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A Black Eye for Moroccan Freedom

The case against the Moroccan magazine Nichane was brought before a judge yesterday, and the situation looks grim for Nichane and its two journalists, editor Driss Ksikes and Sanaa Elaji, who wrote the offending article. Sanaa is the friend, or at least the acquaintance, of several people I’ve met online since I began writing this blog, so I’m starting to feel that this touches me personally. Everyone seems to agree that this trial is a sham, a political calculation by the Moroccan State, to make an example of one of the few independent news sources in Morocco (not just Nichane but its parent magazine Tel Quel), and steal the fire from Islamic conservatives in advance of this year’s legislative elections.

The sentence will be handed down soon, and although the judge is technically independent, no one believes he will do anything more than follow instructions. As Larbi put it in a bitter post today:

    Nothing obliges the judge to follow the indictment [which demands 3 to 5 years in prison for the journalists, and the permanent closing of the magazine]. But sadly, the machine is well oiled. The king’s prosecutor (we’re going to have to return to our old habits and say His Majesty, May God Glorify Him) receives his instructions from the minister, and transmits them as an indictment (a mere formality) to the judge who transforms them into a sentence. For a judicial “bug” to intervene would obviously require a miracle.

The only hope for Nichane, and for Driss and Sanaa, is a change of heart at the highest levels. Since that would mean a loss of face now that things have gone this far, no one is holding their breath. Larbi adds:

    One can see that in these affairs [he has also mentioned the case against the Journal Hébdomadaire, in which they were ordered to pay a fine of around $350,000] it’s the return of the era of the big stick, and this is going to hurt badly. Even more so for those of us who might have believed for an instant that Morocco is a democracy.

What is uppermost in my mind is the human side of this story, the possibility of Driss and Sanaa losing their freedom, and the chilling effect on Moroccans who believed that things were opening up. Yet it might be helpful to get a sense of the big-picture calculations swirling around this case. In their recent article “Morocco, A Banana Monarchy,” the online journal Bakchich asks what has prompted such an obvious step backward. Their answer is the State’s fear of an Islamic “tidal wave.”

    It’s sad to say, but as the legislative elections of 2007 approach, Morocco is playing the role of a banana monarchy. As the nation laboriously enters the election season, the regime is headed for authoritarianism and crass manipulation. Panicked, it is afraid of no longer being able to hold back the tidal wave of the Islamists of the PJD, which would certainly crash onto shore if free and transparent elections were held….
    [The ban on Nichane] reeks of anti-PJD maneuvering: above all, not to give anything away to the Islamic conservatives, nor to offer them any pretext for raising their voices against Nichane in Parliament as they were getting ready to do. Even if that means being more Islamist than the PJD. Even if that means sacrificing a magazine whose editorial line against religious excess was well suited to a power elite left behind by the PJD phenomenon. Even if that means confirming that in Morocco, justice is under orders.

They go on to remind us of two other recent cases that prove that a crackdown is underway, the $350,000 judgment against the Journal Hébdomadaire after a “surreal” complaint brought by the “buffoon” Claude Moniquet, and a new law limiting political polling in Morocco. Keep in mind that an opinion poll last year brought the first clear sign of the deep support enjoyed by the PJD among Moroccans, who told pollsters that if the election were held right away, they would give their 47% of their votes to the PJD, a 3-to-1 margin over the second-place Socialists!

    In order to successfully muzzle the press during the electoral period…the regime has just deprived Moroccans of the pleasures offered by political polls. From this moment on, all polls are forbidden “whose object is to harm the Muslim religion, the monarchic nature of the State, national unity, or the respect due to His Majesty the King or the royal princes and princesses”; “also forbidden are polls whose object is in clear conflict with common decency or public order, or is lacking in any legitimate interest.” By “lacking in any legitimate interest,” we must of course understand anything that doesn’t glorify the power elite and the existing parliamentary majority. In short, it is a legal assault on Moroccans’ freedom of opinon and expression.

The comments to this article give a range of persepctives, too many to summarize here. But I will provide a few samples below. A man calling himself “The Disenchanted Prince” writes:

    I invite you to consider a little scenario: One of the “learned” enlightened men of the Arab Orient puts out a fatwa excommunicating the “apostates of the Maghreb who have dared to mistreat the beliefs of Muslims, exceeding in their temerity even the Western publications that have insulted our Prophet, with the contrived silence of the corrupt national authorities.” And said fatwa is publicized by the Arab satellite networks. I don’t believe that [your] writings and speculations…would be of the least use in preventing the reaction of the enlightened agents in the Maghreb, who are always ready to commit the most demented acts in response to provocations such as the one by Nichane’s crew…. Worth thinking about.

