A Martyr in Morocco

Do the protests in Morocco finally have enough steam to unsettle the monarchy?

While the world's attention is focused on Yemen and Syria, the Arab Spring is slowly gaining momentum in Morocco. In this North African kingdom, protesters are increasingly enraged by the security forces' crackdown on peaceful demonstrations and dismissive of the promises of reform that the monarchy made in March.

The protest movement was reinvigorated on May 29, when thousands of pro-democracy protesters marched peacefully in different cities in the largest demonstrations yet. In Morocco's most populous city of Casablanca, helmeted police on motorcycles attacked protesters with clubs. Activists estimate that dozens of people were injured, the majority in Casablanca.

Kamal Amari, 30, was a university graduate with a degree in physics who worked as a private security officer at the port in the western city of Safi. On May 29, he was caught up in the crackdown there. "Seven policemen beat him for five minutes," said Adel Fathi, a friend.

On June 2, Amari succumbed to his wounds. Local activists call him the "first martyr" of Morocco's freedom movement. His death has transformed Safi into a front line of the country's protest movement.

The government claimed that Amari died from a chronic illness, but his family insists that local authorities did not conduct a proper autopsy. Instead, his brothers say, they were offered a bribe to keep quiet. Their father almost agreed, but the brothers refused.

A day after Amari was buried, his family and friends sat around low-set tables in an airless room. Flies buzzed around chunks of bread and sweet tea. They passed around pictures of the dead man. "Cute?" asked a relative, pausing at a picture in which Amari looked five or six years old.

Amari's brothers said that he had initially refused to visit the hospital after being beaten, fearing arrest. They said that after his death, the government also sent a religious leader to urge them to bury the body quickly. They claimed that was cover to avoid an autopsy.

One brother resolved not to let the matter end there. "I want to know who gave the order for the violence," said Mohamed. "I want the policemen and the minister of interior to be held responsible."

Mohamed, however, did not dare blame Morocco's King Mohammed VI. To do so would be breaking the law, specifically Article 23 of the Moroccan Constitution, which reads, "The person of the King shall be sacred and inviolable."

This hesitation is mirrored in Morocco's protesters. The pro-democracy movement, which takes its name from the first date of protests, Feb. 20, is not calling for the overthrow of the monarchy, but it wants a parliamentary system in which the king can serve as a symbolic head of state. On the protesters' Facebook site, they call for "a democratic constitution that represents the true will of the people."

The 47-year-old king, who came to the throne in 1999, does remain popular among many Moroccans for amending the Family Law to improve women's rights and authorizing investigations into crimes committed by the state during his father's reign. He is also credited with pursuing economic reforms that reduced the poverty rate from 15.3 percent in 2000-2001 to 9 percent in 2006-2007. And on March 9, in a bid to forestall further protests, the king pledged to embark on "comprehensive constitutional reform" that would expand individual rights and transfer increased power to Parliament.

A great deal of popular anger is directed at the corrupt government. Even if the king does personally intervene in Amari's case, many do not believe that this would guarantee justice. "The king may call for a fair investigation, but investigators can do whatever they want and say that the investigation was fair," said Khadija Ryadi, president of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights.

But with the king holding ultimate authority and people's anger growing quickly, it remains to be seen how long the monarch can avoid association with the government's decisions. "The government is zero!" shouted protesters at a rally in Safi on June 5 to condemn Amari's killing. Local journalists estimated that more than 10,000 people attended the demonstration.

"Right now, we want democracy, we want more rights, but we are not against the king yet," said Hafsa Laagraovi, a high school student who marched in the rally.

"We walk in peace," the protesters chanted as the human river weaved its way through the city. The police in Safi stayed away to avoid a clash, reporters said. Large protests all over the country passed without violence on June 5.

While many Moroccans may be satisfied with the king's promise of constitutional reforms, activists don't think these will be far-reaching enough and say that the reform process is already tainted because the committee to formulate constitutional amendments was appointed by the king.

