The View from Fez encourages contributions from our readers and today's opinion piece is from Eric M. Lightfoot. Eric is an MSc Development Studies Candidate at the London School of Economics. He visited Fez this month.
OPINION - Eric Lightfoot
The first trans-Atlantic flight I ever experienced was for a trip to Morocco with my sisters and parents. I was 18 months old and I remember very little of the trip. Shocking, I know. The trip was an unmitigated disaster. One of my sisters had her foot run over by a motorbike, all sorts of illnesses took hold of everyone (my father thought it would be a good idea to change my diaper on the front seat of the rental car – don’t ask), and both my sisters swore never to return.
But the young are not so easily swayed and I found myself back at age twenty to study and several times since because, simply, I fell in love with the country.
My most recent trip back was a two-week extravaganza, during which time I had been charged by my fiancée to “just show [her] what’s so great about this place!” So our two-week tour brought us from Marrakech to Tangier to Tetouan to Chefchouan to Fez to Azrou to Volubolis to Casablanca and we’re already looking to go back for our next trip after so much fun and so many wonderful experiences.
However, I don’t want to dwell on what we did, when, and for how long – go plan your own adventure. What made our trip unique – I hope – was the series of events that overlapped with it. Notably the bombing in Marrakech, the Royal wedding in the UK, and the demise of Osama bin Laden.
I would be lying if I said that we weren’t shaken by the news out of Marrakech that we received via frantic phone call from family members at home on our way to Fez. With all the positive excitement from the Arab Spring (see Tunisia and Egypt) as well as the dastardly turns that these movements can take (see Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, and Libya), we weren’t entirely sure which way to turn. However, I’ve spent some time in the Arab World having now lived in Morocco, Egypt, and Qatar and if I’ve learned one thing it’s that, and I know this may shock you, not all Arabs are the same. Morocco has different characteristics and systems than Egypt, which is very different from Qatar and so on. The first thing we did in our unease, was to remember that Morocco was, and still isn’t, Libya.
The outpour of rage and disgust at the attacks was palpable and strong. One man we talked to exclaimed, “whoever did this is not Muslim.” It could not be clearer in the Koran, he said, you do not kill. Sentiments like this abounded with each and every conversation we had and our nerves were eased. We realized, perhaps too slowly, that you can only ever take acts of violence in the context in which they come.
So what is/was the context? Morocco is undertaking some pretty substantial reforms spearheaded by the King – though there are issues arising as to who is being invited/allowed to be at the table and nothing has yet materialized -- and Morocco has had bombings before (Casablanca, 2003) carried out by an off-shoot Al Qaeda. The interesting thing, however, is the un-relatedness of these two facts. If we had been in Egypt three months ago, the initial thought of the (wo)man on the street would not have been rage, but exhaustion of the government doing what the government does best: instilling fear into its electorate to prove its worth.
But this isn’t Egypt. So many we met automatically pinned this on extremists who were hurting Morocco. “We depend on tourism,” one friend said, “scaring [tourists] off is bad for Morocco.” Support for the King stays strong despite calls for reform and a still rather socially immobile society and the protests that took hold in Casablanca shortly before the Marrakech bombing remain largely non violent (facebook organized!) and call not, necessarily, for greater reforms, but to allow new people to the negotiating table. This is a good thing. This is not a country solely governed by the politics of fear, but a country that is engaging in political discourse with fringe elements using fear. Issues such as freedom of the press, inequality, and corruption are still in need of significant overhauls, but there is stability in Morocco that is less caustic than in other states.
Thankfully, fear doesn’t seem to be taking hold. Right-wingers have suggested that security should come before the reforms – even though the UK has faced more bombings from fringe elements since 9/11 than Morocco has – but these ideas aren’t catching on in the street. While we must critically watch the progression of the reforms, there is hope that reformist elements and the general populous do not see the move to a more constitutional monarchy as counterproductive to security concerns, which could arguably be more detrimental to extremist causes, unknown to welcome discussion and debate.
Love of the royals in the UK (every television was turned on to wedding celebrations as if it were a Barcelona-Real Madrid match up) is clear and present, which suggests an acceptance of continued royal presence in their own borders – the King was in Fez on our first day there and many people are phenomenal actors if this is not the case; Fez(b)ians loved having him there. Monarchies are not necessarily antidemocratic, but that makes the proposed reforms that much more important moving forward.
The last bit of news on our trip of the death of Osama has led to other calls of hope for change (see “Osama bin Laden Dead – Reaction in Morocco” for more), not new calls to jihad.
Morocco is not the Arab World. It is Morocco and it has its own psyche, challenges, and opportunities. There is, however, a new sense of hope in the Arab World that is affecting countries from Morocco to Syria. It may not be successful in every country that demands change from the old guard of autocrats, but there is a new association of violence standing in the way of progress. The protests in Tunisia and Egypt were peaceful and the protestors in Syria and Yemen are also employing non-violence as their key tool against violence-wielding dictators. In the Palestinian Territories a unity deal between Fatah and Hamas suggests recognition that the Arab Street wants change, but not through the nationalistic revolutionary way of the past nor the more contemporary jihadist calls. Bin Laden’s idea of a Caliphate is laughable to myriad Arabs today (these protests are about a lack of engagement with the populous and Caliphates are not known for democratic tendencies).
Morocco is in the midst of historic change. It is its own change and it is correlated with changes throughout the Arab World, but its causes, struggles, failures and victories will be fully Moroccan; Moroccans will own their own future.
Perceptions change and new opportunity is born.