One Step Forward …

Over several days this fall, an estimated 1,500 sub-Saharan Africans tried to enter Europe by scaling the wire fences that separate the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla from the rest of Morocco. In the midst of this attempt, on September 29, Morocco's prime minister, Driss Jettou, signaled in talks with Spain's president, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Morocco's apparent commitment to diplomatic means to stem the northward tide of illegal immigration. But Morocco's actions spoke louder than Jettou's words: Government forces killed 14 of the would-be immigrants and wounded dozens more. And when the desperate young men who had walked to Europe's border from Congo, Mali, and Senegal remained in makeshift camps nearby, awaiting another chance to breach the fences, Moroccan security forces packed them on to buses and dumped them in the desert.

The dissonance between Jettou's publicized meeting and his police's tactics epitomizes Morocco's recent attempts to become a more open society. Since Mohammed VI assumed the throne after his autocratic father, Hassan II, died in 1999, the country has progressed by fits and starts, effecting real changes while clinging to oppressive practices. Though Mohammed VI has implemented democratic policies, authoritarian habits die slowly, and Morocco's old political elite, or makzhen, retains much power. In addition, crushing poverty and high unemployment have led scores of Moroccans to emigrate in recent years -- draining the country of many of its most talented and educated citizens and encouraging the state to deploy less-than-tolerant security tactics along its borders -- while swelling Islamist parties have complicated the state's efforts to become more open.

Those sympathetic to Morocco's uneven progress note that reform happens in small steps, and that, however imperfect, the process is key to political stability across northern Africa and along the Mediterranean. The country's relatively tolerant brand of Islam, as well as its strategic geographic position among Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, makes it an important partner in the Muslim and Arab worlds for both the European Union and the United States. Many experts argue that modernizing and ensuring greater transparency and civil liberties are the surest way to protect against the radical Islam that threatens to overtake Morocco as it did Algeria. As U.S. Senator Russ Feingold emphasized in 2004: “We need our Moroccan partners if we are to succeed in … the fight against al-Qaeda and associated global terrorist organizations. … [T]he U.S. must support the Moroccan people in their fight for basic human rights, their efforts to combat corruption.”

Yet six years after Mohammed VI took power, such an alliance is hardly assured, and Moroccan democracy remains an uncertain work in progress. Certainly the government has increased political transparency and expanded civil rights. After appointing the nation's first female royal counselors and reserving 30 parliamentary seats for women, in 2003 the king supported a new Family Code, the Moudawana, which made wives equal partners with their husbands, granting them joint ownership of assets and permitting them to seek divorce. “Democracy cannot stand on one leg,” says Nezha Chekrouni, minister for Moroccans Abroad and longtime women's rights activist. “It needs both men and women. And the political will exists to change the dynamic.” Islamist groups vigorously protested the law's erosion of Muslim principles, jeopardizing the king's pursuit of the parliament's imprimatur. Only the May 2003 Casablanca bombings prevented an impasse, pressuring the Islamists to demonstrate their loyalty by rescinding their opposition.

Still, if women's rights have progressed, an air of oppression surrounds many of Morocco's recent innovations. In 2002 Mohammed VI passed a new press law that, although it requires authors and publishers to register with the government, allowed political magazines like the Casablanca-based Tel Quel to cross once unassailable boundaries. (In January the magazine published an unprecedented account of the royal family's finances.) But even as its scope broadens, the country's media continue to censor themselves to survive. Emphasizing that “we don't side with one party or another,” Tel Quel Editor Driss Ksikes notes that, even with greater freedom, his magazine must be cautious about what it covers and how.

And Morocco's media is still constrained by more than self-censorship. In May 2003 the government closed Demain, a satirical weekly published by outspoken journalist Ali Lmrabet. The Ministry of Communication's Fatiha Ladayi, leafing through old editions of the magazine, pointed to cartoons lampooning national and world figures. “Demain was shut down not because it was politically critical but because it engaged in defamation,” she says. Lmrabet disagrees, saying, “My only defamation was to state a fact that's in a United Nations' report on the Western Sahara,” an embattled zone where the Moroccan government is suppressing independence efforts by the native nomadic people. Lmrabet spent four months in prison in 2003 on the defamation charge, received a royal pardon in January 2004, then was recently barred from practicing journalism for 10 years.

