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"Violating Sacred Values" in Morocco: Free Speech with an Exception

[The caricature shared by Walid Bahomane from a 2009 edition of Le Monde. Image via Global Voices.] [The caricature shared by Walid Bahomane from a 2009 edition of Le Monde. Image via Global Voices.]

A simple caricature by a cartoonist and a four-minute video featuring an activist expressing his dissent are arguably some of today’s most common mediums for political expression. In post-constitutional reform and post–parliamentary-election Morocco, sharing a political cartoon and criticizing the monarchy in a video is a crime, met with jail time. While reforms have been implemented for months, vague language has allowed Mohammed VI’s regime to selectively interpret and enforce its reforms whenever the monarchical institution is seen to be threatened. 

Morocco’s previous constitution contained many controversial articles that were either lost or split in the 2011 constitution. Article 23 of the previous constitution stated, “The person of the King shall be sacred and inviolable.” In the new constitution, the word “sacred” no longer appears in reference to the king. However, article 46 states, “The person of the King is inviolable and respect is owed to him.” This is a translation from the French version. The Arabic version is slightly different. As journalist Ahmed Benchemsi has pointed out, “In Arabic, it reads: ‘The King’s person is inviolable, and ihtiram [respect] and tawqeer are owed to him.’  Ihtiram wa tawqeer is an ancient expression used to signify the privileged status of those who claim descent from [the Prophet] Muhammad himself—a group that includes the members of Morocco’s 350-year-old Alaouite dynasty.”

Though without window-dressing, the new constitution is rife with pluralist rhetoric that would indicate legitimate progress towards democratization. Article 28 begins with, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed and cannot be limited by any form of censorship.” The same article ends, nevertheless, with a clause suggesting it is to be interpreted by those who enforce it:

“The law sets the rules of [press] organization and the control of public means over communication. The law guarantees access to these means by respecting linguistic pluralism, culture, and politics of Moroccan society. In accordance with article 165, the High Authority of Audiovisual Communication will ensure compliance with this pluralism.”

Proceeding to Article 165, the language delves further into another level of ambiguity:

“The High Authority for Audiovisual Communication is an institution responsible for ensuring compliance with the pluralistic expression of opinion, thought, and the right to information in the audiovisual field in compliance with the civil values ​​and fundamental laws of the Kingdom.”

The ambiguous nature of these articles suggests a deliberate strategy whereby the Moroccan monarchy is not truly embarking on a path towards a democracy that protects uncensored free speech. Let us explore why this may, in fact, be the case.

Moroccan society is heavily rooted in traditional practices where tawqeer (reverence and obeisance) towards those who trace their lineage from the Prophet Muhammad, the shorfa, is common, especially among illiterate and rural populations. These ancient practices predate the Moroccan state and were a cornerstone for the establishment of the Alaouite dynasty, which began its reign in the medieval trade city of Sijilmasa, today Rissani. Annual festivals, moussems, that honor dead saints and shorfa— for example, the Moussem of Moulay Ali Cherif who died in 1659—draw massive crowds in cities throughout Morocco, where shrines of honored saints and shorfa are major landmarks. The constitution’s vague language with regard to “civil values” corresponds with these ubiquitous customs of deifying descendants of Muhammad, turning reverence and respect into a form of worship. For this reason, criticizing and caricaturizing the king could easily fall outside the norms of Moroccan “civil values,” should the regime choose to define it as such.

[Moulay Ali Cherif's Mausoleum, site of the Rissani moussem. Image by João Leitão from Wikipedia Commons.]

While the word “sacred” has been eliminated from the new constitution, it has not stopped authorities from using the term to charge eighteen-year-old blogger Walid Bahomane for posting a caricature of the king. According to the police report filed against him, Bahomane was charged with “violating the sacred values”. The caricature Bahomane posted on Facebook appeared in a 2009 edition of the French newspaper Le Monde. The cartoonist behind the caricature, Damien Glez, wrote an open letter to Mohammad VI urging the case be dropped. Glez began his letter stating, “Many world leaders curse the fact that they are not caricatured by the cartoonists of their countries.” Yet, on 16 February, Bahomane was found guilty and sentenced to one year in prison. Meanwhile, the Facebook group “Mohammad VI, my liberty is more sacred than you”—where users are invited to post caricatures of the king—continues to garner support for Bahomane. 

Two days prior to Bahomane’s trial, Abdessamad Hiddour of Taza was sentenced to three years in prison for expressing his video-posted dissent towards the regime, specifically the economic policies pursued by the monarchy. Hiddour specifically railed against the “indirect colonial” economic and cultural policies pursued by the monarch, who he unceremoniously called a "dog." With no lawyer, Hiddour was similarly charged with “violating the sacred values.” Since the first week of January 2012, Taza has seen political turbulence met with violent altercations, leading to deaths, injuries, and rampant arbitrary arrests. In another YouTube video, women from Taza openly displayed their physical injuries from police brutality and gave accounts of how their houses were raided by police, they were threatened with rape, and their sons were arrested and murdered.

While the Moroccan monarchy experiences popular approval and is viewed as a stable and unifying force in Moroccan society, its policies suggest a trajectory towards the marginalization of opposing voices, even if this means contradicting its own political reforms. Despite the existence of a parliament and a constitution, an absolute monarchy remains the most accurate term to describe Morocco’s current political system. A parliament that lacks the capability to check the king’s executive power and a constitution written by figures appointed by the king are hardly steps towards any form of democratization.

The pursuit of policies of pluralism and liberalization acts as an effective facade in a country so widely viewed to be “progressive” and described as an “exception” in a region rife with popular uprisings. Yet, Morocco’s decision to police the definition of “sacred values” rooted in ancient traditions suggests anything but the progressive. This “exception” will not be so easy to get away with. The pro-democracy February 20th Movement will be commemorating its one year anniversary this weekend with nationwide demonstrations, and the regime appears to be only giving them more reasons to continue protesting. 

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