"Even if the king's propositions were good, they cannot satisfy us because they were not through a democratic process," said Hamza Mahfoud, 25, a leader of the Feb. 20 movement and a philosophy student. "Democracy cannot be a gift."

Mahfoud is well aware of the potential risks of taking to the streets. On May 29, he joined protesters in the Sbata neighborhood of Casablanca, where he was beaten by roughly 10 police officers on his face and back. "Two of their clubs broke when [they hit] me," he said. Even after being injured, Mahfoud said he simply held a cloth to stem the bleeding near his eye and kept chanting against the government.

Spreading the word

Sami ElMoudni, a 24-year-old journalist, didn't get any sleep before boarding a bus in Casablanca to cover the protests in Safi. He had danced the night away after Morocco beat Algeria in a soccer match the previous evening.

ElMoudni could have covered the protests in Casablanca, but he thought there might be a bigger story in Safi. "The protest in Safi is special because of Amari's death, and I want to hear from his family," he said. Some journalists stayed away from the town, fearing that the city's emotionally charged atmosphere would lead to violence.

ElMoudni's experience highlights the limitations facing local journalists seeking to cover the protest movement. He says that he is free to report on the family's version of the events that led to Amari's death and the government's response -- but he can't criticize the king. Journalists say that one of the issues they are forced to steer clear of is the king's business interests and projects.

The initial media coverage of the pro-democracy movement was quite comprehensive and even encouraged by the state, according to journalists. But after activists rejected the promises made in the king's speech in March, the government perceived the movement as a real threat. Since then, journalists say their editors are holding back on pieces critical of the regime. They are also under pressure from advertisers whose businesses depend on the favor of the king and his entourage.

Criticizing the government can have dangerous consequences. Rachid Nini, editor and owner of Al Massae newspaper, was arrested in April and charged with "compromising the security and safety of the homeland." Nini had criticized Morocco's Directorate of Territorial Surveillance for abducting people and called for the body to be supervised by the Parliament, according to local reports. He was held in Casablanca without bail and was sentenced to one year in prison on June 9. However, some journalists in Morocco also say that he was critical of the intelligence services in favor of other government security services and eventually fell victim to the conflict. Journalists are expected to protest against the sentence, however.

In light of the restrictions, many journalists are turning to Facebook, Twitter, and blogs to cover events under pseudonyms. One journalist who writes for a French-language magazine in Morocco said that he turned to the Internet after his editors repeatedly turned down his pitches about the Feb. 20 movement. He sarcastically credited the government for warding off the freedom movement in Morocco more successfully than its counterparts in Syria and Bahrain.

"The Morocco authorities are smarter," he said. "They are not killing us, but they are dealing with us without changing anything.... It's like applying some makeup to hide the problem."

Inside the Feb. 20 movement

Morocco's opposition movement is an umbrella coalition who members have found common ground in their desire for a parliamentary monarchy. But there are still significant differences between the leftist groups, which want a secular state, and the Islamists, who have the largest following within the movement.

Some liberal publications are being encouraged by the government to play up the Islamists' support in order to scare Moroccans about the risks of change. The Islamists, however, are doing their best to assuage the population that they do not seek a theocracy. "Islam does not rest with one person; Islam is for institutions," said Nadia Yassine, who founded the women's wing of al-Adl wa al-Ihsan (Justice and Charity), the largest Islamist opposition group in the country. "We have the right to defend our Muslim identity."

Yassine has been a tireless advocate against Wahhabism, the strict brand of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia. "We are not like Iran or Saudi Arabia," she said. "The Turkey example is positive in our eyes."

Nevertheless, some leftists are still wary of the Islamists' populist appeal. Some moderate leftists have suggested that it would be wise to let the king, who styles himself the "commander of the faithful," keep his religious authority so that it does not fall into the hands of Islamists.

"We are not afraid of the Islamists," said one leftist activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to appear to be portraying the movement as divided. "The left has always had a strong presence here, and ultimately it will be what the people want."

