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21/04/2007 16:00:00

Morocco's turning tide

A magnet for European tourists, with a new young king intent on reform,
Morocco seemed set for a bright future. But modernisation, the rise of
Islamism and a wave of al-Qaeda-linked bombings have left the country at
a crossroads

An empty square in front of the ferry docks in the northern Moroccan
port city of Tangiers. It's after midnight on a fresh spring night and
scruffy teenagers fight and shout under a palm tree. The narrow lanes
leading up to the old town - the medina - with its shops, winding
passageways and windowless walls, are silent but for the footsteps of
the occasional shift-worker hurrying home. A dog barks, the waves slap
on the dockside and beyond the gravel of the long beach a ship's horn
sounds dully in the darkness. To the north, across the nine mile-wide
Straits of Gibraltar, is Europe. A sign in Arabic and French points the
way to the docks serving Italy, France and Spain. To the east, beyond
the curve of the bay and the rows of half-constructed apartment and
office blocks, and the new railway station, lies the southern coast of
the Mediterranean, sliding away towards the heart of the Arab and Muslim
world. And to the west is the headland where you can stand facing the
heavy breakers of the Atlantic and imagine the entire continent of
Africa at your back. Morocco has always been at a crossroads. And never
more than now.

The first sight of Morocco for tourists arriving from the UK is not of
Tangiers but of Marrakesh in the south. An estimated 150,000 British
holidaymakers (and 800,000 French) travelled to the desert city last
year. For most Britons, Marrakesh - and Morocco - is one of three
things: either the latest fashionable celebrity destination, somewhere
to go clubbing and stay relatively cheaply in a magnificently restored
16th-century palace; or it's a mystical oriental paradise, a land of
camels, water-pipes, rugs and hashish; or it is Arab, Muslim and poor,
and therefore on the point of turning into a factory for illegal
immigrants and suicide bombers. In fact, Morocco is all of these things
and none.

Near a school in a good area of Marrakesh, teenagers flirt, gossip and
talk on mobile phones. Hassan, one of the leather-jacketed adolescents
doing wheelies on scooters, tells me the new king, Mohammed VI, is
'cool' and that the future of the country is 'brilliant'. Watching from
across the street is Turia, a 17-year-old maths student, who does not
think Morocco is heading in the right direction at all.

'I like things calm and it's too noisy here now,' she says. 'There is
too much immorality. Things change too quickly.' She is wearing a
headscarf, 'because it suits [her]', because it is her 'religion' and
because her mother wears one too. Turia tells me that her father is dead
and that life is difficult. A friend, also veiled, joins her. She is
with a young, poorly-dressed man. They have been holding hands during a
walk in the nearby park. 'There are a lot of problems for young people
now,' he tells me. 'Relationships, work, accommodation.' 'Things are
changing too much here,' says Turia again.

Change is now the theme in Morocco. The first thing you see at Marrakesh
airport is a sign apologising for inconvenience caused by building work.
It could apply to half the country. The airport is just one of hundreds
of massive developments which, for good or ill, are changing the face of
the nation. Around Marrakesh are new stations, huge new villa complexes,
a giant cinema, Africa's biggest nightclub, and even, an hour's drive
through the desert towards the sea, an entire town built with mosques,
nurseries and communal kitchens.

That change is needed - Morocco sits below Ghana and Namibia in the UN's
human poverty index. The new era is symbolised by the new 43-year-old
king. Though something of a playboy - critics call him His Majetski
because of a taste for water sports - Mohammed VI wants to modernise his
country after years of repressive dictatorship under his father.
'Modernity with tradition,' says another giant advertising hoarding in
front of one new residential development. Like the signs at the airport,
it applies to more than just a single site. The construction is just the
most visible part of a huge project aiming at changing the values and
perspectives of the nation.

Turia is not alone in worrying that the changes are taking Morocco in
the wrong direction. On the site of one slum clearance, local residents
are demonstrating against 'the venal advisers' of the king who, they
say, 'have kicked them out of their homes'. The fruits of Marrakesh's
property boom are not equitably distributed. There is also a strong
security establishment which has little interest in Morocco becoming a
happy, prosperous democracy. Within minutes of my stopping to interview
the demonstrators, a secret policeman has appeared and wants to know who
I am, what I am doing and where I am staying.

'You see,' says Turia. What I see is a country with a long and complex
history - a monarchy stretching back centuries, decades as a colony, the
scars of Cold War geo-politics - groping its way through the conflicting
ideologies and identities of the 21st century. Europe is close, but a
long way away too.

I take the train to Casablanca, the central coastal city and the
economic heartland of the country. Morocco was a de facto colony for 44
years and one of the legacies - along with the French language spoken by
the elite, the lycees, good coffee and croissants, and passable wine -
are the trains, crowded perhaps but, at least in second class where I am
travelling, cheap. The very poor take the bus - my fellow travellers are
businessmen, students, junior bureaucrats, families. Marrakesh is
considered the south of Morocco but it is less than halfway down the
spine of the country. Vast tracts of the Sahara extend to the south and,
once over the Atlas mountains, to the east.

Half of Morocco's 33 million citizens live in the cities, mostly along
the coastal strip, and many, particularly in rural areas, are
desperately poor. According to the UN, illiteracy rates are around 50
per cent and a quarter of the country is without sanitation. We pass
donkey carts, shepherds and mangy flocks, dirt roads strewn with
rubbish. The approach to Casablanca is marked by building sites.

The city streets are bustling with smartly dressed office workers, the
women wearing matching suits and headscarves. A year ago I was struck by
the economic activity here. A new view of Morocco is now common in
business circles in Europe and American: a country now open for
business, where European firms install big, cheap factories; a country
of investment opportunities, of growth, of money being made. Annual
growth rates of up to 7 per cent, massive investment in the country's
infrastructure, a rush of European firms, all support such a vision of
the country. But as with the other images of Morocco, it is both true
and unrepresentative.

I find Nourredine Ayouch, a public relations expert who is president of
three NGOs (working on political, cultural and development projects) in
his vast office on the Boulevard d'Anfa. Charming and voluble, he
launches straight into a critique of the king. That he can do so is
evidence of how things have changed. To say that the king has too much
power would have been extremely dangerous a decade ago. But reforms have
not gone far enough, he complains. 'This is a monarchy that is heading
towards democracy,' he tells me, but there is a long way to go. 'The
ruler is not answerable for what he does.'

This autumn there will be new elections which, if they follow those of
five years ago, will be largely free and fair, executive power is still
very much in the hands of the monarch. 'We are nothing like other
countries in the Middle East,' stresses Ayouch. 'The king viscerally
wants modernity for his country. But no one is going to give us
democracy on a plate.'

What is clear is that for Ayouch - and the king - modernity and
democracy are inextricably linked. Their model is not the US, despite a
historic pro-American stance, but Europe. The way forward lies just
across the Straits of Gibraltar.

Art critic Kinza Sefrioui has reversed the journey so many of her
compatriots hope to make. A fine French education led her back to
Casablanca three years ago. Now she writes for one of the few
independent news magazines. We meet in a bar in the busy commercial
centre of Casablanca, a few hundred yards from the gates of the old
city. After years spent in other 'Islamic' countries, I am unused to
openly ordering a beer. We talk about both the energy and diversity of
the cultural scene in Morocco and the difficulties for writers and
artists. Little of the boom money is finding its way into culture,
though the king, a fan of visual arts, has ordered the construction of a
number of galleries and artistic centres. There is, however, a big music
scene - fusions of local and Western music, rap, 'metal' - and festivals
where 'you can go with your boyfriend or girlfriend and no one will want
to see your marriage certificate'. 'It's not a case of being
Westernised,' Kinza says, 'it's just about partying.' We speak about
Marock , last year's controversial film portraying the lives of the
spoiled children of Casablanca's elite: sex, drugs, alcohol, fast cars
and the nightclubs like those along the famous seaside strip, the
Corniche. 'The criticism did not focus on whether the film was any good
or not,' says Kinza, 'but on the bad image of the country.' For many
overseas, the open hedonism of a tiny proportion of the urban population
is taken as a sign of the new Morocco, yet another image, partially
true, partially deceptive.

