360° Analysis

Morocco: No Democracy Without Guaranteeing Individual Liberties


June 05, 2013 06:57 EDT

Kacem El Ghazzali, a well-known atheist Moroccan blogger, analyzes different campaigns to promote individual freedoms in Morocco, what impact the constitutional changes had, and what the country needs.

Today, we are talking about instilling the values of democracy and human rights, going beyond all religious, political, and social taboos. This struggle is not just about breaking the political taboo as a singular goal (classical dictatorships) as many would think. It is a struggle in order to establish a new culture, centered on modern and rational values, founded on accepting differences, and ensuring this right to all components of society — regardless of intellectual, political, and even religious or sexual orientations.

We, the people who adopted the philosophy of the Arab Spring by defending universal human rights, do not want to bring down authoritarian regimes just to establish theocratic dictatorships. We support the Arab Spring, but what sets us apart from many of its supporters is that we believe in the multiplicity of different colors of the spring season: an Arab Spring which highlights all the questions of freedom and accepts all differences of its members and guarantees their freedom of belief, political opinion, and sexual orientation.

Democracy for us is not a technical process, reduced at its edges, between the people and the ballot boxes. We see it as a social and political culture in which universal human rights must be the central component. This is what we are trying to achieve through initiatives that raise the value of individual liberties and religious freedom as an essential and urgent requirement.

We Have the Right to be Different

In the Western world, for many years, a dominant idea about the East was conveyed through classical media and poor international reports: All people in the Muslim world were happy with Islam as a religion, with shari'a being the main source of all laws, and that their only problem was poverty and freedom of expression in order to demand more economic rights. Only few people would truly believe that in the Middle East and North Africa. In the region's countries, where Islam is enshrined as the state religion in the constitutions, a different, underground society with dissident voices exists; one which totally flips this old stereotype upside down.


The Moroccan regime exerts concerted efforts in order to maintain that stereotype as a pretext to say that there is no need for a discussion of individual liberties in society; or it projects to the West a fake image of what is really happening, by pretending that the country is liberal and tolerates individual liberties.

During the last few years, the Kingdom of Morocco has witnessed several initiatives benefiting from the space of freedom and privacy offered by the internet and social networks; also by people who live abroad in free and open societies like in Europe and America.

Kif-Kif and the Issue of Sexual Freedom

I believe that sexual freedom is a key human right for the emancipation of individuals. Sexual freedom does not entail stripping people of their clothes. Rather, it asserts that every individual is free in his or her own body.

On June 1, 2004, Moroccan police arrested 43 people on charges of homosexual conduct in the city of Tetouan. The arrest was based on Section 489 of the Moroccan Penal Code, which punishes sexual acts between people of the same gender by six months to three years of imprisonment.

As a reaction, Moroccan homosexuals began an international campaign for their release on the internet. Thousands of letters were sent to the media and Western embassies in Morocco. To coordinate their actions on the Internet, a group called Kif-Kif, a forum to help Moroccans who do not find their place in society, was created.

Kif-Kif was officially founded in Spain in 2005, but the group has not been legally recognized in Morocco, and therefore, could not campaign openly. The internet remained the only way to cooperate and help its members. Kif-Kif is a North African expression that translates roughly as "all the same."

The case from 2004 was not the last. The Moroccan regime continues to arrest and persecute homosexuals; the most recent case took place in May 2013.Two young Moroccan men were jailed by a court in Temara for four months for being homosexuals. Moreover, the law also punishes couples who have had sex without being officially married with up to five years of imprisonment. The Moroccan regime is burying its head in the sand, ignoring demands of liberal civil society calling for sexual freedom.

Masayminsh (We Won't Fast)

In 2012, five people were arrested for breaking the fast publicly during Ramadan. The French newspaper Le Figaro reported the case of one young man who was sentenced to three months in prison.

In the same year, via social media, I launched a movement for Moroccans which called for breaking the fast during Ramadan in order to protest against Morocco's penal code which states in Article 222 that: "A person commonly known to be Muslim who violates the fast in a public place during Ramadan, without having one of the justifications allowed by Islam, shall be punished by one to six months of prison" and pay a fine.

