Over the past couple weeks, my Arabic school, the Qalam Center, hosted a series of fascinating lectures – in Arabic, of course.
First, journalist Mohamed Laghrouss spoke to students about press freedom in Morocco in light of the new constitution. Mr. Laghrouss presented Freedom House rankings to demonstrate a rollback in freedom of expression in the country in the past few years. On the other hand, he noted, the new constitution is a step forward because it expresses support for this freedom, compared to the old one which included 20 punishments for “crimes” of journalists, including for nebulous “bad intentions.” Mr. Laghrousse stated that while there is a degree of optimism amongst journalists about the recent legal changes, they are still waiting to see how these will be applied in practice. He highlighted the case of Rachid Niny who has been languishing in Moroccan prison for several months for publishing an article that dared to criticize high officials. Niny had been the author of a column called, “Shuf Shuf (Look, Look)” for the “Al-Masa (The Evening)” newspaper, focused on exposing corruption in Moroccan politics.
Second, Professor and MP of the leading Justice and Development Party Dr. Idriss Makly Adawi, spoke about the relationship between politics and economics in Morocco. He praised Morocco’s economic progress in recent years, pointing to statistics which showed sizable declines in the poverty rate and unemployment over the past decade, as well as a steady growth rate of above 4% between 2007 and 2010. At the same time, he noted the country’s main challenges, such as an illiteracy rate of 30%, substantial trade deficit, youth unemployment, and concentration of production in a limited number of sectors. He suggested that economic improvement in Morocco coincides with and depends on the country’s political liberalization. In this regard, he saluted the new constitution and the recent elections. At the end of his presentation, he gave a couple suggestions for economic improvement in Morocco, including enhancing civil society participation in decision-making, furthering good governance, investing in riches/ resources, and enhancing competitiveness in the economy. In the question and answer session, I asked whether there is real economic competition in Morocco or whether privilege and monopolization distort the situation. Dr. Adawi responded by noting that it was only over the past couple decades that Morocco began a process of privatization of state-owned monopolies, and that since then there has been increasing movement towards opening up a variety of sectors to economic competition.
The final speaker, a professor, spoke about the history of empires, kingdoms, and colonial powers in Morocco and surrounding areas as a back-drop to the Western Sahara conflict. It was interesting to see the many maps he presented. For example, one showed how Morocco was divided between Spanish rule in the north and south (Western Sahara), while the French ruled in between. He also made an interesting point when he compared a map from Wikipedia in English showing the spread of the Almoravid Dynasty to one supposedly showing the same thing from Wikipedia in French. The difference, he noted, was that the English one correctly shows the origins of the dynasty in the south, where the Western Sahara is located, whereas the French one falsely shows the dynasty emanating from Marrakesh. As proof that the Almoravid Dynasty originated from the South, he cited a 2004 book by an American archaeologist, entitled The Almoravids and the Meanings of Jihad. His point was to suggest that the “power source” of Morocco historically lies in the Western Sahara, but he didn’t expand upon how this relates exactly to the modern-day conflict.