These reflections on democracy, human rights, and security in Morocco were written in the spring of 2009, preceding the events of the so-called Arab Spring across North Africa 2011. They provide a unique window into a world on the brink of change. A return trip in January 2014 finds much the same, but much different with some contrasts even more pronounced. Political Islam is more evident along with extremism. More women wear the headscarf in the major cities, in an apparent nod to rising cultural conservatism. At the same time, progress is indicated by locals who now ride the modern public transportation across the river between Rabat and Sale, and increased political reforms instituted by the King in the wake of the uprisings elsewhere in the region. Yet many of the conundrums – and promise – remain in the summer of 2014. Topping the list is the continuing need for the government to gain the trust of the people.
April 2009: The Morocco Conundrum
An email subject line catches my eye late at night as I labor with my final paper for the fall semester. “Study Abroad in Morocco”. Morocco! The name evokes exotic impressions of color, movement, intrigue and excitement – sounds of snake charming flutes mixed with African beating drums and Berber hand cymbals; enticing vistas of remote, snow-covered mountain passes leading to limitless solitudes of shifting sand dunes; intoxicating spices trailing after silent, graceful women who slip through the afternoon shadows of hidden alleyways, from which mysterious strangers emerge, meet to conduct questionable business, and fade quickly away unobserved; galloping Arabian horses carrying men with rifles held high, charging and dancing a timeless ritual fantasia. Familiar music celebrating the joys of riding an express train into the carnival oasis that is Marrakech, and the world’s most romantic movie wringing out the essence of heart-ache, longing, and love at Rick’s Bar in Casablanca.
I’m sorely tempted by the invitation – but sensory enticements are not reason enough to abandon ship – taking off work and leaving family alone with my two canine companions — for three weeks right after Christmas holidays. The full semester of course credit notwithstanding, relevant academic experience is required to justify setting off on such an adventure. Upon closer examination, I find to my delight that there is indeed much to recommend this journey into the Islamic country on the tip of North Africa – a journey that will end up taking place on multiple levels – personal, academic, and professional. This essay is an account of that multifaceted experience, the lessons brought home, and the challenges to be faced and opportunities yet to be realized that I left behind.
Research: Morocco 101
The first phase of my journey takes place in front of the fireplace, as I conduct research on “the real” Morocco. The tourist guidebooks extol Morocco’s diversity. Physically, politically, culturally, and ideologically, they tell me, Morocco is a land of crossroads. Trade routes and slave routes, immigrants and armies have passed through Morocco, crossing between Africa and continental Europe, from the Arab Middle East to the modernized world of the West and back again. Digging a little deeper, with Marvine Howe leading the way, I find that it has been this way for centuries, as forces of tribalism, imperialism, Islamism, socialism, capitalism, and nationalism have contested each other within Morocco.
Morocco’s more recent history is not atypical of many other African nations. Upon attaining independence from France in 1955, Morocco became another post-colonial state in Cold War Africa seeking unity through a modern national identity under a legitimate, sustainable system of self-governance. In the historic moment as he took the throne to become the first King of Morocco, Mohammed V made a commitment to establish “a responsible and representative government” for the new Morocco, whose primary mission would be the “creation of democratic institutions resulting from free elections and founded on the principle of the separation of powers, with the framework of a constitutional monarchy, granting Moroccans of all faiths the rights of citizenship and the exercise of public and trade union freedoms.” 
It is this brave new vision for democracy and how it has been carried out in relative peaceful circumstances (no significant or sustained outbreaks of civil violence) that is my primary academic interest in Morocco. The challenges were many for Mohammed V as he took charge of a nascent government serving divergent political and ethnic factions in a society with a wide economic gap between the privileged elite and the majority of poor and illiterate citizens, no established domestic institutions for upholding a rule of law, and industries and finances largely controlled by foreign entities. Moreover, there were no security forces at the time to offer protection from the guerilla forces spilling over from Morocco’s neighbor, Algeria, or to quell civil violence should it arise. Fortunately for Moroccans, civil violence did not arise throughout his reign (1955 – 1961), as Mohammed V enjoyed a political capital unique in the Arab world, which he used to good effect to build broad-based support for the new government and its educational, security, and economic reform initiatives.
However, the regime of Hassan II that followed was notorious for its tyranny and poor human rights record. The “years of lead” from the 1960s to the late 1980s witnessed two assassination attempts by the military, public discontent expressed through protest demonstrations and riots, and challenges to the religious authority of the king from the Islamic community. These confrontations only increased the regime’s oppression of political dissidents, who were routinely imprisoned, killed, or disappeared. Aligned with the United States during the Cold War, there was little outcry from the West.
In the latter years of his reign, responding to social, political, and economic pressure, Hassan II relaxed his monopoly on power, reinvigorating the democratic institutions established by his father, and paving the way for his successor, Mohammed VI. He established the first constitutionally guaranteed multi-party political system in the Maghreb, and allowed the opposition to assume power – another first for the Arab world. He released hundreds of political prisoners and created the Royal Council for Human Rights to look into allegations of abuse by state officials. He adopted a successful market-based economy, where agriculture, tourism, and phosphate mining industries played a major role. Hassan II also established a key role for Morocco as peace mediator between Israel and the Arab world.
These reforms late in the regime of Hassan II did not ameliorate the long-term effects of some of his more troublesome policies. In particular, the legacy of his 1975 incursion into Spanish-controlled area of Ifni and the greater Spanish Sahara has been passed on as a source of conflict with Algeria, Spain, and the separatist group, Polisario that continues to wield a destabilizing influence today. Similarly, the gaps between rich and poor, powerful and oppressed that widened during his regime have also carried over, creating social fissures that are routinely exploited by the integrismes. 
The present king, Mohammed VI, abandoned the oppressive means of his father, and embarked on an aggressive reform agenda upon assuming the throne in 1999. Most germane from a policy perspective is that he is leading Morocco’s transition to a more open and free society through the existing government structures. Refusing to be intimidated by Islamic radicals, Mohammed VI has denounced Islamic extremist ideologies that would erode the sense of a unified national identity and challenge the principles underlying his reforms, which derive their basis from the relatively flexible Malekite school of Islam traditionally practiced by Moroccans. He has built a broad base of support from the political and ideological parties – conservatives, nationalists, Islamic fundamentalists, and liberal opposition groups – that became polarized during his father’s reign. This support is crucial to strengthen and deepen Morocco’s democratic institutions and meet the aggressive goals for human rights reforms and rule of law that Mohammed VI has laid out.
The reforms have not been without challenge. Islamic extremists continue to contest the religious legitimacy of the monarch, the validity of the constitution, and the congruence of the human rights reform with Islamic principles. The vulnerability of Morocco’s marginalized and alienated to recruitment by these extremists –the integristes – and the threat they pose to Morocco and the broader region was made evident with the Casablanca terrorist bombings in March 2003,  the role of Moroccans in the Madrid bombings in May 2004 and a series of suicide bombings in Casablanca in March and April 2007. The latter attacks, coupled with explosions in Algiers at roughly the same time, raised fears of a new surge of radical Islamic violence in North Africa targeted against foreign tourists. In addition, the presence of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb – most notably in the Polisario training camps in southwest Algeria, raises concerns about co-option of local instabilities and grievances (poverty, illiteracy, lack of opportunity) by violent Islamic extremists with a global agenda.
Challenges to the reforms can arise from mainstream society as well. As Fatima Mernissi points out, followers of Islam tend to fear democracy for many reasons – its emphasis on rights of the individual, freedom of thought, and its association with the West and modernity – which have to be confronted and reconciled for lasting change. To move his agenda of deepened democracy and strengthened civil institutions forward effectively, Mohammed VI must maintain political stability, economic expansion, and cultural coherence in the face of growing influence from the integristes. If successful, many firsts will have been accomplished in the Arab world, and the example can have far-reaching influence within other Islamic regimes.
With this background research, I see that Morocco offers much potential as a case study on the interactions between political and religious institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and civil society in managing the volatile social and political tensions generated by pursuit of three contested goals: deepened democracy, political stability, and international security. In Morocco, as in other parts of the Arab world, sources of these tensions include
- Face-offs between those advocating expanded civil liberties through democratic reform and those wishing to further consolidate under Islamic authority;
- Forces of globalization pushing society in directions counter to those of fundamentalism and/or nationalism;
- Stark contrasts between the increased educational and economic opportunities for the urbanized elite and the economic poverty and educational isolation of rural populations; and
- Dissonance between legal achievements to advance rights of women and cultural practices of gender-based oppression.
And so I commit to three weeks abroad – two to be spent primarily in urban areas with the organized academic program, followed by one week on my own to discover how issues differ in the rural areas further south. My questions are many:
- What is the real Morocco like? Is the romantic mosaic of exotic images and enticements conjured up by movies, music, and mysterious women just fantasy or a real part of its story?
- What is Morocco’s place in the region? Is it defined by this forward-looking government, breaking new ground that merges ancient Arab tribalism, democratic Western idealism, and moderate Islamic pragmatism under a the leadership of a benevolent and powerful king?
- How deep within social, political, and civic institutions are the commitment to democracy and equality of economic opportunity compared to corruption, poverty, illiteracy, and social injustices? Are these reforms reflected in the everyday lives of the average citizen?
- How does leadership shape the internal political dynamics? How strident is the contention between those in power and those who would gain power? How different are these power relationships as one moves from the cities to the rural areas of Morocco? And finally,
- How will my views change, looking from within Africa, as opposed to looking at it from afar?
Clearly, these questions call for an answer. My dilemma is resolved as I succumb to the enticement of the invitation, and prepare to search out what answers I many find, and discover first-hand what policy lessons are to be learned in the process.
My first impression on landing at Mohammed V airport is how much the land is like my home state of New Mexico. The land, I know right away, defines this country. The clear blue sky comes right down to the edge of the plain and frames the limitless horizon spanning in all directions. There is a feeling of freedom and openness in the landscape that I find reflected in the people. The books had talked about diversity, but they had not prepared me for the warmth, helpfulness, and friendliness of the people.
Arriving a day earlier than the group, I am perfectly comfortable settling alone into my hotel in the heart of Casablanca’s medina the first night. Understanding my faltering attempts at French, the manager shuts down the front desk to personally guide me three blocks down the street to a local café and ensures that a good meal is ordered for me.
The next morning, my taxi driver arrives early to treat me to a tour of the city sites – for no extra charge – before returning me to the airport to meet up with the group. Sitting back in my seat, I sigh with relief. In spite of reassurances to everyone back at home, I have harbored misgivings about security in this strange new land. In contrast, I feel a deep sense that all will be well here – albeit a little unsure and much colder than I had expected – if I reach out, pay attention, and open my mind to experience this country and see its people as they present themselves to me. And bundle up in just about everything I brought with me to wear. Who would have thought I would wish I had brought my down jacket and gloves to Africa?
Our arrival a few hours later at the host organization in Rabat – AmidEast – is well organized if a little loose. Everything gets done, somehow, although I am not quite sure how. We are just shepherded along. I am grateful, as I am beginning to feel the jet lag. Little do I know that for the next three weeks I will continue to be “shepherded” and cared for wherever I am – whether by the program administrators and teachers who instruct us, the guide who is hired to escort us, the stranger in the street helping with directions, the traffic police pointing me to the right bus, the vendor in the medina who turns his stall over to a friend in order to help us navigate our way through the maze of shops, or the family who takes us into their home. This characteristic hospitality –derived from a nomadic desert heritage and permeating all aspects of life – can be both a blessing and a curse depending on whether it provides motivation to work towards communal benefits or to abdicate responsibility in the expectation of being taken care of. The overwhelming majority of what I encounter is in the first category – making generosity and compassion two of the most lasting impressions of the trip.
Moroccans at Home: My Family
The introduction to our host family is a first of a kind experience for me. Fouiza Kaditha is a lovely woman with a shy, gentle, and welcoming demeanor who – in spite of the language barrier and the unfamiliar surroundings for all of us – communicates clearly her delight to be taking us in. As my roommate, Jennifer, and I disembark from the bus with our luggage in the bustling old medina, Fouiza assumes charge with an authoritative presence that becomes stronger with each step we take through the crowd towards her home. This is clearly her turf, where she is most comfortable. This will become a familiar contrast– the change in women’s demeanor between their home, public spaces in their local neighborhood, their places of communal work, and public spaces outside of their home and immediate neighborhood. It was especially clear among the older generation, and in the rural areas.
The 100-year-old house is a bit of a puzzle to get to at the end of a narrow ally. We squeeze through two incredibly tall and thin doors; climb a crazy couple of flights of dimly lit stairs, passing halls off into the unknown as we go, to find ourselves on a landing facing two massive, carved wooden doors. These swing open, and we step onto a walkway around a lovely, sun-drenched atrium overlooking the floor below where the cousins live. We have stepped into another world! Facing us from directly across the open space is a large, elegant arch, typical of Moroccan palaces, inviting us into the formal receiving room. Similar archways grace the entrance into each of the four rooms that make up the sides of the atrium – which is open to the sky above. I am sure that this makes for a lovely and inviting space during milder weather. Given that there is no heat in the home, I am thankful for the massive carved wood doors opening into each room, and realize that these serve a very practical purpose by keeping the elements out and the warmth in. Behind one of these doors, we find the family room, which we enter to greet Ahmed, Fouiza’s husband, and our new “sister” Khawlita.
Ahmed is a retired government official from the Ministry of the Interior. He embraces us with no reservation, and the twinkle in his eye communicates his hospitality clearly. The language barrier between us does not get in the way, nor does it ever while we are there. He settles back to his perch in front of the TV, where we had been warned we were likely to find most families at mealtime. This will prove to be the only place where we ever interact with Ahmed. However, he is gracious, and makes sure to find channels that he thinks we will like. For his part, his favorites seem to be Arab soccer and Egyptian soap operas. I would love to talk to him about what it was like to work in the Ministry of the Interior while Hassan II was in power. But I never am able to find a way to broach the subject comfortably.
Kwalita shares her mother’s beauty and wit, as well as her father’s warmth. Unlike her mother, she does not wear the djelaba or hajib in public, and she speaks English as well as Arabic and French. At twenty-two, she is comfortable traveling widely across the city, making use of public transportation, walking with males in public, and pursuing an advanced degree at Mohammed V University in the hopes of becoming a judge one day. She is passionate about the law – aspiring to adjudicate on behalf of the family rights. She studies hard, staying up late into the night working on her power point presentations for demanding professors, much as any dedicated college student anywhere. Yet, when her father calls in the middle of class, sounding distressed and upset, she leaves the university immediately and splurges on a taxi home to comfort him. She gives herself a break from her studies by indulging in the ancient Moroccan custom of a communal steam bath and massage at the local women’s hamman, by logging on to Facebook to chat with her friends, or by the characteristic woman’s visit to the salon for a coiffure and manicure. She moves easily between these different public spaces – old, new, and universal.
Khawlita has a younger brother and an older sister. The brother, Fouiza bemoans, is not much of a student and is not motivated like his sisters. He is kind and gentle with us, but seems to be a little uneasy and unsure of how to interact with two Western women in the house and keeps mostly to himself. We find that many of our fellow students see the same thing in their host families – the girls seem to have more motivation than the boys to pursue advanced degrees. We speculate that this may be due to the limited options they have for what to do with their public lives – sitting around in public cafes whiling away the afternoon, keeping shops in the medina, or hanging out playing pool in the bars are not options for them. If they want to get out of the house, the university seems to be one of the few places they can go on their own and keep respectability.
The story around Khawla’s older sister reveals much about the things I take for granted that are not easily available to the citizens of Morocco. At twenty-four, she moved to Dubai two years ago, in search of a better job. She wants to come home for a visit, but there is no way for her parent’s to send money out of the country to help her with the plane ticket, and credit cards are not an option. Control over cash leaving Morocco has protected its economy from undesirable forces of globalization, yet at a price borne by families in situations such as these. Fouiza cannot visit her daughter, I learn, as it is difficult for Moroccans who don’t have a job or large bank accounts to get visas to many countries. I am reminded of the plight of Mexican nationals who have family working in the U.S., and wonder if they face some of the same problems. Issues that I have read about only in newspapers suddenly take on a new meaning, as I see the direct effect here in the faces of my new friends.
Through Embassy Eyes
I explore some of these issues one afternoon in a meeting with the political counselor, David Bernstein, at the US Embassy. After a week of deep immersion in Moroccan culture experienced through Rabat’s medina life, Arabic language studies, and academic lectures, I break out – and head for Embassy Row. What a contrast is manifested here – beginning as soon as I pass through security and enter the U.S. compound. The pace of discussion accelerates, and conversations all “have a point” rather than evolving organically around topics. The issues we discuss have roots in local concerns but are global in perspective.
Mr. Bernstein strongly endorses the idea of Morocco as a case study. He relates that Morocco has maintained credibility with the Arab world while simultaneously playing a “smart game” with the European Union and building a strong relationship with the U.S. As a result, Morocco is a key ally of the U.S., drawing on shared values rooted in the principles of self-governance, a market economy, and cultural tolerance. These characteristics, which have been prevalent throughout Morocco’s history, are rare in the Arab world today.
Mr. Bernstein describes how other Arab countries are closely watching how society is being affected by the revisions to the status of women provided by 2003 amendments to the code of family law (known as the “Mudawwana”). Under these revisions — which we had learned earlier in the week are based on the moderate Malikite school of Islam — women are no longer treated as legal minors, are granted an equal say about their own marriage contracts, and have equal access to divorce and property as their husbands. These changes bring them closer to the status of women in Tunisia; and provide for greater rights than Algeria and most other Arab countries in the Middle East. Indeed, the Embassy has been approached to sponsor workshops in Kuwait to help women there envision how to organize efforts to promote similar initiatives in their country. Ironically, it is because the king is so powerful and popular as both political advocate and religious leader (“commander of the faithful”) that these reforms have been successful to date. In this case, the maxim, “power corrupts” seems to be contradicted.
Even so, I explain to Mr. Bernstein, many women that I’ve met are concerned that, by being held up as the example to be followed, the international community will fail to realize how much work is yet to be done about family rights in Morocco. A crucial aspect of the Mudawwana is the role that judges play in interpreting many of its regulations. Women and children without means to argue effectively in front of judges will continue to be at risk, as are the those in communities where news of the changes called for by the Mudawwana are even now either unknown or not implemented. Non-governmental organizations, international programs, and neighborhood associations have a vital role to play through outreach, education, and monitoring activities. Key to these efforts, I argue, will be education of men as well as women, in order to understand the benefits that this cultural change brings to the community.
Mr. Bernstein and I agree that such education programs will be particularly important in the rural and peri-urban communities of Morocco, which tend to be politically isolated from the palace (where the real leadership and power of government still resides). I noted that the nongovernmental organizations and women’s advocacy groups with whom our student group had met the previous week gave both strategic and pragmatic reasons for the primarily urban focus of their work. (I do not yet know that the following week, at the Association Democratique des Femmes du Maroc in Casablanca, I will learn of some outreach undertaken through traveling “caravans” to the Moroccan countryside). Mr. Bernstein explains, however, that the Embassy is not so concerned about Islamic radicalization spreading through the more remote border areas near the Sahara. While it is true that one would expect the populations there to be vulnerable to recruitment or exploitation by members of the Polisario separatist, and/or Al Qaeda of the Northern Maghreb, this does not seem to be happening. It is important to ask why this is so, in contrast to Morocco’s neighbor, Algeria.
The counselor confesses that he is most familiar with issues in urban areas, as those are where the Embassy concerns lie. Since the “wake-up call” of 2003, the Moroccan government has been in a race for reforms to be enacted “effectively enough and fast enough to head off any simmering social problems” which tend to be concentrated around urban centers. The government of Morocco, he claims, is not unjust, but the people do not believe that uniformly. There is a wide trust gap that must be bridged. Visible economic development, with direct effects in peoples’ everyday lives, is essential to bridging this gap.
In regaining public trust, there is a dilemma in how to deal with the legacies of the government’s economic infrastructures evolved under the paradigm of “makhzen” — the governing elite in Morocco, centered around the king and consisting of royal notables, businessmen, wealthy landowners, tribal leaders, top-ranking military personnel, security service bosses, and other well-connected members of the establishment. The concept has roots in ancient feudal systems such as those that existed before the French protectorate. Under this paradigm, goods are generated “on the edges” of society, and brought to central locations. Today, several thousand people are involved in the centralized system of distribution of Morocco’s wealth. The term has come to signify corruption in that system, as well as the human rights abuses and lack of democratic freedoms that peaked during the “years of lead” under Hassan II. Yet it is also this system that has received much of the credit for the political and social stability of the past two decades.
In spite of the priority that Bernstein places on urban issues, he is looking forward to his first excursion to rural areas, during which he will trek to remote Berber villages in the High Atlas mountains to develop a sense of how these isolated communities fare. He endorses my plans to spend an extra week in Morocco, after the completion of the organized course, traveling to the peri-urban shantytowns on the outskirts of Casablanca, Rabat, and Marrakech, and to the mountain and desert villages further south. My goal is to discover how the mass public views on the democratic and economic reforms, civil society, current government leadership, the integristes, and upcoming elections in June compare to those expressed to us in the urban areas. For local contacts in my travels, he suggests that I try to find project leaders for initiatives sponsored by the King’s National Development Initiative.
Mr. Bernstein escorts me back to the guard gate, and asks me to please keep in touch and share my discoveries with him. I pick up my U.S. passport, and, exiting from the Embassy compound, emerge once again into the full sensory experience of Morocco. I rejoin my fellow students in downtown Rabat for the last of the lectures, and then pack up for our communal weekend excursion north and east to the imperial cities of Fez and Meknes. It is here that we meet a remarkable person – Lotfi Lamrani – who has been hired by AmidEast to be our guide.
Over the weekend, Lotfi escorts us through the silent and mysterious Roman ruins of Volubis outside Meknes, treats us to a display of the graceful and noble Arabian horses in the Royal stables, and navigates a path for us in the narrow, colorful, dizzying, lively and winding maze of the Fez medina, bartering with the shop merchants on our behalf as we go. Lotfi teaches us much about public leadership with his gentle demeanor, humor, wisdom, attentive care, gracious hospitality, and personal sacrifice. Our whole group agrees that Lotfi is a treasure. It is not only his fluency in English, French, and Arab language that we value, but his understanding of Morocco, its place in the region, and his grasp of the universal human rights, democracy, and leadership issues that are the purpose of our trip.
He not only grasps the underlying principles, he lives them. Several years ago, Lotfi gave up a high-paying job as a business person in Casablanca and moved with his wife to the beautiful mountain village of Azrul to raise their six children. He now works as a carpenter to put food on the table, while dedicating the majority of his time and effort to running a nonprofit association, which he founded to build cultural understanding. He proudly tours us through the classrooms where students and teachers from the local schools sit side by side to study English. These rooms also serve as the headquarters for hosting exchange groups from abroad. We hear of the film which he helped produce, in which eight youths – four Moroccans and four Americans – travel together to discover each other’s beliefs and cultures, and to dispel negative stereotypes in the process.
His challenge to integrate roles as a grassroots leader, concerned parent, and political activist within his relatively poor community is evidenced by the favor he requests of me as we tour the public school that his children attend in Azrul. “Please give this money to the principal”, he asks, extending a roll of bills discreetly. “The school needs safety improvements, and if I give the money directly to them, they will never stop asking for more. You can give it in the name of the group”. Touched by his generosity, we take up a collection. He tells us later that the amount given will not only pay for the safety improvements, but new doors on the stalls of the restrooms. We are amazed at how far a small donation can go. Spending time with Lotfi, I am inspired to realize that one may not need the blessings of a well-placed political network after all to make a difference in the world. A vision, hope, dedication, and desire to work hard to serve others well may be enough to get started and make progress here in Morocco.
Lotfi is a godsend, as he eagerly agrees to act as guide and interpreter on my research adventures during the latter part of my trip. He takes ownership of a part of the research, offering to set up interviews with like-minded individuals as himself, who are working quietly to improve conditions in Morocco. “You need a different perspective”, he says, “than what you hear from those who are so well-connected”. This is yet another instance of the helpful and giving nature I find so ubiquitous in Morocco. We agree on an itinerary that includes Sidi Moumen – the shantytown outside Casablanca where the 2003 bombers lived, Sidi Ifni – a southern seaport near the contested region of the Sahara, and Rashidia and Oarzazette – outposts near Algeria, in the borderlands of the high Atlas mountains and the vast Sahara desert, at the crossroads of ancient Berber trade routes.
