Sunday, April 25, 2010

Les Etoiles de Sidi Moumen - a New Book by Moroccan Writer Mahi Binebine

Here is an article about a new book by Mahi Binebine that is once again treating the familiar subject of Moroccan slums and the creation of terrorists. It is a topic that peaks Western interest, but the books/movies on this subject don't seem to ignite any strong anti-poverty movement in the 'Ghrib.


(ANSAmed) - PARIS - ''Les etoiles de Sidi Moumen'', the latest book by Moroccan writer, painter and sculptor Mahi Binebine, tells the story of the journey of one of the young kamikazes who took part in the Casablanca suicide attacks on May 16 2003, and the social, religious and human malaise of the Moroccan shantytowns.

Released in January by Flammarion, in addition to receiving positive reviews - it was recommended by 2008 Nobel prize-winner for literature J.M.G. Le Clezio - it will be turned into a film, directed by Moroccan, Nabil Ayouch. The adaptation of the book is one of the 15 projects chosen for their artistic quality by the Cannes Film Festival's Cinefondation. The projects will be presented at the next edition of the event in May to seek financing. The full-length film will cost three million euros and should be filmed in November in Casablanca and Fes.

At the beginning of the book, one would expect a Moroccan version of 'City of joy', but the shantytown-dwelling youngsters of Sidi Mounem get involved with an emir who offers Yachine and his gang of shoeless rascals who dream of becoming the best footballers of all time, ''the keys to paradise'', which will open the door to hell for them. Binebine imagines what goes through the head of a youngster from a family of 13 brothers, who grew up in the dumps of one of the worst slums only 15 minutes from the economic capital of the country, clogged with over 100,000 people. ''In Sidi Mounem, I discovered a Morocco that I did not know, which shocked me, a sort of Calcutta,'' said the writer, who took five years ''of pain and difficult writing to put an urban nightmare into black and white''. A childhood made up of robberies, bloody dealings, hashish, but also love for one's mother, laughter, football, and then the descent into the underworld towards a misguided Islam synonymous of terror.

A novel, not a political book, which speaks to the powers that be with a simple message, explained the author: take care of these youngsters, educate them, give them jobs, give them back their dignity. We are sitting on a powder keg, tomorrow there could be another tragedy.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Message in a Bottle from USA Coasts to Morocco

Here is an article from a small paper in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina about a bottle with a message that was sent by people from North Carolina that washed up on a beach in Morocco.

Message in a bottle dropped off Carolina coasts to Morocco

by Staff
Monday, April 12, 2010

A message in a bottle dropped off the Carolina coast in 2008 was found last week by a couple in Morocco. On April 7, the couple e-mailed Cape Fear Community College that they were walking the beach in Tangier when they found a message in a plastic bottle from students enrolled in CFCC’s Child Development Center dated June 5, 2008.

The students created the bottled message as part of a school project. At the time, one girl’s father was an instructor on board a CFCC Marine Technology research vessel. He took the message in the bottle on a voyage and it was dropped into the Atlantic’s Gulf Stream about 60 miles off the coast of Charleston, S.C.

The finders, both Spanish instructors from Valencia described the way they found the bottle.

“We were on our way back to Spain after spending almost two weeks traveling around Morocco. We decided to pass the last night at Grotte d'hercule. In the afternoon we had a walk around just to stretch the legs, because we spent eight hours driving.”

When they arrived at their campsite on the beach, they saw the bottle floating in a small lagoon beside the sea. Even though the bottle was very dirty, the paper inside was white with big green letters and very easy to read.

“We felt some curiosity, because it wasn't written in Arabic. We can’t believe that it came from the USA . . it is something that doesn't happen . . . very often!! Once in our village, Valencia, we searched the Internet and the address of that college in Wilmington.”

The couple who are studying to become biology teachers said they valued the experience created by the schoolchildren to whom they replied: “Dear friends, when we find your message we were in a very special trip, visiting a very different country, people and culture. Travelling is the best way of opening the mind, to approach cultures and eliminate prejudices. And the finding of the message showed us that we are not so far (away) as we believe. Thanks a lot and greetings from Maite and Julio, Valencia (SPAIN).

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Trying to Make it into Melilla

Until we can find some more uplifting news out of Al-Maghreb, here is article from the Guardian about people trying to use the Moroccan territory of Melilla that was colonized by Spain to get their "big break" into Europe.