“attawahed” writes:

    Doesn’t [the Nichane case] merely give the existing power structure a way to distract the attention of the population from the disastrous social and democratic situation, by drawing them into a media-invented scandal…? Let’s be clear. Don’t expect any real steps toward change from the “Makhzenized” political class. Political science theory tells us that change normally comes from outside this class. And sincerely, even the PJD is hignly Makhzenized, to the point that it has nothing to add in comparison to the other parties on the scene.

“rhou” writes:

    I don’t have any sympathy for the PJD, knowing how this empty shell was created for purposes of control, and I don’t have any sympathy for the other political parties…. Whether PJD or another, no party will change the way the State is run. The pluralistic field of Moroccan politics is an illusion. It is…a marionette show with marionettes that act, sing and dance in animated cartoons. A marionette show that goes back quite a long time in Moroccan history.

The first commenter is arguing that the hand of the Moroccan State was forced by pressure from more conservative nations in the Gulf, with their well-funded networks of ultraconservative Islamic “experts” aided by the latest communications technology. This is a fight over the use of Islam as a political lever, what reader Myrtus has called the “Arab nationalist” side of Islam. In this fight, Morocco is vulnerable both because its version of Islam is more tolerant than the others, and by its location at the extreme western edge of the Arab world. Salafist thinking from the Gulf has destabilized Morocco in the past, and the danger cannot be ignored. (In fairness, others would call this a “Makhzenist” argument and say the threat is exaggerated.)

The comments by “attawahed” and “roh” remind us that the PJD is itself a creation of the power elite. Far from being a spontaneous popular movement, it was invented by the State to encapsulate and control Islamist sentiment. Any Moroccan political party must accept the primacy of the king, or its players aren’t even allowed onto the field. Therefore no one should expect the political game to change dramatically if the PJD wins in 2007. What I don’t understand, however, is the evident panic among the power elite at the possiblity of a PJD victory. If the PJD is simply a creation of the Makhzen, then how can its political strength be causing the State to retreat from its image of political openness? Why give itself this black eye on the world stage?


Comment from Jill
Time: January 10, 2007, 05:37

I linked to you from my blog, as your coverage of this story was far superior to my own…bravo!

I can’t say I disagree with the first commenter – when TelQuel first wrote about the Nichane story, their article also suggested that perhaps the Kuwaitis had something to do with it…and that seems to be the rumor on the ground too, particularly at the university (in this case, in Meknes).

May I link to your blog permanently from mine?

Comment from eatbees
Time: January 10, 2007, 05:53

@Jill — It’s clear someone stirred the pot. The offending issue of Nichane wasn’t even on the stands any more when the government decided to act, so it seems they were reacting to simmering pressure, whether internal or external.

I’m about done with speculating WHO stirred the pot because I’m more concerned now with the fate of Sanaa and Driss. Anyway, the first place I saw the Gulf States rumor was here if you read French.

As far as linking permanently, of course! That’s usually considered a compliment. :)

Comment from BO18
Time: January 10, 2007, 12:28

You kind of forget an even larger force then/than the PJD.
The Adl wal Ihsane (AwI) is a much larger, more powerful party.

I think the government is more afraid of them then of the PJD.

The AwI’s popularity is still flourishing ( if we believe the reports). This growing popularity reflects itself in a larger electoral gain for PJD.
And according to the MENA’s way of politics, the PJD has to pay the AwI back.
If they want it or not.
Willingly paying back in the form of adopting some stances of the AwI in the long-run ( and that is really scary)
Unwillingly by just being infiltrated by the AwI. (which might already happened)

So in this context its not surprising that the monarchy acts the way it does now.
The only thing that keeps the monarchy awake and scared is the AwI.

Comment from eatbees
Time: January 10, 2007, 13:05

@BO18 — I’m not forgetting the elephant in the room, Al Adl Wal Ihsane. In fact I’d love to discuss them, but no one seems to know what they want or what they will do. Is this due to their own deliberate obscuring of their agenda, or others’ refusal to talk about it?

Why should we be scared of Al Adl Wal Ihsane? So far, I’m not. And what is the source of their amazing popularity?

