Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Moroccans Protest King's 2 Billion Dollar Investment Fund

Here is an article from Bloomberg Businessweek about King M6's 2 Billion Dollar Investment Fund and his controlling shares in Moroccan markets. Such dominating economic power could be seen as a conflict of interests for the ruler of a country.

Moroccans Protest Monarch’s $2 Billion Fund as Democracy Barrier

March 24, 2011, 12:44 AM EDT

By Gregory Viscusi and Aida Alami

March 24 (Bloomberg) -- When tens of thousands of Moroccans took to the streets nationwide on March 20, their chanted demands echoed those of citizens across the Arab world: freer elections, greater civil liberties and less corruption.

Except they were also protesting an investment fund.

SNI, with assets worth at least $2 billion, is controlled by Morocco’s King Mohammed VI and managed by Mohamed Mounir Al Majidi, the king’s private secretary, who has business interests of his own. The 47-year-old monarch holds stakes in banking, insurance, dairy, sugar and cooking-oil companies; his advisers are involved in ventures from consulting to advertising.

For protesters, SNI’s web of interests highlights the flaw in the king’s March 9 promise pledge to put Morocco on the path to becoming the Arab world’s first constitutional monarchy. Unless the influence wielded by Mohammed VI and his advisers is weakened, his promises will ring hollow, they say.

“You can’t have fair competition when the people with power descend into the souk,” said Abdelilah Benkirane, leader of the Justice and Development Party, an Islamist party modeled on Turkey’s AKP. “That has to end.”

“SNI Out” and “Majidi Go Away,” read banners held by demonstrators in many of the 53 cities that saw protests.

The popular movements that ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have spread to Morocco, though with a difference. The crowds have been smaller and peaceful. Police have kept their distance. Moroccan protesters are demanding greater democracy and an end to corruption, not a change in regime.

Moroccan Difference

The best way to reduce the king’s hold over the economy is to pressure him to go through with the constitutional changes he’s promised, Benkirane said. The ruling family has reigned since the 17th century, and Mohammed VI’s grandfather led the liberation struggle that ended the French protectorate in 1956.

“A political person can’t also be an economic actor,” said Chakir Aboubakir, a 28-year-old freelance salesman and business student involved with February 20, a Facebook-based movement that organized protests on that day and again on March 20. “He has to choose.”

Mohammed VI has already loosened freedom of speech since becoming king in 1999, even setting up an Equity and Reconciliation Commission in 2004. It investigated thousands of victims of disappearances and arbitrary detentions under Mohammed VI’s father, King Hassan II.

The constitutional changes, to be drawn by a commission by June, will be put to a referendum in this country of 32 million.

Strikes, Demands

During three days last week, unemployed university graduates gathered outside the parliament in Rabat to demand jobs, teachers camped outside the Education Ministry protesting low wages, retired bus drivers in Casablanca demanded back pension payments outside the city courthouse and members of February 20 met at the headquarters of an opposition party to debate strategy. Police were barely in sight.

Among the 17 Arab countries, only Kuwait and Lebanon were freer than Morocco, according to last year’s annual rankings by Washington-based Freedom House.

“The monarchy is not contested,” said Omar Radi, a 25- year old economist and also a member of the February 20 group. “Other countries haven’t had the opening we’ve had since 2000. He’s let some pressure off.”

Share Buyback

SNI, which has no website and operates from an unmarked Casablanca office building, was listed on the Casablanca stock market until August 2010, when it merged with its subsidiary Omnium Nord Africain and bought back its outstanding shares in a $3.9-billion offer.

In 2009, its last full year as a quoted company, SNI reported revenue of 3.4 billion dirhams ($430 million) and stock market holdings valued at 17.4 billion. ONA and SNI accounted for 11.7 percent of the Casablanca market’s 509 billion dirham market capitalization at end of 2009, according to figures in the bourse’s annual report.

According to the website of Bourse de Casablanca, the country’s main stock market, SNI combined owns 48.3 percent of Attijariwafa Bank, the country’s largest publicly traded bank; 79 percent of Wafa Assurance, the largest traded insurer; 63.4 percent of Centrale Laitiere, its largest dairy; 75.8 percent of Lesieur Cristal, its largest maker of cooking oils; and 63.5 percent of Cosumar, the largest sugar refiner.

Steel and Sugar

It controls 65 percent of steelmaker Sonasid through a joint venture with ArcelorMittal set up in 2006. Lafarge Maroc, the country’s largest producer of building materials, is in a 50-50 venture with Paris-based Lafarge SA.

At the time of the merger, SNI said it would sell its stakes in Cosumar, Lesieur Cristal and Centrale Laitiere, which is has yet to do. Shares of Cosumar and Centrale Laitier are both up 10 percent since the beginning of the year, making them the ninth- and 10th-best performers on Casablanca’s benchmark Madex index.

The index is unchanged since the start of the year, while the Dow Jones Arabia Titans 50 Index is down 9 percent. Its 10th-best performer: Attijariwafa Bank, up 0.4 percent.

SNI didn’t respond to phone and e-mail requests for comment. A receptionist at the unmarked SNI office space in an Attijariwafa office building in Casablanca’s business district said no documentation was available. Communications Minister Khalid Naciri didn’t return phone and e-mail messages.