Melilla: Europe's dirty secret

African migrants will do anything to get into the Spanish enclave of Melilla. And the authorities will do anything to keep them out

Back in the autumn of 1998, a teacher from Melilla called Jose Palazon noticed something strange was happening each night to the dustbin in front of his house. He kept an eye out and discovered that, under cover of darkness, a young boy was removing the rubbish from the bin so that he could sleep in it. The idea of the child being reduced to the status of trash was worrying but not entirely surprising to Palazon, who was used to the sight of migrants sleeping rough on the streets of his city.

Melilla sits on the north coast of Africa, surrounded by the waters and territory of Morocco. For the ceaseless tide of African and Asian migrants working their way northwards, it has a compulsive attraction: by accident of military conquest more than 500 years ago, this city which is geographically African is legally part of Spain. As the migrants reach the Mediterranean, where so many of their predecessors have died, Melilla offers them a safe bridge into Europe – if they can smuggle themselves across its barricaded perimeter.

Palazon and his wife, Maite, got talking to the boy and found he was only 11 years old and had been living in the dark corners of the city since he had come over the fence from Morocco three years earlier. They succeeded in adopting him and tried to persuade the city's council to help the other migrant children on its streets, joining with friends to form a campaigning group called Prodein. But, Palazon recalls: "They didn't want to help the children, as that would encourage more to come to Melilla."

And that is the problem behind the simplistic calls for British jobs for British workers – if you treat migrants well, give them the kind of human rights Europeans demand for themselves, you only encourage them to keep coming. So Melilla has become a kind of theatre, acting out the most intense human dramas which are calculated to send a message of deterrence to that great global audience of hopeful poor.

The message is: "Don't be fooled by the wide avenues and beautiful fountains of this Spanish city. None of this is for you. Stay where you are, stay poor and, if you dare to try to come here, we'll hurt you. If you're really unlucky, we'll let you stay here and you'll have no way out, you'll just be trapped and hopeless, without any legal rights to call your own."

This theatre clearly involves the Spanish, although they have shown some signs of attempting to be humane, but it is by no means uniquely their production. The Moroccans, too, are deeply implicated in the killing of migrants on the African side of the fence as well as in the entirely illegal export of men, women and children into the desert beyond their borders. And the European Union as a body is the power behind the Spanish, funding the production, writing the script, ignoring the casualties, whether physical or legal. To protect our jobs, the EU authorises Melilla to be a theatre of cruelty.

When Palazon found the boy in his bin, in the late 90s, this could be pretty crude. The Council of Europe's committee for the prevention of torture uncovered evidence that Africans who made it into Melilla were held in farm buildings where conditions were so bad, some took refuge in abandoned cars on a nearby rubbish dump. They were then likely to be given by the police a drink of water containing a tranquilliser, after which they could be wrapped in adhesive tape covering almost all of their body, including their mouth, for easy delivery by military plane to their country of origin where, in some cases, reports emerged of them being ill-treated and even killed by local law officers.

In those days, the 10km fence around the landward side of the city was not much more than rolls of barbed wire. In 1999, as EU resistance to migration grew, the city erected an intimidating new barrier – two parallel 4m wire fences, topped with razor wire and with a tarmac strip running between patrolled by the Spanish Guardia Civil, all of it monitored by 106 video cameras, infrared surveillance, a microphone cable and helicopters. In Melilla, a man who had worked on the fence told me he would arrive at work in the morning to find his ladder covered in blood, where migrants had tried to use it to climb into the city and had become victims of the razor wire.

Some made it over the fence. Some managed to smuggle themselves into the city in the backs of cars. Human Rights Watch found that children travelling alone were still finding their way in and were being held by the Spanish in an old fort, La Purisima, where they were beaten by staff, robbed and assaulted by older children, and kept in punishment cells for up to a week without bedding or toilets before being shoved back into Morocco where the police might give them another beating and put them out on to the streets to fend for themselves. Human Rights Watch concluded that the Spanish were breaking their own immigration laws and were guilty of "arbitrary and discriminatory" behaviour. (You begin to see why Jose Palazon's dustbin seemed attractive.)

