Morocco: how state corruption works

There is an excellent, multifaceted investigation of corruption involving licenses attributed by the state for the use of quarries in state lands that has recently been published in Lakome, the independent Moroccan news website. As editor Aboubakr Jamai explains in a  companion editorial piece, the investigations details how members of the royal cabinet, their relatives, and other well-connected people have had privileged access to sand and other quarries, often through companies that barely have a legal existence, pay no taxes, and operate in very shadowy circumstances.

The corruption surrounding access to quarries has long been a commonly known fact about Morocco, a country with a long coastline and where sand quarrying in particular often takes place in an often unregulated away — something environmentalists have long complained about, since the quarrying takes place at times in what should be protected areas (the beautiful Atlantic beaches near Tangier and Asilah in the north are a case in point). But Lakome's investigation takes one rather banal type of corruption and paints a picture of such "state capture" takes place. You can probably imagine the same things happen for, say, touya wood felling in the Middle Atlas or fishing licenses that often go to senior army officers. 

This is precisely the type of in-depth investigative journalism that is so rare in the Arab world — using even inadequate public data to understand how one particular type of corruption works, which can tell you a lot not only about where money flows (and doesn't flow — the municipalities where these quarries are losing out on revenue that could go to facilities for locals) but also about how power flows. And it's not a pretty picture for a monarchy that boasts of being headed by a "king of the poor." 

✚ General Patton, Hassan II's Vizier

General Patton, Hassan II's Vizier

Moroccans will appreciate this little nugget unearthed by Michael Collins Dunn here:

Patton's attitudes toward the local Arab population were not particularly enlightened, and I may write about that later, but he seems to have enjoyed his interaction with royalty. He noted that when the Sultan gave him the Grand Cross of Morocco, it was an award "he had never seen a Frenchman wear"; when he had a display of weapons for the Sultan and invited him to ride in his armored car, he noted that "he insisted that I sit beside him ... the first time a Sultan has ever let any foreigner sit beside him." (Patton Papers II, 151). The Sultan had never let the French sit next to him? How would Patton know this? But clearly he felt flattered. He noted of the same occasion that the Prince (the future Hassan II) "told me that when he is Sultan, I am to be his Grand Vizier and we will go everywhere in  a tank."

Ridiculous P.R. for Mohammed VI

Ridiculous P.R. for Mohammed VI

Read this piece and wonder how 1) this guy gets published anywhere and 2) how he could have worked as a political advisor at the US Embassy in Rabat. Oh, hold on, I know the answer to #2: because this kind of brown-nosing sounds very much like US policy towards Morocco. Some choice samples:

The new King is known to be very close to his people and always ready to answer their needs.

. . .

Other young Moroccans used to see him surfing or jet skiing in the most frequented beaches in Rabat or Tetouan with no bodyguards and again that was an opportunity for him to listen directly to people’s needs and problems.

. . .

I was driving once and all cars stopped at the red light. My wife surprised and almost speechless asked me “Isn’t that the King?” Yes, that was the King Mohammed waiting for the green light like the rest of the other people. This of course gained him more respect and love.

My own take on Morocco's Mohammed VI here.

Long reads — special Morocco edition

Morocco - Marrakech: Mystery

I did not put out Long Reads like last week. Will try to make this new feature work.

But I've accumulated a few links to long pieces of journalism and think tank reports on Morocco, and having generally felt guilty that I don't write about Morocco as much as I should (for instance, the UN recently stated that torture in Morocco "is systematic in Morocco for cases involving anti-government demonstrators and those accused of terrorism", belying the idea of a radical improvement under Mohammed VI.) I thought I'd highlight them here.