Here is my idea using the old adage, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” 1) I support Nichane and its efforts to open up the political discourse. 2) The enemies of Nichane seem to be “Makhzenized Islamists” as typified by 3) These same people are also fierce opponents of Al Adl Wal Ihsane. Indeed it seems to be their main focus. 4) So why shouldn’t Al Adl Wal Ihsane be my friend?

Please tell me if I’m out of line or seriously naive. I really don’t know. I’ve been trying to get an answer to this for over a year now, ever since Nadia Yassine spoke at UC Berkeley (my alma mater, by the way) and brought the debate about Moroccan monarchy into the open.

Comment from Pierre/Candide’s Notebooks
Time: January 11, 2007, 15:21

Marcel… The two censorship issues you alerted me to are featured in today’s Daily Journal at the Notebooks. ( on the front page here for today, and permalinked here
Thanks for the alert and for a great site. I’m delivering a lecture on the Mideast this evening, will be using some of your material–including those fabulous jokes.

Comment from hum
Time: January 13, 2007, 09:23

désolé d’ecrire encore en francais mais mon anglais n’a pas evolué depuis la dernière fois (désolé pour les anglophones, tu pourras peut etre traduire ?)

si j’ai compris tu te poses des questions sur Al Adl walihssane
comme je les comprend (je nesuis pas un sepcialiste de ce genre de groupes ;)

1. leur objectif : etablir une khilafa (mode de gouvernement qui a été adopté suite à la mort du prophète par ce qu’on appelle les 4 Sahaba (compagnons) Aboubarkr Assedik, Othmane Ibn Affane, Omar Ibn Alkhattab et Ali Ibnou Abi Talib

donc suppression de la monarchie au maroc ! d’ailleurs c’est pour cela qu’on leur donne pas l’autorisation de créer un parti, car ils ne reconnaissent la royauté – voir à ce sujet la déclaration de Nadia Yassine “la République est plus approprié pour le Maroc” qui lui a valu un procès qui dure encore et qu’on dit bloqué parce que les USA ont fait pression sur le Maroc pour pas qu’il la condamne…

2. Leur methode. Ils se disent contre la violence et leur calendrier est selon ces etapes decrites dans le livre de Abdesslam Yassine “Al minhaj Annabaoui” qu’on peut traduire comme “La voie prophetique (ou du prophète?)”

etape 1 : Attarbia (education) : eduquer les gens (ou juste un groupe de gens qu’ils appellent Jounoud Allah, i.e les soldats de Dieu) et leur expliquer (etapes entamée depuis les années 1970)

etape 2: attanzim (l’organisation) : creation des structures depuis les années 1980 (?)

etape 3: azzahf (propagation) : explication aux gens et approcher les gens en diffusant le message de la Jamaa

etape 4: la kawma et etablissement de la khilafa
kawma = reveil (~ révolution sans violence). Ils espèrent que les gens se lèveront un jour et diron stop et le peuple prendra le pouvoir tranquillement. Leur modèle ici c’est Khomeini

tout cela est “supporté” avec des “Reves” oui des reves ! Yassine ou ses adeptes disent qu’ils voient dans les reves le prophete leur dire ceci ou cela, et ils avaient prévu que la kawma aura lieu en 2006 !!! c’est justement là le but du site khorafa qui a été créé par quelqu’un qui a fait partie de l’Adl avant pour leur demontrer qu’ils racontent des betises ( khorafa en arabe veut dire légende )

donc leur problème c’est qu’ils veulent en terminer avec la monarchie

je trouve d’ailleur que l’actuel roi a été très cool avec eux ! du temps de Hassan II, Yassine avait été interné dans un hoptial psychiatrique et a été mis sous résidence surveillée

l’actuel roi a levé la résidence surveillée en 2000 et les a laissé libre. Mais je comprends aussi qu’il se defend

pour ma part, je ne pense pas qu’ils réussiront car les marocains sont monarchistes et la monarchie c’est le seul lien qui unit les marocains (s’il n’ya plus de monarchie on aura des problèmes inter ethniques Arabes vs Berber vs Sahrawi vs ….)

Comment from hum
Time: January 13, 2007, 09:25

dernier truc lien vers le site du gourou

d’ailleurs, ils ont pas traduit le livre

il y a juste une section anodine traduite en francais et anglais

Comment from eatbees
Time: January 13, 2007, 18:55

Thanks, hum, for taking the time to answer my questions. I won’t translate the whole thing, but I will summarize it for the readers here who don’t speak French. I appreciate your effort to participate on this site even though it’s a bit hard for you!