Still, the new fence worked – not by stopping the migrants but by diverting many of them out to sea. They emerged from the Sahara and embarked for the Canaries or southern Spain in tiny rowing boats, sometimes succeeding, sometimes drowning – until 2004, when the EU paid for extra coastal patrols and sent them flowing back to Melilla and to a new and bloody crisis.

The migrants gathered in their hundreds in the scraps of woodland outside Melilla and organised mass assaults on the city's perimeter. By summer 2005, Amnesty was reporting that those who were caught on the fence were being treated with excessive force by Moroccan and Spanish guards, and those caught inside the fence were being illegally expelled back into Morocco, often to be dumped in the desert. By autumn, there was clear evidence of murder at Melilla and, along the coast, outside the similarly Spanish city of Ceuta.

A human rights lawyer from Melilla, Jose Alonso, went out to the fence at night: "It was the closest I have ever been to a war, going to the fence and seeing what was happening. There was a helicopter over the Spanish side with a huge light shining down on the Moroccan side. There was shooting. From where I was, I saw hundreds of people trying to get over the fence. Both sides were shooting down at them. It was like a film about a war."

Between August and October, there were at least 11 deaths at Melilla and Ceuta – most of them shot with live ammunition as they rushed the fence at night; one man with his throat crushed by a rubber bullet; dozens of others injured by bullets or by falling from the fence; many of them reporting they were assaulted and robbed by security forces. The Spanish said it was the Moroccans; the Moroccans said it was the Spanish. On one night during these months, six men were shot on the Moroccan side of the fence at Melilla: the Moroccan authorities said this was self-defence because the migrants were throwing rocks at them. Nobody was charged with any of the killings.

In the background, Amnesty tracked Moroccan security forces sweeping through the makeshift camps in the woodland, rounding up migrants, including asylum seekers, and dumping them out in the desert on the Algerian border, 30km from the nearest village, without food or water. Some tried to walk into Algeria, only to be caught by Algerian forces and sent back to Morocco. Médecins Sans Frontières found 500 migrants, including pregnant women, stranded in two villages in the area and reported that in the previous two years, they had treated nearly 10,000 migrants with illnesses and that nearly a quarter of them showed clear signs of violent attack, including beatings, shootings, attacks with dogs and sexual assaults, all of which the victims attributed to security forces. The Moroccans blamed the Algerians. The Algerians blamed the Moroccans.

Looking back at these few months of intense violence, Amnesty concluded in a special report: "In the past few weeks, scores of people have been injured and at least 11 killed while trying to cross into the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla when they were confronted by the law enforcement officials of both countries… Hundreds more, including possible asylum seekers, have been rounded up by the Moroccan authorities and placed in detention or forcibly removed. The evidence we saw showed law enforcement officials used force which is both unlawful and disproportionate, including lethal weapons. They injured and killed people trying to cross the fence. Many of those seriously injured inside Spanish territory were pushed back through fence doors without any legal formality or medical assistance." The Spanish reacted by building an even bigger fence, subsidised by the EU.

By the time they had finished, the landward side of Melilla was protected by three 6m parallel fences, decorated with motion sensors, cameras and watchtowers, prowled by cars and helicopters and more troops than ever. The migrants kept coming. The guards kept shooting. On one night in July 2006, three African men were killed at the fence and 12 others injured. More started coming round the seaward side of the city, sometimes in small boats or even on jet skis, sometimes paddling in life jackets, sometimes face down and no longer breathing.

The Spanish and their paymasters in the EU reacted by creating a new kind of fence, a bureaucratic one. Migrants trickle into the city. Some apply for asylum, some simply ask for the right to reside. Their cases are considered and almost always rejected. Some of the rejects can then be expelled. But many come from countries that have no repatriation agreement with Spain. For years, the Spanish dealt with this by giving them a letter telling them they were expelled and putting them on the ferry to mainland Spain with instructions to take themselves back home, knowing that they would disappear into the world of black-market jobs and phoney papers. But as word of their success spread homewards, more followed. Now, they are not allowed on to the ferry; and they cannot be sent home because their countries have no agreement with Spain; they cannot be shoved back into Morocco because there is no agreement with it either; and so they stay, a living warning to those who might be tempted to follow.