"Right now, we all want elections, separation of powers, and freedom of speech," said Omar Radi, another leftist activist. "When we will have this, then our differences will be visible."

But despite their differences, both leftist and Islamist protesters must contend with the constant threat of government harassment. Government agents have infiltrated the weekly meetings held by protesters to coordinate their plans of action, and the agents work to make their discussions unproductive, according to Elabadila Maaelaynine, a 46-year-old IT consultant and activist in the capital, Rabat.

"They are living with us," he said. "They are forcing us to become a secret organization that we don't want to be."

Maaelaynine said that activists' phones were bugged and they were watched, but they had not been threatened or imprisoned. "Their bugging system must be pretty ancient," he laughed. "Sometimes you can hear them talking to each other."

The protesters are largely undeterred by the threat of physical violence and the harassment. When I saw Mahfoud, the student activist, on June 4, he was busy posting articles and videos about the movement on his Facebook page, which was recently hacked. He opened a new account the same day. Multiple messages and notifications pop up on his page every minute.

Mahfoud, who flinched when his friend patted him on the back, vowed that the movement would continue and that it would remain peaceful. He still has headaches from the beating he took in Casablanca. In a living room filled with books by Greek philosophers, Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy, Baruch Spinoza, and others, he held up the X-ray of his injuries to the sunlight. "That was the best day of my life," he said. "This is the best time of my life."



Yemen Without Saleh

Chaos? It doesn't have to be.

June 3's explosion in Yemen's Nahdain Mosque -- whether a mortar, rocket, or planted bomb -- more seriously wounded Ali Abdullah Saleh than initial reports indicated. The BBC reports that the Yemeni president, who is now convalescing in Saudi Arabia, "suffered 40% burns and has bleeding inside his skull"; according to a Western official quoted by the New York Times, "His face was quite charred" and "he is not as well as his aides are portraying it."

The blast also blew apart Yemen's political landscape yet again. The Americans and the Saudis are quickly trying to refashion the pieces to their liking before Saleh gets back on his feet. Among the biggest obstacles are the spoiled children of Saleh and the late Sheikh Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar, the two most powerful men in Yemen for the last 30 years.

Yemen is headed for elections at some point, but the key question is: Who will oversee them? Although he promised to step down in 2013, Saleh planned to remain as head of the ruling party in any future elections. Since February he has said that he and his son Ahmed would be ineligible for the presidency, but remaining head of the ruling party would guarantee him a leading role in Yemeni politics and ensure that his sons and nephews would remain in top positions in the military and security forces.

The Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), the coalition of political parties negotiating for the opposition, wants Saleh and his extended family that runs the security forces out of the country, and it wanted total control of the transitional government that would carry out elections. Islah, which dominates the JMP, is a broad party that includes the top leadership of the Hashid tribal confederation represented by Ahmar's sons, various religiously oriented groups including the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis, and finally large merchants who are against socialists (though the Yemeni Socialist Party is the second most important party in the JMP).

Before the current unrest, the 10 sons of Ahmar, who died in 2007, were spread throughout the top leadership of Saleh's government and the formal opposition. The oldest son, Sadeq al-Ahmar, is the new paramount sheikh of the Hashid, which for years formed the backbone of Saleh's tribal support. Hussein al-Ahmar was head of Saleh's ruling party, and another Ahmar son was the president's key bodyguard. Himyar al-Ahmar is vice speaker of parliament. Hamid al-Ahmar is thought to be one of the richest and most ambitious men in Yemen, and he has long had his eye on the presidency. Alone among the Ahmar sons, he called for Saleh's ouster many years ago.

When street protests began, and particularly after the March 18 killing of protesters at Sanaa University, the Ahmar sons all withdrew from Saleh's government and joined the opposition. So did Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar (no relation to the Ahmar sons), the powerful general who was Saleh's key military commander for decades. In other words, the key figures in the formal political opposition are really former regime insiders.