Speaking of Al Adl Wal Ihsane, hum says: “Their objective is to establish a Caliphate, which is the form of government adopted after the death of the Prophet by those we call the four Companions, Abu Bakr, Othman, Omar, and Ali.” [By the way, Caliph means something like “regent” or “stand-in” — the idea is that no one can replace the Prophet. The Caliphs were elected by a council of elders.]

hum continues, “Thus, the elimination of monarchy in Morocco! That’s the reason they aren’t allowed to create a political party, because they don’t recognize the monarchy — in this regard, see the declaration by Nadia Yassine [daughter of the movement’s founder] that ‘a republic is more appropriate for Morocco,’ which got her a trial that is still ongoing, and is said to be blocked due to pressure on Morocco from the U.S. not to condemn her….”

I want to say more about this in a future post. I want to quote what Nadia Yassine has actually said, both at UC Berkeley where she made her original comments, and in later interviews. (It was an Arabic-language interview that got her in hot water.) For now, let me just say that although I rarely agree with the Bush administration, if they are pressuring Morocco to lay off of Nadia, I DO agree in this case. I agree with the vast majority of Moroccans who feel that the king is a positive force on the political scene, but I don’t see how someone can risk jail time simply for stating a self-evident fact, that monarchy is only one of many possible systems. In Britain, most people love the Queen, but the institution of the monarchy is hotly debated. Why not in Morocco too?

hum goes on to describe the “method” of Al Adl Wal Ihsane, saying, “They say they are against violence.” He lists four consecutive steps by which they hope to achieve a Moroccan Caliphate by peaceful means: 1) attarbia or education, begun in the 1970s; 2) attanzim or organization, from the 1980s; 3) azzaf or propagation; and 4) qawma or awakening, a nonviolent revolution. hum says “Their model here is Khomeini.” (Why not Gandhi, I wonder. Wouldn’t he be a less threatening figure?)

Sheikh Yassine and his followers are apparently big on the interpretation of dreams, which has earned them a reputation as a cult. Based on these dreams, 2006 was supposed to be the year of the “awakening.” I saw an interview last summer with Nadia Yessine in Le Journal Hébdomadaire, where she says that 2006 is the start of a new phase, not actually (this is clear in hindsight!) the year the peaceful revolution will be accomplished.

hum adds, “I feel that the current king is being quite cool about it. In Hassan II’s day, Yassine [the father] was shut up in a psychiatric hospital and put under house arrest. The current king lifted the house arrest in 2000 and let him go free. For myself, I understand why the king is defending himself. I don’t think they’ll succeed, because Moroccans are monarchists, and the monarchy is the only thing that unites all Moroccans. (If there was no monarchy, we would have interethnic problems, Arab vs. Berber vs. Saharan….)”

Thank you sincerely, hum, for laying out the essential points. I’d never heard about the four-step program before, for example. As I said, I hope to look at this again in a future post. For now, let me close with some words from Nadia Yassine. “It’s not for us to decide for everyone…. The Moroccan people will choose… If after having acquired a political culture and having been reassured as to their freedom of choice, they choose once again a system of hereditary monarchy, so much the better — or rather, so much the worse.”

Comment from hum
Time: January 14, 2007, 08:16

merci surtout à toi eatbees pour ton excellent blog

pourquoi pas Ghandi
parce que ghandi n’est pas musulman voyons :p
en plus ghandi luttait contre des colons etrangers

sinon je crois que toi tu crois ce genre de groupe sur leurs paroles et leur bonne fois !
Ce que beaucoup d’autres ne font pas car ils les soupconnent d’etre capables de changer brutalement radicalement de position en un rien de temps

Un livre est sorti recemment, (je ne l’ai pas encore malheureusment pas lu) d’un chercheur algérien qui fait un parallèle entre les methodes d’Al Adl wa ilhssane et le FIS algerien ! sa conclusion c’est que les deux c’est blanc bonnet et bonnet blanc !

un article qui en parle :

Comment from hum
Time: January 14, 2007, 08:16

erratum : bonne foi et non bonne fois

Comment from eatbees
Time: January 14, 2007, 19:18

Thanks again hum for your indispensible commentary.