There are hundreds of these stranded people in Melilla. Many are Asians who have paid people-smugglers to get them to Europe. In Melilla, I met them and heard stories of terrifying journeys, which began well enough, with the smugglers flying them from the Indian subcontinent through Dubai into central Africa, often into Mali, and then disintegrated as the smugglers betrayed them.

Shaibul was 23 when he left Comilla in south-east Bangladesh in January 2004, clutching his degree in commerce, aiming for Madrid and the chance to earn money to send back home. He was stranded in Mali for six days, alone in a house while the smugglers disappeared; he was stranded again with 17 other Asians somewhere in the Sahara when their driver vanished; then picked up and dumped in a date field in Algeria, where a gardener betrayed them to police, who drove them out to a scorching wasteland back on the border with Mali and left them.

"We found people in tents there," Shaibul told me. "They were lost, too. They called this place Zero. We begged food and water. One person in our group had a mobile phone and we spoke to our families. We were crying, very afraid. It was stone cold at night, baking in the day. There were high winds and sandstorms. Our families went to the smugglers, who said they must pay more money. My father said, 'I cannot lose my son', so he borrowed more from the bank and gave it to the smugglers. Other families did the same."

Moved by this extra money, the smugglers came and drove them back into Mali and, as the weeks went by, extorted two more payments from the families of their passengers while they drove them north and south, abandoning and rescuing them, until finally, having sold the family's land in Bangladesh, Shaibul's father secured him a place on a speedboat that took him from the coast of Algeria to the bottom of a cliff. "They told me, 'This is Spain, you must wait for the sun and then go up the cliff.'" Of course, it was not mainland Spain – it was Melilla. It was 29 December 2005 when Shaibul reached the top of the cliff and walked into the city. It had taken him 23 months to get there. And now, more than four years later, he is still there.

He can't move on to mainland Spain because the Spanish will not let him, although it is not clear that they have any legal right to restrain his movements in this way. He has not been charged, convicted or jailed for any crime. He is stranded. He cannot get back into Morocco or Algeria, because they will not take him. He cannot go back to Bangladesh, because they have no repatriation agreement with Spain, and anyway, Shaibul says: "My family have lost everything to pay for me to be here. Better to kill us than to make us go back."

He and several hundred other migrants survive in Melilla, partly because the Spanish authorities have provided a new Centro de Estancia Temporal de Immigrantes, known as the Ceti, where there are clean, safe dormitories and regular meals; partly because people hire them for odd jobs, washing their cars and sweeping their paths. They constantly ask Ceti staff for news of their permission to stay, but are told that it is for the police or the government to decide. If they become agitated, they are given tranquillisers. They say the only way to get a place on a ferry to the mainland is to act as a police informer. They refuse. From time to time, police make raids on the Ceti to grab migrants for expulsion. Many prefer to sleep on the streets than take the risk.

Moroccan soldier Hicham Bouchti applied for asylum in Spain after accusing the Moroccan authorities of running a regime of torture in their prisons. He has spent more than four years bouncing between borders, always coming back to rest in the nowhere land of Melilla. The last I heard of him, he was deep into a hunger strike.

Then there were the young parents of a baby boy. The mother was Moroccan, the father Indian. While the mother had been ordered back home – where she feared punishment from police and family for having sex before marriage with a non-Muslim – the boyfriend was told that he could not go with her because the Moroccan authorities would not accept him. Instead, three years after arriving in the city, he must continue to wait.

Ali Achet, who used to work in a CD shop in Dakha, has been stuck in the city since 9 December 2005. His family paid €3,000 (£2,626) to a smuggler, who agreed to fly him direct to Morocco. Instead, he was sent by bus to India, then by plane to Ethiopia and Togo, where he lived as a beggar for a year and was reduced to a walking skeleton, before finally his family helped him to bribe his way into Melilla in the back of a car. He said, "We came looking for liberty, but this is a prison. What have we done? Every day we wait for a solution. We are suffering. We have nothing now. A prison sentence is definite. This is endless."

Gregorio Escobar, governor of Melilla, sits in his well-appointed office in his neat grey suit. "We have a responsibility to take care of this border," he says, "not only for our own citizens but for all of Europe. Also, Spain has a responsibility to take care of the people who happen to get inside." He is no monster, and explains that he understands the pull of the city when the average per capita income inside Melilla is 15 times higher than it is on the other side of the fence in Morocco, and almost immeasurably higher than in sub-Saharan Africa, from where most of the migrants come.