Certainly the huge gulf between the richest and poorest in Morocco
remains stark. I visit a home for destitute street kids, and then a
shanty town where entire families subsist on pounds 1 a day. I meet
38-year-old Fatima, who sells hard-boiled eggs on the beach for a
living, and lives in a single room with two teenage daughters in an old
mental hospital, home to scores of families. Later I stop by the opening
of a private exhibition in a wealthy suburb with champagne and canapes.
The owner says that business has never been better. Tonight he has sold
several large abstracts for between pounds 4,000 and pounds 7,000. His
partner gives me a lift back into town in her brand new Land Rover. Her
car barely turns heads these days, such is the wealth flowing into
Casablanca, she tells me. But there are problems, she says, as we drive
past an enormous new Zara store. 'The Moroccans have changed... Islamism
is rising and that breaks my heart,' she says. 'Before, no one was
interested in whether you were Muslim, Christian or Jewish. It was very
tolerant, very moderate. Now the Moroccans are becoming very...
Moroccan. They always had an inferiority complex towards the Arabs of
the Middle East. Now they want to show they are more Arab than anyone
else. And more Muslim. But it's sad. Maybe they need an identity or
something, I don't know.'

Abdelwahed Motawakil knows. Or at least he thinks he does. Motawakil,
52, is secretary general of The Union of Faith and Social Charity, an
Islamic group that, though the government and observers distinguish
between it and the militants who were responsible for suicide attacks in
Casablanca in 2003 that killed 50, is not officially recognised as a
political party and is seen by many as 'potentially very dangerous'. A
more moderate Islamic party has already made a serious impact on the
street and in parliament, and is set for big gains in the elections this

'People turn to us and to Islam because we want a free political order
where people are free to choose their leaders and a have a decent life,
and because we fight for the fundamental right of a man to know his
creator. We want a just system and spirituality. And the two cannot be
separated,' he tells me. I list the recent reforms - the new law
bolstering the rights of women, a form of peace and reconciliation
process dealing with human rights abuses by the state, the king's
well-thought-of human development initiatives, praised by Bayti and
other NGOs in Casablanca. Motowakil dismisses them all. 'Are there any
benefits for the Moroccan people?' he asks. 'Just for a small minority.
We have a despotic, autocratic rule. The reforms are a game played by
the monarchy to distract people's attention.'

Motawakil is the very picture of the modern Islamist politician. His
language is reasonable and his message appeals to large numbers of
ordinary Moroccans who are fed up with corrupt and incompetent local
administrators. He insists that, if in power, his party would respect
the will of the people. 'We are against violence. We do not believe that
you can impose any solution by force. Democracy is the only practical
possibility,' he says, nodding sincerely. 'This country has been Islamic
for many centuries,' he says when I raise the 'resurgence of Islamism'
that many analysts talk about. 'There is no identity problem.' But when
asked who he thinks is responsible for the 9/11 attacks, he is too canny
a politician to openly put forward the anti-semitic conspiracy theory
that the attacks were the work of the Israeli secret services and the
CIA, but he comes close. 'I don't believe that a man like bin Laden up
in the mountains could do it, so it must have been someone else... there
are powerful people who would benefit from something like that... There
are international interests,' he says. Outside, the taxi driver who
deposited me outside Motowakil's office an hour before has returned to
tell me that he has since been questioned by the secret police about who
I am.

The spooks will not be too stretched if tempted to check on my next
meeting - with the minister for youth, whose office, in the aseptic
diplomatic quarter of the capital of Rabat, is directly opposite the
headquarters of the national gendarmerie. I take a collective taxi - one
of the old Mercedes that routinely carry eight passengers wedged across
the passenger seats in a happy chaos of bags, flowing djellaba robes,
plastic bags and pots - for a few dirhams. As we pass the massive site
where a new marina is being built below the huge walls of the ancient
city, perched on a crag above the rolling Atlantic, the young driver
sneers at the expense of the project, and is told off by one of his
older clients.

I am expecting self-promoting, diplomatic flannel from the minister, but
instead get nearly two hours of acute analysis. Mohammed Al-Ghass is 43,
the same age as the king, and is a believer in building a new Morocco, a
prosperous, stable, democratic, open and tolerant nation that will act
as an example for other states in Africa and the Middle East. He says
clearly that Morocco has embarked on a massive project of social,
economic and political engineering: reducing the monarchy to something
resembling that of the UK or Holland, pump-priming the economy to
stimulate equitable growth. This is all very ambitious, difficult and
risky, he says. 'We are in the middle of trying something that lots of
people have said is impossible. It is absolutely essential that we make
it work... I don't even want to imagine the consequences if we fail.'

