Is there a future for Mohammed VI?

Amidst shocking carnage in Libya and Bahrain, the peaceful protests in Morocco for constitutional change, human rights, and economic reform (barring a few incidents of vandalism) have been somewhat overlooked. As one leader after another in the Arab world falls, the longterm survival of the Alouite dynasty also seems open to question.

Portrait of Louis XVI of France

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For the present, news reports suggest that that the focus of the protests in Morocco is reform not revolution. So it appears that Mohammed VI is facing a Louis XVI moment. Confronted with popular demands for reform after the storming of the Bastille and the establishment of the National Assembly, Louis elected instead to attempt to flee France in search of Austrian support to reassert his absolute authority. From the moment he was captured and forced to return to Paris under a humiliating guard, the tide of history turned against him, leading to his ultimate execution.

Mohammed VI may still have an opportunity to be Morocco's greatest monarch, the one who let his people go and guided them to a true democracy, even if in the guise of a constitutional monarchy. But to keep his position, he must give up his power. This would be a great gift to the Moroccan people. The only question is whether Mohammed VI is wiser than Louis XVI.

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A bas le francais?

I am a francophile. There, I admitted it. I spent ten years studying French in school, by choice. I could have taken Spanish in Junior High; I could have taken Spanish, German, or Latin in High School, and almost any language in college. But I chose French. To this day, I love the sound of French. I love French literature. In fact, I know I am hopeless because I even like a lot of French popular music (Charles Trenet, Jacques Brel (yes, I know he's Belgian), Annie Villeneuve, Isabelle Boulay (both Quebecoise)). France is one of the garden spots of the world, and French food . . . well, it is French food. And it was arguably my love of French that led me to a French-speaking country — Morocco — as a Peace Corps Volunteer, one of the more fortunate events in my life.

None of which is to say that I do not love Morocco on its own terms, or that I do not think English has a major role to play in Morocco's future. After all, the justification for my being in Morocco as a Peace Corps Volunteer was to assist with the country's already quite competent program of English language instruction. Still, I have a little hesitancy about the push to supplant French in Morocco, as described in a recent article by well-known writer and blogger Hisham G.. Quite apart from my sentimental francophilia, I think that revolutionizing a culture is not a task to be undertaken lightly. Morocco does have a rich francophone tradition, and I would argue for supplementing it with English rather than seeking to banish French.

I also suspect that English is not the panacea that some of its proponents imagine. As the article hints, English may well be relegated tomorrow to the place of French today if the Chinese ascendancy continues. (My five-year-old is learning Mandarin in school.) Quite apart from the fact that English is not really widely spoken in Morocco, it seems to me there are other glaring deficiencies in the Moroccan educational system — particularly in the scientific and technical sector — that need to be addressed if the country is going to be an effective global competitor. Allowing for differences in scale, Morocco might be the "next India," but it is not going to happen by itself.

In addition, I think the arguments quoted in the Morocco Board article from the Pittsburgh Gazette are slightly misleading. According to year 2000 census data quoted by Wikipedia, the top second languages spoken in the United States are Spanish, American Sign Language, Chinese, French, and German. (Arabic is number 13 on the list, and Hindi is number 18.) Most Americans, of course, speak only English; to my mind a competitive disadvantage vis-a-vis Moroccans, who often speak anywhere from two to five languages. According to one study, seventy percent of college students taking a foreign language in America were taking either Spanish or, to a lesser degree, French. So while the Pittsburgh Gazette may be correct that little studied languages in America are gaining adherents at a rapid rate, it is clear that the primary emphasis on language learning in the United States is still on Spanish and, yes, French, at least to the extent that Americans bother to learn any other language at all. To the extent that Americans are likely to be able to communicate directly with Moroccans who do not speak English, they are likely to be speaking French or possibly Spanish. (The number of Americans who learn Arabic is, sadly, minuscule.) Maybe French should not be counted out completely just yet. After all, it is still a first language to 70 million people and an official language for 220 million, according to the Cambridge Factfinder.

Because Americans are fortunate enough to have the currently dominant world language as their mother tongue, America may not be the best model for charting Morocco's linguistic course. It might actually make sense to take a closer look at what the European approach is. Of course, one may well find that they are all learning English too, but it might also be useful to examine what other factors play into their economic success or lack thereof.

