Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Last Jews of Essaouira, Morocco

Here is an article from the Jerusalem Post about the dwindling Jewish population of the coastal town of Essaouira. I am intrigued by the history of Jews in Morocco but there needs to be a little more constructive criticism of Jewish out migration from the country, especially to Israel; and of their on again/off again relationship with Morocco. It is a long article, but worth the read.

The Last Jews of Essaouira

Jun. 25, 2009

Josef Sebag says he has a fine life in his native Essaouira, though he has no friends here. This retail-artisan heaven for tourists on Morocco's southern Atlantic coast is a town unique in the Arab world for its history of Jewish-Muslim relations.

He is often in his casbah antiques and book store, just off the large main square and next to the hippest night spot in town. Sebag does not hang out in the rooftop Taros Café, but does spend a good amount of time in London, Paris and New York. Something about living in Western cultural capitals suits him. He has friends there.

Visitors come to see him, from France, Canada and Israel, but most tourists are not insiders in Essaouira, known as "Souira" to the locals. The Moroccan Arabs call him "el yahoudi" (the Jew) but Sebag says it is never meant nastily. He is as Moroccan and Souiri as they are, and they know it. His family has been in Morocco since fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.

His store is a must for British, Australian, American and French tourists, as well as for surfers from all over and for increasing numbers of Israelis, especially the ones born in Morocco who don't come as part of organized tour groups.

Most Moroccan and foreign Arabs do not come to his store, though it has nothing to do with Sebag's being a Jew. An exception is certain Arab authors who leave their poetry and prose with him, a sign of respect, as they know he carries few Arabic-language books.

"I know everyone born and raised here but have few friends," he begins in French. "What can we talk about - art, literature? No, we can't. The local people are more concerned about making money in their stores and restaurants than reading. Some do very well here in Souira, but many have never been out of Morocco."

Sebag is one of some 4,000 Jews still living in Morocco, mostly in Casablanca, but that is another story. He and his ailing mother are two of perhaps four - or seven or eight, depending on whom you ask - Jewish Essaouira natives left from a community that has lived here since 1760.

ESSAOUIRA USED to be an example of a small Arab town in which Muslims and Jews lived side by side in both rich and poor districts, working together but socially segregated - and in peace. It was unique because there were almost as many Jews as there were Muslims, so the term "minority" did not really apply, as it did in every other town and city in Morocco and everywhere in the Arab world.

Aside from ownership of the land in and around the town, which always remained in the hands of the caids and makhsen - local landed gentry and royal family clans - most urban-style import-export business was dominated by Jewish families.

The one exception was all artisan work connected to wood, directly linked to the vast forests around the town. But as an example, from the very beginning of royal trading in the 18th century, the Corcos family dominated the import of tea leaves from Britain, which originated from its Far East colonies, and was thus responsible for making tea the traditional morning beverage in Morocco.

Essaouira's last Jews began to leave following the Six Day War. Many of the working-class families left the mellah, the Jewish district in Arab cities, for Israel. The casbah's well-off business leaders headed mostly to France and Canada. But thousands of Jews remain here, buried in two cemeteries on the edge of town, including Rabbi Haim Pinto, whose tomb thousands of Jews from abroad visit every September in a hiloula, a pilgrimage.

Today, real estate and tourism are booming in Essaouira, but the boom has little to do with the Jewish world, other than a few very active key players. The same is true for the music festivals, including the Gnawa Festival in June that draws up to 400,000 mostly Western visitors.

"There are leading Moroccan Arab families here making a lot of money with French firms in construction and tourism-linked activities in general, and that is grand for them and for the town," Sebag says, "but let's say that aside from the music festivals, culture is limited. Jews here were always a bridge between small-town Muslim society and the Western world. There were very few tourists here. Now the opposite is true. The Jews are gone, but Souira is a tourist center."

The walled city is home to hundreds of boutiques, some of which are attached to small workshops, often with two stories of apartments above. Restaurants and cafés are everywhere. Visitors check out the ramparts, the port and historical sites, walking for kilometers along the beaches in the wind that blows 20 hours a day. They drive to the surrounding villages, or surf, also a big attraction here.

When people are anywhere inside the walls, the impulse to buy and buy again in the casbah and medina is overwhelming. Visitors walk up and down the car-free streets and allies, purchasing fantastically colored rugs and scarves. They buy blue Gnawa cotton robes and head pieces, more clothing, bed linen in gorgeous muted colors, paintings, silver jewelry, leather footwear, metal lamps and objects and intricate wooden boxes and ornate tables.

Essaouira was known as Mogador until the end of French colonial rule in the early 1960s. Portuguese occupiers built the wall and ramparts, known as Castello Real, in 1505 before Mogador was much of a town, but the inhabitants of the Arab Chiadma region to the north and the Berber Haha to the south gave them no peace, and by 1512 the Portuguese were pulling out and sacking much of the region.

Mogador, cité sous les alizées or "Mogador, a town in the wind" was written by Hamza Ben Driss Ottmani, a French grande-école graduate and public-sector research director in Rabat born of a well-known family in Essaouira. Ottmani offers accounts of all the local villages, written in 1516 by celebrated traveler and author known as Leon the African. Born El Hassan Ben Muhammad el-Ouazzan el-Gharnati in Grenada, Spain in 1483, he moved with his family to Fez in Morocco when Grenada was taken by the Catholic kings in 1492.

IN THE southern Berber Haha region, in prosperous and long-gone villages with names like Tednest, Hadecchis and Eitdeuet, Berber Jews were a majority or close to it, in a totally Muslim world.

Very little is known about these tens of thousands of people who lived in relative comfort in this tiny isolated corner of Jewish and Moroccan history. The Berber Jews are thought to have been there since the destruction of the Temple. And it is believed that hundreds of thousands of other people in southern Morocco are Islamic converts of Jewish origin.

Long before Leon the African, this area produced the royal purple color of the Roman Empire from mollusks on the coast that was busy with trading ships. Even earlier, the Phoenicians bought argan oil here; 2,500 years later, argan oil is still made here and only here. Argan, used sometimes as salad oil but mostly as a skin product rich in vitamin E, is a growing organic rage in France and Europe - very expensive and not without a certain intrigue.

Essaouira's real beginning as a import-export center came in 1760 when the sultan of Morocco appointed families from Casablanca, Marrakech and other northern cities to settle here and become official royal traders. Many if not most were Jewish. The town grew. According to Ottmani, seven of the town's leading families in the 19th century were Muslim, while 25 were Jewish, with names such as Corcos, Afriat, Bensaoud, Cohen Solal, Belisha, Ohana, Pinto and El-Maleh.

In the beginning, these families conducted trade by ship mostly with Britain, but also handled local trade and the camel caravans coming from Timbuktu across the desert, with links to Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, Cairo and Mecca. In modern times the caravans disappeared, but international trade focused on Europe became highly competitive.

The railroad built by the French in 1912 on did not reach Essaouira from Marrakech, today a two-hour bus ride away. Casablanca and Tangiers were deemed much more important, and the glory and prosperity of the town in the wind slowly began to fade.

Its leading citizens were still Muslim, Jewish and European, but there also were thousands of working-class Muslims and Jews. Essaouira was known for its artisan work, using wood from the close-by thuya and argania trees to make ornate, silver and stone-inlaid tables and mirrors. This was an exclusively Muslim sector.