This is why Saleh has long claimed that what is occurring in Yemen is a coup against him and his family rather than a popular revolt against an autocratic leader. At the end of May, Saleh provoked the Ahmars into a military confrontation in the Hasaba district of Sanaa; his clear aim was to establish that Yemen's troubles were about an inter-elite struggle between two powerful families. In his thinking, the solution is a deal between the two factions or outright victory over the coup-makers, rather than a triumph of the street as in Tunisia or Egypt. (Given this weekend's events, the coup-makers may have gotten to Saleh first, though we will likely never know who really did the deed.)

The street demonstrators who have rocked Yemeni politics since February should not be confused with the formal opposition. They are not well organized, and their demands are vague calls for equality, ridding the country of corruption, and bringing economic growth. But one demand is crystal clear: They want Saleh out, and many would like to see his regime on trial for crimes against the people. They do not want to replace Saleh's regime with the Ahmars, whom they consider as corrupt members of the same regime. The street is calling for a transitional government of "all Yemeni forces" that rewrites the Constitution and holds elections within nine months.

The street has had a powerful impact, but it has functioned more like a check on the political process than a leading shaper of it. Nor can it be completely separated from the coup-makers: The protesters are guarded by Ali Muhsin, and Islah is very influential in the street; meanwhile, the Ahmar sons have reportedly been financing the protesters to counter Saleh's underwriting of pro-government demonstrations. The street's ability to direct political affairs is questionable.

So what now? The best bet for Yemen's future is a very broad and inclusive government that is not dominated by any one faction of the smorgasbord that is Yemeni politics. Yemen needs to learn to govern by institutions and not powerful personalities.

The good news here is that the dominant political powers are relatively weakened at this point.

The Hashid leadership is not what is once was. The tribal confederation was left reeling by its conflict with the Houthi rebels in the north, and the recent conflict with Saleh inside Sanaa showed that the Ahmars could not overrun the city with tribal fighters. The Saudis also closed their special committee on Yemen, cutting off funds to their various clients in Yemen, the Ahmars being the most important. Nor is the Hashid confederation a monolith: Many of the tribesmen in the north dropped their weapons and came to Sanaa to join the street protests, while others revolted against their sheikhs and joined the Houthis. Many Hashid tribes are still backing Saleh.

The Ahmar sons' best bet is that the Saudis back them in some form. Here they have one thing going for them: Unlike the Americans, the Saudis are not particularly keen on Yemen's republican constitution, multiparty system, and elections. The Saudis would just as likely support a stable strongman if the Ahmars can convince the Saudis that they can deliver. It will be a hard sell, given that they did not deliver for the Saudis in the war on the Houthis. With the Americans now seemingly convinced that broad-based democracy in Yemen is the best way forward, the Saudis will at least have to wait for another time to prop up a strongman.

What of the Salehs? After all, they are still in command of the elite military and security forces, and Ahmed Saleh has reportedly locked himself in the presidential palace, refusing to let the interim president in. But President Saleh is gone, and he is probably not coming back without signing an agreement to step aside. That means the Saleh clan is in a more tenuous situation than before.

And the formal opposition? Empowered by the street demonstrations, it has successfully brought the Houthis from the north and the secessionist movement from the south into a broad anti-Saleh coalition. But both are independent powers that deeply distrust Islah, which dominates the JMP. They have a veto, a veto stronger than that of the street protesters. Islah's maneuvering room is thus also limited by the need to include these two key political actors.

With everybody politically hemmed in and nobody dominant, Yemen finally has a chance for real political change. The potential spoilers are Hamid al-Ahmar and Ahmed Saleh, who well may resort to renewed chaos and fighting to make a grab at power themselves. Hopefully, both men are rational enough to see that they cannot succeed, but we will likely see some tense moments and small flare-ups of fighting.

Pulling Yemen's diverse political actors into dialogue and forming a transitional government is going to be a very difficult process that will break down, start up, break down, and start up again. This instability is necessary and good. Many diverse former enemies are trying to work out a political compromise. Let's hope they succeed and that spoiled children can grow up.