Morocco rushes anti-terror legislation after attacks

Friday 30 May 2003, by Andrew ELKIN

Photo : Treal Ruiz

The suicide bombings that rocked Casablanca on May 16 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. On May 21 the Moroccan government responded by pushing its proposed anti-terror law back into Parliament for a hastily organized vote.

"The government isn’t doing anything to eliminate the problem of poverty, unemployment and hunger that are the seeds of extremism," said Mohamed El Boukili of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH). "Instead they are attacking the freedoms we have won through civilized means."

The controversial anti-terror law gives police and security forces the right to hold suspects for up to eight days without access to a lawyer, to intercept telephone, Internet, and postal communications, and to search homes and businesses without warrants. More significantly, the law expands the definition of terrorism to include any disturbance of public order.

These powers are so flexible that they pose a greater threat to the civil rights of Moroccans than terrorism itself, AMDH President Abdelhamid Amine said.
The shotgun vote on the anti-terror law gives an indication of how the advent of terrorism will affect Morocco’s democratic process, which has been reforming slowly since the mid-90s. Those active in civil society, however, aren’t conceding defeat.

"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 to counter 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 Islamic fundamentalist movement in Morocco. Authoritarian Islamist groups have been on the rise for several years, but their most successful political vehicule is the Party for Justice and Development (PJD). In last Septem-ber’s legislative elections, the PJD jumped from 9 seats to 42, becoming the third largest party in Parliament and the official opposition.

The young seem the most susceptible to the lure of extremism. An estimated 35 percent 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. Many youth lack even the most basic means of making a living, 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. 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.

On May 17, the day after the attacks, a coalition of 18 associations and a political party were moving further in this direction. Drawing together Morocco’s human rights and women’s solidarity organisations, along with the Unified Socialist Left party, the group issued a statement noting that civil society had time and again signaled the problem of Islamic extremism and the politics of hate, racism, and anti-Semitism.

"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."

The attempt to make up the lost ground started with a meeting of civil society associations and political parties in Rabat on May 23. A mass march against terrorism, extremism, and the anti-terrorism law took place on May 25 in Casablanca.

Moroccan civil society will need such open displays of support in the coming weeks. Breaking the cycle of terror and repression means taking on both a nervous government and the emboldened fundamentalists.

Andrew Elkin, Alternative Media Intern in Morocco.

Photo : A country at the crossroads: Moroccan cvil society is confronting the choices offered to its youth - the false promises of religious fundamentalism and a government crackdown that threatens civil liberties.

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