The silver jewelry work was famous for the much sought-after filogram design, the Dag Ed Essaouiri - thin lines converge on a circular center as meticulous radii, a design that was instantly recognizable as native to Essaouira. The master silversmiths were all Jewish, as were many of the workers, who lived mostly in the mellah. Today, the remaining silver designers are Berbers, many of whom worked with the local Jews until they left. The local Arab jewelers all work in gold.

SUDDENLY, AN Israeli couple enters Sebag's bookstore, and there are smiles and greetings in French, Maghrebi Arabic and Hebrew. Isaac Azencot was born and raised in the mellah and at 16 left with his parents for Israel. His father was a cantor in one of the 30 local synagogues, none of which exists today.

"My parents were Zionists," he says, "so we left. But they remained Moroccans their entire lives, and I've done the same. I'm proud to be a Moroccan-Israeli."

His Hebrew is obviously fluent, with a Moroccan accent; his French is good, if rusty; his English very good, and his Maghrebi Arabic is native and still fluent, with a good Arab accent.

"Sbahelchir, la besse halik," he says, meaning, "good morning, everything is fine."

His brother, a professor, directs all research on Essaouira at the University of Haifa, near their hometown of Kiryat Ata, complete with original documents transferred from Morocco.

"It feels good to see old Muslim friends here in Souira," Azencot says sincerely, in English. "We all lived modestly and respectfully back then, and we boys in the mellah had Muslim friends." But, he adds, they lived differently. He mentions the Alliance Française school right away.

"We were 28 Jewish boys and girls in the class, but there was only one Muslim boy," he says. "It wasn't the money. Working-class Muslims simply didn't learn to read and write back then. And then we all left, except for Josef and his mother." He laughs.

"Ambitious Muslim young people left also," Sebag breaks in. "And I can only live here by leaving regularly. There is no future for Jews here, or anywhere in Morocco. Today, with all the tourism development, no bridge is needed to the Western world."

THERE IS only one native Israeli living full-time in Essaouira. Noam Nir-Boujo has done well for the past nine years serving lunches and dinners at his restaurant, the Riad al Baraka, outside the casbah on the pedestrian Rue Med Al Qorry. The long, narrow, hectic commercial street leads to the most authentic luxury hotel in town, L'Heure Bleue, before ending at the Bab Marrakech gate of the original walled town.

Filled with local schoolkids and shoppers, resident foreigners, tourists and all kinds of characters, the street is lined with shops and tiny leather and metal workshops. The Riad al Baraka occupies a lovely building and garden courtyard. Totally hidden from the busy street behind a large wooden door, it was a private Jewish girls' school until the 1940s.

Nir-Boujo was born in Tel Aviv. His father and grandfather were born in Essaouira. His up-front talking to people and sometimes making strong statements about tourism and coexistence in Essaouira, and simply having a big picture of the world, make him a stand-alone type of guy in this town. In fact, he is a new kind of bridge, definitely a Westerner, but a "Souiri" by origin who speaks fluent Maghrebi Arabic.

"People make money here," Nir-Boujo says, "but they remain suspicious about outsiders. Everyone here knows I'm Jewish, but only some know I'm Israeli. There is ignorance, but never trouble." He notes that almost all women wear hijabs in public but says this is due more to conservative social codes than religious pressure.

Several thousand Westerners have bought homes and businesses in Essaouira over the past two decades. Nir-Boujo says that today the expat community includes perhaps 60 to 80 Jews from France, Britain and Canada. Few foreigners live here full time. Modern Essaouira has been mostly off the map, although in the late '60s and early '70s, it was a stop on the international hippy circuit. Jimi Hendrix hung out here, and had a house in a nearby village.

Israel has been a part of the attempt to commercialize. There is an ongoing attempt to link French-speaking Jews back to their countries of origin in North Africa. In some cases, it has been successful, as French and Canadian Sephardim, and in some cases Israelis, have bought homes there.

"Remember, a Parisian or a Tel Avivian of Moroccan-born parents never loses his Moroccan nationality," Nir-Boujo notes with a wry smile. "But think about it, where in the Arab world would Jews from any country buy a home and feel fully safe? Perhaps in Tunisia, but nowhere else."

THE RIAD al Baraka is full of soft colors, ochre and blues and greens under soft lighting, with round corners and doorways, all surrounding a garden. Nir-Boujo's food is a modern take on classics. The couscous, for example, is compact and orderly, and packed with fresh flavor. The chicken and lamb are soft. Jewish-Arab-Andalusian music wafts in over courtyard speakers.

The restaurateur has a photo of the young Moroccan king, Mohamed VI, above the reception desk. He is proud to be an Israeli with origins in Souira, and is happy living here. He speaks Hebrew, Maghrebi-Arabic, English and French, in that order.

"It is clear that Morocco is the most Jewish-friendly country in the entire Arab world, but the ignorance is still here," he says. "Remember, the parents of young adults here lived and worked side by side with Moroccan Jews, and almost all will tell you they would love to see the Jews return. But the young people know nothing about Jews. They know only the clichés they see on Arab cable television, mostly nasty Israeli soldiers hitting Palestinians. They've also heard that Jews are all rich."

Nir-Boujo's observation was easily confirmed by Fatimzara Ottmani, niece of the author of the Mogador history, and manager of the family-owned Ramses restaurant in the casbah. Twenty-something and without a hijab in public, she smiles easily and kisses foreign male acquaintances on both cheeks, French-style.

Of course, she serves fish. The local port is very busy, and has been for hundreds of years. Essaouira still supplies hundreds of restaurants in Marrakech with fresh catch. But there is also a Moroccan Jewish Shabbat d'fina on the menu, made with bulgur wheat, chickpeas, chunks of beef and hard boiled eggs, in honor of her Jewish great-aunt, from a very rare mixed marriage years ago. And it sells well in the small dining area that looks and feels like a cozy Moroccan living room.

Unlike her father and uncle, Ottmani is not well-educated and her French is not great. She is outgoing and funny, but knows little local history and has not read her uncle's books. In fact, she rarely reads at all, preferring to watch TV with her boyfriend. She has never been outside Morocco and doesn't really care to go.

But she does have insight.

"My father and uncle Hamza grew up here in the casbah with Jewish kids," she begins. "The men in moneyed Muslim families received a good French-language high-school education here, just like the Jews. It was the language of the educated and the government."

For her generation, French tourists and residents have replaced the Jews as an international influence. "But I would love to see young Jews, especially Moroccans, living here," she says. "It would bring more wealth and prosperity. Of course it would. And that would be great for all of us."

"Essaouira is a small town with a fabulous heritage in a developing country," says Nir-Boujo. "There is work to be done here, and I know that certain people in Rabat and Casablanca know that." He won't say more. It is not his role to do that, and he knows it. His role is the Essaouira representative of the World Federation of Moroccan Jewry, and he also sits on a local tourism board.

He was just back from a three-day hiloula, the annual traditional Jewish religious pilgrimages held at different times all over Morocco and Tunisia. This year there was one in Safi, an hour or so up the coast, a center of ceramic arts. He says that three Jewish families still live there, but the 300 participants were mostly elderly men from France, Canada and Israel.