‘Beneficial Rights’

“Institutions such as the royal family’s holding company, Omnium Nord Africaine (ONA), which now clears most large (property) development projects, regularly coerce developers into granting beneficial rights to ONA,” said a U.S. diplomatic cable written in December 2009 by Casablanca consul general Elisabeth Millard and released by Wikileaks.

The king’s advisers are involved in the economy as well. Fouad El Himma, the former deputy minister of interior who now heads the Party of Authenticity and Modernity, owns Cabinet Mena Media Consulting, said Rachid Filali Meknassi, secretary-general of Transparency Maroc, a Rabat-based organization linked to Transparency International. Majidi, the private secretary, owns FC Communication, the country’s largest outdoor advertising company, Filali said.

“Once there is a real parliament and government in place, then the real battle against the Makhzen can begin,” said Azzedine Layachi, a political science professor at St. John’s University in New York. He was using a Moroccan term that means the “warehouse” and refers to the royal advisers, business leaders and top bureaucrats who hold power behind the scenes.

Prime Minister

In his 11-minute speech on March 9, seated between his seven-year old son and his 40-year old brother, the king said he would strengthen the powers of the prime minister, who will come from an elected political party, and promote free and fair elections. Regional councils also are to be elected.

The king didn’t mention abolishing the constitution’s Article 19, which has been interpreted to give him full powers, and he’ll choose the members of the commission himself -- ignoring two demands of the February 20 movement.

Karim Tazi, the former head of the Moroccan Textile Industry Federation, the country’s largest industrial employer, said the state-run media’s derision of the February 20 movement and the king’s power over the economy are worrying signs.

“There’s clearly pride on the side of the king, that he wants to do it at his own rhythm and not be rushed by the street,” Tazi said. “The risk is that by not listening, the palace will radicalize the movement.”

--Editors: Anne Swardson, John Fraher

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Souk Zaouaj : Moroccan Online Marriage Site Makes News

Here is an article from the AFP about a new website Moroccans are using to find spouses.

Morocco: website gives new twist to 'arranged' marriages

By Omar Brouksy (AFP)

CASABLANCA, Morocco — Marriage in Morocco has an increasingly changing face these days as young men and women in search of lifetime partners head for the souk, in this case a "cyber" marriage souk.

In a country where many marriages are still arranged, a click of a computer mouse will take the Internaut to Soukzouaj, a free site where thousands of lonely hearted young Moroccans look for their soul mates

"This marriage site was created in June 2010," Yasser Nejjar, founder of, told AFP.

"So it's recent but but it has a real success because it's free and it's near."

Every day almost 2,600 prospective partners visit the site, two thirds of them women. Its shows a map of Morocco divided into 16 sections, and the user can click on the part of the country they choose to start their search.

"Today, for example, there are 1,670 posts from women as against 870 from men. To my mind that means women are more daring than men," Nejjar observed.

"Most of the posts show there is a great desire for commitment and 'seriousness', in what they call 'halal', that is to say legal, which is in line with religious norms. In short, marriage."

Observers of Moroccan society regard matrimonial sites as a new phenomenon, linked to new forms of communication, even if there are many family-arranged marriages in a country where Islam is the state religion.

"Today girls make demands," said sociologist Soumaya Naamane Guessous.

"They want husbands who love them, who respect them, men not smothered by their mother, who allow them to live far from their in-laws."

She says that the success of soukzouaj, quite apart from the fact that it is free, in a country where arranged marriages are common, is due to the fact "that young girls no longer accept the first suitor who knocks at their family's door, or whom the family suggests."

Latest official figures show more than 13 million surf the net in this North African kingdom of about 32 million residents.

The Internet has also played a role in recent demonstrations for pro-democracy reform in Morocco, following a trend across the Arab world that started in Tunisia where sweeping protests led to the ouster of president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in January.

The first rallies in several Moroccan cities on February 20 were in answer to a call by young people via Facebook.

On Soukzouaj, most of the posts by women, in the Moroccan dialect, darija, and French, emphasise the need for "respect" for them and a requirement that the prospective spouse be a "practising Muslim".

"Young Moroccan woman, teacher, seeks Muslim with a good heart, good man, who respects women and is generous from every point of view," reads one post.

The men, for their part, highlight their social standing and "seriousness".

"I am Simo, 28, from Rabat, computer engineer in a ministry, practising, nice and very serious, looking for serious girl from same city for serious relationship which, God willing, will result in a bright and holy marriage," said one man in search of the wife of his dreams.

The arrival of marriage sites demonstrates the upheavals and changes resulting from the modernisation of part of Moroccan society, observers say.

"We see, too, that there is a lot of loneliness, disappointment among both men and women," said Nâamane Guessous.

Copyright © 2011 AFP. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Demographic Change in Morocco: Living Longer, Marrying Later, and Having Fewer Children المغرب يشهد تحولا ديمغرافيا

Here is an article from Magharebia on documented changes to the Moroccan lifestyle. The Arabic version can be found here.
Morocco Faces Demographic Change

Moroccans are living longer, marrying later and reducing their fertility rate, according to a recent state report.
By Siham Ali for Magharebia in Rabat – 18/03/11

Moroccan society is witnessing massive demographic and social shifts, a recently released National Demographic Survey concluded.

