Victor Argo
Last updated: 2 March, 2013

Marching in Marrakech

The flight from Europe is short on this February afternoon in 2013 and yet, when I leave the airport in Marrakech, the scenery has completely changed. Instead of snow and temperatures below zero, I find a desert town bathing in light. The colors of Africa are mixed with the laid back bustle of an Arab city.

Jemaa al Fna, a big square in the middle of the old city, is the center of Marrakech. After sunset, it feels like the center of the universe. The square is filled with musicians, snake charmers and tattoo artists, entertaining tourists and locals alike. A thin layer of smoke lingers over Jemaa al Fna, coming from the many food stalls that offer grilled meat and the traditional Harira soup to an ever hungry audience.

However, Jemaa al Fna is in mourning. On April 28, 2011, the Argana café on the upper left corner of the square was the site of a terrorist attack that killed 17 people, 15 of them foreigners. The café has not opened again and is still under construction. It is an ugly wound in Marrakech’s flesh, a reminder of a world where destiny can turn to tragedy in a fraction of a second.

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The Marrakech bombing came at a time when the popular uprisings in the Arab world were in their infant stages. Tunisia’s Ben Ali had left the country, Mubarak was in jail and Gaddafi was fighting for his survival. “Syria” had just begun. It came at a time when the Moroccan King, Mohammed VI, must have been very worried about the future of his country and his dynasty. Till today, some people claim that the bombing was a government plot to demonstrate to the Moroccan people how ugly things can be when all order is lost. However, this rumor seems quite far fetched.

Marrakech is famous for its crafts, for furniture, pottery and copper lamps. I take a taxi to the industrial area of Sidi Ghanem where many shops cater to mostly European customers. The shop owners I talk to while I march the streets of Sidi Ghanem are mostly happy with the way business is running in 2013. Business owners like it calm, and that is the situation in Morocco today, at least to the outside observer. Thus, tourism is thriving.

In 2011, the King had no choice but to introduce political reforms in order to contain the revolutionary spark that emerged in Morocco as well. A new constitution was quickly drafted and general elections were held, bringing the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) into government. But since the elections in November of 2011, the drive towards reforms has considerably slowed down. Some observers call the relationship between the PJD and the King a cohabitation: the PJD enjoys being in some sort of power, and the King’s intention is only to relinquish as much power as absolutely necessary.

Many of the shop owners in Sidi Ghanem are French, selling Moroccan handicraft to visitors from Europe. The local market is rather small. Moroccans prefer more “shiny” interior design, not the colors of the desert – red, brown and dark yellow in different shades – one shop owner tells me. That said, this trend has been slightly reversed in recent years. Moroccans have encountered Moroccan design in Europe and now ask for it back home.

One of the native shop owners in Sidi Ghanem is Mohamed. He is a master potter and holds King Mohammed VI in highest esteem. Besides his shop, Mohamed heads a project that has already enabled 600 unemployed youths to leave the streets and start training as a potter, with a diploma in two years. The project is funded by the King and Mohamed is proud to display a photo with him and the King in his shop.

Under the late Hassan II, the King’s father, having his portrait in every public place was mandatory. Under Mohammed VI, this law has been eased. Nevertheless, most shop owners prefer to have a portrait of the King in their shops, in different styles and settings: the King as a fashion model, posing by the pool; the King with his family; and the King depicted as an object of art, in a black and white portrait Banksy-style.

“I am doing fine,” admits Mohamed, “I have my shop and the pottery project, I hardly pay taxes and the gas is cheap.” Other Moroccans are less optimistic about their future. A recent survey in Morocco’s French language newspaper “Le Matin” shows that 70% of the Moroccan people fear an increased rate of unemployment in 2013. And more than 80% of the households think that they won’t be able to save any money this year. Overall, the level of confidence of the Moroccan households was lower at the end of 2012 than in 2011. By announcing his reforms, the King raised the expectations for an improvement of the economic situation. Expectations that have yet to be fulfilled. The high level of unemployed people is a social and political time bomb in Morocco.

Maybe women can do a better job in moving Morocco forward. Since 2009, Marrakech has a female mayor, Fatima Zahra Mansouri, and she is getting great reviews. “Her predecessor was a thief,” says Mohamed, the master potter, “and we are happy to have Fatima now.” She is from Sidi Ghanem and is still very visible there, even as a mayor who also holds a seat in the national parliament in Rabat. With Mansouri, corruption has disappeared from the city hall of Marrakech. Mansouri, who is 37, is also perfect for business. Hamid Bentahar, the chairman of the Marrakech Tourism Council, is glad to have her at the top of Marrakech’s political ladder. “To have a young woman who is mayor has been very attractive for tourism,” he is quoted in an article recently published in Time.

Where is Morocco heading from here? So far, the King has mastered the course of his country with carefully crafted reforms, enough to calm the masses and to secure the ongoing love of most of his people. Without revenues from an oil and gas sector, which in some Arab countries are used to ward off any democratic ambitions, Mohammed VI must slowly but surely move towards a more accountable system. This will eventually end up in a parliamentary monarchy where his function is reduced to a mere representative position.

Particularly young Moroccans have already well integrated the vocabulary of the winds of change blowing through Tunisia and Egypt. One young rug seller calls the price he offers me a “prix démocratique,” meaning a price that leaves everybody satisfied. A Moroccan citizen I ask about the inertia that has beset Morocco’s political system in 2012 tells me that this might be the strategy of the Islamist party. The PJD deliberately does nothing while publicly deploring that their hands are tied because of the King’s still existing all encompassing grip on decisions. That way, they aim to increase the pressure on the King to give up more of his rights. The PJD’s strategy might work, but only if the King goes along with it. The future of Morocco, and the peaceful transition into a new political system, depends very much on a monarch being able to do what is best for his country.

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