"It was fascinating and moving," he says. Nir-Boujo knows little about traditional Sephardi religious practices. He noted that the ouli of Safi, the king's official representative, has said that there is an unbreakable connection between Morocco and Jews. "His hospitality was wonderful," he says.

The hiloula was the subject of reports on Moroccan national television in both French and Arabic, presented as a piece of the country's religious and cultural heritage. "That is a very positive statement about Jews here," he adds.

SUDDENLY HE is busy discussing dinner plans for 15 with someone in Hebrew with a good amount of Maghrebi-Arabic thrown in.

Dr. Yehuda Ben-Simon is dean of students at Western Galilee College near Acre. White haired and pony-tailed, he is also a tour guide, bringing Israelis to his native Morocco. His father was a noted Hebrew-language printer in Casablanca, and he also speaks and reads fluent Arabic, French and English.

Ben-Simon says Israelis come to Essaouira all year round, mostly in tour groups such as his. "Some are of Moroccan origin, others not," he says. "Generally, they find the country fascinating. But other Israelis who have never been... associate Morocco with a place like Egypt, because it is Arab, and they are afraid. Israelis can be ignorant, too."

A trying moment came in December, during the incursion into Gaza. Nir-Boujo was a bit nervous, though not for any particular reason, and had gone to see local police officials.

A local demonstration one day in support of Gazans had attracted about 500 people, and had remained quiet and peaceful.

The police, who know exactly who Nir-Boujo is and where he comes from, and appreciate his activity with local tourism officials, told him, "Keep your eyes open, but you have nothing to fear. We're watching out for you." Local police officials told him that there was no radical Islamic activity in town. "If any Arab foreigners come looking for trouble, Algerians for example, we know about it," they said. "Nobody has come." All radical Islamic activity in Morocco over the past several years has been linked to Algerians and the branch of al-Qaida trying to establish itself in Casablanca.

Currently the restaurant business is slow in Souira. Nir-Boujo has formed a travel company. One of his first clients is a big Israeli travel firm. "I want to mix business with social," he says, "so 2.5 percent of profits will go to Jewish restoration projects in Morocco, and 2.5% will go to not-for-profit education projects throughout the country.

"This is my personal mission here. In Israel and Western countries, this business-social mix happens regularly, but here it does not. It comes from the tzedaka tradition and the chora for Muslims, but perhaps needs some encouraging here."

He will be going to Casablanca to talk to Jewish businessmen there about doing the same mix, but would like to work with Moroccan Muslim businesspeople as well.

IS IT strange that no other Israelis have followed Nir-Boujo to live in Essaouira? "No, I'm not a typical Israeli, I am Moroccan," he says. "The mix of the heartfelt and the official identity is tough to describe. I would say I am still Israeli, but I am also a Moroccan patriot. It would take a strange person to move here full-time."

He says that at any time there are tourist groups from Israel in Morocco, and some make it to Essaouira. But business is still slow, for everyone.

All the local cultural and tourism business development, from the music festivals to ongoing construction sites, are linked to the efforts of one man, one of the few important Jews remaining in the Arab world.

Distinguished and perhaps above all discreet, André Azoulay is the chief financial adviser to King Mohamed VI and his father King Hassan II before him. He is a well-traveled international banker and is active on the global diplomatic scene. He has also been a tireless worker over the years for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, known for saying, "The security of Israel is based on the establishing of a Palestinian state," as far back as 1990.

Azoulay is currently based in the Moroccan capital Rabat, but was born and raised in Essaouira, on a small square in the casbah. Across the square, his wife was also born and raised, next to the synagogue, today a café. The square is full of carpets and clothing, and antique wooden and metal objects, including menorot, all for sale.

The "godfather of Essaouira" and a very proud Jew, Azoulay has helped put together and backed all the live music festivals here, especially the Gnawa Festival, playing the role to the fullest, going on stage to open the festivities. He has brought French and American hotel investment, jobs and prosperity. He walks the casbah streets, greeting friends and former neighbors with hugs and kisses, asking about the health of their families.

He helped put together a recent 10-day Moroccan Jewish conference and concert series in Paris, which many Israelis attended. One of the most relaxed speakers was Morocco's then ambassador to France, Abdel-Fettah Sijilmassi.

A 1970 Israeli documentary on Essaouira was screened during the conference. In it, moshav-born teenagers in Galilee discover that their grandfather, Rabbi David El Kaim, was a renowned scholar and liturgical poet in Essaouira.

Those boys are now in their 50s. If they have kids of their own, what do their children know about the great-grandfather, rabbi and poet from Essaouira? He was yet another element in the unique Arab-Jewish history of a Moroccan coast town where the present looks to the past and the future. Cultural-historical research and artisan commerce could nourish the Jewish-Arab magic and prosperity of Essaouira, with the ever-present wind blowing it into a bright future.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

African Refugees Targeted in Morocco

It bothers me when Moroccans refer to people from Subsaharan African as "Africans," as if they themselves are not "African." Because maybe "African" means Black and NOT AS GOOD AS US. That being said, I love Moroccans. We Shall Overcome.
Here is an article about the difficulties facing refugees from Sub-Saharan Africa living in Morocco. It is from the Inter Press Service website.


MOROCCO: African Refugees Targeted

By Daan Bauwens

RABAT, Jun 23 (IPS) - More than 300 African refugees are gathered at the gates of the Moroccan United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), asking to be moved to another country because their rights are not respected in Morocco. Several refugees say they have been beaten up by Moroccan UN personnel.

On Tuesday morning, the refugees who are from Angola, Senegal, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Liberia and some other countries, entered their ninth day of protest in front of the Moroccan office of the UNHCR in capital Rabat. Their numbers are steadily growing.

"We intend to stay here until our right to reinstallation is respected," says Stéphane Gnako, spokesperson for the refugees. "We demand to be moved to a safe place where we are treated with dignity."

According to the UN charter, every refugee has the right to be moved to another country if his or her rights are not respected in the country where they received asylum.

Many refugees in Morocco say they are caught in a trap. "Even though we are recognised by the UN as refugees, the Moroccan government does not want to grant us our rights," Laura Thérèse from Cote d'Ivoire, who has been living in Morocco since 2004 tells IPS. "I've studied in this country, I have done an internship of three months, only to realise afterwards that I didn't have the right to work."

African refugees' children have no right to education. "We have no right to integrate, no right to work, and no right to reinstall, so what are we supposed to do?" Laura Thérèse adds.

Stéphane Gnako holds up his refugee card. "It's a beautiful thing, not? But it is of no use to us. It is the responsibility of the UNHCR to see to it that our rights are respected, but all of us are condemned to a life as beggars in this country.

"Moreover, we are the victim of racial discrimination and violence, there is no chance for integration." According to a Congolese woman in the group, stones are thrown at her sometimes when she is walking down the street with her children. Several others report random assault.

Michael McCullough, a refugee from Liberia, says refugees are also attacked by officials. "We are chased by the police because we hold no documents. And we frequently get beaten up by them. Moreover, people who ask for reinstallation are beaten up by the guards at the UNHCR office."

Several refugees speak of mistreatment by UNHCR security guards if they insist on reinstallation.

On Monday evening, a group of 40 musicians, dancers and actors took to the streets of the Yacoub Mansour neighbourhood of Rabat in a colourful march. This was a part of 'Rabat Africa', a festival that aims for the integration of African refugees into Moroccan society. The festival was organised by UNHCR and the Orient-Occident Foundation, an international network of socio- educational agencies for immigrants and Moroccans in impoverished neighbourhoods.

"This is the only Moroccan festival with a political message," says Rachid Badouli, development and strategy director at the Orient-Occident Foundation. "It is only by means of culture that we can fight the racism African immigrants face. At this festival, we see Moroccan families next to Congolese, Kenyan or Angolese families," he tells IPS.

The festival is organised in the Yacoub Mansour neighbourhood because this is where African immigrants regularly suffer from violence, in some cases sexual violence. Last year, three refugee boys under 18 were subject to rape.

"We ourselves are immigrants in Europe," Badouli tells IPS. "There are lots of reports about racism on the streets of Brussels or Paris, while we treat our own immigrants no better. This is also a critique against the Moroccan state, that still doesn't want to open its gates to whatever is new or different."

The protesters at the UNHCR office are not joining the Rabat Africa festival. 'The festival is sabotaging our protest," says Stéphane Gnako. "We don't want to be manipulated into African merchandising. It's not by chanting, dancing, tam tam and other clichés that we will improve our conditions; that is mere absurdity. Is showing African culture going to save us from violence, racism and arrests? The answer is no."

Marrakech's First Female Mayor

Marrakesh is the city overrun by tourists but still beloved.
Here is an article from al-Arabiya about the election of its first female mayor.

Mansouri is the second female mayor in Morocco
Morocco's Marrakech elects first woman mayor

Marrakech, MOROCCO (

A 33-year-old lawyer on Monday became the first woman to be elected mayor of Marrakech, one of Morocco's biggest cities and a key tourist destination.

Fatima Zahra Mansouri outpolled veteran outgoing Mayor Omar Jazouli by 54 votes to 35 in Monday's municipal council vote, becoming the second woman to take a mayoral position in Morocco after Asmaa Chaâbi, mayor of Essaouira.

"I am honored to lead Marrakech city hall," Mansouri said. "I hope to be able to measure up to this new challenge."

Mansouri studied law in France, and is a daughter of a former assistant to the local authority chief in Marrakech, which has a population of more than one million.

"Her election reflects the image of a modern Morocco," said the secretary general of her Party for Authenticity and Modernity (PAM) Sheikh Muhammad Biyadillah.

Following the June 12 local elections, PAM won 43 seats in Marrakech second to al-Ittihad al-Doustouri party, which won 50 seats.

PAM, despite ranking second, managed to ally with a number of parties and form a majority coalition of 62 members to support Mansouri.

Disputed candidacy

Prior to Mansouri’s election a number of Moroccan newspapers reported that parties allied with PAM refused to endorse Mansouri and had threatened to break away from the party if it continued pushing for Mansouri’s candidacy.

PAM’s coalition parties said Mansouri lacked sufficient public management experience and could fail to resolve major issues the city council may encounter, such as al-Maghribia and al-Marrakchia newspapers reported Monday.

The newspapers reported today that undisclosed political bargaining led the endorsement of Mansouri by PAM’s allies.

PAM was the biggest winner in June 12 municipal elections, taking 21 percent of the votes, edging out the Istiqlal party of Prime Minister Abbas al-Fassi.

The polls were a first electoral test for the PAM, a coalition of five small parties formed in 2008 by former interior minister Fouad Ali al-Himma, a friend of King Mohammed VI of Morroco.

(With AFP)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The New US Ambassador to Morocco

Here is an article from the Minneapolis-St.Paul Star Tribune about the man Obama has named to be the new US Ambassador, apparently he contributed and raised a lot of money for the Obama campaign. Some things never change. There seems to be some hype about him being Jewish, I don't know if that should mean anything.

Kaplan is named envoy to Morocco

By KEVIN DIAZ, Star Tribune

Last update: June 19, 2009 - 11:47 PM

WASHINGTON -- President Obama named Minneapolis attorney Sam Kaplan on Friday as ambassador to Morocco.

Kaplan, a top cash "bundler" for Obama's 2008 campaign finance committee, had been widely vetted by White House officials in recent weeks.

Friday's announcement came as Kaplan and his wife, Sylvia, who is also prominent in DFL politics, were in Washington for diplomatic training.

Kaplan said he is "deeply honored" but prevented from saying more until he is confirmed by the Senate, where he will be formally introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota friend and political ally.

If confirmed, Kaplan would be the administration's second ambassador from Minnesota. Last month, the White House named Miguel Diaz, a Roman Catholic theologian from St. John's University and the College of St. Benedict in Collegeville, to serve as his envoy to the Vatican.

Diaz, a 45-year-old adviser to the Obama campaign, would be the first Hispanic to serve as a Vatican diplomat since ties were established in 1984.

Similarly, Kaplan, 72, would break barriers by serving as one of only a few American Jewish diplomats in the Arab world. Friends and associates said he and his wife are looking forward to the post in Rabat, Morocco's capital.

Morocco, a moderate Arab nation and U.S. ally, has a significant Jewish community amid a diverse population. Morocco could also play a key role in U.S. efforts to broker a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale, a former ambassador to Japan, said the announcement of Kaplan's nomination signifies that the North African kingdom has already signed off. "It has a reputation as a moderate, Islamic, European-oriented country that is willing to work with us," he said. "Sam will be a star there.''

Kaplan's was among eight new foreign postings, including that of Internet media investor Matthew Barzun as ambassador to Sweden. "I am grateful that these fine individuals will serve in my administration, and I am confident that they will well represent our nation abroad and help strengthen our relationships within the international community," Obama said.

Sam and Sylvia Kaplan have long been major financiers and power players in DFL circles in Minnesota, where they helped launch the political career of the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone.

They raised between $100,000 and $200,000 for the Obama campaign, ranking them among the campaign's top 500 bundlers, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. (Bundling is the collection of donations from a number of contributors.) They were also among the biggest Minnesota fundraisers for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee for president.

Kaplan is a founding member of Kaplan, Strangis and Kaplan, a Minneapolis law firm established in 1978. Clients include TCF Bank, the Minnesota Twins, Polaris Industries and Lupient Automotive Enterprises. He also has served for more than 25 years as general counsel for the Minnesota Wine and Spirits Association.

Kaplan got his law and undergraduate degrees at the University of Minnesota, where he was president of the University of Minnesota Law Review. He served as an adjunct professor of law during the early years following law school graduation. He is often a visiting lecturer at law school classes and speaker at continuing legal education programs.

If confirmed, Kaplan and Diaz would be the first Minnesotans to serve as a U.S. ambassadors since Benson Whitney, who was appointed ambassador to Norway in 2005 by President George W. Bush. He still holds that post.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Muhammad VI, King of Phosphates

Here is an article from Forbes magazine about the King of Morocco, his wealth, and his careful exploitation of Moroccan natural resources.

King Of Rock

Devon Pendleton, 06.17.09, 06:00 PM EDT

Most royals may have to be a bit thriftier this year as fortunes plummet, but it's not so for the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, whose 12 palaces reportedly cost $1 million a day to operate. His net worth is up $1 billion this year to $2.5 billion, making him the only one of the world's 15 richest royals to have added to his fortune in the past year.

His savior is his country's near monopoly of the commodity Phosphate. A key component of fertilizer, phosphorous, mined in the form of phosphate rock, is essential to global food production. "You cannot survive without phosphate--every cell on your body depends on it," says Michael Lloyd, research director at the Florida Institute of Phosphate Research.

Morocco controls to nearly half the world's phosphate deposits. Last year, the North African nation mined 28 million metric tons of phosphate rock, making it the third-largest producer in the world, behind China and the U.S., and the single biggest supplier. Proceeds from phosphate mining make up roughly half the country's revenues.

It is a profitable business. The state-owned phosphate monopoly, Office Cherifien des Phosphates (OCP) raked in an estimated $2.8 billion in net profit last year, a ninefold increase from the prior year, thanks to a surge in phosphate prices, which hit an all-time high of $500 per ton in July 2008, five times the 2007 average and more than 12 times the 2006 average.

The king himself rarely talks about phosphates, preferring instead to focus on socially progressive issues like women's rights and standard of living. He created a new family law granting women more power and recently launched a $6 billion initiative to build housing for Morocco's urban poor. But he does get a portion of the profits and almost certainly has a hand in the OCP's business, particularly its admitted use of "dominance" in influencing phosphate's price spike.

"That's one thing you have to face: The Moroccan fertilizer industry is run by the government," says Lloyd. "In the 1970s you could get phosphate for $4. Then one day they just decided to raise the price to $20." Another analyst blamed last year's high prices on the OCP's maneuvers, though soaring agricultural demand and tightening supplies were certainly factors as well.

So far this year, recessionary pressures have pushed prices back below $200, but still enough for the King Mohammed VI to move up one notch to No. 7 among the world's richest royals.

The Moroccan monarch who took over from his late father Hassan II in 1999 and is only 45 years old could climb much higher in the ranks, thanks to the scarcity of his precious rocks.

Though phosphate occurs naturally in soil, the world's growing, hungry population requires more than Mother Nature provides. The U.S. expects to exhaust its reserves within the next 40 years. Already, two of the leading U.S. fertilizer firms, Mississippi Phosphates and Agrifos Fertilizer, procure their phosphate rock from OCP. Morocco's reserves, the most extensive in the world, will be tapped out within the next century.

There are also political threats. Although Morocco under King Mohammed VI is overall fairly peaceful and pro-Western, about one-sixth of its phosphate hails from the Western Sahara territory. Morocco annexed the 100,000-square-mile former Spanish colony in 1975 despite competing claims to the region by Mauritania and an Algerian-backed independence movement.

Ongoing guerrilla warfare between Moroccans and the pro-independence nationalists ended after a U.N.-brokered ceasefire in 1991, but the region is still considered an occupied territory. Morocco's plan to expand phosphate production in the region has come under fire from human rights activists and prompted nationalists' threats to breach the ceasefire.

And activists aren't the only ones who should be concerned about turmoil in the resource-rich region: No more phosphate means no more fertilizer, a dire problem for global food production. But unlike oil, which has substitutes like biodiesel or propane, "there is no alternative to phosphorous," says David Vaccari, an engineering professor at Stevens Institute of Technology.

He calls the impending phosphate shortage "the sleeper issue of our time."

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Moroccan MP and Social Security Fraud in the Netherlands

There has been a lot of news about the latest Moroccan elections. Forgive me for not re-posting the mostly uncritical acceptance of the status quo that those news pieces tended to show.
Here is an interesting short article from the Dutch News in English about a Moroccan MP who although well off was apparently also receiving public aid in the Netherlands.

Moroccan MP Must not be Acquitted

THE HAGUE, 17/06/09 - Under pressure from Morocco, the Public Prosecutor in the Netherlands has requested acquittal for a member of the Moroccan parliament that misappropriated 130,000 euros in the Netherlands via years of social security fraud, says PvdA MP Hans Spekman. He suspects "class justice."

The suspect, who holds Dutch as well as Moroccan nationality, received welfare benefit payments from Utrecht city council for 11 consecutive years. Six years ago, the police received a tipoff that he was a council member in Morocco and had a country house and a chicken farm in that country. Due to all his possessions, he had no entitlement to benefit.

The suspect has meanwhile risen to become an MP in Morocco. He is said to have defrauded the council of 130,000 euros. But the public prosecutor in Utrecht has now requested acquittal of the 68 year old man due to a lack of evidence that he had done this deliberately. The prosecutor also considered it was not proven that the man had his main residence in Morocco.

Spekman wants clarification by the cabinet. The PvdA MP was earlier an Alderman in Utrecht. He says the demand for acquittal "reeks of class justice" and suspects the public prosecutor has bowed to years of diplomatic pressure from Morocco. According to Spekman, the MP has meanwhile easily "been able to stash away" all kinds of possessions, such as houses and land in Morocco.

The magistrate will rule on 29 June. Spekman acknowledges that it is not customary for politicians to intervene in ongoing court cases, but finds the case too serious to let it go. He wants a statement from Social Affairs State Secretary Jetta Klijnsma.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Elections are Coming ! to Morocco (Vote Early and Often)

Ideally, this blog would just convey the news. It is difficult for me however to speak about elections in Morocco with any kind of seriousness or without laughter. Let's just hope that one day the Moroccan people will have a real say in who runs their country. Here is an article from the Carnegie Foundation's Arab Reform Bulletin on the elections scheduled for the end of this week in Morocco. They are already predicting what the results will be.



Electoral Reform with Public Relations Value

Geoffrey Weichselbaum, Michael Meyer-Resende June, 2009

“More women elected,” “Higher Voter Turn-Out,“ “Fewer Seats for the Islamic Party” may well be the headlines after Morocco’s local elections on June 12. Such outcomes would not mean, however, that Moroccans are becoming more egalitarian, eager to vote, or secular. They would be a direct result of electoral reforms in December 2008. While the changes were generally positive, they focused on issues that will improve Morocco’s image rather than on long-standing deficits in the transparency of elections.
The 2007 elections to the lower house of parliament were marked by a low turnout of 37 percent of registered voters. Given that many of those eligible do not register, the actual turnout was estimated to be a dismal 25 percent of the electorate. Even if voter apathy persists in the local elections, a technical change will give the impression that more voters went to the polls. Recent changes to registration regulations resulted in three million voters being taken off the lists for a variety of reasons, including failure to respond to inquiries by the administration or double inscriptions. With 1.6 million new voters registered this year, there are 1.4 million fewer voters than in the 2007 elections. The total number of registered voters is now close to 14 million out of an estimated 20 million eligible. Given that turnout is measured against registered voters, the percentage would be higher if the same number of people went to the polls in June as in 2007. The Ministry of the Interior estimates an automatic statistical increase in turnout of 8 percent.

The recent electoral reforms also introduced mechanisms that will favor the election of women to local councils, notably the introduction of lists reserved for female candidates. This may propel the percentage of women in local councils beyond 11 percent, up from less than one percent in the 2003 local elections. While this will be a positive change, an increased number of female council members should not be understood to be the result of societal change. It is rather a top-down attempt to effect such change.

