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In Morocco, youths can also be victims of partisan struggle

Moroccans protest outside the parliament building in Rabat, Morocco on May 18, 2017 [Jalal Morchidi/Anadolu Agency]
Moroccans protest outside the parliament building in Rabat, Morocco on May 18, 2017 [Jalal Morchidi/Anadolu Agency]

The bewildering unpredictability leading up to the October elections last year impelled the state to put pressure on Morocco's political parties which challenged its ready-made framework to axe reforms. Uncertainty and exchanged resistance prompted six Justice and Development Party (PJD) youth members to launch a Facebook page that they called "Justice and Development Knights" (JDK).

Albeit this was a personal initiative, the PJD's youth organisation, to which the youngsters belong, was surprised at the harsh criticism that posts on the page levelled at political opponents. With updates on Moroccan issues, they highlighted the corruption of political figures.

In making an estimation of the popularity of the page's mockery, its wide circulation among young voters and thus its prospective electoral impact, Aziz Akhannouch, the secretary general of the National Rally for Independents (RNI) and his media circle referred to the page as the "PJD electronic battalion". Meanwhile, the JDK's sarcasm and critical caricatures put PJD secretary general Abdelilah Benkirane in trouble with the palace. He had to deny any link with the page administrators.

In the post-election deadlock, especially with the deep state's outrage at the election results, revenge has been expected. The JDK had to pay the price for mocking state discourses and encouraging voters to back the PJD. When the opportunity presented itself, the interior ministry hit back, and hit hard.

Apparently unaware of the possible consequences, the JDK youths welcomed the assassination of Russia's ambassador in Ankara last December. They were arrested for "promoting terrorism". It must be pointed out that they were not the only ones to hail the attack, carried out in protest at Russia's support for the Assad regime in Syria. However, the youths of the JDK were singled out for investigation, after a joint press release from the Interior, Justice and Public Freedoms Ministers.

As developments unfolded, Mustapha Ramid, the then Justice Minister, revealed that he did not reckon on the repercussions of having his signature on the press release. He hinted that this was a ruse by the interior ministry to implicate him in the controversial arrest of youngsters from his own party.

In fact, the ruse hit a number of birds with one stone. First, Ramid himself defied the interior ministry's silent tactics in the pre-election chaos when, as a member of the joint election-supervising committee, he denied responsibility for the steps taken by the same committee. He indirectly blamed the ministry for electoral fraud, which was bound to trigger deep-state retaliation.

To explain his signature, the former justice minister told a parliamentary committee that he had requested the joint press release to be held back, but in vain. However, his party's youth members as well as social media commentators at large have criticised him harshly for his failure to recognise his signature's deleterious effects and his lengthy silence over the problem. The resultant embarrassment may tarnish his reputation in the forthcoming PJD national congress to choose a new secretary general, as Ramid is among the key candidates.

Furthermore, the ministry ruse laid bare the judiciary's unsatisfactory reforms. The public has questioned whether a joint press release was sufficient to shift the charge from careless freedom of speech to being apologists for terrorism. Professor Latifa El Bouhssini is leading a diverse group of human rights defenders in support of the youngsters, seeking the use of the press code rather than the penal version. This will mitigate the impact since the press code does not include imprisonment as a punishment.

The whole affair is now referred to somewhat infamously as the ''Facebook youths'' and sends a gloomy message regarding freedom of speech. For sure, attacks on civilians are condemnable. However, the ambivalence of the act in question stems from the blurred situation in Syria. In Morocco, two sit-ins were organised, one supporting the Assad regime and another condemning his crimes. Both enjoyed freedom of speech; neither was accused of promoting terrorism. The problem is that borderline cases can become an excuse to silence activists as and when the state decides.

Equally, PJD youths in general got their own warning; angering the deep state or discrediting its plans cannot be allowed to go unpunished. Also, membership of a party that challenges the corrupt and despotic status quo results in strict or unfair measures when it comes to the application of the "rule of law". Thus, safety-first may necessitate keeping themselves some distance from political struggles of a kind that the PJK does not shy away from as they seek to create a better country where accountability, dignity and opportunity are the norm.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that Ramid is now Public Freedoms Minister, while the former Interior Minister, Mohammed Hassad, is National Education, Higher Education and Professional Training Minister. The case exemplifies a top-down approach towards youths who, added to the corruption, illiteracy and unemployment, may also lose their freedom to appease a furious deep state. The two ministers have to deal with freedom-seeking youngsters in their new portfolios; their silence over the current development relating to their joint press release will only exasperate people further.

Today, while the PJK has opened a hunger strike, street mobility has allowed the affair to infiltrate parliamentary discussions. Whether we agree with their tweets or not, more mobility, especially concurrent with court hearings, may draw the judiciary's attention to the political and humane nuances of the issue.

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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