Not far from Escobar's office, a group of about 50 Asians gather in the Plaza Menendez y Pelayo and chant a call for their human rights. Amnesty has continued to record reports of migrants being beaten and shot and dumped in the desert by the Moroccans. In Britain, the jobs are safe for British workers.

• Additional research by Jill Baron

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Morocco's Misguided War on Terror

Here is an article from Foreign Policy on the way things go for some people in the Moroccan judicial system.
Morocco's Misguided War on Terror
How the persecution of Islamists across North Africa, in the name of fighting terrorism, is sowing the seeds for future instability.

On a rainy Tuesday morning in February, a group of about 20 veiled women -- most of them dressed in black niqabs, the full-body veils favored by the most conservative Muslims -- stand silently in the street in front of the Rabat administrative tribunal. These wives, mothers, and sisters of alleged terrorists detained by the Moroccan government have come from across the country to show their support for one of their own, Fatiha Mejjati. Inside the courtroom, Mejjati is bringing a suit against the Moroccan government for wrongfully detaining her and her then-11-year-old son for nine months in 2003.

Since the May 16, 2003, bombings in Casablanca, when 14 terrorists launched a series of suicide attacks on several sites in the city, including the Belgian Consulate and a Jewish community center, killing 45 people, Morocco has adopted its version of the USA Patriot Act. This law increased the punishment for terrorist-related activities and, most importantly, criminalized the "intent of committing an act of terrorism," a crime the government interpreted broadly, using it to convict hundreds of people.

The U.S. government has embraced Morocco as a "moderate" ally in the region, more than tripling economic aid to the country since 2003. "Morocco is a leader in the fight against terrorism," said the U.S. ambassador to Morocco, Samuel Kaplan, in a televised interview in early February. He insisted that the efforts taken by the Moroccan government were "clear, direct, and strong." Indeed, the Moroccan government has taken staunch measures in the name of security over the last few years.

Human Rights Watch, on the other hand, stated in its 2010 annual report that "human rights conditions deteriorated overall in 2009 in Morocco." The report cited the unfair detention of presumed terrorists among the reasons for this decline.

Following the 2003 terrorist attacks, more than 2,000 adherents to a conservative interpretation of Islam, known as Salafism, were arrested and sentenced to terms ranging from 30 years to life in prison. Today, Morocco's Salafist population still labors under government suspicion and has been the target of repressive measures, including trials over trivial matters, kidnappings, and arbitrary detentions. These counterterrorism policies have particularly affected the families of the presumed terrorists. Many children remember very well their fathers' arrests and have themselves been exposed to scrutiny. Their parents warn that they themselves can be bombs waiting to explode.

Inside the courtroom, Mejjati, dressed all in black and holding a Samsonite briefcase containing pictures of her son, is making her case against the Moroccan government. She is the widow of Karim Mejjati, the deceased al Qaeda operative who was allegedly involved in the planning of the Casablanca attack, as well as the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which claimed 191 lives. He was killed in a shootout with Saudi forces in 2005.

In 2001 and 2002, Karim Mejjati took his family to live in Afghanistan and then Pakistan, with the stated goal of meeting Osama bin Laden, before settling in Saudi Arabia as a midlevel field operative for the organization. Fatiha Mejjati claims that one morning in March 2003, while she and her son Elias were on their way to the doctor, they were arrested and sent on a private CIA jet to the Moroccan prison of Temara, where they were detained for nine months. Fatiha Mejjati said she was interrogated about her husband's terrorist activities solely in relation to the United States. She said they underwent all sorts of tortures, such as sleep deprivation. Morocco denies Elias and his mother were ever detained.

Today Elias has serious mental and physical problems, including depression, paranoia, hormonal dysfunctions, and obesity. He is prone to violent outbursts. He does not attend school and only leaves the house to go to the doctor. "They ruined Elias's childhood; they must pay for it," said Fatiha Mejjati.

While Mejjati is inside the courtroom waiting for the judges to decide her case, her support group is waiting outside. Demonstrations such as these, a frequent occurrence in Morocco, are organized by An-Nassir, an organization that assists families of detained Salafists. All these women have a son, a brother, or a husband in a Moroccan prison. They all have a story to tell: the horrible detention conditions of their family members, daily repression from local authorities, denial of their rights as citizens, discrimination in the workplace, and marginalization of their children at school.

