I was shocked, although not altogether surprised, to learn about Kamel Jendoubi yesterday. I was in Morocco most of the summer and just flew back as Jendoubi, a renowned Tunisian human rights activist, was being prevented from entering the country. Jendoubi had been invited by Moroccan rights groups, who wanted to honor his activism. The authorities gave no official reason for him being barred, but it appears pretty clear that it's to appease the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, perhaps in exchange for a modicum of support on the Western Sahara or in Morocco's spat with Libya over the same issue.
Jendoudi heads the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, which has its name indicates links activists across the region. Meetings like the ones in Morocco, perhaps the country of the south Mediterranean with the strongest civil society groups and experience, are essential to lend a hand to those in more repressive countries like Tunisia. Rather than let a meeting that would have highlighted Morocco's relative openness and record of progress on human rights, the authorities decided to block Jendoubi's entry. That decision is not only nasty, it's stupid.
Morocco just hosted, about 10 days ago, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs who oversees MEPI and democracy initiatives. In a few weeks, it will be reviewing its human rights records as part of its advanced status negotiations with the EU. Both the US and the EU have been generous donors, giving funds in part on the condition of better human rights governance. It is true that, a decade ago, some impressive improvements were made in womens' rights and human rights more generally in Morocco. But these donors, as well as all Moroccans, should ask themselves whether the constant celebration of these improvement is warranted.
The Jendoubi affair comes as torture — and even more worryingly, impunity for torture — is making a return in the kingdom's police stations. [If you read French, then Ibn Kafka's recent long post on torture in Morocco, the first in a series, is a must-read.] This has been in part because of the War on Terror and the encouragement to torture from patron-states, but also because whatever transition took place in Morocco over the past decade has been — constitutionally, legally, administratively, culturally — quite shallow, often engaged in theatrics rather deep reform.
One of the striking things, having spent a couple of months in Morocco every year for the past five years, is that this lack of progress / regression is becoming palpable. The disappearance of media outlets like Le Journal or Jarida al-Oula and abundance (or hegemony) of shallow magazines and newspapers constantly engaging in regime propaganda is starting to suffocate the atmosphere for those interested in politics. Whatever dynamic existed at the beginning of Muhammad VI's reign, at least when it came to politics, is rapidly losing momentum. It's still a freer country than Tunisia or Algeria, but you feel some form of limit has been reached. Preventing an act of solidarity with a Tunisian activist, a petty act, might be a symbol of this.