We talk about the threat from the Islamists. Motawakil and men like him
have no intention of allowing elections once in power, asserts Ghass. To
fight back, he says, 'democracy must be strong and certain of its own
values, principles and its superiority. Democracy must be able to
convince people; but in a society such as this one the risks, the
dangers are greater than elsewhere.' And the Islamists have some
advantages. 'Inculcating democratic values takes time,' Ghass argues,
'and the Islamists surf on the poverty, the intense frustration in our
society or [that] felt against the West. There is a love-hate thing
happening, a sort of fascination and rejection. The West is so close to
us here and we see how they live well and are happy and have what we
want, and we would love to be part of these open, content societies. But
they don't want us, so we find a way to say that we are rejecting them,
not vice versa.'

Can, though, Morocco become the prosperous democracy he is talking
about? Ghass points out that 40 years ago everyone said that Spain was
doomed to dictatorship and poverty. 'We simply cannot fail,' he says.

In Akshour Farda, a cluster of mud-walled houses, orchards and snotty
children that clings to the steep slopes of the Oued Farda valley, many
hundreds of miles to the north of Casablanca and Rabat, this spring is
different. Now there is television. Mohammed, a 44-year-old farmer,
proudly shows me the wooden cabinet he has built for his own set, which
now dominates the small room where he sleeps with his wife, father and
four children. What does he watch? Spanish television for the most part
- and mainly football. His village, still without a water supply other
than a natural well, has no sanitation, and is now divided between Real
Madrid and Barcelona fans.

Mohammed pulls out a pipe and packs it with hash. He lives in the centre
of the Rif mountains, the world's biggest hash-producing area, the vast
proportion of which is sold in Europe. The electricity is part of a
government programme and, like the new olive plantations, is aimed not
only at developing the area but at convincing the local farmers that
they should stop growing cannabis. Though the new push to restrict
cultivation is having some effect, there is work to be done - last year
120,000 hectares were sown with cannabis in and around the Rif. The
farmers themselves do not earn much - a gram of hash costs about as much
as a text message. 'What do you expect?' said one local teacher. 'The
people here are poor. They have been ignored for years. It's a good crop
and there's a ready market.' Along with major smuggling and people
trafficking, hash is one of the less official links between Morocco and
mainland Europe.

Up in the Rif, the children shout 'Ola!' when they see a foreigner.

Between the Rif and the coast is the city of Tetouan. For years it has
had a bad reputation - as a city of smugglers, criminals and lately as a
hotbed for radical Islamism. The American government has leaked a series
of investigations into the origins of suicide bombers who have blown
themselves up in Iraq and a clutch appear to have come from the city. I
am not the first journalist to investigate this. When I hail a taxi to
Jemaa Mazuuk, the area from where the bombers are meant to have come,
Mowsef, the 22-year-old driver, laughs at my 'al-Qaeda tourism'. But we
drive off happily enough, along a long boulevard bathed in evening
sunlight and with a magnificent view out onto the foothills of the Rif.
There is a rowdy demonstration under way - of support for the local
football side that has just beaten Casablanca. Mowsef is a trainee
mechanic and earning pounds 200 a month as a driver and is very happy,
because he is saving up to go to France and marry his French-Moroccan

Mowsef takes me to an old schoolmate's house. There is no one in,
because the friend, linked to the bomb attacks in Madrid in 2004 which
killed 200 people, blew himself up when the Spanish police closed in on
him afterwards. 'He was a nice bloke,' says Mowsef. 'He told his mum he
was going to Spain for work, went for a year or so and then, boom!'

Back in the centre of town it is an animated Sunday evening. The streets
are full of promenading couples. The markets are full of bustle. Older
men in djellabas, younger men in leather jackets, some women in veils,
some not. Old Mercedes taxis work their way through the throng under the
Thirties Spanish-built buildings, with their mix of art deco white and
green lines, local arches and Spanish shutters. It is nine o'clock and
the street lights have flickered on in the main square, dominated by the
huge timber doors to the royal palace. In the cafes around the square
men play dominos and watch football and the news (there has been a
suicide bombing in Casablanca) as they drink tea. There is a queue
outside the cinema for a variety of Western films. The internet cafes
are full of teenagers. Hawkers sell beans and snails. The streets begin
to empty. It is late and there is a mountain chill in the air.

I drive down to Tangier, to an empty square in front of the ferry docks.
There are scruffy teenagers, the medina, the waves slapping on the
dockside, a ship's horn sounding dully in the darkness, and the multiple
signposts, of which some point the way to Europe.,,2059264,00.html

Author: The Observer via UKCIA

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