Is This King “Cool?" How Bin Laden’s Death Could Improve Human Rights in Morocco

Now that the dust from Osama bin Laden’s death is settling, the U.S. and the rest of the Western world have an opportunity to re-shape Middle East policies. A good place to start is Morocco, a country of 32 million whose human rights abuses the U.S. has ignored in return for assistance in fighting Al-Qaeda.

Whether the U.S. got involved in the Middle East because of fear, oil, or a desire to protect American citizens, bin Laden’s death marks the end of an era. Now is the time for the U.S. to move its Middle East policy away from reactionary, fear-driven measures toward ones that are in line with the U.S.’s founding ideals of liberty and justice.

“Revolution season” in the Middle East this past winter provided a reminder that the U.S. has supported some rotten regimes, of which Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt are examples. These were authoritarian leaders, but the U.S. supported them because they cooperated politically. Now that the political environment has changed, so too should our policies. Enter Morocco.

Muhammad VI, the king of Morocco, is no Mubarak. He’s been called the “cool” king who brought liberal changes to the country — releasing political prisoners, modernizing the family code law, and creating a fund to compensate victims tortured under the reign of his father. These are all commendable measures.

And yet, since February 20th, Moroccans have been protesting monthly against the government; the latest protest occurred right after bin Laden’s death. The protesters’ demands include increased democracy, the release of political prisoners, and decreased corruption. Before February 20, the protest organizers publicized their demands with a moving YouTube video. Regrettably, the government embarked on a smear campaign of the people in this video.  

After living in the country for over a year, I have to say I agree with the protesters. During 15 months in Morocco, I saw the closure of two news agencies: Nichane, the country’s only major newspaper published in Moroccan Arabic, and the Morocco office of Al Jazeera. Add to that the journalists who have been detained over the years; just this past month, the publisher of Morocco’s largest newspaper Al Massae was arrested.

There are other abuses. After the February 20 protests, a Moroccan woman whose husband is in the police force informed me that the police had waited until after the protests were over and then rounded up participants, beating some and locking up others for 10 years or more. I heard frustration with injustice and inequality. One taxi driver complained to me about unfair laws and corruption at the top. Another taxi driver asked me: “Why do you think all the borders are closed? If they were open, this country would be empty.”

To make matters worse, the suicide bombing on April 28 threatens what progress has been made. The attack in Marrakesh is the most significant of its kind since the May 2003 Casablanca bombings, after which Muhammad VI responded by rounding up and arresting 2000 people. Some Moroccans worry that this latest attack will be another excuse for the government to crack down.

International pressure would help the situation, if the West would only apply it. A recent Foreign Policy article highlighted the West’s complacence, with France down-playing human rights concerns in Morocco and the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon rejecting a proposal from his own human rights chief to create a human rights monitor for the region. Amnesty International has called on the U.S. to hold Morocco accountable for human rights abuses, noting that the U.S. currently praises Morocco on human rights. Even the Western press has failed to monitor the country: When the New York Times created its special page highlighting the protests around the Middle East, Morocco was not included.

Why this complacence? We have been acting out of fear, and Morocco has been too strategic for us to criticize. It has been a friendly partner in a dangerous region, helping with counter-terrorism efforts, including assistance with the extraordinary rendition of U.S. and U.K. terror suspects to Morocco for questioning.

Which brings us back to bin Laden’s death. Now is the time for a new strategy. Does the U.S. not stand for “liberty and justice for all”? With our support for so many of their authoritarian leaders, it looks to Arab youth like we only give those rights to Americans. So here’s my prescription for change: The U.S. should support a human rights monitor in Morocco and listen to the demands of the protesters. It’s a simple act, but it would show Mohammed VI that police abuses and restrictions on the press will not be tolerated -- and a free and open press would allow Moroccans to make their own informed decisions about the king and governance. After all, Moroccans must shape their own country, but the West can make sure the debate is open to all the Moroccan people. That’s another one of the U.S.’s founding principles: it’s called democracy.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons