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Democracy in Morocco will require collective effort

Morocco’s deep state is worming its way into pre-election machinations.
A woman (L) leaves a booth before casting her ballot at a polling station in the town of Tifelt, east of Rabat, Morocco September 4, 2015. Morocco's ruling Islamist party on Friday faced a major test of its dominance as polls opened for local elections for which most opposition parties have campaigned on anti-corruption platforms and against privileges for the elite. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTX1R65C

Morocco’s upcoming elections are becoming ever-more critical, as signs are emerging of a regression to pre-2011 political and societal conditions.

Continuing both the regional wave of ousting Islamists and the local struggle between public will and loyalty to despotism, a deep state has developed and is using different strategies to tame the ambitions of the government-leading Justice and Development Party (PJD). In addition to supporting the establishment-made Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), the deep state’s strategies have included creating animosity between the PJD and the Interior Ministry. Yet the situation may culminate in devaluing both the 2011 protests and promises of democracy. Voter turnout could grow without serious political improvement, unless a cross-party anti-despotism bloc forms.

After failing to sow long-standing discord between the government and the monarchy, the deep state has tried to lower the PJD’s public visibility in different ways. The first is by blocking infrastructure projects underway in PJD-managed municipalities. The recurrent justification is to pre-empt early campaigning, notwithstanding the effects on people’s needs.

Second, social aid distribution has been banned. For example, during Ramadan, some elements within the Interior Ministry arranged to prohibit associations from distributing free food baskets. In another, more recent instance, the poor were deprived of sacrificial sheep that civil society customarily distributes for Eid al-Adha, Islam’s holiest holiday. The ministry says it’s trying to keep nongovernmental organizations that are close to the PJD from exploiting the charitable acts in forthcoming elections, but the selective policy led impoverished families to protest.

More significantly, a moral scandal has shaken the Islamists. Two leaders in the Movement for Unification and Reform (MUR), a religious association close to the PJD, were arrested early Aug. 20. The couple was allegedly discovered in a “sexual position” in a car parked on a remote beach area. Moulay Omar Benhammad, who is married, and Fatima Najjar, who is a widow, were accused of infidelity. Socially, their image has been tarnished widely. They have left the MUR national board. Thus, Islamist activism and advocacy were dealt a blow. On the human rights side, in addition to hate speech, details of the event imply privacy infringement, not only in this case, but possibly before.

Two instances cast doubt on the official narrative. To start with, the event was first mentioned on, a PAM-supporting website, a few minutes before MUR froze Benhammad and Najjar’s membership on all boards. In explaining how it got the scoop, the news outlet said one of its journalists was at the scene. This narrative is difficult to believe, given the timely, but accidental, presence of a journalist at 7 a.m. in a remote area — unless he had known in advance about the arrest. More strikingly, he was able to record a video, according to the website’s chief editor, who would not share it. It’s unclear whether the supposed video was shot before or after the police arrived and what obstacles prevent it from being shown.

Furthermore, Benhammad and Najjar, both in their 60s, were arrested by the judicial police, though the rural area is under gendarmerie jurisdiction. Judicial police handle terrorism, drug dealing and similar dangerous affairs. When the public questioned the unusual intervention, the police general administration said in a press release that the police were in the area because they had been chasing a drug dealer — a scenario that led to more skepticism and controversy.

There are several gaps in the narrative: Why wasn’t the affair turned over to the gendarmerie; why were the two culprits taken to Casablanca, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) away, for preliminary interrogation; and what was the outcome of the drug-dealing chase? What adds insult to injury is that the preliminary interrogation records were leaked to the press. The police administration has not denied the unprecedented leak. The event’s developments point to an intentional effort to tarnish political opponents before the elections.

Nevertheless, the two Islamists have received considerable support from democracy advocates, who raised questions about the commingling of telecommunication surveillance with alleged fabrications. They echo similar ordeals they underwent. True, security services have received compliments from King Mohammed VI and head of government Abdelilah Benkirane, especially as the services have helped prevent numerous terrorist attacks. Morocco has even exported security services, such as when King Philippe of Belgium formally requested Morocco’s help. France reached out for Morocco’s intelligence, too. Thus, in a way, Morocco presents itself as a troubleshooting third party in the challenges of integration, homegrown radicalization and migration in Europe.

However, civil society representation is absent. Morocco’s telecommunications regulator, ANRT, lacks a culture of multiple stakeholders. The boundaries between security and privacy blur, especially since the main internet service provider and the leader in phone services in the country, Maroc Telecom, is state-run. Meanwhile, cybersurveillance technology companies mention Morocco as a top client.

Politicians, activists, state opponents and human rights advocates undergo surveillance yet cannot access information about its nature and extent. That is why, when Hicham Mansouri, then an activist in the Investigative Journalism Association, started an investigative report on telecommunications surveillance, he immediately went to prison in 2015 for alleged adultery and infidelity, despite his assertion that police agents fabricated the adultery story. Thus, putting activists in direct conflict with the values of the society they defend not only disgraces them, but discredits their whole advocacy.

Moreover, under a recently passed law, only documents owned by public service administrations can be accessed. Even then, access is barred when information is said to threaten public security or when certain departments are not considered directly related to public service. (For example, in Morocco, police are not considered public servants; however, courts, parliament and local governments are.) At the same time, there’s nothing in the law that says the state has to disclose the amount or type of information it gathers or how it gathers the data.

These pre-election hassles worry observers, not only about the legitimacy of the next elections, but about the democratization process in general. Possibly, forming a cross-party democratic bloc can remind all other stakeholders that the role of state departments and facilities is to serve internal well-being first and that democracy is a pre-requisite for a genuine display of the country’s exceptionalism in the region.

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