Beginning of Political Change - Human Rights and the Treatment of Opposition

The pace of economic and social change should be accelerated by political reform. This may not be apparent immediately, because reform will give more influence to conservative politicians, but in the long run it may be more effective in changing attitudes than further economic legislation. It should produce more open debate and a diminished popular awe of government.

The political reforms of the last five years have had two aspects - one affecting human rights and the treatment of the non-parliamentary opposition, and the other concerned with the revival of the parliamentary process.

In the summer of 1994 the King and his powerful and long serving Interior Minister, Driss Basri, agreed on a sharp change in the human rights régime and released most of the country’s political prisoners. These included officers who had been involved in the two coup attempts of the early 1970s and many students, journalists and academics who in the 1970s and 1980s had done no more than criticise the régime. The only people left in prison were a few Islamist agitators, arrested recently, and some who had supported Polisario, the group fighting for the independence of the Western Sahara, which Morocco had annexed in stages, in 1975 and 1979. Soon after the releases the government allowed back some elderly politicians who had been in exile. It also created a Ministry of Human Rights and a Tribunal Administratif, to judge disputes between citizens and the authorities.

The new policy was linked to Morocco’s opening to the world. The King was aware that in the 1980s small anti-Moroccan lobbies had been developing in Europe and the United States, and he knew that if Morocco was to get closer to the European Union its human rights record was going to come under closer scrutiny. Human rights clauses have indeed been put in the association treaties that the EU has been agreeing with its Mediterranean neighbours since the summer of 1995, and these have proved much more embarrassing for the Tunisian government than for the Moroccans.

The policy also reflects the fact that the monarchy is now accepted in Morocco. When Hassan II succeeded his father, Mohammad V, in 1961, the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, dominated the Arab world. Cairo Radio was calling for the overthrow of the remaining monarchies, and the mood of the young in all Arab countries was firmly republican. The Moroccan political parties, which had been born in the movement for independence from France (achieved in 1956), were ambivalent in their attitude to the monarchy. In the last two decades, however, republican régimes in the Arab world have become increasingly discredited and the monarchies are now seen as providing a "legitimate" type of rule that balances tradition and modernisation. The Moroccan parliamentary parties out of government, though still tracing their origins to the nationalist movement, are regarded as a "loyal opposition".

The present Islamist opposition movement, which is outside the parliament, is much less powerful than the Nasserites were in the 1960s. It has certainly increased its support in the last ten years and it dominates the social and political life of the universities. Between a quarter and a third of students have taken to wearing Islamic dress, though as in other Arab countries, some of these may have adopted the uniform out of a desire to conform to the fashion, or avoid the criticism of the more aggressive militants, rather than out of real conviction. (In the 1960s, in contrast, it was difficult to find a single student in any Arab university who was not republican.)

Outside the universities, in the poorer parts of the towns, where the Islamists have taken root in Egypt and Algeria, the militants seem to have less presence than one would expect. This judgement is based on conversations with residents and on observing the small numbers of people who are dressed in an Islamist fashion, compared with the large number of girls who wear tight jeans and T-shirts.

The government, conforming to its old habits, has been taking no chances with the more hard line Islamist leadership. The most militant of the Moroccan Islamist groups, Al-Adl wal Ishan (Justice and Charity), was made illegal in 1990 and for most of the time since then its leader, Cheikh Abdesalem Yassine, has been under house arrest. He was released at the end of 1995, delivered an inflammatory sermon, and was put back in custody "for his own protection".

What is unfortunate, given the lack of any serious political threat, is that in 1996 and 1997 there has been some "backsliding" on human rights, according to diplomats in Rabat. The campaign of 1994-95 was not accompanied by an adequate attempt to re-educate the authorities responsible for enforcing the law - and in the last two years the police have begun to use torture again, prisoners have been mistreated and there have been deaths in police custody. These episodes have stemmed not from any change in policy but from the police and judiciary slipping back into old habits once the pressure from above has been relaxed.

The same fate has met a rather less important campaign launched in early 1996 against corruption, smuggling and the drugs trade. The campaign led to a number of arrests of some quite important people; it is a few of these and some smaller figures who have recently suffered at the hands of the police. For a time the more optimistic members of the Moroccan intelligentsia let themselves believe that the "clean-up" would change the style of public life. Others, more numerous and more cynical, found their businesses disrupted because they were not sure to whom they should be offering bribes and what sums they should be paying. The smuggling business, which accounts for a significant part of the country’s imports, was worst affected. At one point movements at Casablanca’s container port came almost to a halt. In 1997 trade, legitimate and smuggled, has gone back to normal.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | April 1999

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