While the average Moroccan born in the 1960s had a life expectancy of 47 years, it has now risen to 74.8 years, the findings conducted in 2009-2010 revealed.

"There has been an increase of 28 years, resulting from the drop in mortality rates in the various age groups. The speed at which these rates have changed is, as we know, strongly related to the extent of improvements made in sanitary and living conditions," explained High Commissioner for Planning Ahmed Lahlimi at a Rabat press briefing on Monday (March 14th).

The Morocco infant mortality rate, though still high, has fallen considerably. In the early 1960s, almost one child in every seven died before their first birthday, compared with one in 33 today.

Recent years have seen a sizeable reduction in fertility, according to Lahlimi. In 2004, the fertility rate was 2.46 children per woman. But in six years, it has dropped approximately 2% per year. "This is quite a remarkable phenomenon when the fertility is already low," he said.

According to the official, these transformations in reproductive behaviour suggest underlying changes in marital practices. The marriage age has increased considerably in the past fifty years. In 2010, women married at an average age of 26.6 and men at 31.4, which is 9.3 and 7.5 years later, respectively, than in 1960.

The indicator is higher in urban areas than in the countryside, with rural men marrying on average 2.5 years earlier than those living in towns and rural women tying the knot 1.8 years earlier than city dwellers. Today, nine out of ten women aged 15 to 19 years are still unmarried.

Endogamy, which has traditionally been encouraged as a way of maintaining family cohesion or safeguarding family assets, fell from 33% in 1987 to 29.3% in 1995, reaching 21% in 2010. The current divorce rate is 10.5% compared with 31% in the 1960s.

Far-reaching changes had occurred in value systems and social behaviour, against a backdrop of considerable cross-fertilisation of Moroccan populations under the effect of immigration, Lahlimi said.

The falling demographic rate can also be seen in the reduced population under 15, which made it possible to increase inputs into education and improve the quality of those entering the labour market, he explained.

Economist Saâd Beddari told Magharebia that the importance of such a study lies in the identification of new needs, so that changes can be made to match the society transformations.

The working population, essentially made up of young people, is without doubt a considerable asset, he said, but that requires the state to step up its rate of investment in leading sectors. This, Beddari argued, can partly be done by adjusting the education and training system to match the new requirements.

Detailed analysis is needed to bring practical solutions to the emerging problems, according to sociologist Samir Kassimi.

"We have seen, for example, more and more single people – both men and women – because of socioeconomic problems," she said. "We see more and more older women who do not work and are not married. They are looked after through family solidarity. The state needs to take new these changes into account in order to plan suitable support mechanisms."

Monday, March 21, 2011

Bringing Si Abd El-Krim, the Rifi Warrior Home to Morocco

Here is a piece from Public Radio International' show the World on the valant man from the Rif who fought Spanish and French colonizers in Morocco, and attempts by his relatives to get his remains repatriated to Morocco from Egypt. If you clink on the link, you can access the audio.
Abd El-Krim: A Moroccan Hero who Never Was
By The World ⋅ March 17, 2011

By Gerry Hadden

As North African and Arab citizens cast about for leaders to fill the political vacuums in their countries, a quick remembrance of one such leader from days gone by. Abd El-Krim made his name liberating northern Morocco from Spanish colonial rule, in 1921. He was a scholar, a warrior and, for a brief time, even an emir. But Abd El-Krim was also a Rif, an ethnic group within the region’s larger Berber community. And that’s kept him sidelined in Morocco’s official history.

It began with the decisive battle against the Spanish, in 1921, at Annual, in the
mountainous Rif region of northern Morocco. The fight pitted Abd El-Krim and his rag-tag Rif militias against thousands of Spanish troops. One former Rif fighter, an elderly man named Chaaib Si-Mohand N’aali ,spoke of their victory in a Spanish documentary three years ago.

“Abd El-krim was our leader,” the old man recalled. “We surrounded the Spanish. They resisted. But they were afraid and exhausted. We wiped them out.

The Rif are ethnic Berbers … the indigenous people who’ve lived in North Africa for more than two millennia. The story of how their leader, Abd El-Krim, liberated them from colonial exploitation has become a legend for them. Journalist Merieme Addou’s grandfather fought alongside Abd El-Krim. Addou said Abd El- Krim was far outnumbered by the Spanish and knew he couldn’t fight an ordinary war.

“You need to have a tactic to win,” she said. “The Rif is a region of mountains. As foreigners, if you come here you don’t know this place. You don’t know where you are. So it was kind of using this very hard, difficult land, using it as a way to defeat the Spanish; using guerilla fighting.
Declaring independence

After victory, Abd El-Krim established the Rif Republic, a state independent not only from Spain and Morocco’s other colonizer, France, but from Morocco itself. The Republic’s new emir sent letters to every European head of state to announce it.

But his declaration fell on deaf ears. Five years of fighting later, the combined Spanish, French and Moroccan armies drove Abd El-Krim into exile, in Egypt. He died there in 1962 without ever setting foot back in Morocco. Not even after it gained full independence from France in 1956.

The Rif rose up once more, in 1958, and were brutally put down by then King Mohammed V. The repression continued under the next king, Hassan II according to Samed Assid, a Berber activist.

“Hassan II had a policy of vengeance,” Assid said. “He punished the Rif. Like Ghaddafi is doing now to his own people, in Libya. Hassan massacred the Rif population. And we have never forgotten. And we have not integrated. Today we are still a separate population.”