The women have a hard time containing their outrage. "Why are they in jail? Where are the proofs? Where are the bodies? Where are the bombs? To justify putting my brother in jail for 30 years?" demanded Khamissa Rtimi, the sister of Abderazak Karaoui. Her brother is innocent, she claims, and was arrested solely because he lived next door to one of the terrorists who conducted the Casablanca attacks.

Another woman, Rachida Baroudi, stands by herself. Her head is not covered, and she is dressed in pants and a jacket. Her son was arrested and jailed for a comment he wrote on a blog in which he expressed his anti-Western sentiments. "He is a prisoner of opinion. He has not done anything and is not prone to violence," his mother said. "I have to financially support his wife and his two children. One of them was born while he was already in jail. She only knows her father inside a prison."

The word "Salafist" is very often misunderstood and confused with terrorism. That is because al Qaeda's religious ideology rests on a particular jihadi branch of Salafism that encourages violence. However, the jihadists are the minority among adherents of Salafism. Most do not believe in using violence to spread their beliefs. The distinctive dress of Salafists -- the women are fully covered, and the men have beards and wear long blouses -- might make them easy to pick out of a crowd, but their ideology is poorly understood by most.

In fact, there is a politically quietist strain to many Salafist movements. French scholar Gilles Kepel, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics IDEAS center and an expert on political Islam, describes the original Salafist trends as nonviolent. "They are not advocating the revolt against one who holds power, against the powers that be," he said in a PBS Frontline interview. "They are calling for re-Islamization at the daily level."

In Morocco, however, all Salafists are treated as a potential threat to national security. Thousands have been thrown in jail over the last few years. Abderrahim Mouhtad, who runs An-Nassir, said the estimated number of prisoners today is around 1,000. Human Rights Watch's annual report denounces the conditions of suspected Islamist extremists of the 2003 bombings, who continue today to serve prison terms. "Many were convicted in unfair trials after being held that year in secret detention for days or weeks, and subjected to mistreatment and sometimes torture while under interrogation," the report states.

The Salafists have attempted a few hunger strikes to protest their detention, but with little effect. "There are a great number of innocent Salafists in the Moroccan prisons," said Mohamed Darif, a political science professor at Hassan II University in Mohammedia, Morocco. "There wasn't enough proof against the majority. They were convicted even if it wasn't clear that they were involved in any kind of terrorist activity."

According to him, Morocco's example is not unique. Many North African regimes, such as Algeria and Mauritania, in a bid to consolidate their power, have used the U.S.-sponsored war on terror as an excuse to crack down on their Salafist populations. "After 9/11, the American government has pushed many countries to fight religious extremism. The Moroccan government instrumentalized the May 16 attacks to pass an anti-terror law," Darif said.

King Mohammed VI, Morocco's ruler, has tried to soften the edges of his country's harsh treatment of Salafists. In an interview with the Spanish newspaper El País in 2005, he admitted that the measures taken in the past may have been "exaggerated." The king said that "there are no doubts that there have been abuses" and pledged that "it is necessary that such events never occur again." In 2006, he pardoned a few Salafists as a goodwill gesture.

According to Selma Belaala, who studies North African Islamic movements at the Centre d'Études et de Recherches Internationales in Paris, the Moroccan government successfully cast its counterterrorism efforts as a set of policies that not only employed the security services, but also aimed at reforming the country's legal and cultural norms. "The king did not only engage in a wide repression; he also reformed the laws, and society with a new family code," she said. "Women gained more rights, and the population was more educated. This is an effort to culturally fight radicalism."

From the Rabat courtroom, Fatiha Mejjati has a different perspective. She is waiting impatiently for the judges to deliver their decision. She paces in and out of the courtroom, thanking her "sisters" for coming all the way to the country's capital to show their support. She even fights with the security guards, asking them to let the other women in the courtroom so they don't have to stand in the rain. Near noon, the judges finally read their judgment: Her motion is denied.

