the best of the worst.

Moroccans grumble about unemployment and lack of services. But when they look around at the problems in the region, they say they appreciate the leadership of the king. Hannah Khalouki is a teacher in Casablanca.

HANNAH KHALOUKI: (Through interpreter) I'm very happy that I'm in Morocco and not in these other Middle Eastern countries.

It's all thanks to our king who protects us from a lot of attacks and from all these problems.

FADEL: The government says Morocco's found what it calls a third way - between reform and instability.

Minister of communications, Mustapha El Khalfi.

EL KHALFI: It's a process of democratization. It's a process of gradual, but also significant political and institutional reforms.

FADEL: And the minister says that's all while keeping the country stable and united.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Rabat.

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