Morocco's government is also curbing dissent from Islamists. Justice and Charity, a powerful Islamist movement (it resists making concessions that would give it legal party status), is among the king's most outspoken critics. Movement leader Nadia Yassine was arrested for lèse majesté in June when she publicly confessed her belief that a republican government would better serve Morocco than a monarchy. Later that month, her trial was suspended amid rumors of a U.S. Embassy intervention, and she is now carefully monitored and cannot leave the country as she awaits word on a new trial. Monique Quesada of the U.S. Embassy in Rabat called Yassine's situation “an internal Moroccan issue that the U.S. cannot interfere in,” but added that “the State Department expressed concern about this and other instances in which the Moroccan government has moved to limit freedom of the press and freedom of expression. In Yassine's case, the [State] Department deemed that the government's move contradicted many of the important advances Morocco has been making in promoting human rights.”

Human rights appeared to be a secondary concern as well when, after the Casablanca bombings, Morocco passed an anti-terrorism law enabling the arrest of more than 4,000 suspected terrorists. Groups like Human Rights Watch accuse the government of violating human rights and civil liberties, but as Haizam Amirah, senior North Africa analyst at Madrid's Royal Elcano Institute, says, “Morocco knows that it's not going to get major complaints from Western countries for cracking down on terrorism.”

Under the anti-terrorism law, the government has begun to monitor mosques, imams, and the religious content of textbooks. Such tactics, and the legislation's vagueness (it defines “apologizing for terrorism” as a crime), led the nation's sole legal Islamist faction, the Justice and Development Party (PJD), to vehemently oppose the law when it was proposed in 2001, but after Casablanca and increased suspicion of Islamists, the party yielded its position. Additionally, in March, the government drafted the Law of Political Parties, which would ban from party platforms all religious (as well as regional and ethnic) references. If it passes, the law will effectively dissolve any meaningful Islamist political opposition, including the PJD.

The country's ambivalence toward democracy is nowhere more evident than in Western Sahara, the territory squeezed between Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania and claimed by both Morocco and the once-nomadic Saharawi people who live there. As Spain negotiated its postcolonial retreat from Western Sahara 30 years ago, Hassan II sent troops to claim the area, ignoring the International Court of Justice's demand that a referendum decide the region's fate and sparking a long-lasting war with the armed Saharawi liberation movement, the Polisario Front. In 1991 the United Nations brokered a cease-fire that again called for a self-determination referendum and has spent the 14 years since trying to enforce the agreement. Like his father, Mohammed VI has refused to negotiate Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.

In recent months, opposition to the government's position has grown. In May, hundreds of Saharawi in Western Sahara's capital, Laayoune, and elsewhere took to the streets to protest harsh police measures and demand independence, leading to violent clashes. One protester, Hamdi Lambarki, who took part in an October 30 rally, died. Police forces say he was killed by a fellow protester's thrown rock; Lambarki's family and eyewitnesses contend that the police beat him to death.

In Western Sahara, public events and their larger meanings are in constant dispute. In Laayoune, trials of dissidents are legally open to the public, but police block foreign journalists from entering the courthouse. International delegations are welcome to visit, according to Moroccan officials like Hamid Chabar, “as long as they are impartial,” yet groups trying to investigate have been turned away at the airport for “showing unconditional support for the Polisario.” When in September the Polisario released the 404 Moroccan prisoners of war it had held at its own refugee camps across the border in Algeria, the Moroccan government welcomed the discharge (overseen by U.S. Senator Richard Lugar) but continued to refer to the 80,000 to 165,000 refugees living in the camps as “hostages” of the Polisario. Curiously, it was the Polisario that rescued many of the sub-Saharan immigrants abandoned in the desert in October.

Is Morocco truly pursuing democracy? The question hangs over most of the state's reforms. Although the country has taken steps toward an open society and a more representative government, it remains -- in deed if not in word -- ambivalent. What will this nation be in five years, or 10? For Lmrabet, the answer lies partly with the West. “People say you can't impose Western democracy on the Arab world,” he remarks. “But the West can push it. Not by using force or bombs, but it can push it. Help us get democracy. We'll adapt it for ourselves.”

Geoff Pingree and Lisa Abend, professors at Oberlin College, write regularly on the politics and culture of Spain and northern Africa.