Red Prince to the rescue

I've mentioned before the shameful verdict against Le Journal Hebdo, a French-language Moroccan weekly, which forced it to pay the highest-ever damages for a libel suit in Morocco. Abu Aardvark had a post about it too, and The Lounsbury over at Aqoul had a response to it. Ustaz Lounsbury is, methinks, too tough on Le Journal. Yes, it is sensationalistic. But it has also broken many taboos in the Moroccan press and provides a useful service.

I think the problem with Le Journal is that it is too bent on being political for a news-magazine: you can see that by how, after having literally created its own genre in Morocco, it is losing ground to the better-produced, more "fun", less politicized Tel Quel (which nonetheless is still a quite critical publication and has had some great scoops). This is why Le Journal sells only 17,000 compared to Tel Quel's 26,500 (for comparison Le Journal sells a little bit more weekly than the biggest French-language women's monthly). It is too political to cast a wide net. Essentially, it thinks of itself as an opposition group rather than a publication. I actually think it's good for the country, which needs an avant-garde to push reform even if occasionally does so irresponsibly (in a way, Le Journal is the Kifaya of Morocco...) This is particularly true when political parties are not very active. But, as someone who has started and run ailing liberal publications, I can tell you that you also need to reach for an audience beyond political junkies. Tel Quel does that well. Le Journal does not. But calling it second-rate is unfair, particularly in a Moroccan context (I grew up with Le Matin du Sahara).

Also, The Lounsbury mentions the upcoming liberalization of the broadcast media. We'll have to wait and see (licenses are about to be announced any time now) but (having met with the people running the royal commission that is organizing all this and talking to people in the sector) I would be ready to bet we're likely to see commercial projects that won't push the political boundaries. A lot of them will be big Moroccan money, multinationals like Meditel (a mobile phone company that is apparently interested in expanding into media) and of course the obligatory Gulf money (there's talk of Walid bin Talal being involved in some project).

Anyway, the real point I wanted to make was about this Le Monde piece by Jean Pierre Tuquoi [reg] that claims Moulay Hisham, the supposedly progressive "red prince" shunned by King Muhammad since his ascension to the throne, has offered to bail out Le Journal "in order to preserve its freedom." My jaw hit the floor when I read this. First, Le Journal is already frequently alleged to be doing Moulay Hisham's work, which I don't think is true -- or perhaps just hope is not true. It is true that Abou Bakr Jamai has a good relationship with Moulay Hisham, but he did not seem, when I met with him, to be at his service and had independent opinions about Hisham's policy. But this issue is more important than Le Journal: it's about the stability of the Moroccan throne.

Moulay Hisham -- genial, highly educated, liberal -- seems on paper like he would be a better, more progressive king than Muhammad VI. That may be true. The problem is that he says it out loud, or at least hints at it. This is not something that the third-in-line for the crown should be bragging about, for instance in a conference when he declared that the monarchy should reconsider the way power is inherited a few years ago. And it's not only that Moulay Hisham has a claim to the throne, but also that he has characteristics that would make him appealing to Westerners (and neo-cons especially) and that he is super-connected: he is related to the Saudi royal family (and hence Lebanon's Sunni political dynasties) and a very good friend of his cousin Walid bin Talal, one of the richest men in the world. In other words, he is a somebody (although I'm not sure on much of a somebody he is considered inside Morocco.) Paying Le Journal's bills, while commendable, is a dangerous move -- particularly if the libel fine was essentially a palace plot as Le Journal claims, since Moulay Hisham would be directly going against the palace.

I am torn about it because I want Le Journal to keep on publishing. But this price may be a little too high. It's no good when a publication has to rely on the kindness of someone as controversial as he is. Moulay Hisham might be able to be a force for good in the country, but having princelings fight out for their vision of what Morocco should be like just isn't good enough. There needs to be politicians rather than princes and the rule of law rather than the rule of billionaires. Enlightened emirs need not apply.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.