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Corruption is crippling Morocco’s nascent democracy

August 5, 2016 at 2:35 pm

Several months ago, Moroccan foreign relations reached a political impasse. The Sahara affair, more particularly, led the kingdom’s relations with the UN secretary general, the US, the EU and some Arab and African states to falter. A sudden policy change has commingled foreign investment with political cards to create more favourable circumstances today, temporarily at least.

Reaching out to diverse international and regional powers seems to have enabled foreign policy to move on in leaps and bounds. Yet, due to uncertain commitment from new allies, in a region of transforming alliances and political blocs, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI reiterates frequently that the country fulfils its promises, contracts and strategic relations with traditional friends, at arm’s length from all.

However, the importance given to, and capacity invested in, foreign policy is crippled by internal administrative corruption. In his 17th Throne Day anniversary speech, the king admitted that corruption cannot be fought by one individual, party or association. Rather, it requires cooperation between the state and civil society, respect for the rule of law and rational expectations, since eradicating it totally may be just wishful thinking.

In fact, it primarily requires clear anti-corruption policies from all key stakeholders, the rejection of monopolies and the enforcement of accountability. Corruption resists and proves impossible to curb when judges cannot indict corrupt officials.

Even government officials are not on the same wavelength in the struggle against corruption. For Abdelilah Benkiran, Morocco deserves to be ranked among developed and rising states, but corruption, despotism and monopolies drag the kingdom down. In his inaugural speech of the annual national conference of the ruling Justice and Development Party (PJD) youth organisation, the head of the government insisted that the mixture of corruption and monopoly jeopardises the state, the citizens and the regime. He echoed the aspirations of the majority of Moroccans, including the youth who ignited the Arab Spring, those who voted for the PJD and the thousands at the rally that afternoon. He, in a sense, revivified the atmosphere of the 2011 elections, with the promises of ousting corruption and coercion.

However, a leaked list exposed numerous officials, or “state servants”, who bought large state-owned land parcels too cheaply. Instead of its real value of a minimum 4,000 Moroccan dirhams (MADs, around £320) – or up to 20,000 MADs for a square metre — they paid just 350 MADs (£30). For instance, Abdelouafi Leftit, the Governor of Rabat region, acquired 3,755 square metres for a meagre 1,389,000 MADs in one of the most expensive areas in the country.

What added insult to injury was a joint press release from the Ministries of the Interior and Finance, both of which defended the group land confiscation and accused “certain parties” — meaning the PJD — of leaking the list for electoral reasons. The reference to the PJD was more of an escape route from the public uproar on social media, especially as MPs couldn’t look into the scandal s ince the two ministers in question refused to attend a public hearing and the parliament mandate ended. Apparently the Ministry of Justice and Public Freedoms is not responsible for investigating the scandal. Thus, the prospects for the affair being investigated thoroughly are slim, and street advocacy may snowball again.

In another example, Abdeslam Lebbar, a member of the House of Councillors, shrewdly spotlighted the gargantuan scope of corruption that soaked up the “Education Emergency Plan” to reform the sector between 2009 and 2011. True, some of the plan’s projects were axed in the Arab Spring context, but, as Lebbar reveals – as did others before him — the main actors from within the Ministry of National Education, whom he took for a gang, have remained in their posts. Consequently, the Ministry of Justice and Public Freedom has launched another set of lawsuits against them. Yet, part of the fight is to bring out the officials who created a surreal situation when the education minister in 2009 represented an opposition party, the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM).

In the Basel governance indicator — among other transparency reports and indicators — Morocco ranks 80th globally and 6th in the MENA region in terms of the risks that corruption and money laundering exert on financial regulations, public transparency and the rule of law. Thus, democratisation discourse has enough signs to sound inconsistent.

Furthermore, lack of transparency obliged Benkiran to describe Morocco as a two-state country; one led by the king while the other “we don’t know”; one that is official while the other is for decisions and appointments. The bold statement got him into trouble with the king, who mentioned this in his Throne Day speech.

The royal palace tries to promote an image of being an umbrella for all. When Ilyas Elomari, PAM secretary General, commits political mistakes, other state institutions keep their distance. He attacked the Mohammed 6 radio channel for the Qur’an, which has dominated audience share ever since media metrics started in Morocco in 2012. The Moroccan Press Agency (MAP), in response, shared a report that acknowledges the channel’s role in mitigating extremism in Morocco.

Second, when Elomari organised an international conference calling for the legalisation of cannabis, Morocco’s representative at a UN meeting for drug legalisation clearly expressed the country’s unwillingness to promote it, overthrowing the Tangier conference recommendations.

In the meantime, Elomari’s activities receive much public media coverage as PAM secretary General and president of the northern region of Tangier-Tetouan-Al Hoceima. A Chinese project was taken from another region to his, while politicians accuse him of sponsoring electoral campaigns from drug money. Nevertheless, he remains the deep state’s favourite candidate in the October elections.

Such examples of corruption pinpoint the effort needed to put Morocco on the track of genuine democratisation. Only a clear balance between foreign and internal policies can convince Moroccan youth of the possibility of a sincere democratic experience. Foreign powers too need to see a logical match between official discourse and international reports. Put differently, a fiercer struggle against corruption and despotism can lower both domestic and external pressure.

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