Blink and you'll miss them: civil liberties in Morocco

Blink and you'll miss them: civil liberties in Morocco
Comment: Morocco has suffered from the wave of conservatism in the Arab world. But liberals must win the political battle before tackling the issue of civil rights, says Fatima al-Issawi.
3 min read
27 Aug, 2015
Civil liberties in Morocco remain undermined [Getty]
In the lobby of a luxury hotel in the city centre, my journalist host says he prefers to abstain from coffee.

When asked why, he says that even though he is not an observant Muslim, it would be unwise to break fast in public during Ramadan.

And he has reason. Article 22 of the Moroccan penal code states that Muslims face a fine and six months in jail if they ignore Ramadan in public without lawful reason. 

For the journalist, who spent years in prison under King Hassan II, risking freedom for what he calls a "trivial" issue is not worth the effort.

"This is not an important battle for me. Important matters are political. I don't want someone to take a photo of me here and to post it in a dodgy website to accuse me of being an infidel," he said.

In the crowded rail lounge taking me from Fes to Rabat, one passenger chose to play Quranic verses on his phone's loudspeaker. No one dared comment or object, of course.
     I don't want someone to take a photo of me here and to post it in a dodgy website to accuse me of being an infidel

In Morocco as in many other parts of the Arab world, the month of Ramadan was a wrestling match between the conservative majority and marginalised liberals whose power and influence is eroding.

However, the battle for civil liberties is no longer a priority. For a large part of the liberal minority, political gains are much more important than the recognition of the right of citizens to practise freely their individuality in public. The battle for civil liberties must wait.

Mounting conservatism and the regression of tolerance is against not only those who practise different religions, but also those who practise Islam but call for tolerance.

Jordan's interior ministry this year instructed Jordanians to respect the "sanctity" of Ramadan. Restaurants closed in the day to avoid threats of legal action. Men and women were forbidden from mixing during iftar meals.

In Algeria, campaigns started on Facebook calling for women to be physically punished for breaking a strict dress code during the holy month.

In Morocco, a gay man was assaulted by a crowd in Fes while a group of Moroccan young men who dared to drink water in Marrakech were arrested after merchants in the area alerted police.

The government decided that allowing fast-breakers in public spaces could drag the country into a state of "fitna", or social strife.

There were small victories: Two women charged with "gross indecency" for wearing short dresses in the rural south were acquitted after their case sparked protests from women's rights advocates.

But the victories were few and far between, and that has been the case here for years.

Read more: Moroccan court acquits women in 'immoral dress' case

In 2009, a Moroccan civil group, the "Alternative Movement for Individual Freedoms", used Facebook to call for a daytime picnic during Ramadan. The authorities cracked down and stopped the demonstration before it took place.

National media launched a campaign against the group, and its members received death threats. The group was not anti-Muslim, its was simply trying to say that other beliefs and traditions should be respected.

But the rights of minorities, and indeed those of the population at large, appear to come second every time.

The slogans raised by Arab uprisings were framed as mainly political. But most democratic experiments have fallen to fierce counter-revolutions, violence and serious abuses of human rights. Conservatives have imposed their will, backed by slogans of stability and fighting terrorism, to the detriment of rights and civil liberties.

Liberals continue their political battle. The fight for civil liberties will have to wait.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.