Youth Leaders for the Future
While Lotfi works on preparations for our sojourn south, I return “home” to the Rabat medina, and concentrate on the last week of classes. Through AmidEast, I meet several more remarkable young leaders who clearly are making a difference in the struggle to strengthen civil institutions in support of democratic reform. Siham Fuguigui is a brilliant young woman working for the British Embassy, helping to carry out projects to counter radicalization in the peri-urban areas. From my knowledge of British security concerns with Islamic radicalization, I realize the significance that is implied by the presence of these initiatives in Morocco, and the importance that must be placed on them. Ms. Fuguigui explains that neighborhood associations and nongovernmental organizations are the primary implementing vehicles for her programs, as well as many others in Morocco. Indeed, before working at the British Embassy, she was employed by the American Bar Association to facilitate the implementation of their program for improving democratic institutions within civil society.
Yasmini, director of “The People’s Mirror” is yet another impressive, and beautiful, young woman. She initiated the first program in Morocco – initially under the sponsorship of the National Democratic Initiative — to provide independent focus groups for government and private clients. These focus groups give voice to the opinions of Moroccans on issues of public concern. Today it is a self-supporting organization offering research opportunities for public policy scholars, as well as products for policy decision makers. Yasmini is living out her modern views of a woman’s leadership role in public service and commitment to democratic values, while at the same time embracing her Islamic roots, as shown by the hajib and traditional robes. In the Arab world, she admonishes, one cannot judge by external appearances. “For example, in Kuwait, the men and women all dress in western styles and eat at MacDonald’s. But they still live with camels in their heads,” she proclaims.
Finally, there is Youssef Chaffoui, who was raised in the slums of Sale, and now heads a neighborhood association, the Hope of Sale, to improve conditions there. His grave concerns about the influence of integristes in his communities inspired him to become involved in vocational training programs to provide promise of stable employment. These programs, which offer an alternative education track, have been so successful that they caught the attention of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, with whom Youssef is proud to have had the opportunity to share his experiences.
These three young leaders share much in common in their efforts to strengthen civil society in Morocco, in spite of the different venues that they have chosen to use. For all three, Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) and neighborhood associations have played a key role in providing not only funds, but credibility, visibility, training, mentorship, access to decision-makers, and vital networking opportunities. In return, government representatives (domestic and foreign) and NGOs (particularly international) have benefited from their exemplary enthusiasm, keen insight, youthful vision, and hope.
The hopes of Sahim, Yasmini, and Youseff are rooted in the stable transition they are helping to bring about, in order to leave the corrupt, oppressive, authoritarian practices in the past, replacing them with civic institutions based on harmonious democratic and Islamic principles. The advances in civil liberties they have seen in the past decade are significant. In addition to women’s rights, these include freedom of speech (as long as one does not criticize the king directly) an independent press, and right to public assembly. Yet the record does not look as promising from other perspectives. In 2002, the United Nations Human Development Report (UNDP) listed Morocco in the lowest quartile of achievers in overall human capacity development. The socio-economic gap between rich and poor, urban and rural, illiterate and educated in Morocco is wide and growing wider each year, exacerbating the problems caused by Morocco’s launching pad for illegal immigration into Spain and Western Europe. These disturbing trends have the potential to derail the progress made, and it is these trends that I wish to explore in the last week of my journey.
On My Own
The day comes for farewells to the family and friends made in Rabat in the two weeks of study, and for embarking further afield for a deeper look into the soul of Morocco. For this part of my journey, I am to be joined by my friend Susan. Lotfi and I develop our research agenda sitting in an Italian restaurant eating pizza. I need for Lotfi to understand my questions behind the questions we will pose to those we meet, as I will be dependent upon him as much more than a translator. He must be an interpreter between cultures that go much beyond country of origin. My life experiences, growing up in a privileged middle class democratic society, with access to education, travel, and means to realize my hopes are so very different from the life experiences of those I expect to meet. For their part, they have much to teach me about perseverance in the face of adversity and managing periods of transition. I want to know what gives them faith in their efforts, hope, and courage to dream, and what can take these away.
I explain to Lotfi how the centrality of Morocco at this time of globalization places it not just at geographical crossroads between North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, but also at the crossroads of governance structures, international security concerns, ideological traditions, and economic principles. I want to know how views differ across social strata and environments on what democracy and responsible citizenship means, what social problems are experienced most urgently, what actions are needed to improve those conditions, and what access is available to bring about change. In particular, what channels – governmental, civil, or other – are locally effective for bringing about change? He is moved, and explains that in general, people in Morocco do not see themselves empowered in this way; they lack a strong sense of national identity as a modern country and under-estimate their potential. Of the new transportation system that will link the towns of Rabat and Salé, he says they are likely to keep riding donkeys across the river, believing that the tramway is “not for Moroccans, but the Europeans”.
With a better understanding of my goals, Lotfi helps to set up appointments with diverse community organizers, each working in their own way to bring about needed social change – the women of the Agence De Femme Democratique de Maroc in downtown Casablanca, two young men leading efforts to clean up Casablanca’s shantytown of Sidi Moumen, the founder of an after-school care center in one of the lower-income areas of Salé, a teacher from Sidi Ifni, and a lawyer from Azrul. Our route starts on the outskirts of Rabat, then south to Casablanca and beyond – drawing near to the edge of the contested lands of Sahara, before turning inland to visit the Berber villages of the Atlas mountains before heading north back to Casablanca.
Our first visit is in Salé – a “bedroom community” across the river from Rabat. Many of the capital city’s workers live here and commute daily across the river, leaving their young children behind for long hours. What is life like for these young ones, growing up in neighborhoods where they can look out the window and see the palace a few miles away as the crow flies, but a world apart? Their homes are on the fringe – where the perception is, according to one Rabat resident, “no one really lives – they just sleep”. But the children do live here, and we talk with one young man who is concerned about the growing vulnerability of these youths, who are often unsupervised while their parents are working, to the messages of extremist recruiters who have targeted certain lower-income areas of the city.
Our host (who spoke under conditions of anonymity) at the Association de Salé sees his efforts as a part of the global fight against fundamentalism and terrorism, carried out at the local level. His after school program provides a safe and fun environment for young boys up to twelve years old, and engages teenagers to help run enrichment activities. By fostering a communal spirit of caring and providing more educational and sports opportunities beyond those offered in the public schools, he hopes to “save the youth from extremists”. “Is this a large problem here in the local neighborhood?” I ask. “Quite”, he responds.