Finally, it seems to me that the difficulty of trying to determine the value of French to Moroccan economic life is increased by the complex intertwining of colonial oppression and class snobbery with economic progress, technical assistance, and post-colonial economic progress. The French language, culture, and people just strike too many raw nerves too often in Morocco, a situation not ameliorated by current French attitudes toward immigrants or indeed the country's legendary arrogance. My thought however is that it is probably possible to cultivate English without uprooting French. Morocco is a country of rich cultural diversity, a diversity I would prefer to see augmented rather than diminished.

Paying the Piper

The Moorish Wanderer has an interesting analysis of Morocco's recent borrowing of 1 billion euros from the capital markets. To those, like me, who are not particularly versed in finance or economics, it may be a little opaque. However, the gist seems to be that it is a potentially risky move in light of a declining ratio of exports to imports, but that we should regard the situation with cautious skepticism pending further developments.

Why don't we profile Muslims?

For some reason, I found myself today reading a column by a Washington Times columnist who was furious that former CIA Director James Woolsey had suggested that profiling Muslims might not be the answer to airline security. Granted, I am not an expert on security or counterterrorism, although in light of the fact that our experts do things like posting their security procedures manual on the Internet, perhaps anyone is qualified to bring a little common sense to the issue. For the sake of argument, let's leave aside the quaint notion that Muslims are fellow human beings who deserve the same dignity and respect as anyone else, and focus purely pragmatic reasons why a policy of profiling might not be a good idea:

  1. Bigotry does not equal security. Stereotyping all Muslims because a tiny fraction have been involved in acts of terror against the United States is both a lazy and ignorant way to cope with the problem of terrorism. Lazy because it relieves one of the necessity for analyzing the problem. Ignorant because it makes an assumption that in the vast majority of cases is untrue and unwarranted. We've been here before: we made the same mistake with the Nisei in World War II.

  2. Humiliating people does not make us safer. Treating Muslims like cattle, particularly in countries like Iraq that we are trying to "help," has been proven to undermine our counter-terrorism efforts. There is nothing like an Abu Ghraib to recruit people to Al Qaeda. So why should we adopt a policy that humiliates and discriminates against Muslims generally?

  3. Profiling all Muslims is radically overinclusive. When approximately one in six people on earth is a Muslim, and a de minimis number of them pose a threat, then it is highly inefficient to try to screen all Muslims in order to uncover the few who may be terrorists.

  4. Profiling all Muslims is radically underinclusive. Two words: Oklahoma City. Profiling Muslims does nothing to catch the Timothy McVeigh's of the world. There are lots of people who hate us who are not Muslims.

  5. It's impractical and inefficient. Much as we like to think we have infinite resources in the United States, in point of fact there is no way we are going to be able to keep track of a billion people.

  6. It misjudges the threat. If Flight 93 had reached its destination, I might well have died in my office a couple of blocks from the White House on September 11, 2001. As it was, I left the office shortly after Flight 77 smashed into the Pentagon across the river. My brother in law watched the twin towers fall in New York. Despite the unprecedented carnage and the shocking effect of an assault on American soil, however, there was never an existential threat to the United States. Unlike Japan or Germany in the Second World War, Al Qaeda had no ability to follow up. Before we turned the tide in the Pacific, Japan had not only bombed our main naval base but asserted control over a good part of the Pacific and invaded China. Germany, meanwhile, reigned supreme over the rubble of Europe, where England was a beleaguered holdout. While I agree we should treat the threat from Al Qaeda seriously and pursue it relentlessly, lest it develop the capability to do us greater harm, I do not think that our values, our liberty, and our privacy should all be mindlessly sacrificed in pursuit of the terrorist menace. Frankly, at present the average American is far more likely to die in an automobile accident than to be a victim of airline terrorism. And yet our cynical and cowardly public officials harp on our irrational fears and prejudices to the benefit of their own power and position.

  7. It's not the most effective use of our resources. Where is Osama bin Laden and why is he at large? A more effective pursuit of Al Qaeda (rather than the sideshows in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now Yemen?) and a reexamination of the brutal Realpolitik that drives American foreign policy would, in my opinion, do more to reduce the terrorists threat than profiling every last Muslim could ever accomplish.

My Pick for the 2010 Weblog Awards

In every endeavor, there are certain people who achieve a level of excellence that clearly separates them from the ordinary participant. Such people need not be a world champion -- a Lance Armstrong, Mohammed Ali, or Michael Phelps -- but nevertheless they demonstrate a grace and proficiency that sets them apart.

