Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Perspective from Morocco

It's been surreal looking at the pictures of protests in Egypt. Having spent a few months there a while back as a lowly study abroad student, I've been to all of those places. They were part of my daily life - especially crossing the bridges to get to school and back every morning and afternoon.

The other day my father asked for my take on the "situation" in North Africa. As a number of commentators from across the range of press outlets have been keeping the world up to date, I'd rather not hinder everyone with my own rehashing of events. Rather, I have a few short comments and I want to point people in the direction of some good coverage, a handful of interesting articles that have popped up. Some are from a few days ago and, since events like this develop so rapidly, they are out of date, but may give some interesting background for anyone interested.

Tunisia's situation is special since Ben Ali pushed literacy so hard while keeping an ironclad policy of censorship. People learned long ago that they were getting a lousy deal. In Egypt, the "successes" of neighboring Tunisia has just been a trigger to a rumble of discontent, most of which was in place well before I was there. Check out this article in the Economist with some background on where the protests in Tunisia came from, what they are reacting against.

There was a great article in Al-Jazeera English on how people are finally feeling that they can control their own political fates (thanks to watching the successes in Tunisia). Another from the Economist (again, from a few days ago, read to the end) highlights the idea that foreign governments should not "fear" Islam and Islamist parties, noting that there is a range of opinions even withing the infamous Muslim Brotherhood.

The response in Fez has been surprising, unexpected, and a real problem.

There has been a rise in crime here and some of our friends have been robbed. Taxi drivers and shopkeepers are telling me that young, unemployed Moroccans, bolstered by the confidence oozing from these other countries, are coming to the cities (Fez) and robbing passers-by at knife point. The threat of violence is obviously there, but even though three or four people I know (both Americans and Moroccans) have been robbed, no one has been hurt, as long as they did not resist. We have heard about one person (the brother of one of our close Moroccan friends) who was seriously injured after refusing to hand over money. The moral that we all are learning is just to carry less and give them what they ask for. Thankfully, the police presence is rising swiftly as a result, I've watched one person be arrested and others severely hassled already as officials assert their authority in the streets of the old city. It's a scary time to be here, but not in the way that you see on the news.

As of now, there's not a real threat of widespread problems. Friends have relayed stories to me of their conversations with families and youth. Most interesting, perhaps, was a comment that a president is expected to step down when he loses an election, but a king has no reason to move aside. While Mubarak has been holding his high stature dubiously for 30+ years, and is now reaping the rewards of that stagnancy, leadership here is supposed to remain "stable." A long tenure is not seen as some vast injustice against government, the constitution, or society. Also, there isn't the high degree of education and literacy in general that you have in Tunisia (I believe that it's at 99% or something impressively ridiculous there). The media, therefore, is much more powerful. I hear of Moroccans complaining about why protesters aren't happy with what they have - a depiction that pervades state run news networks.

It's been a fascinating time to be here, aside from the fear of being robbed, of course. I remember when I was in Cairo, they had some major protests for the first anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. Watching from a nearby building I was astonished at the efficiency and sheer size of the riot police force there. They vastly outnumbered the protest making it look somewhat comical. Huge lines of black-clad and shielded officers sometimes two or three deep formed perfectly organized squares around any sign-waving screamers. It was a demonstration of Egypt's experience, something that I remember as I see these photos of chaos and destruction that flash across the front of the New York Times and Al-Jazeera each day. This is a country that knows how to "handle" its population, which just lends a bit of scope to the events as they are playing out right now, in front of us.