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All the King's Islamists

All the King's Islamists

Maati Monjib in SADA, on an anti-corruption campaign launched by the palace apparently mostly for the purpose of embarrassing the prime minister, who was not consulted, and as a form of revenge for the PJD's own anti-corruption campaign. This is reminiscent of the "campagne d'assainissement" of the 1990s by then-PM Driss Basri:

The PJD’s powerful election campaign focused on what it deemed financial corruption, political corruption, and the rentier economy which benefits the ruling elite—including those close to the monarchy. During the first weeks of the new Islamist government, which the press mocked as “half-bearded,” some ministers wanted to uphold their campaign promises to expose some of the rentier economy practices which are at the heart of the traditional political system. This alarmed the influential elite—including some representatives of the parties loyal to the palace within the ruling coalition—who considered their Islamist colleagues’ behavior to be populist. Then the Islamist Minister of Justice Mustafa Ramid, a PJD hawk whose appointment set off the first crisis between Benkirane and the palace, made the risky decision to open investigations against two figures close to the monarchy: the former minister of finance Salaheddine Mezouar and the current treasurer Noureddine Bensouda, citing financial documents published by the press as sufficient evidence of their corruption. This move clearly upset relations between the palace and the PJD.

In this atmosphere, and in an attempt to allay fears of a witch hunt, Benkirane told Al Jazeera “God has pardoned what is past” (Qur’an 5:95), thinking that this would alleviate the royal pressure on him. But Benkirane did not take into account that the palace would turn his statement against him, and show its own will to fight corruption by arresting dozens of police and customs officials. Benkirane, who sought a moderate, conciliatory stance, was instead blasted by pro-regime media for his inaction in confronting corruption—all the while, of course, praising the monarchy’s own move.

The irony here is that fighting genuine, large-scale corruption in Morocco isn’t really on the agenda of either the palace or the government: it is so deeply entrenched in the state that an actual attempt to uproot it could uproot the regime itself.

Benchemsi: the history of Morocco's #feb20

Ahmed Benchemsi, the former editor of the popular French-language weekly Tel Quel, has written a valuable essay retelling the story of the emergence of the February 20 movement in Morocco and its subsequent fading as the monarchy regained the initiative. He concludes:

At the time of writing (March 2012), the freshly appointed Benkirane cabinet still enjoys a honeymoon with the people. This may last a few more months, maybe a year. But then what? The sources of the 2011 revolt are still in place. Corruption, a major factor for discontent, is at peak level. Morocco’s position on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index has been worsening for years, going from 52nd in 2002 to 80th in 2011. Unemployment is also higher than ever, especially among university graduates (the official rate is 19% in 2011). Given the depth of these problems and the profound structural reforms that they require, the odds are small that Mr. Benkirane and his government assuage popular anger quickly enough.

With months passing and the economy degrading, in the absence of democratic freedoms developed enough to act like a safety valve, serious street protesting is likely to resume. The question is by whom the next round of popular anger will be channeled; and if so, whether or not this will be done properly to seize the momentum and maintain it while exerting efficient—and this time, focused—pressure on the Makhzen. The PJD cannot play that mobilizing role anymore, now that it has been closely associated to the Makhzen. The remaining activists movements that can do the channeling are Al Adl Wal Ihsan or, maybe, a reformed Feb20-like coalition—provided Morocco’s democratic and secular activists learn lessons from the 2011 fiasco and manage to build a real grassroots movement with an identified and appealing agenda.

I'm not sure I agree with his take that the emergency of a coherent liberal movement will be enough to change things (it will need to be broader than strictly liberal). Benchemsi is a figurehead of secularism in Morocco, a cause he advocated with his magazine with some success but that remains fairly alien to most Moroccans, whether among the educated middle class or the rural poor. The question in Morocco may be how to articulate an idea of reformist secularism that is not, as Tel Quel sometimes was, hostile to traditional values. He has written here a good first draft of the history of the radicals' role in the emergency of this movement (and more broadly the movement for democratic change in Morocco), but a chapter on its mainstreaming still awaits.

Pelham: How Morocco Dodged the Arab Spring

At least for now, says Nick Pelham in the NYRblog:

But while Benkirane’s government has for the time being stayed any prospect of a broader upheaval, Morocco is not yet out of the woods. The carping, which Benkirane’s election initially silenced, has returned with renewed vigor as Moroccans ask themselves whether their new constitution was merely cosmetic. Most recently, this view has been confirmed in a battle over who gets to make senior government appointments. Unsurprisingly, the King seems to have won.