For me, a handful of blogs that I read integrate words, pictures and presentation in such a skilful manner that they are truly set apart -- and, of those, one is written by an acclaimed Moroccan-American novelist. Among the rest, My Marrakesh stands out for elegant design, exquisite taste, gorgeous photography, and crisp, whimsical prose.

Part of what makes My Marrakesh so attractive is its thematic unity. The author, an expatriate American building an elegant guesthouse in cosmopolitan Marrakesh, couples a deep love of Moroccan artistry with an engaging sense of humor over the incessant minor obstacles that repeatedly arise to frustrate her would-be avocation as a hotelier. Occasionally, as in her recent photo montage of Afghan men, she permits a glimpse of the grittier life she leads professionally as an international consultant.

Mostly, however, My Marrakesh is a celebration of simple pleasure and daily beauty -- snapshots of family life, interviews with both Marrakeshis and visitors, accounts of shopping trips in Marrakesh's rich and varied markets. It presents a picture of a life varied and fulfilled, in which one can escape, though not forget, the world's troubles through an appreciation of beauty as seen by the eye of a connoisseur.

For all these reasons, it is easy to see why My Marrakesh again has my vote for Best African Blog in the 2010 Weblog Awards, and I urge anyone who visits the 2010 "Bloggies" to cast a vote for My Marrakesh.

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Kif in the Rif

I do not encourage either the production or the consumption of marijuana, but my only real policy concern related to either of them is the undesirable social effects of interdiction.

When I read a a self-congratulatory proclamation that marijuana cultivation has been significantly reduced in areas such as the Rif Mountains of Morocco, estimated to account for half the world's hashish production, it raises a question in my mind which almost always goes unaddressed.

If cultivation of marijuana in the Rif has been significantly suppressed, what exactly are the farmers and the families in this notoriously poor region of Morocco doing to support themselves? Have the governments that are suppressing cultivation (we are not told how), provided roads, schools, and jobs so that people in the Rif can make a living by other means? Curious minds would like to know.

The Myth of Moroccan Democracy « The Van Der Galiën Gazette

Michael Van Der Galien argues that full democratization in Morocco is a bad idea because

A large part of the Moroccan people is uneducated and socially extremely conservative (read strict, strict Muslims). They barely know how to take care of their own family. Should people like that be allowed to determine the fate of an entire country?

Strict, strict Muslims? not in my experience, at least not in comparison with many other Muslim countries. Anti-Western? Most Moroccans were pretty welcoming to me. Barely know how to take care of their own family? The tight-knit social and family structure in rural Morocco as I knew it demonstrated an effectiveness in caring for one's family on limited resources that some in America would do well to emulate. Really, such a libel makes it hard to take the rest of the argument seriously. Contrast The Moderate Voice.

I do not mean to paint Morocco through rose-colored glasses. There is a lot of poverty and lack of education and many people are quite religious. Frankly, however, I would trust some of the poor, uneducated, religious Moroccans I knew with the ballot much sooner than some of their so-called betters, particularly those who have bought into the police state. And Van Der Galien's implicit assumption that the right to vote should be limited to an educated elite runs counter to the modern democratic experience, especially in the United States, where the long term trend for two centuries has been to expand the franchise.

My acquaintance with Morocco is mostly cultural and experiential, and I normally know enough to know that I don't know enough to comment intelligently on Moroccan politics. (I find it hard enough to follow American politics.) I do think, however, that if progress toward democracy in Morocco stagnates or retrogresses, as it has with the recent crackdown on the press, that the outcome will ultimately be bad for the country and for the monarchy.

UPDATE: Shadi Hamid in a further exchange of views with Michael Van Der Galien.

Cars Kill reports:

In Morocco, 24 people were killed and 1,194 injured last week in 927 road accidents, MAP reported. A police statement attributed the accidents to loss of control over vehicles, negligence of pedestrians and drivers, speeding, violating road rules, and driving under the influence. Road accidents in the country have increased by 3% yearly over the last decade, causing enormous economic losses, especially for the tourism sector. Losses are estimated at $1.2 billion a year, or 2.5% of GDP. (Ech Chourouk, MAP)

It is enough to make one think twice before taking tne next grand taxi ride. I assume that the buses have a somewhat better record, since they are bigger, although I have vivid memories of the rusted wreckage at the base of the High Atlas. Bad as the roads may be, for much of the country — as for the United States — there is no good alternative.