As for Abd El-Krim, Assid said the Moroccan government has simply fabricated his role in history.

“His story has been falsified in our schoolbooks,” he said. “Open a Moroccan textbook today. It says that Abd El-Krim fought against the French and Spanish …for the Moroccan throne. The books don’t mention his project to set up an independent Rif
republic. That is taboo.”

Assid said the taboo started in 1921, the moment Abd El-Krim declared his Rif Republic. The Moroccan state, dominated by Arabs, never wanted to mention the subject again.
Disappearing taboos

But 90 years later, some taboos surrounding the Berber have disappeared.
Assid, who is now president of the Morocco’s Royal Institute of Berber – or Amazigh – Culture, demonstrated on a recent day, sitting in his office. He sang a traditional Berber poem. In his hands he held a book with the lyrics, written in the Berber alphabet.

“Our current King, Mohammed VI, created this Institute,” he said. The king has also allowed our language back in public schools. And he’s allowed it to be written down, in its own alphabet. Before 2001 this was forbidden. If someone wrote in Berber letters on a sign or hotel awning, for example, he would be jailed.”

But one Berber wish remains unfulfilled; Abd El-Krim remains buried in Egypt. And there’s no indication that the government will let his relatives bring his remains home. But the pressure is mounting, said journalist Merieme Addou. She said that during Morocco’s largest pro-democracy march this February, some Rif carried Abd El-krim’s photo, and signs asking for his repatriation.

“I think there is no real reconciliation with the Rif people until his body is back and buried in his home town,” she said.

Moroccan Berbers are also talking about forming their own political party. If they do, and democratic elections are held, the Rif may just be able to vote their legendary hero home.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Moroccan Craftsmen Build Maghrebi Courtyard at NYC's Metropolitan Museum of Art

Here is an article from the New York Times about Moroccan craftsmen from Fes who are in New York to build a traditional Moroccan- Andalusian courtyard inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art for its Islamic Art gallery.

History's Hands
Published: March 17, 2011

WHEN the Metropolitan Museum of Art makes a big curatorial decision, it tends to do so with the kind of grave deliberation that goes into a papal bull. Gut feeling is not a prized consideration. But in the spring of 2009, in a dust-covered basement workshop in Fez, Morocco, a young curator in the museum’s Islamic department sat among a group of artisans — workers in traditional North African tile, plaster and wood ornament whose roots stretched back seven generations in the trade — and asked the company’s chief executive yet again why the museum should enlist them for an unusual mission.

The executive, a boyish-looking man named Adil Naji, reached over and took hold of the wrist of one of his younger brothers, Hisham. He hoisted the brother’s rough, callused fingers in front of the curator, Navina Haidar, and, with a climactic intensity that wouldn’t have been out of place in “Lawrence of Arabia,” exclaimed, “Look, this is my brother’s hand!”

As Ms. Haidar recalled recently, back in the much less cinematic confines of a museum construction site: “It was a very powerful moment. It made up our minds because we could see how close he was to the tradition. And we wanted to see that hand on our walls.”

She and her colleagues had gone to Morocco in search of help for a kind of project that the Metropolitan, which generally concerns itself with the work of dead artists, has rarely undertaken in its 140 years: to install a group of living artists inside the museum for the purposes of creating a permanent new part of its collection.

The last time such a thing happened was in 1980, when Brooke Astor underwrote the re-creation of a Ming dynasty garden courtyard, made by more than two dozen master builders from Suzhou, China, who spent four months on the job within the museum’s Chinese painting galleries, working with hand tools unchanged for generations.

Almost 30 years later the museum was embarking on the most ambitious rethinking and rebuilding of its Islamic art galleries in its history, a $50 million endeavor. At the heart of those galleries, which will open in the fall after being closed six years, it dreamed of showcasing the defining feature of Moroccan and southern Spanish Islamic architecture: a medieval Maghrebi-Andalusian-style courtyard, which would function in much the same way such courtyards still do in the traditional houses and mosques of Marrakesh or Casablanca, as their physical and spiritual center.

The problem was that, while the museum owns entire blocks’ worth of historic architecture, it did not happen to have a medieval Islamic courtyard sitting around in storage anywhere. And so after months of debate about whether it could pull off such a feat in a way that would meet the Met’s standards, it essentially decided to order a courtyard up.

Which is how a group of highly regarded Moroccan craftsmen, many of whom had never set foot in New York, came essentially to take up residence at the Met beginning last December, working some days in their jabador tunics and crimson fezzes (known as tarbooshes in Morocco), to build a 14th-century Islamic fantasia in seclusion high above the Greek and Roman galleries as unknowing museum goers passed below.

With world attention focused on the Middle East, the courtyard has taken on an unforeseen importance for the museum; for the Kingdom of Morocco itself, which has followed the project closely; and for a constituency of Muslim scholars and supporters of the Met. They hope it will function not only as a placid chronological way station for people moving through more than a millennium of Islamic history, but also as a symbol, amid potent anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States and Europe, that aesthetic and intellectual commerce remains alive between Islam and the West.

“Every one of these guys here knows what this means, what’s riding on this,” said Mr. Naji, 35, the president and chief executive of Arabesque, a company of craftsmen founded in Fez in 1928 by his great-grandfather, now run by Mr. Naji and three of his brothers.

