By Helene Zuber in Rabat
Najib Chaouki and his friends arranged over Facebook to meet near Témara, on the outskirts of the Moroccan capital Rabat. The plan was to meet on Sunday, May 15, for a picnic in front of the country's domestic intelligence service headquarters. They wanted to protest the police state in their country.
Témara is a place the government doesn't like to talk about. This is where the CIA and the British MI5 are believed to have brought and brutally tortured suspected terrorists after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Chaouki, 32, a blogger from Rabat, and his fellow protesters, who mobilize tens of thousands of demonstrators each month, were proud of their plan. "We wanted to inform the public about the intelligence service's illegal tactics," the young man with the long, dark curls explains.
They didn't get that far. Special police units were already waiting for the young people in the early morning. Chaouki was in a supermarket when plainclothes policemen outside began beating the new arrivals with clubs. The officers pursued about 100 young women and men for two hours, even chasing them onto the rooftops of surrounding buildings. Ten of the protesters ended up in the hospital with injuries.
King Mohammed VI's Reforms
The failed picnic shows that three months after young Moroccans first called for demonstrations on Feb. 20, expanding the Arab pro-democracy movement to their country, the freedom to publicly express opinions is still under threat there.
The events on May 15 also represented a serious setback along the path to a liberal society, since King Mohammed VI promised in early March to establish a more democratic system and a state governed by the rule of law. The king appointed a national council for human rights and created a commission to develop a new constitution. He declared his willingness to take the steps he considered necessary for Morocco to achieve peacefully what Tunisia and Egypt were only able to attain by deposing those in power.
But all that was before two bombs, apparently remotely detonated, exploded in the famous tourist café Argana at the well-known Djemaa el-Fna square in the heart of Marrakech on April 28, killing 17 people. Police have since arrested seven suspects -- al-Qaida sympathizers, according to information from the Moroccan interior ministry.
But just as with the suicide attacks in Casablanca eight years ago, here, too, rumors began circulating immediately that the country's intelligence service had a hand in the matter. The rumors suggest that these hardliners, intent on holding onto their own power, weren't pleased when the king released about 100 prisoners in mid-April, including several who had been convicted as terrorists.
A Movement Under Threat
Since then, the pro-democracy movement seems to be under threat again, but young Moroccans won't let themselves be driven back off the streets that easily. "They've overcome the wall of fear," says Fahd Iraqi, editor-in-chief of the critical political magazine Tel Quel, which supports the young demonstrators' demands.
"We're pacifists," states Chaouki, who completed high school in Germany and studied there. Young Moroccans' largest complaint is not with the monarchy. Unlike their contemporaries in neighboring countries, they aren't calling for the overthrow of their ruler. Mohammed VI can remain head of state as far as they're concerned -- he just should not continue to govern as well.
This is the unusual aspect of the Moroccan Spring: The movement doesn't aim to overthrow a leader, and yet it is revolutionary. The king sees himself as a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, making him both the highest leader of believers and a secular ruler.
This absolute power, which the country's rebellious youth would like to see curtailed, has nonetheless allowed the king to implement overdue reforms -- going against resistance from Morocco's rigid political system and Islamists when necessary. He pushed through a family law reform that gave women equal rights, and he pursued reconciliation with the country's left-wing opposition, long brutally repressed under his father, Hassan II.
Making Change From Within
Now Mohammed VI has announced a revision to the constitution: In the future, the king will no longer be able to appoint whomever he likes as head of the government. Instead, the leader will come from the party that wins in free elections. The king also wants to further the separation of powers and make the judiciary independent. "Be creative" was the monarch's recommendation to the members of a new constitutional commission, which he filled with representatives from civil society, academia and human rights groups.
The battle against corruption also has the king's blessing. Revelations concerning the political class's habit of lining its own pockets, which were contained in US embassy cables released by the Internet platform WikiLeaks, provoked a great deal of resentment among Moroccans, prompting young protesters to demand the most brazen of these opportunists be removed from positions close to the monarch. They achieved one success when the king appointed Abdesselam Aboudrar, founder of the Moroccan branch of Transparency International, to be the president of a government agency that will take action against corruption.
In the 1970s, Aboudrar attempted to overthrow the monarchy together with other left-wing activists, then survived five years in a secret prison in the basement of a police station in Casablanca. Now the engineer and financial expert believes he can accelerate reforms by working together with the king.
Morocco's problem isn't so much the monarch's extensive power, says this one-time enemy of the state, but the political parties themselves. The same members of the "Makhzen," the ruling elite, keep handing out posts to members of the government's 20 most important groups, and they've lost voters' trust. In the country's 2007 parliamentary elections, 63 percent of those eligible to vote did not do so.
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