The radicalization process seemingly happens almost overnight, he explains. Foreigners exploit poverty and social injustices to recruit followers, introducing extremist ideas associated with what Western authors have dubbed Political Islam. Within their communities, the terrorists responsible for bombings in Morocco were noticed to have changed appearances; they started to wear beards and to talk like preachers. The same thing is happening in this neighborhood, which he fears is a haven for terrorists.
“Where do the ideas come from?” I ask. “In Morocco, the king, the government, and neighborhood associations are working together to fight ideas of fundamentalism and terrorism. When we know where the ideas come from, that will be the end of the problem.” I think to myself, “Can it really be so simple?” He goes on: “People are fine – open and free – where there is wealth and money. In poor neighborhoods, people target youth.” He tells me of a local who, within a week after suffering an injustice from the government, was approached and offered gifts and money to start a business. The “manipulators” eventually paid for his wedding and marriage as well. “Other young men in the neighborhood,” he says, “who have been deprived of everything see the gift-giver as ‘prophet’. They willingly become like slaves and do whatever they are ordered to do.”
I realize I have once again stepped into a different world. This is no academic debate about social grievances and terrorism – it is real. Sitting in a little school chair, sipping ritual mint tea at a child’s craft table under the watchful eye of Bugs Bunny and Sylvester, I am surrounded by familiar objects as can be found in any after-school care facility back home. Yet there are every-day struggles for these residents of Salé that my children will never have to deal with. I am the first “outsider” to come and see the efforts of these volunteers. Our visit, he says, gives everyone involved “much energy and hope.” Through Lotfi, he articulately shares his views on democracy, power, and citizenship in Morocco. Then he describes the struggles his association has getting support, without political connections. I pass on the contact information for Ms. Fuguigui at the British Embassy, and share my hope that she will be able to help him realize his dreams for the future of the children of Salé.
Lotfi Looks Inside Out
We leave Rabat and head south for the Casablanca airport. I learn more about Lotfi as he passionately and eloquently expresses his own views on the topics of democracy, leadership, and citizenship in Morocco. He left the university after three years of study, not seeing a future for him to help Morocco as a teacher or in a government job – which, in the 1970s and 1980s were the two primary employment paths for university graduates. He explains to me that a critical juncture was reached in 1980, when the number of educated citizens exceeded the jobs available to them. Prior to that time, the government had been faced with the challenges of building up a civil service, creating an administrative infrastructure, and expanding the economy with a mostly illiterate populace. Through an expansive education program since independence, the number of educated citizens has steadily increased. At the same time, the number of civil service and economically rewarding jobs has been steadily decreasing as the government infrastructure has been put in place. When many of his university friends graduated in the 1980s, it took bribes of around 50,000 dirams to get a job as a high school teacher in his hometown of Meknes. Their parents did what they could to pay this to avoid seeing their children suffer years of joblessness that ended with drug addiction.
Lotfi sees the big challenge for Morocco now to be in creating employment opportunities to rectify the gap, and to provide a viable future that either meets or changes expectations of citizens to “be taken care of” through government jobs. Some youth are particularly frustrated when relatively uneducated civil servants, who have become tenured in secure positions of decision-making power, especially in local governments, block their future. However, Lotfi espouses the attitude that “if the government cannot take care of me, it is my responsibility and my right to do whatever I want, wherever I like, with whomever I like.” In saying this, Lotfi unknowingly voices the sentiments expressed by former President John F. Kennedy, saying “We must think of what the nation has given to us and what we can give back to the nation at this time.” He recalls that in the 1970s and 1980s, one could not think of doing the kind of political activity through nongovernmental organizations and neighborhood associations such as those in which he is involved without arrest or perhaps even being killed.
Reflecting on responsibility and citizenship, Lotfi describes a program Hassan II initiated in the 1990s to promote entrepreneurship among youth. Under the program, one could acquire up to 250,000 dirams to start a business, which would be exonerated from taxes for five years. In Lotfi’s view, this program failed because the youth were not ready for the responsibility; most participants took the money and spent it on themselves rather than using to start a business. (I am reminded constantly by billboards in Casablanca and Rabat of the analogous problem that persists today with micro-credit loans that cannot be repaid when money is spent on necessities). He describes his own experiences with a similar lack of responsibility among local government officials – expressing dismay with the corruption in local elections and the ease with which positions are bought. In his hometown of Azrul, public officials that are barely literate are not uncommon, and are beholden to those who give them financial backing. In contrast, at the national level, Lotfi is proud of the efforts of the national government – primarily through the National Development Initiative (NDI) – to renew infrastructure throughout the country and looks forward, he says, to showing me the many projects. Lotfi ends the conversation philosophically, sharing his commitment to being a “tool” for a future in which Morocco is a fully contributing member of the international community. He does not expect this to be realized in his lifetime, but hopes his children will enjoy the fulfillment of the dreams of today.
Surveying with Susan
On this hopeful note, Susan arrives. We gather her belongings, and head downtown for our interview with Khadija Errabah, head of the Casablanca chapter of the Association Democratique des Femmes du Maroc (ADFM). Entering the offices of ADFM, we are struck by several factors at once. One is the high energy level of the organization. Another is the diversity of the staff and volunteers – young and old, male and female all busily engaged with a purposeful air. A third is the appearance of being a professional and well-resourced organization. The library cases behind the table where we sip tea while waiting for our meetinghouses a wealth of research material on democracy and women’s issues in Morocco. We learn that the ADFM, in contrast to the other organizations we have visited, employs a top-down strategy, putting its primary emphasis on interactions with the political elite. Their research and lobbying efforts are intended to influence the key decision-makers in the government to create more democratic, just social structures – in particular for women but not exclusively and to open up more political space for more players. Their contact with grass-roots organizations, especially in peri-urban and rural areas, is minimal. Lotfi finds the single-minded focus on the elite disturbing. However, I am reminded that it takes many types of efforts by many different actors to transform political and governance systems – and some of those must have leverage with the existing power structures. The agency serves a critical function without which the grass-roots struggles might not find traction. The challenge, as I heard in Sale, is to bring the two together.