The initiative succeeded in creating a public debate about the issue of individual liberties in Morocco via the internet and in mainstream media. 

The initiative coincided with the February 20th Movement’s protests which, similar to the ones that took place in several countries in the region, were part of what is now known as the Arab Spring. Protestors in Morocco demanded political and economic reforms. The February 20th Movement witnessed a strange cooperation with movements of political Islam like Al Adl Wa Al Ihssane (Justice and Charity), the biggest Islamic organization in Morocco, the secular left parties, and certain parts of civil society. 

Among them were those who said that demands for religious freedom must remain deferred until the achievement of democracy, and that such debates may disturb the movement in order to collect supporters.

I made a clear statement at the time which I kept defending since. If the proponents of that argument embraced the democratic choice — as we see it — I do not think that the discussion of religious freedoms would be treated by this approach of tension and urgency by the secular modernists. We would have to wait until the achievement of our common aim against the regime. However, anyone who would be scared by calls of modernity and human rights would never be a wise and practical option for cooperation in the long term. In addition to that, we all know that history and experience have proved that democracy for the Islamists remains just a way to gain power and then throw away all democratic acquisitions, in order to apply their exclusionary project. This is what happened before, during, and after the Iranian Revolution.

There is a big difference between us and the Islamists on the level of understanding democracy in theory and practice. We have to respect the rights of minorities who derive their legitimacy from the international conventions of human rights. In a theocracy, we will have to face an authority that practices terrorism against ideas and freedoms of individuals, and the exclusion of political dissents and opponents under the name of democracy. As for the blind rejection of any demands of religious freedom, that clearly shows the extent of the darker political project supported by the majority as an alternative. Therefore, we cannot give up our intellectual and political principles and rights to please the majority which does not share our dream and aspires merely to replace one dictatorship with another.

I support political reforms and the reduction of the powers of the king and the fight against corruption. But neither now, nor in the future will I give up the demand for a secular state that guarantees the rights of religious and non-religious minorities.

The King and Religious Freedom

The Moroccan state unites faith and politics through several ways. First, the king claims to be of prophetic descent and calls himself Emir el-Mu'mineen (commander of the faithful); from this claim a body of beliefs surrounding the king derives which lends legitimacy to the ruling dynasty. Second, the king claims the allegiance of the population through Islamic bay’a ceremonies.

As commander of the faithful, King Mohammed VI heads the Supreme Religious Council in Morocco, which, according to Article 41 in the Constitution, is “the only institutional body empowered to impose religious consultations (fatwas).” It counts among its members the Ministry of Islamic affairs. The Supreme Religious Council declared a fatwa calling for the death penalty against Muslims who renounce their faith.

Morocco After the Arab Spring

After demonstrations and protests in Morocco, King Mohamed VI responded by offering a new constitution. This is what the world heard, the headline of Morocco introducing a new constitution and this is also what I heard from people in Europe. But no one asks what kind of constitution the king offered.

First, it is very important to realize that Morocco is still an absolute monarchy like the ones from the Middle Ages in Europe. There was no real change in the new constitution since the king still controls the crucial state authorities, from faith (as "the commander of the believers”) to combining the powers of the branches of government (legislative, executive, and judiciary). The new constitution was approved by 97 percent of citizens. However, there was no room to discuss the constitution in detail, and those opposed to it were not given the opportunity to explain their position; all this while we still have political prisoners. This cannot be considered a democratic constitution. In general, the essence of the old constitution was not changed; it was a smart tactical plan by the regime, aiming at polishing the image of Morocco abroad, and deluding the world that the regime was enacting reforms and changes.

Morocco, today, needs more liberal voices. Society is changing, and we should be in the center of this fast moving change. In the recent past, no one would have even thought about Moroccan girls protesting with their naked breasts, as the activists of Femen Maroc did so via social media, or the many vocal voices of persecuted homosexuals, apostates and atheists who broke their silence and started advocating for their rights. Working on the individual and their freedom is, at the same time, working on future society’s freedom. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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