These local elections will be the first test for the new Party for Authenticity and Modernity, founded by former Deputy Minister of the Interior Fouad Ali Al-Himma. The party champions better policy performance, and good results in the local elections will be decisive to gain momentum, with the next direct parliamentary elections due in 2012. The Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) will also be looking to perform well; its results in the 2007 parliamentary elections (10.9 percent) fell short of what many analysts had expected.

The election law uses two different electoral systems: a proportional list-based system in larger municipalities and single member constituencies with the first-past-the-post system in smaller municipalities in the countryside. The latter (used in 1,411 municipalities throughout the country compared to 92 larger municipalities) favors those parties that are strongest in rural areas, such as the conservative Istiqlal party and the Popular Movement. For parties with more support in the cities, such as the PJD, it will be difficult to win seats in the countryside.

The recent change of the law increased from 25,000 to 35,000 inhabitants the threshold that divides small from large municipalities. The government says that this change ensures that municipalities use the same electoral system they used five years ago, even if their population grew in the meantime. In terms of seats won across the country, this law change favors the traditional conservative parties.

While the recent changes to the electoral law are positive, they conspicuously avoid any of the long-demanded steps that would make the elections overall more transparent. The aggregation and publication of polling station results countrywide remains difficult to follow for anybody except the administration, which does not publish these data. There is still no legal framework for non-partisan election observation. The lack of a framework resulted in frictions between the domestic observers and the administration in the 2007 elections and deterred domestic groups from launching a large observation effort for the June 2009 elections. Observers report on shortcomings, and when detailed results are promptly published it may turn out that they do not always add up. That would not be the story that Moroccan authorities hope the media will tell about the elections: higher voter turn-out, more women elected, and no dramatic increase in support for the PJD.

Geoffrey Weichselbaum and Michael Meyer-Resende are associates at Democracy Reporting International, a Berlin-based group promoting political participation.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Affordable Housing in Morocco

Here is an article from the UAE based paper, The National about looking at Moroccan affordable housing programs as a model for what could be done in that Gulf country.

Morocco affordable housing a guide for the UAE

* Last Updated: June 01. 2009 5:16PM UAE / June 1. 2009 1:16PM GMT

Rochdi Ben Driss Zouichi for The National

All property players in the country agree on one thing: there is a need for more affordable housing. In Abu Dhabi in particular, the issue has been neglected until recently, with most of the 140,000 residential units scheduled for delivery by 2013 being high-end accommodation, according to Colliers International.

But following the slowdown in the property market, developers, including Al Qudra, Aldar and Sorouh, have announced strategy changes to address the needs of the low-priced segment, too.

Other markets in the Middle East have managed to turn the housing needs of low and middle-income earners into a lucrative niche. And Abu Dhabi could do worse than to look at Morocco, where developers who focus on affordable housing still make good money and their order books are full, in spite of the global crisis.

Anas Sefrioui, the chairman and founder of Addoha, Morocco’s largest developer, is confident.
His company, the first to be listed on the Casablanca stock exchange since 2006, is now on the top of the list. Around 77 per cent of its activity is based on low and mid-income housing. And yet, Addoha’s revenue last year increased 57 per cent to 4.7 billion Moroccan dirhams (Dh2.16bn), compared with 3bn dirhams in 2007.
The results for the first half of this year are expected to double compared with the same period last year. Mr Sefrioui says other developers are experiencing the same buoyancy.

“There is a specific Moroccan context,” he says. “People want to buy their own house. Renting is not part of the culture. When somebody is renting people generally think this is related to some sort of a problem. Buyers are mainly end-users.”

According to the Moroccan ministry of housing and urban planning, the undersupply of homes exceeds one million and each year 123,000 new families enter the market. Around 60 per cent of the population is under the age of 30.
Five years ago, the government launched a programme aimed at reducing the number of shanty towns and sub-standard dwellings and to ease the housing shortage by 25 per cent in 2012.

Access to land is a major catalyst. Last January, developers willing to build affordable housing were offered a total of 3,853 hectares of land at a reduced price to build 200,000 units.

The conditions: they have to sell the flats for only 140,000 Moroccan dirhams on one third of the allocated land and for 200,000 dirhams on another third.
On the last third of the land, developers are allowed to build other types of properties and make margins. But the key factor that boosted the market is an enticing financial policy that involves all industry players.

“Banks today not only continue lending to people with no regular incomes but they do so at a reasonable rate – 5.5 per cent fixed rates for up to 25 years,” says Hassan Ben Bachir, the adviser to Mr Sefrioui at Addoha.

The secret is a system of guaranteed funds established by the government four years ago, backed mainly by taxes on cement companies.
Fogarim, a security fund, enabled more than 48,000 families with low and irregular incomes to take out low-interest loans and buy homes.

The amount of guaranteed mortgages so far is 7bn dirhams.
According to figures from the ministry of housing, Fogarim’s main beneficiaries are traders (41 per cent), followed by street vendors (23 per cent), craft workers (16), taxi drivers (4.2), maids (3.7) and labourers (3.3). The scheme was soon followed by other funds linked to specific professions.

To qualify for the Fogarim programme and tax breaks, developers have to build at least 2,500 affordable housing units over five years, which are sold at less than 200,000 dirhams.

“In the beginning, cement companies were complaining because they had to pay 100 dirhams tax per tonne – which brings around Dh2bn a year into the fund,” says Mr Ben Bachir. “But now everybody is happy. Banks are lending because of the lower risk. People are buying because they get the finance, developers are building more affordable housing because of the advantages they get and the demand, and cement companies sell much higher volumes. The system does not even cost the government a lot of money.”

According to the housing ministry, up to 29 per cent of banks’ total loans go to the property industry.
The banks are bullish. The default rate is very low, according to the mortgage department of BMCE bank. “And the low-income segment is also the main part of our clients. We cover the total value of a property that costs up to 800,000 dirhams, as this is guaranteed by the fund.”

The low level of integration in the global financial system is another factor. “We have not developed many sophisticated products like securitisation, which caused the bankruptcy of some banks. We don’t have that much of a virtual economy,” says Nour Eddine Charkani, the director of Wafa Immobilier, the property loans section of Attijariwafa Bank.

“In Morocco, banks are not allowed to lend in excess of 50 per cent of a family or an individual’s revenue. The credit risk rate is less than 1 per cent and Moroccan banks have increased their total income by nearly 5 per cent during the first four months compared with the same period last year.”

According to Youssef Ibn Mansour, the chairman of the National Federation of Property Developers in Morocco, the market boomed because of low-income housing. “Until the mid-nineties, only the government was taking care of it. But when private companies were invited to enter the market this created a dynamic that attracted huge capital. We went from 30,000 to 40,000 units built a year to 125,000 units last year. Of this, 25,000 units are built for mid-incomes. The high-end segment only represent 5 per cent to 6 per cent of what is being built in Morocco.”

Addoha, along with the state company Al Omrane, makes up about 40 per cent of the low-income market, according to Mr Ibn Mansour, followed by a dozen smaller groups including Chaâbi and Jet Sakane.

Two UAE property companies also got involved. Al Qudra, which recently announced its focus on affordable housing in Al Ain, joined Addoha to build 359 villas in Tamesna, a town in Morocco, half of which should be delivered this year and the rest next year.
With the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development, Addoha last month launched a project to construct 17,000 units in the Moroccan town of Kenitra, including low and mid-income flats, along with villas and a golf course.