Our excursions during the rest of the week reinforce this point. From Casablanca’s infamous shanty town of Sidi Moumen (home to the 2003 suicide bomber), to the scenic southern fishing port of Sidi Ifni (scene of violent confrontation between national guard and protest demonstrators in June 2008), to the Berber village schools in the Atlas mountains, we meet young men and women whose hopes for change are simple and direct, though the issues are different. In the slums of Sidi Moumen, where over one hundred thousand people call makeshift cardboard and steel structures their home, the primary concerns are decent housing in a clean environment. To get to our host’s home, we must first slog our way through a muddy mess of filth, raw sewage, and garbage that surrounds the encampments. The young men apologize for this inconvenience, which disappears once we actually enter the maze of alleyways that make up the community. Here, the paths between houses are clear of debris; laundry hangs proudly from each doorway; and smells of wonderful meals waft from the recesses beyond. We are received with a generous hospitality that shows itself in warm embraces, bright smiles, and tasty tea treats.
However, having no running water, these luxuries come at a price. The inhabitants of Sidi Moumen must trudge daily through the refuse to fill up large barrels of water for drinking, cooking, and bathing. In this neighborhood, hope of a better future is hard to come by, and drugs and religious extremists are equally attractive for dulling the pain of despair. Logical first steps to solving these social ills seem simple and straightforward. As our young host put it bluntly, but profoundly, “If we could just live in a clean environment, then perhaps our minds and our thoughts could be clean as well”. But, we are told, the government does not want to provide basic services, as they may encourage more squatters. Besides, who could be trusted with public money to really clean up the place, rather than pocket the funds?
In spite of these hurdles, the NDI appears to be making a difference in Sidi Moumen. The shantytown of cardboard and steel will be torn down and the community residents will be housed in new apartments constructed nearby with NDI money. The young men of the shantytown are eager to show us the new neighborhood community center, also built with NDI funds, next door to the apartment complex. A number of youths (all male) come out of the woodwork to show off the resources, which include a state of the art theater/auditorium, a computer lab, a library, and a music room (complete with musical instruments). Children at the adjacent pre-school stop their play to sing songs for us and bow in happy delight for an audience. Our hosts tell Lotfi their great news – their family has been approved to be one of those who get a unit in the new apartments. We wish them well – that their hope is kindled and dreams closer to being realized upon their move, and that they continue their efforts at building up a neighborhood activities association for the youth here. As we leave, we wonder what will happen to all those who don’t get such good news, when their makeshift homes are razed to the ground.
We find a very different scene further south in Sidi Ifni. There, the city buildings sparkle in brilliant whites and blues by the sea, painted in the traditional colors of the Dutch colonizers. However, the streets are strangely silent, and the one NDI billboard we saw announcing the development of a cultural center hung over a deserted complex of shoddy buildings with weeds and dust blowing through — a testimony to the government corruption that plagues this area. The tensions between the local populace and government came to a pitch last year, when thousands of government troops were brought in, dressed in riot gear, in response to a strike by fishermen calling for better wages. The situation turned violent as the troops chased the protestors into the hills, firing at the unarmed citizens and reportedly looting their homes and abusing those who remained behind during the several days of standoff. Reporters were not allowed in, and most stories remain shrouded in mystery and speculation of the real events. Subsequent investigations by outside organizations claim to have substantiated human rights violations that include unauthorized arrests, jailings and torture. At the time, local officials claimed that these measures were justified as precautions against the possibility of violent separatists from Algeria infiltrating the scene. Our hosts in Sidi Ifni, who had participated in the protests, proclaimed in dismay, “ in urban areas, activists who mobilize against unjust social conditions are called terrorists, in rural areas, they are labeled separatists.”
Here in Sidi Ifni, the local officials hold the power, not the government in Rabat, we are told. Anecdotal evidence of their corruption is described. The cultural icon of the city – the ancient light from the lighthouse – disappeared mysteriously and has been reportedly seen in the lighthouse of another city up the coast; equipment from the hospital has been sold off without being replaced. And yet, all the civic struggles are presented to the rest of the country through lens of these power brokers, and it is hard for those working at the grass-roots to make outside connections for their grievances to be heard.
However, hope is alive. In spite of the oppression experienced the previous year, the young people we meet are quietly but persistently promoting public awareness of the need for change and are supporting their own new candidates for the upcoming elections in June. In addition, they are actively seeking to build broader networks outside the immediate area to strengthen the base for their activism. Having reached our southern-most destination, we are disappointed to learn that our return trip north can not be through the villages of the Atlas mountains to Azrul as planned, because the one road that could take us both east and north is closed due to snow. The isolation of the mountain villages becomes more real with this news, as the snow cut them off to us. Visiting one Berber village just north of Sidi Ifni as an alternate, we glimpse yet another unfamiliar landscape in this foreign land. The local teacher proudly shows us the French writing exercise books of his students stacked neatly in the cupboard of the two-room school building, while several boys peer in the windows at these strange women from America talking to their instructor. Some more come wandering up from the village – older boys who had been students in the past, and had returned home from the university for the weekend. “How many women make it to the university?” we ask. “None”, the answer comes back. Once the girls turn 15, they stop coming to school.
The villagers either do not know of the Mudawwanna, or do not want their girls to know. If the teacher were to bring it into the classroom, the girls would no longer be sent to school at all. Some other means of teaching about this new development in their culture and rights as Moroccan women must be found. As we prepare to leave, fresh with inspiration for making that happen, one of the two young men who have been hosting us stops me, grabs my hand, and says intensely, “You must come back. You must come to help the young girls and women. We need you.” This moving exchange is indicative of the lack of empowerment felt by these young grass-roots organizers remote from the urban centers, surrounded by a corrupt system. The outreach for help is heartfelt, and I am glad that he is reaching out to me, and not to a radical extremist. How long, I wonder, will he and others like him put up with lack of response before they look elsewhere for redress?
There are many lessons learned to reflect on during the long drive back to Rabat for my final night in Morocco. A primary question with which I began this journey was what type of civil institutions existed in Morocco, and what role did they play in deepening democracy. Through lectures, personal observations, and field interviews, I learned the importance of the Moroccan construct of neighborhood associations in this regard, along with more traditionally conceptualized nongovernmental organizations. Whether led by men or women, all the neighborhood association leaders with whom I spoke expressed the need for personal connections to people of influence and power in the government to be more effective.