"This court is a masquerade. God will give us our payback," Mejjati yells. She then walks out of the courtroom and hands the women assembled outside pictures of her son, Elias, showing him before and after his detention. A normal looking 11-year-old has transformed into an obese, sickly, acne-ridden teenager. The women start marching peacefully under the rain through the streets of Rabat in protest, followed closely by the police.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Building Affordable Housing in Morocco

Here is an article from the Financial Times about plans to increase affordable housing in al-Maghreb.

Morocco offers home help to its poor

By Heba Saleh

Published: April 7 2010 17:42 | Last updated: April 7 2010 17:42

Standing outside her ramshackle home in one of Casablanca’s slums, Aziza El Shannani bemoans her living conditions.

“If it rains, the water comes in, and if there is wind, the roof moves,” she says.

Some 2,500 people live in the huddle of small dwellings made from breeze blocks and topped with metal sheets weighed down with stones. The narrow alleys between the houses are less than a metre across. There is no running water in the homes, with residents instead having to use a public tap.

Many such as Ms Shannani say they would like to leave but they have to wait for a government scheme to progress. Morocco has a shortfall of 1.2m low-cost homes, and every year this figure increases by 125,000.

It is a region-wide problem that the Moroccan government hopes to tackle with a package of incentives designed to revive the construction of low-cost housing, which was announced in its most recent budget.

This includes tax breaks for buyers and developers alike, with 10-year exemptions from capital gains tax for companies building affordable housing.

One company taking advantage of the new measures is Addoha, one of the North African nation’s largest real estate developers, which accounts for almost half of the low-cost housing being constructed in Morocco.

The company plans to build up to 25,000 apartments for people on low-incomes in the country this year, and 120,000 homes over five years.

“The tax exemptions are for 10 years so it gives us clear visibility,” says Abderazzak Oualieallah, assistant director-general of Addoha. “Our profit margin is 30 per cent but it was difficult when the tax breaks were abolished in 2008.”

The company has a land bank of 6,000 hectares, half of which is earmarked for affordable homes. Land for housing aimed at the poor is provided by the state at a discounted price.

Mr Oualieallah says he expects the easier terms for developers to encourage more companies to enter the sector and that the problem of unmet demand could end within 10 years.

Despite the fact that the company has yet to announce the locations of the developments, more than 150,000 people have put their names down on a waiting list.

“Renting is not good because landlords are always trying to throw you out,” says Khadija Greir, as she leaves the the Addoha headquarters in Casablanca after registering for an apartment for herself and her unemployed 34-year-old son.

Ms Greir says that King Mohammed, Morocco’s ruler, “is now doing us this good deed by giving each buyer a gift” of Dh40,000 ($4,750).

The “gift” is a rebate on value added tax to which low-income buyers are entitled, as part of the housing package announced in the budget. Registration fees have also been abolished.

The number of units a developer has to build to qualify for the incentives is 500 over two years. The units should be sold at the fixed price of Dh290,000.

The provision of cheap housing is part of the “Cities without Slums” programme initiated in 2004. More than 30 slums have been cleared, but many remain. The government aims to move 280,000 households out of the shanty towns.

The government has in recent years turned its attention to clearing slums after 14 suicide bombers from a shanty town outside Casablanca killed 45 people, including themselves, in 2003. Some of the larger slum communities had become breeding grounds for extremism, spread by unauthorised mosques preaching admiration for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

The construction of low-income housing, however, had flagged after earlier tax breaks for developers were withdrawn in 2008, and even the cheapest housing is beyond the means of many slum dwellers.

The government now plans to spend $7.5bn during the next decade on low-cost housing and its slum clearance programmes.

It has also been encouraging mortgage providers to lend to lower-income families. In 2004 the government set up Fogarim, a guarantee fund, which is used to underwrite 70 per cent of the sum loaned. It is funded by a levy of about $12 on every tonne of cement sold in the country.

“This makes banks more comfortable about lending even to those who do not have a regular pay cheque,” says Youssef Benkirane, head of brokerage at BMCE Capital.

As a barrier to speculation, owners of the low-cost homes are not allowed to sell for four years.

For those who cannot afford the monthly mortgage payments of $120, which are the norm for the low-cost units such as those sold by Addoha, there is an alternative scheme that offers subsidised homes costing about $19,000.

Mr Benkirane says that the scheme has worked well during the past five years, and adds that the rate of non-performing loans has been less than 1 per cent – “because people do not want to lose their flats”.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010.