It was late December, and he was gesturing across a cluttered, unadorned room that didn’t look like much of a symbol, much less a reimagined medieval courtyard, except for high metal armatures suggesting the forms of arches. Mr. Naji’s brother Hisham, 33, of the callused and persuasive hand, stood atop a scaffold covered in plaster dust. Below him, covering a swath of the floor, lay tens of thousands of pieces of clay tile, many not much bigger than grains of rice, fitted together face down in a big rectangle that looked like a shallow sandbox scored with impossibly intricate lines. The tiles had been shipped from Fez, where large pieces had been fired in ovens fueled with olive pits and sawdust and then hand cut into individual shapes by 35 workers over a period of four months.

Inside the Met that morning an Arabesque specialist in this kind of painstaking mosaic work, known as zellij, sat cross-legged, placing some of the final pieces into the arrangement with tweezers as another scattered dry grout between the tiles. Handfuls of water were then sprinkled like ablutions over these areas to begin to cement the pieces in place. And when it was all dried, the dado panel was hoisted up into its place along one of the courtyard walls, filling the room for the first time with the kind of kaleidoscopic color and tessellated patterning meant to transport visitors from Fifth Avenue to Fez. (The tiles’ traditional function is to soften the solidity of the walls. “The surface is seemingly dissolved,” Jonas Lehrman, an architectural scholar, wrote in “Earthly Paradise: Garden and Courtyard in Islam,” a 1980 study. “Yet throughout the entire organization, even the smallest units are related by the overriding discipline of the geometry.”)

Over the course of two months a reporter and photographer were invited to watch as the space began to transform slowly from a 21-by-23-foot drywall box — illuminated by an LED panel in the ceiling cleverly mimicking daylight — to a courtyard with tile patterns based on those in the Alhambra palace in Granada, above which rise walls of fantastically filigreed plaster, leading to a carved cedar molding based on the renowned woodwork in the 14th-century Attarin madrasa, or Islamic school, in Fez.

The men from Morocco, 14 in all, came in waves, and despite suffering through their first New York winter, they settled comfortably into two large condominiums in Jackson Heights, Queens, accommodations that Adil Naji persuaded the owner, a Lebanese man, to lease to them, even though it was a nonrental building, by describing their mission at the Met. The men hired a local Moroccan woman to cook for them, and every morning they carry their kebabs and couscous in lunch boxes to the Met.

Occasionally New York still throws a curve ball or two. After a recent breakfast in Queens with the company’s lawyer, the men made their way to the No. 7 train, and the oldest Naji brother, Mohammed, 40 — the family’s most revered craftsman, a maalem, or master carver — was almost arrested after his monthly Metrocard failed to swipe properly, and he simply walked through an open emergency gate. On the subway later, wearing his customary street clothes — pointy-toed cowboy boots, baseball cap, a baby-blue fur-lined jacket — he seemed unperturbed, smiling broadly.

Adil Naji, who went to college in Washington and speaks perfect English, asked his brother how he could be so calm, and then translated the answer: “He said: ‘I had a lawyer, a reporter and a photographer with me. What was going to happen?’ ”

Sheila R. Canby, who was recruited two years ago from the British Museum to lead the Met’s Islamic department and oversee the renovation of the galleries, said that the back and forth between the craftsmen and the curators had sometimes been tumultuous. The Moroccans, who are known for their restoration work on important mosques and other landmarks in the Middle East, are in essence living historians who have carried on patterns and designs preserved in practice for generations. But they have never attempted a job requiring this level of historical attention or artistry, one whose goal is to look as authentic to Moroccan eyes as to those of scholars.

“We have been very difficult clients, sending drawings back over and over again,” Ms. Canby said recently, watching the men work. “We didn’t want any intrusions of modern interpretation.”

Ms. Haidar added, “They’d say to us, ‘But our great grandfathers did it this way,’ and we would tell them, ‘We’re taking you even further back into your history.’ ”

Adil Naji, listening in, shrugged his shoulders diplomatically. “It was fun to go back and forth,” he said.

Ms. Canby laughed out loud: “You say that now.”

Perhaps almost as remarkable as the presence of the craftsmen inside the Met is that the team of scholars and planners who recruited them and have collaborated closely with them is composed mostly of women, one of them Israeli. Besides Ms. Canby and Ms. Haidar, the group includes Nadia Erzini, an art historian and curator at the Museum of Islamic Life in Tétouan, Morocco; Mahan Khajenoori, from the museum’s construction department; and Achva Benzinberg Stein, an expert on Moroccan courts and gardens and a professor of landscape architecture at City College.

On a recent visit to the museum Ms. Stein became emotional surveying the work under way, describing how she had fallen in love with books about Moroccan architecture as a young woman in Tel Aviv but had been unable to travel there until the mid-1970s because she was Israeli. “This is like the culmination of a life’s work for me,” she said, wiping away tears. “To me it means the possibility of so many things, of peace.”

By late February inside the courtyard the wall tile work had been completed, and the woodwork, as redolent as a cedar closet, had been mostly installed. Still to come before the opening in the fall would be a specially designed self-circulating fountain and benches designed by Ms. Stein.

Mohammed Naji and seven other plaster carvers had just set to work on the most painstaking part of the job, incising interlaced patterns into the still-soft wall, arabesques and other forms so tiny and complex that each man can sometimes complete only a four-inch square over the course of a day.

“This kind of work is really not done anymore in Morocco — it’s too time consuming, too cost prohibitive,” Adil Naji said, watching his eldest brother sitting on a stool, peering over a pair of reading glasses, carving with a thin wood-handled knife and pausing metronomically every few seconds to lean forward and blow the dust from the crevices.

Mr. Naji beamed, but he conceded, as he watched the company’s greatest work taking shape, that one thing worried him.

“Two of my guys told me that they wanted to retire after this, because they couldn’t see a way to top it,” he said. “I wake up at night with this fear that when we’re done, they’re all going to stand back and look at it and hang up their tools for good.”

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Will Morocco's King Deliver on Promised Reforms?

Here is a piece from the Arab Reform Bulletin of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace about the possibility of any real reform taking place in Morocco.

Will Morocco’s King Deliver on Reforms?

Intissar Fakir
March 16, 2011

King Mohammed VI’s March 9 pledge to sponsor broad constitutional reforms following moderately-sized protests on February 20 distinguishes him from other leaders in the region, most of whom have offered too little in terms of reforms and offered them too late in the process of uprisings to make a difference. On the surface, King Mohammed’s proposed reforms are significant. But the lack of specifics about the depth of these reforms creates doubt in view of past experiences.
King Mohammed announced in a televised speech a process of constitutional change that will be put to a popular referendum. Proposed reforms would increase the parliament’s powers in unspecified ways, create a more independent judiciary, and grant elected officials executive powers at the provincial and local level within a decentralization scheme first introduced in 2010. Decentralization will redistribute power from an appointed governor to new regional representatives to be elected by the people. Under the reforms, the prime minister would have greater executive powers, and the revised constitution would contain greater assurances of political and civil liberties and human rights.

A commission headed by constitutional law expert Abdelatif Mennouni is tasked with consulting with representatives of labor unions, political parties, civil society, and other interest groups to discuss the scope of these reforms over the coming months. The 18-member commission will include representatives from professional syndicates and human rights groups (such as Amina Bouayach of the Moroccan Organization of Human Rights), political activists, judges, as well as technocrats such as Omar Izziman and Lahcen Oulhaj (who represents Amazigh/Berber interests). The committee’s recommendations will be reviewed in June and then put to a national referendum. The king indicated that as soon as these reforms are ratified, they will be implemented.

For reformists, the king’s proposal is promising, but some skepticism remains. The largest parties —Istiqlal, the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP), and the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) —have lauded the initiative and hailed the king as a statesman, while some on the left have criticized the appointed commission, saying it should have been elected and pointing out that many of those on the committee (particularly Mennouni) are too close to the monarchy. Most of the organizers of February 20 protests reacted in much the same way; they indicated that the commission does not represent them and demanded a decisive stand against corruption, release of political prisoners, and greater freedom of the press. All are waiting to see whether reforms will impose any checks on the king’s powers, the true test of their credibility.

Mohammed VI’s approach fits a strategy that he has adopted since taking the throne in 1999, when he distanced himself from the repressive policies of his father Hassan II. Among his first acts as a new sovereign was to dismiss Driss al-Basri, his father’s feared interior minister and close confidant. Mohammed VI invited Abdelrahman al-Yussoufi, an outspoken critic of the policies of King Hassan II, back from exile and allowed him to form a leftist-dominated government. At that moment Morocco seemed on the way its way to real change. The al-Yussoufi government started with high hopes and undertook an agenda of progressive reforms, but much of what was promised never materialized.

Nonetheless, the king emerged from this experience with a popular reputation as a reformer, while the politicians and technocrats were blamed for the failures of what he billed as foray into progressive politics. What followed was ten years of superficial change suggesting that the king was more concerned with making an early impression than with embarking on genuine reform.

The new chapter of promised constitutional reform could turn out to be similar in the sense that the king is once again outmaneuvering elected officials. The initial response of the government to the February 20 protests—promising to create jobs for several thousand recent university graduates—was a transparent attempt to tame and co-opt youth groups. The king’s subsequent initiative calls on groups across the political spectrum to take ownership of the reforms and become accountable for their failure or success. Even if this initiative is genuine, it will put pressure on the politicians who have clamored for a chance to lead and have long complained that the king does not give them room to operate.

Mohammed VI is trying to get out in front of demands for change rather than be chased by them. What is still unclear is whether he will agree to reforms that would place checks on his power and move Morocco toward becoming a true constitutional monarchy. For now at least and until the protesters speak again, the 47-year-old king is trying to cement his position by making himself an ally of the protesters rather than their target.

Intissar Fakir is a special assistant to the Deputy President of the National Endowment for Democracy. The views expressed in this article do not reflect those of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Addressing Poverty in Morocco to Extinguish Protests

Here is a piece from Public Radio International's radio show The World about the struggles Moroccans face in trying to earn livelihoods and about some recent moves made the Monarchy that seem to begin to at least acknowledge the problems. Clink on the link to hear the radio story too if you'd like.
Morocco's anti-poverty, anti-protests
From PRI's The World 09 March, 2011 02:31:00

The monarchy in Morocco is trying to tackle poverty in an attempt to hold back protests.

