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Morocco's complex media politics of anti-Sisi rhetoric

In Moroccan politics, public television is mostly viewed as loudspeaker of the deep state. Channels have shown little elasticity and more reluctance to reform, despite changes in the legal framework and government monopoly. The country's written press, radio and the Internet – unlike television – enjoy considerable freedom to discuss different public policies, with more ability to support or criticise the government. Television, on the contrary, has stuck to pure entertainment and shallow coverage of political events that aligns with the monarchy on foreign and domestic policy.

Ever since the military coup in Egypt, Moroccan TV has adhered to the narrative that the Islamists made a mistake (or rather, several mistakes) during the one-year-presidency of Mohamed Morsi. This narrative found its explanation in the different treatments the coup received from the Palace and the government. While the Palace was among the early congratulators of interim president Adli Mansour, the Islamist-led government – which included leftists and liberals – avoided congratulating coup scammers while shunning direct condemnation of the current Egyptian leaders. In their biased coverage of the coup and the dismantling of sit-ins in Cairo, public television channels in Morocco did not surprise audiences, since misconduct against Islamists has always been their trade. That's why they frequently targeted and received counterattacks from the head of the government, Islamist MPs, callers and Islamist NGOs, mainly for ideological disparities.

The surprise came rather from the sudden series of attacks Moroccan TV waged on Abdelfattah Al-Sisi, describing him as "coup president". In the absence of official explanations of the abrupt change, the real reasons behind the media escalation of anti-regime rhetoric remain unknown. Speculative explanations have filled the gaps in Moroccan editorials and social media platforms instead. Early discussions blamed it on the Egyptian reaction to the Moroccan royal family's visit to Turkey, especially since photos of the incident had circulated widely on social media. The counter-argument is that the visit was not official, nor do the photos with Tayib Erdogan's family commemorate official meetings. Commentators then resorted to the narrative of countering Egyptian media attacks; Egyptian media have attacked the Moroccan government and people on several occasions. Mainly after the coup, Egyptian anchors accused Morocco of being led by a division of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Moroccan economy was also accused of being prostitution-based, while Morocco was described as ranking high in international AIDS statistics. The King received criticism and biased Egyptian media coverage too when Spanish Civil Guards arrested him, mistaking him for a smuggler during his vacation off the Spanish coast.

Most analyses linked the temporary change in televised discourse to the Egyptian moves within the Sahara affair. Different reports highlighted that Egypt has become a close ally to Algeria, to the extent that the POLISARIO may receive Egyptian recognition; that Sahrawi activists have visited the Egyptian regime; or that Egypt consented to publishing a book about the Sahara from Egyptian eyes. If this is the case, the ignominious implication is the commodification of the Moroccan Sahara by Egypt. Morocco, in this way, demonstrates a readiness to alter relations depending on positions towards the Sahara. Being on the defensive is a strategic failure since it reveals that the Sahara issue is Morocco's Achilles's heel. Even the Algerian and Egyptian regimes, despite high human rights abuse records, can avoid international focus by spotlighting Moroccan-Sahrawi skirmishes.

Thus, for the Moroccan government, the attack on Sisi is untimely. Morocco will certainly need the support of its allying Gulf states to ease the highly-expected US pressure to extend the MINURSO mandate to monitoring human rights, especially now that Moroccan-French relations have not regained strength. Moreover, the critical reports of Aloula and 2M channels do not indicate a strategic change in Moroccan TV's approach towards Islamists, Moroccan affairs or Arab issues. Very recently, while a number of Moroccan streets were submerged, towns hemmed in and car-users drowned by torrential rains, the programming of music concerts and festivals continued on the two channels, with superficial coverage in newscasts.

The government is, consequently, thrown into a confrontation it neither wished nor has prepared for. Internationally, Morocco should today be gathering support and forging alliances for the forthcoming UN renewal of MINURSO mission in April. Though no support is expected or required from the Sisi regime that continues to have blood in its hands and perpetrate human rights abuses in streets, campuses and prisons, support from other allies is indispensable, especially the US and its close Arab friends.

Another setback is that the rift puts the Moroccan government in a double-sided dilemma. Legally, public media are not governed by the minister of communication, but he has to explain the underpinnings of the anti-Sisi rhetoric, especially since they have ramifications on Moroccan foreign policy. The second facet is that the Moroccan media's attack on Sisi traces new terrains for foreign relations with a post-Morsi Egypt that is characterised by military dictatorship with direct support from Gulf states, the US and Israel. Describing Sisi as "coup leader" equally entails condemning all his supporters, especially Arab ones with whom the monarchy has key relations.

Therefore, the outcome of the television bubble is more embarrassment in Moroccan politics. Instead of directly attacking the coup president, Morocco could have sent messages via the coup sponsors, especially considering that the Moroccan monarch participated in the 34th UAE National Day on 3 December, 2014. With the absence of serious internal reasons for the change and the possibility of solving Moroccan political disputes via the Egyptian file, Saad El-Alami, the Moroccan ambassador to Cairo, put it right when he said that the media attack is triggered by an unknown person to exacerbate relations between the two countries.

Describing Sisi as "coup president" today has only brought accusations to the Islamist-led government of obliquely supporting the Muslim Brotherhood – especially in an atmosphere of democratic regression – and has pushed Moroccan officials to fly to Cairo to settle the dispute. If the aim was to counterbalance Egyptian moves in the Sahara, the solution for the deep state instead is more democratisation in the Southern region; opening direct talks with Algeria, the POLISARIO patron. Morocco should also avoid empty wars with Arab countries that create a false need for foreign mediation. Otherwise, within the struggle to monitor relations in North Africa, tensions may spark at any time between Morocco and other regimes in the region, which only wastes public effort and perpetuates Sahara hostility.

Abderrahim Chalfaouat is a Morocco-based researcher in media and MENA politics.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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