“I appoint five hundred of the country’s most senior positions,” Benkirane had insisted to me in March. “The king appoints only thirty-seven.” But those thirty-seven are the most important. King Mohammed remains head of the Council of Ministers, the Supreme Security Council, and the Ulama Council, which runs the mosques. He runs the military, the security forces, and the intelligence. The targets of the February 20 protests—including the interior minister at the time, Ali al-Himma—are firmly ensconced as advisers in the King’s shadow government. Tellingly, when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to the kingdom in March she met the King’s foreign affairs adviser ahead of the foreign minister. “The King returns to Morocco, business resumes,” ran the headline in the official newspaper, Le Soir, on June 13, after the King returned from an absence of several weeks in Europe. It was clear who it thought called the shots.

Excellent piece worth reading on the unfinished business from 2011 in Morocco, with vivid reporting from the dark underbelly of the country.

Revisiting the Moroccan exception

I have a new op-ed in today's Guardian (p. 28 for dead-tree readers) about Morocco — specifically looking at the idea of Morocco as a model of how to handle the political demands unleashed by the Arab Spring. Here's how it starts:

There are cautionary tales in the Arab uprisings, as Syria has shown: not every revolution can be as successful as Tunisia's, not every aftermath is rosy. And then there are also questions raised about those places where revolution did not take place. Was it averted because there is wise and popular government, or has some kind of social shock merely been postponed?

Last year Morocco seemed for a while to be following the path of its eastern neighbours. Protests were proliferating, with public participation unseen since the 1970s. King Mohammed VI, whose legitimacy was never targeted by the protests – even if that of his regime was – deftly retook the initiative by proposing, and hurriedly passing, a new constitution. Elections that followed led, for the first time, to victory for the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD by its French acronym), which is now in office. Surely, some observers marvelled, here was a model to follow for countries faced with demands for change, one that offered fewer dangers than revolution?

Many Moroccans were divided on this issue. Libya's civil war and, later, Syria's, frightened many into believing that escalation would be too costly for a country that has neither petroleum riches nor great strategic assets. They knew from experience that the makhzen – the political-economic-security nexus that rules the country behind the scenes – would not yield power easily, and is capable of great repression. It was probably why many hoped that promises of reform were genuine, and were willing to give a new government and chastened makhzen the benefit of the doubt. Such a debate on whether such gradualism is preferable to more risky radical rupture is at the heart of the Arab uprisings, which were an indictment of reform initiatives that never went anywhere.

Read the rest here, which talks about rising socio-economic discontent as illustrated by the Taza protests, the threat of more economic pain from a coming drought, and the slow pace of political change under the new PJD government. And the king's megabucks, of course.

Video: L'Bassline

L'Bassline is a new hip-hop group from Fes in Morocco — this song, Chayllah Systeme (Down with the system - actually "Chayllah is a kind of holy figure, a reference to the untouchable nature of the regime, a rather subtle play on word that I mistook for something else - thanks Aba!) tackles with a lot of politically sensitive subject, including electoral fraud, the new constitution, the Makhzen's economic stranglehold, and more. It's a fantastic test of one's darija comprehension, too.

Previous Fez rap video:

Morocco, the Gulf and the media

An interesting item at Angry Arab — Aljazeera and Morocco:

"Yassine sent met this:  "So al-Jazeera decided not to air the documentary on Morocco and the 20th of February Movement (nuqta sakhina), which they had been promoting for more than a week. Why not? Again? (In November the same thing happened (back then the al-Jazeera crew was forbidden to go to Tanger and the al-Hoceima area: two centers of the Moroccan uprising).  The Moroccan king recently 'gave' the Qatari emir some 4 5.000 hectares (=450 km²) in the Guelmim area so that the Qatari emir could go hunt there. And also, these two weeks al-Jazeera has been negotiating a possible return to Morocco with the new minister of information. So I guess the negotiations are concluded. Perhaps the documentary was just a card in the negotiation-process. This is Gulf-media"""

The Emir of Qatar has a huge property in Tangier where he spends part of the summer, close to the king's own palace (and the king spends most of his summer in the north, either in Tangier or nearby Tetouan). Jazeera like other media has had trouble with the Moroccan government, but there is little explanation for the cancellation of the broadcast of this documentary (presumably as part the channel's very good series of documentaries on the Arab uprisings).

