The May 16, 2003 Casablanca terrorist attacks that killed 43 people in five synchronized suicide bombings shattered two myths about Moroccan politics. First, the attacks and the government's immediate response to them undermined Morocco's image as a democratizing monarchy. Second, they destroyed the illusion that the Moroccan monarchy's grounding in Islam protects it from Islamic extremism and terrorism.
Ten days after the attacks, the Moroccan parliament hastily passed anti-terrorist legislation introduced in 2002 following the discovery of Al Qaeda cells. The proposed law had been criticized by human rights groups for the harsh measures it allows and its ambiguous definition of "support" of terrorist activities. Together with existing restrictive criminal and press codes, the new law gives the government the power to curb peaceful political activity. For example, it allows reporters and editors to be held criminally liable for publishing material the government defines as providing moral justification for terrorism. Among several recent cases, Moustapha Alaoui, editor of the weekly Al-Ousbou, has been detained since June 5 for publishing a communiqué from a group claiming responsibility for the Casablanca bombings. The legislation extends incommunicado detention to 12 days renewable, creating conditions under which mistreatment and torture of detainees can more easily occur. The bill also reduces the requirements for applying the death penalty.
Following the Casablanca attacks, the government arrested and indicted 100 individuals in relation to the bombings, but only 31 have been directly linked to the attacks so far. It is open to question whether, in the present environment, they can receive a fair trial. For example, lawyers fear they will suffer police reprisals and judicial hassles if they defend individuals indicted in the terrorist bombings.
The bombings may also have other political repercussions damaging to democracy and pluralism. The Justice and Development Party (PJD), a legal Islamist party, is now at the center of a national controversy about the participation of openly religious parties in the political process. Last October, the newly formed PJD won 43 seats in parliament, becoming the third largest party in the parliament, although it had decided to present candidates in only half of the electoral districts. A ban on the PJD would thus have far reaching implications. A portion of the hostility to the PJD is based on principle, as some civil society groups argue that separation of church and state requires the exclusion of religious parties. Much of the opposition, however, seems motivated primarily by immediate electoral calculations: the current government coalition may use the Casablanca attacks to prevent a PJD victory in crucial municipal elections expected in September 2003. Yet, while political leaders have condemned the manipulation of religion by extremist groups, the bombings have not prompted a debate about the monarchy's use of religion to grant the king a sacred status and enhance his legitimacy.
Stagnation in Morocco's political liberalization was evident even before the May 16 bombings. King Muhammad VI, who ascended the throne four years ago, pledged to rule the country in a different manner than his authoritarian father, Hassan II. In particular, he promised a new concept of royal authority and an expansion of civil liberties. Yet the king still both rules and governs and is accountable to no one. His representatives in the state's central administration, government ministries, justice system, and security apparatus maintain tremendous powers and are accountable only to him. Freedom of expression remains a particularly sensitive area, notwithstanding significant gains in press freedom in the past decade. Moroccans continue to receive stiff sentences for defaming the king, whose sacred status is codified in the country's constitution.
The penalties for crossing the "red line" that protects the king from criticism are illustrated by two recent cases involving, respectively, an ordinary citizen and a prominent journalist. In May, Boujemaa Ouardi, a pushcart seller in a remote southern village, was sentenced to one year in prison for tearing up a calendar that featured photographs of King Muhammad. Mr. Ouardi tore the king's picture in anger after local authorities forced him to buy the calendar—priced at $2, a large sum in rural Morocco—for the benefit of a charity sponsored by a Moroccan princess. In June, Ali Lmrabet, a prominent editor and democracy advocate, was sentenced to three years in prison for defaming the king and undermining the country's sacred institutions. Lmrabet was jailed and his publications closed because he published an interview with a vocal opponent of the monarchy, a satirical photomontage, and a cartoon depicting bags of cash being moved from the state coffers to the royal palace, a reference to the Parliament's lack of control over the budget.
While the need to fight terrorism is real, sacrificing civil liberties and democratic principles in the name of security may not protect Morocco against terrorists, but will penalize peaceful citizens and secular democrats. The use of the terrorist threat as an excuse to silence peaceful dissent in Morocco raises the thorny issue of whether repressive Arab regimes can fight terror while their policies breed religious extremism.
Abdeslam Maghraoui teaches politics at Princeton University.