“Most Emirati developers are focused on tourism or high-end residential developments though,” says Mr Ibn Mansour.
The question of profitability of affordable housing is regularly raised, especially with the recent 140,000-dirham units programme.

“It is profitable if you have good volumes,” says Mr Sefrioui. “Addoha builds 22,000 units every year, of which 2,000 only are high-end projects.”
Mr Ibn Mansour recognises that the 140,000-dirham units are products with no margin. “Developers in that case are allowed to build expensive units on one third of their granted land but most of them today go for the 300,000-dirham units and accept paying additional taxes.”

The other question is the quality of the housing. “These are mainly blocks of flats worse than Paris outskirts. It can look really depressing,” says William Simoncelli, the director of Agence immobilière Carre Immobilier Maroc, a brokerage company based in Casablanca.

The programme though has been extended to other income segments. After years of focusing on housing for Morocco’s low-income population, the government is faced with a new problem: home ownership is out of reach for much of the middle class.
Land prices have skyrocketed and driven many middle-income families to buy social housing.

“There are not many areas where you can put your money,” says Mr Simoncelli. “The stock exchange is not that attractive. So Moroccans love to invest in property. They don’t really have much choice.”

According to Mr Ibn Mansour, prices in high-end units are €1,500 (Dh7,796) per square metre, mid-range is €800 to €1,000, while low-income residences cost €500 to €600. The most expensive areas are in Casablanca, the economic capital, reaching up to €3,200 per sq metre.

However, prices have begun to come down because of the global economic crisis. Tangier has been the most affected, says Mr Simoncelli. “A year ago we were talking about €2,200 to €2,300 per square metre. Now it is rather close to €1,600.”
Marrakech was also very much affected because of the high number of projects for this medium-sized city. Many large creek projects with villas have been launched within a 4km to 15km range from the centre. The high prices fell down like a soufflé, he says.

Having proved successful, Fogarim has been expanded to include private-sector workers with regular salaries. Existing funds were merged in April to form Damane Assakane, which guarantees mortgages up to 800,000 dirhams.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Thousands of Moroccan Butterflies Land in the UK

I must admit that there have been some Moroccans who have given me butterflies in my stomach, but here is a nice piece from the BBC about the migration of Moroccan butterflies to Europe. It is worth clicking on the link to the article in order to see the video if you can.


Butterflies arrive in thousands

More than 3,000 painted lady butterflies on their annual 1,000 mile migration from Africa have been spotted at a nature reserve in Gloucestershire.

Sightings of the insects have been reported across the UK. Wardens said the creatures like the rough grasslands at the reserve in Slimbridge.

Butterfly Conservation believe this is the largest migration of the species in over a decade with more expected.

The butterflies originate from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

'Epic migration'

James Lees, a warden at the Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, said: "It's truly amazing to stand on the River Severn and see thousands of these small dainty butterflies flying past all heading in the same direction.

"It is remarkable that despite being lighter than paper they are able to navigate and travel thousands of miles over land and sea."

He added that painted ladies preferred rough grasslands with knapweed and thistle and that the reserve was currently covered in wild flowers and wild clover which provided "these butterflies with excellent refuelling snacks during their epic migration."

Dr Martin Warren, of the conservation charity, Butterfly Conservation, said: "There are literally millions of painted lady butterflies arriving right across Britain with more expected this weekend.

"We need the public's help to get better information on the nature and scale of this spectacular and unprecedented migration."

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Amnesty International 2009 Report on Morocco and the Western Sahara

Here is an article from the American Chronicle that gives some detail from the latest Amnesty International report on the state of things in Morocco. I doubt that anyone will agree with the report in its entirety, but its nice to be able to see the "big picture."


Amnesty Int´l Report 2009 on Morocco Imposes UN Action to Liberate Occupied Western Sahara

Dr. Muhammad Shamsaddin Megalommatis
May 31, 2009

The Amnesty Int´l Report on Morocco reveals the urgent need for UN Security Council measures and action in order to liberate the Occupied Western Sahara from the Moroccan Pan-Arabist tyranny. I therefore republish it integrally.

Amnesty International Report 2009 – Morocco and Occupied Western Sahara


Head of state: King Mohamed VI

Head of government: Abbas El Fassi

Death penalty: abolitionist in practice

Population: 31.6 million

Life expectancy: 70.4 years

Under-5 mortality (m/f): 42/28 per 1,000

Adult literacy: 52.3 per cent

Amnesty International Report 2009 – Morocco and Occupied Western Sahara

The rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly continued to be restricted. Criticism of the monarchy or views contradicting the official position on other politically sensitive issues were penalized. The authorities used excessive force to break up antigovernment protests. Proponents of self determination for the people of Western Sahara were harassed and prosecuted.

Allegations of torture were not investigated, and victims of past human rights violations were not granted effective access to justice. The authorities continued to arrest, detain and collectively deport thousands of foreign nationals. At least four people were sentenced to death, but the government maintained a de facto moratorium on executions.


In March, UN-mediated talks on the Western Sahara between the Moroccan government and the Polisario Front, which calls for an independent state in Western Sahara and runs a self-proclaimed government-in exile in refugee camps in south-western Algeria, ended in stalemate. Morocco insisted on an autonomy plan for the territory annexed in 1975, while the Polisario Front called for a referendum on self-determination, as agreed in previous UN Security Council resolutions. The UN Security Council extended the mandate of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara until 30 April 2009. The mandate makes no provision for human rights monitoring.

In October, the EU and Morocco agreed an "ambitious roadmap" towards granting Morocco "advanced status" with the EU, including closer security, political, trade and other co-operation. Among recommendations made by several states when Morocco was considered under the Universal Periodic Review process in April were harmonization of national law with international standards and respect for migrants´ rights. However, the issue of impunity for torturers was not raised.

Repression of dissent

Critics of the monarchy

Criticism of the monarchy remained taboo. Human rights defenders, journalists and others were prosecuted for expressing views that the authorities deemed offensive to the King and the royal family.

In February, the Court of Cassation confirmed prison terms imposed on three members of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH) for "undermining the monarchy" by participating in a peaceful protest in June 2007. In April, they and 14 other AMDH members accused on similar grounds were granted a royal pardon.

In September, the Court of Appeal in Agadir overturned on procedural grounds the two-year prison sentence against blogger Mohamed Erraji. He had been convicted of "lack of respect due to the King" after writing an online article suggesting that the King encouraged a culture of economic dependence.

In November, the Court of Appeals in Marrakesh upheld the conviction of Yassine Bellasal, aged 18, for insulting the King but suspended the one-year prison sentence imposed by a lower court. He had written on a school wall "God, the Nation, Barça" – the last a reference to the Barcelona football team– in a play on words of the country´s motto "God, the Nation, the King".


"Security forces used excessive force to disperse antigovernment demonstrations..."

Sahrawi activists

Sahrawi human rights activists continued to face harassment, including politically motivated charges, restrictions on movement and administrative obstruction to prevent their organizations´ legal registration.

Ennaâma Asfari, co-President of the Committee for the Respect of Freedoms and Human Rights in Western Sahara, who lives in France, alleged that he was tortured by Moroccan security forces when he was detained while visiting the region in April. The authorities did not investigate his allegations and he was convicted of violent conduct and jailed for two months.

