The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

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.

We’d been hours in the police station, answering questions, typing out reports, photocopying documents – something that took extra long because it had to be done at the little teleboutique across the street.

What I should have done, when the moped crashed into my car in a gritty slum of Casablanca as I was executing a u-turn of questionable legality with several other cars into oncoming traffic, was paid the guy off.

The driver of the little Peugeot moto, the kind that can be found careening all over the urban spaces of Morocco, wasn’t hurt, but his sister was tossed off her precarious perch on the back of the bike onto the side of the road where she howled in pain as people gathered and stared.

I stood around awkwardly with a Moroccan friend as we waited for some measure of authority to appear – resisting the urge just to peel out of there and high tail it back to the comfortable neighborhood of Rabat.

Eventually the police showed up, and then an ambulance, which took the woman away while the moped driver and I were questioned.

It was a bizarrely archaic process, with one policeman painstakingly recreating the accident scene on graph paper with a ruler and protractor, noting the locations of the cars and the direction of traffic.

What was new this time around, however, was the traffic law which specified that in any case of injury, drivers lost their licenses and I was instructed to come back to the commissariat the next day for questioning – a feat made a bit harder by the absence of my driver’s license.

Like so many other countries, Morocco is a place that seems to function largely outside of its own legal code. Trying to do anything by the book opens one up to turgid, labyrinthian bureaucracy that takes forever – and most people with even the most rudimentary shred of connections, just bypass it all – or at the very least skip to the head of the long lines.

I spent months begging one of the mobile service providers to put me on an unlimited post-paid system that would let me make all the calls I needed on a monthly bill, rather than cutting me off halfway through the week and forcing me to then add credit. For months I waited for an incredibly slow approval process, crying in frustration to thoroughly unsympathetic customer service representatives over the phone (they don’t believe in face to face contact), before giving up in disgust. The next day I went to the office of the other service provider with a Moroccan friend, who knew the people who worked there, and I had what I couldn’t get on my own for months, in a half an hour.

No one, if they can help it, does it by the book.

So instead of just paying off the poor moto driver and maybe giving his sister a lift to the hospital, I had condemned the police to the laborious job of questioning me, typing up a report, checking with the hospital, and – embarrassingly – calling the embassy to tell them I’d been in an accident.

He asked for my father’s name, mother’s name, then my father’s father’s name and finally my mother’s father and we painstakingly spelled out the unfamiliar foreign names.

There was pause while my friend went out to find a place open during lunch time to make more copies and we stared at each other in the bare, empty office. “Do you do any sports,” he asked. “It’s okay, it’s not for the report, I’m just curious.”

In the end, the man’s sister was fine and released from the hospital the same day, but the police officer still had to type up his report.

“We work 12-14 hours a day, did you know that?” he complained. “It should be us out there demonstrating on Feb. 20.”

It was the one year anniversary of the incredible social explosion in Morocco in which tens of thousands had hit the streets for months calling for an end to business as usual.

And end to a king whose unelected advisors dictate state policy and control half the economy, an end to the pervasive corruption, an end to elections that bring a meaningless rotation of familiar faces, an end to social inequalities that beggar the imagination, an end to an economy that only seems to grow for some and leave millions without jobs.

It’s not that Morocco never had demonstrations before, they just never had everyone on the same page, in the same street at the same time.

Those demonstrations are done for now, as the movement has found out that you can’t keep marching through the streets and chanting slogans forever without coming up with a second act. They’ve also been a victim of a clever power structure that knew when it was time to concede some reforms.

There will be some big ones for the anniversary Sunday, probably, but for now it seems that this phase is over and they have been replaced with smaller, angrier clashes between fed up youths in provincial cities and riot police – a bit reminiscent of neighboring Algeria’s inchoate popular rage.

The year of protests did mean that the elections were the fairest in years and a opposition Islamist party came to power – allowed into power, many would say, as a spooked palace went for the one party that hadn’t been coopted to give the system back some shred of legitimacy.

The main pillar of their platform echoes that of the protesters, taking on corruption and the new justice minister once fought the hopeless task of defending terrorist suspects in the country’s hopelessly rigged courts.

The question remains though if they can really tackle the true sources of corruption which many place close to the untouchable monarch.

Perhaps the new traffic law, with its stiff penalties to deter reckless driving, was their idea, but so far, aside from costing me a day, it appears to have done little to curb traffic patterns that remain blissfully unaware of any kind of rules.

It seems especially doubtful when the people charged with enforcing it prefer the old ways themselves.