“We visited him today in the hospital. His hand tied to the bed, he was asleep. Police at the door said we were not allowed to see him. We asked them for a quick glance from afar. Abdessamad woke up as we became louder. He opened his eyes and painfully attempted to move. Slowly, he raised index and middle fingers in a profoundly victorious V. That’s Abdessamad Haidour, the one who would shout out loud what we would whisper quietly among ourselves. Prison walls inhaled the flesh from his thin skeletal body. Is this the destiny of Moroccan youth who aspire to a better future for all? Prison or death?”
Those were the heart wrenching words of Saddam Cherif, February 20th pro democracy activist and friend from Taza. Abdessamad Haidour was sentenced to 3 years during a trial where no lawyers were allowed. Tarek Hamani-- a student who’s also from Taza-- is a victim of an even more ruthless ruling: Six years of prison and a 25 000 dollar fine.
Tarek el Hanfali, from Marrakech, was sentenced to two and a half years along with a dozen of young protesters whose social demands got them arrested at the end of 2012. The luckiest will be wrongfully deprived of their freedom for a year.
With twelve more political detainees locked up in El Hoceima, many in Fez, Kenitra, and tens scattered nationwide, the issue of random arrests and political imprisonment has become a full-blown cancer in Morocco. Metastasis spreads as the number of activists that are beaten, arrested, tortured then incarcerated in Moroccan prisons continues to rise. Puppet judges and circus courtrooms are as cosmetic as the so-called changes in Morocco since the wave of protests swept across MENA. They are as loyal to the oppressive ways of the Palace’s Ministry of Interior as the “new” constitution is void of articles that have transformed from ink to change. Nowadays, King Mohammed VI’s speech promises on March 9, 2011, seem as empty as the detainees intestines on their 60+ day of hunger strike.
The large campaign demanding the release of political prisoners continues. Actions included taking part in the large May 1st protests, signing an online petition, making signs, sharing pictures and raising awareness on social media, as well as Mamfakinch and Moroccan Human Rights Association's FreeKoulchi.org initiative, a website in which data related to Moroccan political detainees is published.
The Parallel World of Politicians:
Abdelilah Benkirane: Leader of the majority winning political Party for Justice and Development (Said to be Islamist but isn’t; supposed to rule but doesn’t) was appointed chief of the current coalition government by King Mohammed VI. One of his signature quotes refers to senior officials who had committed fraud, stole, or were behind Tax Expenditure irregularities: "God has forgiven the past". His most recent controversial action was taking part in last week’s May 1st protest in Rabat, with workers and pro-democracy activists, against his own government. Benkirane is regime-friendly.
Hamid Chabat: Recently voted leader of the Independence Party (al Istiqlal is a deeply-rooted powerful party, that is part of the government coalition). He is a former mechanic, in addition to being the head of a workers’ union. His political ambition is also makhzen-bound, thereby pushing him to aim for Benkirane’s prerogativeless, yet sought after job title. His quest for limited power began a few months ago when he asked Benkirane for a ministerial reshuffle. Benkirane refused. The quarrel continued as Chabat said on April 8:
“Benkirane should stop complaining about evil spirits and crocodiles”. Chabat did not make that up. The head of the government used the words a metaphor to depict corrupt officials he was too afraid to denounce publicly. “If Benkirane suffers from evil spirits, he should go spend a night at the Tomb of Marabout Bouya Omar”, Chuckled Chabat.
On May 2nd, a meeting brought the two in the same room and a verbal tirade inevitably ensued as Chabat refused to apologize for accusing a minister of coming to the parliament while drunk. Benkirane left abruptly before the meeting ended, while urgent matters were yet to be discussed. The Moroccan government is imploding.
These officials who are supposed to be representatives of the people have begun to stray from their common cause, as their quarrels get more personal and more puerile. They fight for high-status administrative titles, leaving all real prerogatives to the King, and stirring more public criticism from disappointed voters and taxpayers. Meanwhile, universities and neighborhoods across the country are boiling as students riots spread, while the King continues to steer Moroccan affairs: internally through the iron-fisted ministry of interior and externally via his advisors.
The thorny issue is one that remains unresolved, due to an array of geopolitical reasons that have only gotten more complex since the wave of protests flooded Arab streets in 2011. The UN Security Council extended MINURSO’s mandate as pressure on the Moroccan regime heightened after talks of tasking the UN with monitoring human rights violations. Human Rights Watch supported the move. The Moroccan regime succeeded in getting a renewal that excludes the human rights bit, an item that the regime blew out of proportions in state-run media and oddly celebrated it as a triumph over.
However, clashes between pro-polisario separatists and Moroccan authorities spread on May 2nd, while the Moroccan National Council on Human Rights reported 2000 protesters came out in Laayoune on May 4th, demanding the right to self-determination. Before long, videos showing clear human rights abuses by the Moroccan police in the town of Boujdour were uploaded to facebook, youtube and viewed by the tens of thousands. Instead of attempting to restore order, policemen were shown stoning houses, and assaulting women as a response to riots. The minister of interior reacted by claiming that 150 policemen were wounded in the clashes, with not even one protester hurt. This approach is failing to bring credibility to the Moroccan authorities who ultimately seek to mend fences with Sahrauis.