Brahim Sabbar, head of the Sahrawi Association of Victims of Grave Human Rights Violations Committed by the Moroccan State (ASVDH), was told by the security authorities that he should not visit areas in Laayoune in which other ASVDH members live after he was released from prison in June.

Hundreds of Sahrawis suspected of demonstrating against Moroccan rule or distributing pro-Polisario Front materials were arrested. Some were released after questioning; others were tried on charges of violent conduct in proceedings that were reported not to have complied with international standards of fair trial. Many complained that they were tortured or otherwise ill-treated by security forces during questioning and that information allegedly obtained under torture was used as evidence in convictions.

In October, Yahya Mohamed Elhafed Iaazza, a member of the Collective of Sahrawi Human Rights Defenders, was found guilty of violent conduct and sentenced to 15 years´ imprisonment in connection with his participation in a protest in Tan Tan against Moroccan rule. Eight other defendants received sentences of up to four years in prison. Allegations that they were tortured during questioning were not investigated.

Al-Adl wal-Ihsan activists

Hundreds of members of the unauthorized political organization Al-Adl wal-Ihsan were questioned by police and at least 188 were charged with participating in unauthorized meetings or belonging to an unauthorized organization. The trial of the group´s spokesperson, Nadia Yassine, charged in 2005 with defaming the monarchy, was postponed.

Excessive use of force

Security forces used excessive force to disperse antigovernment demonstrations, highlighting the failure of the authorities to implement a key recommendation of the Equity and Reconciliation Commission (IER). Established in 2004 to look into grave human rights violations committed between 1956 and 1999, the IER called in 2006 for improved regulation of the state´s security organs.

On 7 June, security forces were reported to have used excessive force to end a blockade of the port of Sidi Ifni established by protesters on 30 May. The security forces reportedly fired rubber bullets and tear gas, and used batons and police dogs. They also conducted unauthorized raids on homes, confiscated property, verbally and sexually harassed people, and carried out arbitrary arrests and detentions. Subsequently, 21 people, including four members of the Moroccan Centre for Human Rights (CMDH), were charged with violent conduct. A report by the parliamentary commission established on 18 June to investigate the Sidi Ifni events was made public in December. While affirming that the security intervention was justified, the report outlined a number of abuses committed by law enforcement forces, including violence against individuals. It called on the authorities to identify and bring to justice all citizens and members of the security forces responsible for illegal conduct and human rights abuses. To Amnesty International´s knowledge, no law enforcement officer had been charged by the end of the year.

In July, Brahim Sabbaa Al-Layl, a CMDH member, was imprisoned for six months after stating in an interview with Al Jazeera television that people had been killed and raped in Sidi Ifni. The journalist who interviewed him had his press accreditation withdrawn by the authorities and was ordered by a court to pay a heavy fine.

Security forces were reported to have used excessive force to prevent a planned student protest march at Cadi Ayyad Marrakesh University in May. They raided the university campus, assaulting and arbitrarily detaining students, and confiscating personal belongings. Eighteen members of the National Union of Moroccan Students were arrested, including supporters of the leftist Democratic Path student movement. In June, seven people were sentenced to one-year prison terms for violent conduct; the remainder were awaiting trial at the end of the year. All alleged that they were tortured and otherwise ill-treated in police custody.

Counter-terror and security

Some 190 suspected Islamist militants were convicted of terrorism-related offences and sentenced to prison terms ranging from six months to life.

According to reports, they included a Moroccan national who had been forcibly returned from Spain.

In February, the authorities said they had broken up a terrorist network led by Abdelkader Belliraj, a Belgian-Moroccan dual national. Some 35 people were arrested, including the leaders of three political parties – Al-Badil al-Hadari, the Oumma and the Party of Justice and Development. The Prime Minister then issued a decree dissolving Al-Badil al-Hadari, and a court rejected the Oumma party´s application for legal registration. The 35 faced a range of charges, including attempted murder, money laundering and financing terrorism. Their trial began in October and had not been completed by the end of the year. Some defence lawyers complained that the authorities failed to provide them with complete case files, others reported that their clients were tortured in custody.

Hundreds of Islamist prisoners convicted after the 2003 Casablanca bombing continued to call for judicial review of their trials, many of which were tainted with unexamined claims of confessions extracted under torture.

Transitional justice

The Human Rights Advisory Board, charged with continuing the work of the IER, had still not published the list of all cases of enforced disappearances investigated by the IER. The IER´s final report, published in January 2006, recommended measures to ensure non-repetition of grave human rights violations through a comprehensive programme of judicial and institutional reforms, but these had not yet been implemented. Nor was any progress made towards providing victims with effective access to justice or holding individual perpetrators to account, issues that were excluded from the remit of the IER.

In June, a court ordered Al-Jarida Al-Oula newspaper to stop publishing testimonies made by senior public officials to the IER, following a complaint by the President of the Human Rights Advisory Board. This intervention was widely criticized by local human rights organizations.

Discrimination and violence against women

In January the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women considered Morocco´s third and fourth periodic reports on its application of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. It welcomed positive steps taken by the government to address discrimination against women but called for the legal criminalization of violence against women and active measures to combat it. In November the Ministry of Social Development, Family and Solidarity announced that such a law was being developed.

In December, in a further welcome move, King Mohamed VI announced that Morocco would withdraw reservations it made when ratifying the Convention.

Discrimination – imprisonment for ´homosexual conduct´.

In January an appeal court upheld prison terms of up to 10 months against six men convicted of "homosexual conduct" in Ksar El-Kebir, north-western Morocco. They were arrested in November 2007 after public denunciations that a private party they had held was a "gay marriage". Same-sex sexual relations between consenting adults are criminalized under Moroccan law.

In November, an appeal court upheld the conviction and heavy fine imposed by a lower court on the editor in-chief of Al-Massaa for defamation of assistant Crown Prosecutors in Ksar el-Kebir, for having suggested that a Crown Prosecutor was present at the alleged "gay marriage". It appeared that the fine might cause the newspaper to cease publication.

Refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants

Thousands of people suspected of being irregular migrants were arrested and collectively expelled, mostly without any consideration of their protection needs and their right under Moroccan law to contest the decision to deport them or examine the grounds on which it was made. The authorities said they prevented 10,235 immigration attempts between January and November. Some migrants were reported to have been subjected to excessive force and other ill-treatment at the time of arrest or during their detention or expulsion; some were reported to have been dumped at the border with Algeria or Mauritania without adequate food and water.

At least 28 migrants, including four children, drowned in the sea off Al Hoceima on 28 April. Survivors alleged that Moroccan officials who intercepted their inflatable boat punctured and shook it when the migrants refused to stop. The authorities denied that their officials were responsible but did not carry out an investigation. The survivors were transported to the city of Oujda in eastern Morocco and left at the frontier with Algeria.

Polisario camps

Little independent information was available about conditions in the refugee camps run by the Polisario Front in Algeria. No steps were known to have been taken to address the impunity of those accused of committing human rights abuses in the camps in the 1970s and 1980s.

Amnesty International visit

An Amnesty International delegation visited Morocco and the Western Sahara in February/March.