Moroccan Civil Society to Fight Extremism with Democracy

Monday 19 May 2003, by Andrew ELKIN

The suicide bombings that rocked Casablanca Friday night also shook the foundations of Moroccan society. Although the targets seem to have been chosen for their Western and Jewish links, the victims were mostly Moroccan.

A major question in the wake of the attacks is how revamped national security and increased awareness of fundamentalist movements will affect the democratic process which has been undergoing a slow reform since King Mohamed VI took the throne in July of 1999. It is impossible to know so soon what steps the government will take to reassure Moroccans of their security, but those active in civil society aren’t letting their guard down.

"This battle is wide open," said Kamal Lhabib, a founding member of Alternatives du Sud and a representative of the Coalition of the Left. "We have to turn once again to a security system that supports democracy, to work on links with the average population and focus on issues like poverty and unemployment. This is the great challenge for the government right now."

According to Lhabib, the current rate of democratic reform is insufficient for fighting the extremist threat. Corruption is still common and the parties in power are seen as self-serving, an impression which only helps to further the disillusionment of the average voter.

"We have to resist complicity in a political system that attempts to reinforce its own interests," Lhabib said.

The poor urban areas in and around Fez, Casablanca, Tangier and Sale are breeding grounds for the fundamental Islamist movement in Morocco. Fundamentalism has been on the rise for several years, but the greatest threat it was thought to pose to democracy here is the direct political action of the Party for Justice and Development (PJD). In last September’s legislative elections, the PJD jumped from 9 seats to 42, landing as the third largest party in Parliament and assuming the role of opposition.

Those most susceptible to the lure of extremism are the young. An estimated 35 per cent of Moroccan university graduates are unemployed, and in the poor city centres and shanty towns where parents cannot afford to send their children to university the jobless rate is much higher. A lot of youth lack even the most basic means of life, and the fundamentalist movements claim to offer a way out.

"Our culture is based on tolerance but these movements prey on the youth that have nothing else on offer," said Mohamed Benbouzid, director of the national youth association, Chouala. The solution, Benbouzid said, is to create a political space for the sustainable development of Moroccan society in the rural areas as well as in the cities.

"We have to work toward a society that is more democratic, because it is through democracy that we will overcome this threat."

Even before the attacks, however, Moroccan civil society had started working to counter the threat of extremism and on May 17, the day after the attacks, a collective of 18 associations and a political party were moving further in this direction. The group, whose members include representatives of Morocco’s human rights, women’s solidarity, a union of professionals in the performing arts and the party of the Unified Socialist Left issued a statement noting that the civil society had time and again signaled the problem of Islamic extremism and the politics of hate, racism and anti-Semitism.

In early May, after a debate between Islamists and representatives of the secular Left, the Coalition of the Left was created in order to mount a formal and vocal opposition to fundamentalism in Morocco.

"If we are engaged in a system that limits itself to involvement in economic ventures rather than supporting the people, democracy will lose out," said Lhabib. "Unfortunately, we have already lost a lot of time in this respect."

Andrew Elkin is Alternative Media Intern for Alternatives in Casablanca, Morocco.

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