Morocco’s smiling face and heavy hand

In an Arab World wracked by wars, sectarian massacres and violent religious extremism, Morocco looks like an oasis of stability and relative freedom.  

True, the North African kingdom is hardly a democracy, with King Mohammed VI firmly in command of the government, judiciary, and military. However, elections for Morocco’s (circumscribed) parliament are competitive, their results are widely accepted, and the country has vibrant civic groups.  

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More important in the eyes of the U.S. and other Western allies, Morocco has avoided the violent reaction to the Arab Spring that has plagued other Arab countries: Egypt’s brutal military dictatorship, Syria’s and Libya’s ghastly civil wars, and Yemen’s bombardment into rubble.  

The kingdom had its own street protests in 2011, but the monarchy placated the opposition with constitutional reform. Even though the changes fell short of establishing democratic accountability, real press freedom, or an independent judiciary, it was enough for then-Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonEconomists argue for taxing trades Sanders signs autographs as Clinton makes surprise showing on stage Coincidence? Obama spoke for 44 minutes, Clinton for 42 MORE to hail Morocco as “model” for the region.  

Yet the kingdom is anything but.  

Although the Constitution prohibits torture, “numerous credible accounts of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of prisoners and detainees confirmed [its] existence,” according to the U.S. State Department’s 2012 Morocco Human Rights Report, a document produced during Secretary Clinton’s tenure. Both the UN special rapporteur on torture and Amnesty International have reported that torture is commonplace. An Amnesty report listed 173 cases of alleged torture and ill-treatment of men, women, and children between 2010 and 2014.

Even alleging torture is dangerous. Wafae Charaf, a left-wing activist, is serving a two-year sentence for slandering the police and “falsely reporting” that plain-clothes men abducted and abused her.  

Authorities have increasingly suffocated independent media, which flourished in the 2000s. A mix of police harassment, unfair trials delivering heavy fines to outspoken journalists and media, and royal palace-orchestrated advertisement embargoes drove many independent newspapers to close. Some independent reporting continues online. But journalists keep facing unfair prosecutions and convictions, and other forms of harassment. Foreign journalists have frequently been expelled from Morocco. 

Activists are also a target. The Moroccan Association of Human Rights, the biggest and most outspoken rights group in the country and one of the largest in the region, has been under intense pressure, with police disrupting its meetings, raiding its headquarters, and beating up staff members during protests. The government has cancelled dozens of its activities.  A criminal case was recently filed against five activists, including the historian Maati Monjib and the cyber-activist Hisham Al-Miraat, for “undermining national security”—a charge that carries a prison term of up to five years.

International rights groups are no safer. After months of tense relationships with Amnesty International, the kingdom expelled two of its researchers in June. On October 2, the government’s spokesman took out a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal to criticize Human Rights Watch.  The ad also announced a ban on the organization entering the country pending a “clarification meeting.” The government has yet to answer Human Rights Watch efforts to arrange such a meeting, suggesting no actual interest in a dialogue.   

Morocco’s authorities seem to think their region is so tumultuous they can get away with barring international watchdogs, suppressing domestic dissent, and restricting free speech while maintaining a pro-democracy facade.  They miscalculate.   

Abstaining from bombing your civilian opponents, or jailing “only” dozens of peaceful critics (as opposed to thousands) is not enough to avoid criticism.

On the contrary, Morocco deserves closer scrutiny because its lack of sectarian divides or toxic geopolitics means serious progress on basic rights and the rule of law is within reach.  

The U.S., long an ally of the kingdom, should make clear to Morocco that it will not settle for empty “reform.”  

The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a U.S. foreign aid agency, granted Morocco $697 million over the past five years. Its board approved a second package of nearly $450 million in mid-September, but the package has yet to be officially endorsed. One criterion for MCC allocations is that recipients have “just and democratic governance.”  

Needless to say, practicing torture, muzzling speech, and banning watchdog groups are not “just and democratic” practices. The MCC board should take a harder look at whether the kingdom is living up to its liberal reputation.  

Morocco has made repeated commitments to uphold universal standards of human rights. The time has come to hold its actions to its words.  

Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch and Benchemsi is its Middle East and North Africa advocacy director. 

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