Incidentally, two members of the February 20 movement who worked for a UAE-based TV channel (Dubai TV) were fired at the request of the minister of information last year. Solidarity among absolute monarchs trumps all.

King Hassan of Morocco and the Queen

I found this video fascinating, and a reminder that, far from what remains prevalent thinking of Morocco, King Hassan was neither particularly sophisticated nor charming (he could be on occasion, perhaps) and little more than a tinpot despot who enriched himself on the back of his country. Not to mention, of course, his disastrous Sahara policy, his human rights abuses, his debasement of politics, etc.

Morocco Dispatch: No faith in the system

Moroccan Traffic

This was sent in by our intrepid correspondent Abu Ray, whose wrote many dispatches from Iraq a few years back, and now lives in Morocco.

The police officer finally looked up from behind the ancient, hulking Arabic-language typewriter with which he’d been hunting and pecking out the report for what seemed like an hour.

“You know, it would have been much easier for everyone if he’d just sorted things out on the side of the road and left us out of it,” he said with exasperation to my Moroccan friend.

It was a striking admission of the total lack of faith in a system by someone charged to uphold it.

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Of the sacredness of the Moroccan king

From an excellent essay on the Moroccan monarchy's response to the Arab Spring [PDF], by Ahmed Benchemsi – this passage deals with the new constitution approved in July, heralded by the regime as democratic and abandoning the position that the king is beyond reproach:

Perhaps the first thing to come in for harmonization should be the constitution’s Arabic and French versions. On at least one crucial mat- ter, they differ. This is the question of the king’s “sacredness.” The official line is that this antiquated feature has been abandoned for the sake of modernization. Yet that is far from clear, and may depend on whether you read the constitution from the standpoint of a cosmopolitan, French-speaking opinion leader, or from that of the average, Arabic-speaking Moroccan.

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Ibn Kafka on why he'll boycott Morocco's parliamentary elections

As many readers know I am Moroccan-born and frequently spend time in my birthtown of Rabat. I am not politically involved in Morocco but have many sympathies for the February 20 movement and, over the past decade, have grown from being optimistic about King Muhammad VI and his regime to being disappointed, then cynical, and now disgusted. 

My friend Ibn Kafka, whose excellent blog is a must-read on Morocco, wrote an eloquent explanation for the boycott that I agree with entirely.

I'm translating the first part of his post below.

Thanks, but no thanks

I boycotted the masquerade of the constitutional referendum this summer, and I will be boycotting the election of the Chamber of Deputies on 25 November. Yet I am no fan of boycotts: every time I’ve had the chance to in Morocco, I always voted. During previous referendums, I voted no (I can’t remember having ever voted yes). I voted in the 2007 elections. I start from the principle that I am asked for my opinion only once every five years, and that have a duty to give it.

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Another #feb20 activist killed in Morocco

The tenth victim of police brutality, use of thugs and popular incitement against Morocco’s February 20 movement died yesterday, after being stabbed in a neighborhood of the northern city of al-Hoceima. (Update: actually, several of those listed below set themselves on fire — they weren't killed.)

Kamal al-Houceini, an unemployed graduate, was with other February 20 activists in front of a newspaper stand last night in Ait Bouayach near al-Hoceima around 7pm after being attacked by a “baltaguia” (thug suspected of working for the Ministry of Interior). He is now the tenth person to have died for participating in the movement since it began on 20 February 2011 (a full list is below, in French.)