Songs and Solidarity

Xoussef's comment on Hind's "Give me a sign" — that the song is "banal" but the video is "wonderful," seems to me to be right on. Several other points struck me. One was that I don't see that many Moroccan (or Moroccan inspired) songs in English; pace Marrakesh Express. The other is the degree to which the video is orientalized, from Hind's dress to the images of her mysterious hooded lover to the dance scene at the end. I would be very curious to know how this song speaks to Moroccans — to me it seemed to play very much to a European/American fantasy of Morocco, but perhaps my own view is too crude and stereotyped.

I was also very struck by Xoussef's reasons that he won't blog for a Maghreb Union: to me, the proposed Union seems a noble aspiration but not a political possibility.


Sexual Threats Stifle Some Female Bloggers -

The Washington Post today ran a story on women bloggers being targeted with harassment and threats of violence:

As women gain visibility in the blogosphere, they are targets of sexual harassment and threats. Men are harassed too, and lack of civility is an abiding problem on the Web. But women, who make up about half the online community, are singled out in more starkly sexually threatening terms -- a trend that was first evident in chat rooms in the early 1990s and is now moving to the blogosphere, experts and bloggers said.

Beyond the obvious revulsion against threats of sexual violence against anyone, there are several additional reasons why this story is particularly disturbing. Not only are many of the attacks quite graphic, but also the perpetrators are often able to remain anonymous on the Internet. While one's first sympathies go to the victims, the consequences for the blogosphere are also likely to be severe. I would venture to say that a majority of the high quality blogs that I read regularly are written by women, and for women in the Maghreb the Internet seems to have been a particularly liberating opportunity for public expression. It would be a shame for the criminal actions of a few sociopaths to shut down access to free expression on the Internet for over half of the population. Finally, if my daughters want to blog when they get older, I want them to be able to do so without fear.

A Grim View

Everything Morocco: The Two Sides of Fez Medina

Everything Morocco has a grim view of the face of Fez that is too seldom seen:

Right now, today, in 2007, Fez is also a ghetto in every sense of the word and most of its inhabitants are barely eking out a miserable subsistence living. Too many are uneducated, drug-addicted, criminals, and even worse, children of these people caught in a devastating self-defeating cycle of destruction. Bidonvilles surround the area and most foreigners probably walk right past them never imagining what kind of hell exists in a place like that.

British Council Morocco

When I was in Morocco, the British Council Bookstore was one of the few sources for books in English, particularly books for students of English. The books were good, but not cheap, and I used to lend them out to my students for a few days at a time. I wonder how much has changed.

On the Street

Magharebia reports that there are between 5,000 and 7,000 homeless children in Casablanca, a city of approximately 3.5 million.  In contrast, in Chicago, a city of  2,896,016, there were approximately 26,000 homeless children as of 2001, of whom 12,000 were "chronically homeless," according to a study by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.  In both cities, public and private resources fall far short of meeting the needs of these children.  

To me, it seems both an indictment of the American way of life and a symptom of how intractable a problem homelessness is that a major American city of comparable size to Casablanca faces a worse homelessness problem than that of the bidonvilles of Casa.  Although we clearly lack sufficient resources and a sufficient commitment to addressing the problem in both countries, it seems to me that perhaps we need new ideas for coping with the problem as well.

Chunneling Through Gibraltar

Morocco and Spain are engaged in serious discussions of the possibility of digging a channel tunnel or "chunnel" under the Straits of Gibraltar in order to connect Morocco and Spain by 2025, according to the Washington Post. After reading of the desperation with which immigrants try to cross the Straits clandestinely by boat now, one wonders what the implications for immigration would be, but certainly it would help to draw Europe and North Africa closer.  Of course, any improvement in the Moroccan economy as a result of more developed infrastructure can only have a positive effect on the number of desperate sea crossings.

The Impending Fate of Nichane and the Riddle of the PJD

Eatbees has a timely but grim reflection on the likely sentence awaiting Nichane journalists Sanaa El Aji and Driss Ksikes for having the temerity to publish some popular jokes that happened to mention God and the Prophet.

Eatbees also poses the following very insightful conundrum: The monarchy appears to be taking harsh measures against Nichane in order to preempt popular Islamist sentiment. The Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD), however, like all legal parties in Morocco, is subordinate to the king. So why do the monarchy and the political classes seem to be so panicked over the possibility of a PJD electoral victory? (Not that I think this would be a good thing, but thwarting it might be worse.)

A better approach, it would seem, would be to uphold the freedom of the press and basic civil liberties and allow the citizenry to vote freely for whom they prefer. A naive policy in the short run perhaps, but a wiser one in the long term.