One thought about Gandhi, there are those who say that Morocco is still a colony. Apparently Driss Basri recently called Morocco “the last French colony”! (I have a link to that below.) So in that sense, the struggle of Al Adl Wal Ihsane to throw off the old structures inherited (in part) from the French could be described as “Gandhian.” Though if Al Adl Wal Ihsane is Islamo-centric enough to reject Gandhi as a model just because he’s not Muslim, then you’re right about them and I want nothing to do with them.

I read the article that you linked, and I feel that it adds an important perspective. (The article is a review of a short book by the Algerian journalist Lakhdar Ferrat called “Al Adl Wal Ihsane: From Civil Disobedience to Terror.” According to the review, Ferrat claims that Al Adl Wal Ihsane centers itself around “exclusion of the Other and the reduction of political action to violence.” He warns against “minimizing the danger” of the group’s “infiltration of various sectors of Moroccan society.”) Since he is Algerian, that implies a perspective independent of the Moroccan political elite. Presumably he also able to draw on the bitter lessons learned about such groups in his homeland.

The larger question of whether Islamist groups can moderate as they take power is both open and pressing throughout the Arab world. On the positive side, we have the Turkish model, and on the negative side, we have Iran and Algeria. In Algeria, they never really got a chance. What has been learned since? If the Muslim Brotherhood takes over in Egypt after Mubarak, will they prove they have moderated over the years, or will they show their true face as extremists? Such questions are among the reasons I started this blog. I look forward to a lively debate!

Another book I’ve heard about and want to read is “Quand le Maroc sera islamiste,” by Nicholas Beau and Catherine Graciet. Note that the title says not “if” but “when” Morocco becomes Islamist. I’m wondering if this book is even available in Morocco, because it seems like the kind of thing that might be kept out of the country due to its potentially inflammatory content. If you do get your hands on it, let me know what you think! Meanwhile, to tide you over, here is a video interview with M. Beau. It’s where I got the Driss Basri quote:

I think I’ll order both these books…!!

Comment from Ibn Kafka
Time: January 15, 2007, 04:41

Well, I’m certainly no expert in islamist movements, but I would qualify eatbees’ enthusiasm – perhaps too strong a word – for Al adl wal ihsan. This movement is outright zany – or at least messianic and millenarist. It’s a matter of taste, but I would feel more at ease with the PJD – they are not into lofty predictions about the Caliphate’s instauration or dreaming about their leaders (nightmares excepted, of course ;-) ) – to put it bluntly, they seem a lot more rational than Yassine’s zealots. Nadia Yassine offers a sane facade, but once you probe the beliefs of the rest of the movement they really feel beyond pale, in both religious and political terms. And the fact that the American embassy seems enamored in Nadia Yassine should be cautionary, given that country’s unerring flair for getting it wrong in the Arab world…

As for Beau & Graciet’s “Quand le Maroc sera islamiste”, it could prove an interesting read. Do not hold your breath however waiting for it to be sold in Morocco… But from what I gather, Beau certainly seems fond of the vision you’ve expounded – Al adl being against the Makhzen, they should be embraced – and I’ m still not convinced that this track is the right one.

Comment from eatbees
Time: January 15, 2007, 13:47

As far as my “enthusiasm” as you call it, I’m not sure I have a clearly defined position on Al Adl Wal Ihsane. In fact, I’m sure I don’t. I’m simply trying to understand two things: 1) why are they so popular (I keep reading, without proof, that it’s the most popular political force in Morocco) and 2) why they scare people so much. Don’t these two ideas seem contradictory? Is this part of the “bled schizophrène” Larbi wrote about in a comment to one of my earlier posts?

So far, I’m hearing why the movement is scary, and the arguments are convincing, although I’d like more actual quotes revealing their intentions, or actions they’ve made such as intimidating their opponents. What I haven’t heard is an explanation for why they’re so popular, or even any convincing evidence that they are popular. After all, being a semi-secret society existing in the shadows of politics, their support has never been tested through elections. Maybe they should be allowed to organize openly, and their support would evaporate? I’m convinced the overwhelming majority of Moroccans would support the king if the institution of the monarchy was ever put to a direct vote. So how could a group calling for the end of the monarchy be as popular as all that?

For that matter, why is the monarchy so sensitive about having its legitimacy discussed, if discussion is likely to reinforce that very legitimacy? Isn’t it a paradox to want to be, at one and the same time, above all politics and at the very center of politics?

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