By Gerry Hadden

At an outdoor market an hour outside Morocco's capital Rabat, farmers sell produce and spices under makeshift awnings. In a far corner, some men wearing traditional jelabas take a break for tea.

The men say they're struggling.

"There's no hospital here," one man said. "My wife was sick and she went to the hospital in another village. We spent a lot of money to get there."

The closest thing these poor peasants have to healthcare is a traveling healer, seated nearby, with natural medicines spread out before him on a white sheet. "I can cure your hemorrhoids," the healer yelled into a megaphone, "with my powder made from goat horns."

It's poor areas like this -- both rural and urban -- that have the Moroccan government worried during these weeks of regional unrest.

During national marches in February, Morocco's poorest rioted in cities like al-Hoceima. Six people died there when a bank was looted and set ablaze. Mohammed Oboukidi of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights said he doesn't condone such actions, but he understands why they happened. "Young people, illiterate, no housing, no education -- how can you imagine that they'll march peacefully without showing hatred and anger against people who are depriving them of basic rights?" Oboukidi said.

Morocco's King Mohammed VI, who remains popular in the country, is trying to keep public anger at bay, but he faces a conundrum. Reducing poverty takes time, and revolutions move quickly.

To demonstrate that he's listening, the King has just named a special council to help enact urgent reforms and, above all, to find ways to create jobs -- right now.

On a recent afternoon in Rabat, hundreds of unemployed university graduates gathered in front of a labor union headquarters. They were trying to get their names on a new government jobs list. This initiative, announced earlier this month, will create 2,500 new jobs for people with college degrees. A man named Driss Jelai said he has a degree in geography. He's been looking for work for seven years.

"We need reforms, Jelai said, "social and economic reforms in order for us to find jobs. If I could, I'd start my own company, but in Morocco it's too complicated."

Finding work for Morocco's educated youth is seen as a key to stability here. What Morocco needs most are high-tech jobs in research and engineering. But it lacks the universities to provide the training.

The King is building a new university on the outskirts of Rabat, dedicated to research and development. About 200 students started last fall at the International University of Rabat.

Eventually some 5,000 students are expected to study here.

The idea is to educate, and to create and patent products that can be built and sold in Morocco. One example is a tiny windmill for generating household electricity.

"It will work in very light winds," said a young engineer named Mohammed Emeen Barmousy. "It can also withstand winds up to 50 miles an hour. And it will cost only about $600."

Morocco only has nine engineers per ten thousand citizens. France, by comparison, has 130. Moroccan economist Medhi Lalou said Morocco does need more highly skilled workers. But building a sparkling new university isn't enough, Lalou said. Morocco must fix its crumbling elementary schools. Only about half of Moroccan adults can read and write. And for education reform to work, Lalou said, an even deeper problem needs stamping out: corruption.

"We know that the situation of corruption in Morocco is getting worse year after year," Lalou said. "And we know that without a free justice system we cannot lead a successful fight against corruption."

Many Moroccans complain bitterly about corruption and nepotism, especially in the public sector. Last week, dozens of foreign ministry workers protested outside their offices in Rabat. One man, who wouldn't give his name, said their boss never gives anyone a raise or promotion. He just hires his friends and family as a way to cover up the disappearance of public funds.

Protestor organizers hope to persuade people like these employees to put aside their individual complaints and join the larger call for reform.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Two Ferries Bring People Escaping Libya to Morocco

Here is an article from AFP about Moroccans and others escaping the fighting in Libya.
Two ferries bring Libya escapees to Morocco

(AFP) – 1 day ago

TANGIERS, Morocco — Aid workers in Morocco welcomed thousands of people escaping the violence roiling across Libya Sunday, as two ferries carrying some 4,000 people docked at the port of Tangiers.

Le Mistral vessel arrived in the afternoon with some 2,000 passengers, mainly women and children, who had been picked up in the Libyan capital Tripoli.

Many of the women were in tears as they stepped off the boat, children in their arms, to be received by workers from Morocco's Red Crescent and the Mohammed V Foundation.

Coaches were standing by to take returning Moroccans to their home regions.

Le Berkane, another ferry sent out by Morocco, returned to Tangiers earlier with 2,000 people.

More than 1,400 of the passengers were Moroccans, according to official figures, with others from Algeria, Gambia, Mauritania, Senegal and Tunisia.

Le Berkane picked up people in the Libyan port of Benghazi and also stopped over in in Tripoli on its journey back to Morocco.

Between 60,000 and 100,000 Moroccans live in Libya, according to government figures.

Several thousands have already been airlifted out of Libya, amid ongoing fighting between rebel fighters and forces loyal to strongman Moamer Kadhafi.

Copyright © 2011 AFP. All rights reserved.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Colonial Modern: A Book About Moroccan and Algerian Post-Colonial Architecture

Here is a piece from Wallpaper on the book Colonial Modern: Aesthetics of the Past, Rebellions of the Future, edited by Tom Avermaete, Serhat Karakayali and Marion von Ostman. It seems to be an interesting attempt to understand the aesthetics of building in the Maghreb in the modern period.

Book: Colonial Modern
By Jonathan Bell

'Colonial Modern: Aesthetics of the Past, Rebellions of the Future' is a very timely look at the impact of Western Modernist architecture on the colonial and post-colonial countries of North Africa, and one of the first attempts to untangle this complex mesh of ideology and aesthetics.

