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Personal freedom paradox in Morocco

In a season marked by various union, local and parliamentary elections, Moroccan political parties, trade unions and civil society have exchanged hidden messages about the expected electoral heat. True, political actors extolling the stability and plurality of Moroccan politics have demonstrated in a shaky regional atmosphere. Both the regime and the government-leading Islamists have managed to overcome similar dire circumstances and experiences in the region. However, two factors still contribute to the visible horizon of current developments.

The first is the success of those countering the Arab Spring revolutionary public psyche. Though their long-term effect is difficult to determine, counter-revolutions in Egypt, Libya Tunisia and elsewhere deprive Moroccan Islamists of the 2011 regional psychological support. They have to substitute that with the reputation and public trust they have gained through their own experience in government.

The second is a shift in political discourse by some Moroccan secularists, from focusing on exposing corruption or despotism to playing-up the issues of personal rights or sub-cultural divisions.

Within this context of non-stop cultural skirmishes, two girls in the tourist city of Agadir were allegedly challenged publically — and aggressively, it appears — and then sued for wearing "indecent" skirts. In their media interventions, they make allegations of sexual harassment rather than extremist policing. They insist that their attackers were not prompted by radical religious interpretations; rather, when they refused to give their phone numbers to some men harassing them, the latter rallied their friends until a big crowd gathered outside a shop in a traditional market and the initial sexual harassment changed into charges of dressing indecently.

The police adhered to the indecency narrative to avoid a public outcry in what is still generally a conservative society, while personal freedom activists clung to the right to dress as one sees fit. The press instead created another media buzz to highlight what was viewed as government weakness, ultra-conservative policies and a tendency to forgive personal freedom infringements. Public TV, especially 2M, whose news bulletins and political debates have been hostile to government Islamists, invested in the incident too, focusing on women's personal rights and what the channel perceived as shrinking cultural tolerance in Morocco.

In their first court appearance, the two girls received support from more than a hundred lawyers, as if their case had become a national affair. Meanwhile, girls in the Islamist university student union were tortured severely and injured when stones were thrown at them. Such aggression received neither adequate media attention nor suitable civil society support, especially from outspoken women's rights movements.

Indeed, both cases were examples of unacceptable aggression, but the ideological paradox in the way in which they were dealt with questions the legitimacy of the gender-based personal rights narrative. Women's rights activists were also blamed for contradictory and selective advocacy when they neglected the case of Fouzia, a mentally- and physically-handicapped girl who gave birth to a baby after repeated rape. Also neglected were the students who are being denied access to the Mohammadia School for Engineers because they wear the hijab, despite ranking first in national examinations. Aggression against Islamist students and Fouzia's situation were neglected because they were not personal rights affairs, or their cases did not appeal to left-leaning NGOs.

Furthermore, in the city of Fez, a mob of people took the law into their own hands by attacking a young man who they believed to be homosexual. Videos of the attack went viral on social media, without explaining the reasons behind the public misconduct. The press then invited his parents and friend to explain their feelings after the attack, neglecting to point out that a taxi driver started the fight in order to help him get away after attempting to steal the young man's mobile phones and wallet. Although the ministries of the interior and justice issued a joint press release condemning the attack, the press inflamed public sensitivities even more when another mob killed a man accused of robbery in a market. The hidden message is that the state is failing to identify and eliminate growing cultural radicalisation and cannot maintain the rule of law.

This raises a key question. Is there legitimate data to show that Morocco is witnessing identity-based social clashes? Or do indicators instead prove that whenever Islamists try to avoid identity politics to focus on challenging despotism and corruption, their opponents persist in prioritising identity differences and attacks on personal rights in order to divert public attention? At the expense of genuine democratic exchange or competition over development projects, the struggle has been on proving that Islamists are not qualified to defend personal rights and will not receive support from rights movements. It is, though, an entirely false consciousness when Moroccans believe that the country's primary battle today is over personal rights rather than renewed despotism or corruption.

The Islamists running the government, whose electoral programme used to be accused of being identity-based, face the dilemma of either defending civil liberties or social identity. Quite rightly they had to condemn the aggression against the young man accused of being a homosexual because that is entirely consistent with the principles of Morocco's nascent democracy. Condemnation did not necessarily mean supporting homosexuality per se, but rather it was insisting that the rule of law must be uppermost and vigilantes cannot take the law into their own hands.

In order to strengthen democracy, the government needs to focus on realising the Arab Spring promises to tackle corruption, nepotism and totalitarianism, and highlighting the successes of both political actors and civil society.

For those in politics, the stability of which Morocco is rightly proud necessitates clear denouncements whenever and wherever personal rights are infringed upon. Given the considerable signs of well-grounded religious beliefs in Morocco, such as the huge Ramadan prayer gatherings or the mass marches for Palestine, wearing indecent skirts should not be viewed as a serious threat to the country's social fabric nor used as an excuse for political opportunism.

Politicians need to separate themselves from mob rule. Morocco has been marketing an image of tolerance and plurality; whether mobilised by political rivalry or not, public interpositions jeopardise that image because they paint a false picture of the erosion of state power and an inability to provide cultural services or protect pluralism. Interpositions may also be utilised to justify coercive security interventions against activists when an atmosphere of lawlessness overwhelms the public sphere.

In the 2011 activism, Moroccans refrained from calling for regime change; they weighed-up the costs of political chaos and social anarchy. The public choice has been for change without sacrificing stability, especially as the developments in other countries in the region show despair and counter-revolutionary success. The way to strengthen human and civil rights is through political participation and stirring public awareness about the mounting signs of regression.

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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