The Contradictory Worlds of Political Struggle in Morocco

inside the grand mosque in Casablanca

Montreal   The magic of the Organizers’ Forum is that we immerse ourselves in the work of counterparts in diverse areas of change making, along with as much of the local culture as we can absorb. The risk and constant caution is not deceiving ourselves that this deep dive ends on solid ground once on shore. We seize on clear visions, even while recognizing that they may only a mirage. Where we think we see democracy, may only be a face mask for a subtle repression. Where we embrace the energy and passion of individuals, we have to be careful to examine where everything is going and whether it is sustainable, whether it will actually work.

We always want to be positive and supportive, but we recognize that we are visitors. We are not tourists. We want to be seen as comrades in struggle, looking to learn, but we recognize that as North Americans and Europeans, we are seen as privileged and often opportunistically, no matter how humbly we try to represent ourselves. Finally, we are organizers, bred and trained to question, to be skeptical, to analyze and doubt, to test words against action, presentations against reality, all integrated into our every thought. In that spirit, a first-time participant turned to me after a long and exciting presentation from a labor organization, and asked me if I thought it was a “real union” or not. That’s just how we are.

working cart

All of which led me to reflect on some of the contradictions that emerged from all of our meetings that, if accurate, concern me. Among the people we met there seem to be divisions, perhaps irreconcilable, between the forces for change. On our first afternoon I was surprised to hear a journalist and activist from the 20th of February movement express an opinion indicating that most nonprofits and unions were essentially tools of the state. One activist pointing out the problems of minorities laid the blame on the King, but was also clear later that he did not want his photo used, and that he was leaving the country to make money in hopes of making change later. Other activists, including our favorite firebrand, Betty Lachgar with M.A.L.I., the Movement for Alternative Individual Liberties, resisted becoming nonprofits in the same way because of the requirements of the state. The issue was the usual requirement that in registering with the government, the organization was required to express some allegiance to the state, and in Morocco that also means the King and Islam, the state religion. Is that so different from the requirements that many US and Canadian organizations accept in order to get tax exemptions by pledging not to be political? Yes and no, but it’s only a difference in degree.

clock tower in Casablanca near old medina

On the other hand we met with cultural organizers with vibrant programs in art and theater and deep community roots and political programs, who had registered and received most of their support from foreign and EU sources, and were enthusiastically embraced by some of the same activists that scoffed at unions and organizational registration. Women’s organizations were also extremely politically active and essential in changing the family code and winning protections for women, but also registered and supported by the younger activists.

It seems the contradiction was more between activists and organizers. The organizers accepted the compromise of state registration in order to build more stable structures to sustain and fight for change. The activists were more committed to movements, solidarity, direct action, cultural events, education in the public space, mobilizing rather than organizing, social media rather than institution building. For the younger activists, their commitment was deep, but it was not their work in the same way it was the full-time commitment of the unionists or even the cultural and community center nonprofits, who also saw it as their life job. I’m not sure either realized the trade-off or the consequences.

In Morocco, they clearly knew each other and in many cases got along well and with respect, but would they have the ability to come together and find that they had built the capacity to make change when the opportunity presented or not? That question would stay with me a long time and leave me waiting to watch and see.

stop sign


An Activist with Real Courage in Morocco

Ibtissame Betty Lachgar from MALI

Rabat   We’re organizers assembled at the Organizers’ Forum, not advocates or activists. We’re most interested in how people build organization, organize in their communities or workplaces, and launch their campaigns. One of our most interesting meetings though came with Ibtissame Betty Lachgar of MALI, which means roughly, What is so Different? She had virtually no organization. Doesn’t seek money from international NGOs. They don’t do outreach for actions or events other than the odd Facebook or social media post. Perhaps MALI has 50 members she said in defining their core activists. Nonetheless, Lachgar impressed us all with her commitment and, frankly, courage.

Boiled down to the basics, her cause and that of her associates in MALI has been individual rights and freedoms.

In 2009 they called their first public action in this conservative country whose slogans are God, the King, and Country. Muslim is the state religion and earlier in the our visit we had heard of the difficulties of other minority religions. MALI organized what they called a “picnic” in a public place to make the point that everyone was not Muslim and did not need to fast for Ramadan. The outrage at Lachgar and her group was intense. They ended up running for it and having to have their picnic in what she called a forest nearby.

This event triggered an almost annual action. In 2010 they dramatized harassment, and of course they were harassed. In 2011, the 20th of February movement was in force, so there was plenty of action on every front. Lachgar once again soaked up the hostility in that period when she wore a t-shirt to one of the events saying, “I Don’t Need Sex, the Government Screws Me Every Day,” or words to that affect. In 2013, to protest the bans on showing public affection, they organized a “Kiss In” in front of the Parliament, and were promptly arrested as well, and held for a bit.

On women’s rights and LGBT rights, MALI invited the Netherlands-based “Women on Waves” to bring down their ship to educate women on access to abortion pills and abortion rights. The government went crazy again, and insisted they would block the ship from coming anywhere near Morocco, and were embarrassed when they found out the ship had been there a month earlier and was already gone. The abortion pill had been available over the counter before this, but doctors then started profiteering with the price as it became more difficult to obtain without prescriptions.

Lachgar was not part of an organization and seemed not to really want one, but she was a force of nature, and very inspiring. She can’t seem to keep out of trouble, and mullahs have issued fatwas calling for her death to protect the faith. She has also found herself on an ISIS list. Asked if she made any precautions or had any security, and she simply shrugged it off.

There is an important role for loud and effective voices in the wilderness like Lachgar, and we were all moved to meet her and offer solidarity for her sometimes solitary struggles for the rights of so many.