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A couple of items on Morocco

Two quick items I wanted to flag on Morocco:

  1. A long interview of Prince Moulay Hicham (aka the "Red Prince") in Le Debat, in which the rogue royal says that he would wants to see the Makhzen disappear so that the monarchy can survive:

    Après la mort de mon oncle, j’ai continué de soutenir publiquement que le makhzen, c’est-à-dire le pouvoir patrimonial au Maroc, devait périr pour que la monarchie vive et serve les Marocains. Je me suis également prononcé contre le califat, autrement dit contre une monarchie sous l’autorité du «Comman- deur des croyants» mêlant prérogatives poli- tiques et religieuses. Tout cela, je le pense et le défends toujours, à la fois en raison de ce que je suis et à cause de ce que j’ai fait de moi.

     It's cited here but while no one's looking here's the full PDF

  2. A Wikileaks-leaked State Dept. cable sheds some light on why Morocco broke relations with Iran in 2009 — because the Saudis asked:
    Morocco broke diplomatic relations with Iran and began a campaign against its domestic Shi'a minority at Saudi Arabian instigation, according to XXXXXXXXXXXX. According to XXXXXXXXXXXX, Tehran had been using Morocco and its Embassy in Rabat for activities in Mali and Senegal. Domestically, XXXXXXXXXXXX emphasized that the anti-Shi'a campaign was aimed at neutralizing possible challenges to monarchist parties by Islamic groups in upcoming municipal elections. In addition, King Mohammed VI was seeking to reassert his position as a religious leader.

    The full cable is here. I have some skepticism about this explanation alone but of course Saudis were part of the picture.

[Thanks, C. and P.]

The Moroccan initiative

This is one hell of a story from the AP, uncovering CIA collaboration with the NYPD to do obsessive spying on Muslim communities in New York — and in particular shops owned by Moroccan immigrants. A few excerpts:

NEW YORK (AP) — The New York Police Department put American citizens under surveillance and scrutinized where they ate, prayed and worked, not because of charges of wrongdoing but because of their ethnicity, according to interviews and documents obtained by The Associated Press.

The documents describe in extraordinary detail a secret program intended to catalog life inside Muslim neighborhoods as people immigrated, got jobs, became citizens and started businesses. The documents undercut the NYPD's claim that its officers only follow leads when investigating terrorism.

It started with one group, Moroccans, but the documents show police intended to build intelligence files on other ethnicities.

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Referendum day in Morocco

I spent the day today in the small town of Benslimane, about 70km from Rabat, and in the capital itself visiting polling stations, talking to officials and activists as Morocco held a referendum for a new constitution. I can't say I learnt anything new: it was clear the referendum was going to result in a resounding yes (we'll get preliminary results tonight or tomorrow) and what will be more important is the turnout. 
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Podcast: Lunch with Ibn Kafka

I arrived early this morning in Morocco and have spent a busy day with political activists, party leaders, journalists and others discussing tomorrow's constitutional referendum, which will no doubt see the new constitution proposed by King Muhammad VI easily adopted. The February 20 movement that opposes the new text as a farce (because it does not really change the power of the king) is calling for a boycott, and a test of how much resonance this call has had will be tomorrow's turnout. In the meantime, as they demonstrate in cities across Morocco, I saw the sorry sight of pro-monarchy protestors in Rabat attacking the activists, even hounding a leader of the human rights movement, Khadija Riyadi, into hiding in a petrol station to escape the attacks. 

There will more about this later. In the meantime, here's another edition of our occasional podcast, Lunch With The Arabist. This episode was recorded a few days ago in Egypt, but is about Morocco and the new constitution. We ask the prominent French-language blogger Ibn Kafka what he thinks of the new constitution. Ibn Kafka is associated with the Mamfakinch ("We Won't Budge" in Moroccan dialect) website, which is close to the February 20 movement.

For a pre-referendum story, check out Paul Schemm's story at AP.

To listen to the podcast, click the play button below.

Lunch with the Arabist #2: Ibn Kafka