Of the many thousands of these grass-roots organizations that exist, there are only a few that have the necessary political, social, and economic capital to represent citizen’s interests and bring about change. On the other hand, these leaders were outstanding, talented individuals with the confidence, commitment, and skills to overcome many limitations and barriers. The hospitality that I had first noticed upon arrival persisted throughout the trip. The less that people have, the more generous they are. The most memorable example of this is the desert nomad whom we picked up on a Friday afternoon, thirty miles from town, as he walked the countryside begging for sugar and flour to sell in the city for money to feed his family. For the ride, he wanted to bring us all into his home for the traditional family holy meal – one which he had probably walked for days to be able to provide.
The universality of this trait, combined with cultural diversity and tolerance, should prove favorable for stable democratic transition, if a strong sense of citizen participation in government can be developed and supported. Besides the hospitality, however, another notable feature is the police presence as one ventures south. Road blocks at the limits of city and townships became more commonplace the closer we got to Sahara, presumably to prevent terrorists, separatists, and/or other criminal elements and activities from infiltrating north. The security forces may be good news for keeping peace and upholding the law. However, the need for the forces is also a not-so-subtle reminder of the threats and unresolved social tensions of which no one is allowed to speak the further south one goes.
There are many other contrasts and dichotomies that I am taking home with me. On the one side, I have learned that the youth of Morocco have hope in spite of the legitimate grievances they hold, whether in urban, peri-urban, or rural environments. They are aware and engaged – for the time being paying close attention to the upcoming elections. They talk of participation, in contrast to 2007. The elections may be a litmus test for whether disillusionment in the corruption and inadequacies of the current government will be overcome, and broad citizen participation will gain traction in Morocco. Under the leadership of King Mohammed VI, a new generation will have the opportunity to do so, as even preschoolers in shantytowns learn to sing and dance in French and the study of 4 languages are required. However, problems remain for bringing about the reforms necessary to deepen democracy in Morocco. The economy remains limited. The integristes are a constant threat to stability. Advocates for women’s rights, while encouraged by the King’s agenda, seem constrained to work within narrowly defined cultural and institutional norms.
Pearls of Wisdom
As we arrive in Rabat, I know that in addition to the extra suitcase of purchased treasures, I am taking home a treasure chest of invaluable experience and knowledge. I have come to better understand Morocco, the role that US policy can play in promoting democracy and security goals here and the importance of those to the region. A major goal of US policy should be to focus on strengthening the positions of civic associations and NGOs for more pluralistic, effective and representative collective action. Strengthening those institutions with a role for implementing the Mudawanna should be a priority – based on education of both men and women about the protections and opportunities it provides, with its emphasis on the well-being of children.
At the same time, the legitimate needs of peri-urban and rural communities need to be addressed. Lack of doing so has been demonstrated time and again to be instrumental in setting up willing recruits for extremists and for fanning flames of civil insurgency. Finally,it is clear that Morocco is playing, and can continue to play, a pivotal role in bringing peaceful coexistence of contrasting ideals and generational change in the Arab world.
References and Footnotes
 Marvine Howe (2005). Morocco: The Islamic Awakening and Other Challenges, Oxford University Press, New York, NY.
 Ibid, p. 92
 Ibid, p. 93-97.
 Ibid, p. 103-110, 115-117, 128-135,178, 304-306, 319-320, 349
 Ibid, p. 124, 142
 On May 16, 2003, 45 people were killed and about 100 injured in suicide bomb attacks in Morocco’s largest city, Casablanca. The attacks targeted a Jewish community centre, a Spanish restaurant and social club, a hotel and the Belgian consulate. The suicide bombers came from the shantytown of Sidi Moumen, a poor suburb of Casablanca, and were from the Salafia Jihadia group. According to the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland, the Salafia Jihadia group is a loose network of Islamic terrorist cells, headquartered in Morocco with suspected associated with Al Qaeda. It is active in North Africa and Spain. http://www.start.umd.edu/data/tops/terrorist_organization_profile.asp?id=4257  On March 11, 2004, train bombings in Madrid killed 191 people and wounded more than 1,700. In April 2006, a Spanish judge charged 29 suspects with murder, terrorism and other crimes for their involvement.Moroccan Muslims, along with Syrian and Algerian Muslims and two Guardia Civil and Spanish police informants, were included in the indictments.
 On March 11, 2007, two men from Sidi Mouemen blew themselves up in an Internet café of Casablanca. On April 10, three people blew themselves up and a fourth was shot dead during a police raid on suspected militants associated with the March 10 incident. Four days later, on April 14, two additional bombers blew themselves up. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007_Casablanca_bombings
 Police investigations into the Casablanca suicide bombings in March and April of 2007 led Moroccan police to search for members of an alleged terrorist cell that was planning a massive bombing campaign against tourist resorts and foreign-owned ships. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6555177.stm
 Fatima Mernissi, Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World, Perseus Publishing, Cambridge MA, 2002.  UNDP Arab Human Development Report (2003). http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/regionalreports/arabstates/name,3204,en.html  CIA World Fact Book, accessed February 7, 2009 https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/mo.html  I never heard the phrase, “Political Islam” used by a native Moroccan during the three-week visit.
 Upon return to the US, I conduct some research about this program, and discover work of Sarah Cohen at George Washington University. Between 1994-1997 and 2001-2002, she conducted ethnographic research among different groups within the young, urban educated population of Casablanca, Morocco on the basis of a common condition of alienation. Of the government program to encourage entrepreneurship, she says “ Boththe late Hassan II and the current King, Mohammed VI, reiterated that les jeunes should not look to “la fonction publique” as the only source of employment but rather, “explore the private sector sans complexes.” The social identity of ‘modern’ was replaced by consumer, investor, and entrepreneur (as well as chômeur- diplomé, or unemployed university graduate). Likewise, the pursuit of professional mobility and economic rationalization and social meritocratization became to the younger generation more important than championing nationalism.” Cohen, Sara (2003), Alienation and Globalization in Morocco: Addressing the Social and Political Impact of Market Integration, Comparative Studies in Society and History (45) 1, Cambridge University Press, pp. 168-189.