The genuine economic advantages of building in steel and reinforced concrete enabled large swathes of new housing to be built across the region. But with the whitewashed walls came some rather unsavoury presumptions, particularly the idea that the colonies were a sandbox for architectural experimentation, free from the 'heritage' concerns of the Western city. 'Colonial Africa was transformed into a laboratory for Western modernity,' writes Bernd M Scherer in his introduction, adding that these large-scale ventures in system building were subsequently re-imported back into Europe in the post-war years.

For the proponents of 'heroic' modernism, the deserts of Algeria and Morocco represented unbounded opportunity. There are plenty of striking buildings illustrated within, but their iconic time in the sun was short-lived. Now, over half a century later, the most fascinating parts of Colonial Modern are the way modernist sterility has been reappropriated and altered, a messy hierarchy of spaces that reflects the complex - and now crumbling - power structures that emerged in the post-colonial era.

Densely illustrated and impeccably researched, Colonial Modern pulls in aspects of architectural, cultural and political history to provide a fascinating look at the dangers of aesthetic imperialism.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

How Morocco Deals with the Challenges of Science Literacy

Here is an article from Afronline about efforts to increase science literacy in Morocco.

How Morocco faces the challenge of science literacy

Moroccans are receptive to science, but the country needs a much stronger communication and scientific literacy effort, says Aziz Bensalah.

Engaging the public with science probably means something different in Morocco than it does in more developed countries.

Initiatives aiming to interest people in science are often aligned with notions of ‘scientific culture‘, ’science for all’, or even ’science for citizenship’. To design them appropriately in Morocco, characteristic features of Moroccan society must be taken into account.

A mixed audience

As in many developing countries, the Moroccan population is not a uniform audience. There are several groups whose different needs depend on their level of literacy, age, wealth, or whether they live in urban or rural parts of the country. The languages used in daily life vary within the population, as do the languages used in the education system.

Moroccan people have a high appreciation for dramatic advances in technology. This creates a positive image of science.

But high unemployment among science graduates one of the difficulties facing the scientific community in Morocco cancels out this benefit.

Science cannot compete with other activities and entertainment, especially for young people’s attention. So to engage the public with science in Morocco, we need a long-term strategy that is carefully designed and strongly supported by decisive stakeholders, including national authorities, the media, municipalities, and private companies.

Missing from the media

The Moroccan government, the media and other stakeholders have little or no involvement with activities designed to engage the public with science.

And the state has yet to acknowledge, in any form whatsoever, the link between the level of scientific culture in the Moroccan population and socioeconomic development. As far as I am aware, not a single report or study into the issue has been produced by the Moroccan parliament.

Although professional journalists write about scientific events in Morocco, they are not formally trained as science journalists. Popular science is missing from the media, and a few interviews with Moroccan scientists will not change things much.

So what does the landscape look like for organisations involved in the diffusion of scientific culture in Morocco?

Public institutions in charge of scientific policy and training do engage with science communication, but they are too few to make a significant impact. The Hassan II Academy for Science and Technology organises an annual Youth and Science event throughout the country. And every year the Department of Higher Education organises National Science Week events in universities.

But despite this, there is a diverse group of voluntary organisations aiming to promote sciente dissemination. Indeed, this movement took the lion’s share of funding in the latest round of project proposals under a programme set up in 2004 by the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs to promote scientific and technical culture in ten countries of the South.

Forging links

At Morocco’s National Center for Scientific and Technical Research, we have taken on the role of forging links between associations housed in universities.

In 2008 we invited isolated but recognized academics, mainly those who had taken part in the French-sponsored projects, to form a national network of university clubs (known as RNCST) to promote and diffuse scientific and technical culture.

RNCST has several well-defined objectives, including to increase the number of university clubs so they represent the entire country and several scientific disciplines, and to offer financial and technical support to projects designed to improve the scientific and technical knowledge of Moroccos citizens.

It also aims to strengthen the skills of stakeholders, facilitate exchanges between them, and create partnerships on a regional or national scale.

And it hopes to raise awareness among decision-makers of the need for a national policy designed to raise the level of scientific and technical culture in the population, so the country can meet the challenges of economic and social development.

Focus on literacy

In our activities ‘on the ground’, we use various communication strategies, often working through a translator in rural parts of the country to tailor our science communication to local problems.

For example, we have used a filtering experiment to show that water which appears safe to drink is, in fact, unsafe.In some non-coastal areas we demonstrated the difference in iodine content between free local salt and salt sold in grocery stores — a difference that explains the prevalence of goiter in those parts of the country.

Based on our experience, particularly in rural areas or with underprivileged people in urban areas, ’scientific literacy‘ appears to be the most relevant way to engage the public in Morocco.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that Morocco is facing an ongoing crisis with the role of science in society. In addition to putting in place a long-term strategy towards a scientific culture, the country needs to adopt an emergency ’scientific literacy’ plan for people with little or no education.

By Aziz Bensalah - SciDev.Net

Aziz Bensalah is head of the public engagement department of the National Center for Scientific and Technical Research (CNRST) in Rabat, Morocco. He also coordinates the National Network for the promotion and diffusion of Scientific and Technical Culture.