Far from being knowledgeable in this particular matter, I would nonetheless like to offer an opinion that’s perhaps simplistic, but stems from thoughts taking into consideration the basic demands of people. I’d also like to clarify my personal conclusive view now so that no judgments are made based on this mere invitation to think critically about the issue: I think of Morocco as one nation, including the Sahara, and would like nothing more than for the people to see their actual demands met wherever they may be.
On a meta-level, don’t the Sahrauis demand dignity and freedom? By asking for self-determination, are they not seeking representatives chosen by them, who care about their people? Are they not seeking equitable wealth distribution and denouncing a regime that has inflicted human rights abuses upon people? Are they not demanding justice? Are these calls any different from a Moroccan citizen who is aspiring for a better tomorrow in Tangier, Marrakech, Taza, or Fez?
February 20th movement has faced so much criticism as the regime compared its members to pro-polisario separatists and launched a systematic makhzen-lead propaganda campaign to tarnish the image of youth who demanded change.
Would Sahraui people seek a separate state if their demands—similar to Moroccans’ across the country today, were met? Why are simple Sahraui people who are burdened by social inequalities immediately singled out as traitors as soon as they become outspoken before even mentioning self-determination? The regime’s finger pointing, paranoia, and occasional violent response to pro-polisario riots throughout the crisis may have exacerbated the situation.
The violence shown in the recent videos exposes the Moroccan Authorities’ inability to contain and absorb anger. It depicts abuse to vulnerable Sahrauis that further aggravates the situation. Even the most makhzen-friendly Moroccans find it appalling to see a woman who’s merely passing by, beaten and uncovered. The subsequent denial by Laenser-- minister of interior, make the situation even more difficult to resolve. On the other hand, I find myself asking the question: Has Polisario’s long sought after independence become an end exploited to draw frustrated sahrauis’ support, who merely view the idea of another state as a means to freedom, justice, and dignity just like Moroccans do in several regions where protests are continuously erupting?
Maybe if the ideal values most Sahrauis seek were readily available in a larger more welcoming nation, and embodied by the Moroccan authorities, they might welcome unity without being forced into it. Sahrauis cannot all be bribed, beaten, or indoctrinated into makhzeni submission just like February 20th activists and more outspoken citizens are protesting the regime’s humiliating ways nationwide. I think efforts to work towards peace and unity must involve more space to openly discuss what the regime has done wrong and where it has failed in advancing in this issue. The cliché saying: “you cannot keep doing the same thing and expect different results” is quite relevant here. Already, Makhzen fanatic Amine El Baroudi, who is widely known by Feb20 activists for his violent outbursts posted a Youtube video where he threatens Sahrauis to come kill them, showing a loaded gun and calling for a people Vs. people civil war. Black or white thinking stirs more unrest. Behavior such as Baroudi's is highly dangerous and can only lead to armed conflict. I believe it is wiser to avoid the risks of violence.
The traitor Vs patriot approach is reductive, yet it has been the way the regime wants the issue to be portrayed to avoid a profound need for reform. Never in my life have I viewed the Sahara as separate from Morocco, but even if it has only been two years since I have started witnessing the dark side of the regime when citizens ask for their rights, I can see how citizens who push for change can become targeted enemies of the Makhzen. Pro-democracy activists around Morocco were tortured and imprisoned, and the regime labeled them all traitors for demanding positive change. This label may stick to pro-polisario separatists in the minds of most Moroccans, but as tension heightens around the country, people might start to wonder beyond the Polisario flag: Why is the Makhzen failing to convince people to be proud Moroccans? Why does a growing number of people in the south want out so badly?
A young man called the Sniper of Targuist—a town in the North East of Morocco, began to take videos of Gendarmes taking bribes from drivers who preferred the cheaper alternative to paying the full amount of a ticket. He uncovered many corrupt officers. Amid national campaigns to end corruption in Morocco, the young man who decided to reveal his identity through an exclusive interview should have become a national hero. Instead, his fearful friends and neighbors shunned him, while police harassed him constantly and decided to strike back. Unfortunately, corruption is more than a rampant cultural aspect in Morocco: it is a built-in cancer that authorities continue to defend. The sniper of Targuist was forced out of the country. He recently wrote: “What is this country that doesn’t love and respect me back?”
Beyond Polisario, maybe more Sahrauis who were caught in the middle of the conflict have been wondering the same thing.
As things continue to heat up this spring nationwide and more pieces of the Moroccan puzzle emerge, real change makers have yet to surface with credible, reasonable plans in response to realistic future scenarios, thereby arranging the pieces in a way that will hopefully make more sense and soothe Moroccans’ general anxiety.