A Balancing Act: A Conversation on Democracy Under the Moroccan Monarchy, Human Rights and Activism with Mr. Mohamed Elboukili

One of the oldest continuously reigning monarchies in the world, Morocco has been ruled by the Alaouite dynasty since the 17th century. After colonization by both the French and the Spanish empires, Morocco became a constitutional monarchy in 1956 under Sultan Mohamed V. Although this was a precarious form of independence, the Sultan sought to strike a compromise with the diverse political voices that emerged post-independence while preserving the political clout of the crown. However, Mohamad V’s successor Hassan II dashed any hopes for further opening up the political system once he came to power.Morocco entered the infamous ‘years of lead’, a period from the ‘60s to the ‘80s characterized by harsh political repression and state violence against dissidents. 

After the death of Hassan II, activists and journalists looked to a future of change and democratic transition as political prisoners were released and the Independent Commission of Arbitration/Indemnity Commission was established by the new king Mohamed VI in 1999 to investigate state crimes against civilians. However, this trend of state liberalization has shown signs of faltering as of late, especially in the aftermath of the swath of democratic revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa commonly known as the Arab Spring in 2011. The recent crackdown on freedom of the press and non-governmental organizations has led several well-known journalists and activists to seek asylum outside the country, and the future of Morocco’s tenuous and complex relationship with democracy has never appeared more uncertain.

Determined to gain further insight into the the relationship between democracy, human rights, and the state in Morocco, I sat down with Mr. Mohamed Elboukili one afternoon in the offices of the Association Marocaine des Droits Humaines (AMDH) in Rabat. A founding member of the AMDH and a committed activist himself, Mr. Elboukili shared his thoughts on the role of NGOs in protecting human rights and demanding democracy in Morocco post-Arab Spring. He also shared his own own personal experience of state repression, recounting over eight years of his life spent in a Casablanca prison.

Peyton Ayers

Peyton Ayers


CPR: Thank you so much for agreeing to share your thoughts! Could you please tell me a little bit about your career in human rights activism?

ME: I’ve been in this NGO since it was created in 1979, when I was a student, and I worked with many activists, teachers, doctors and lawyers to create this NGO. I’ve worked inside it defending and promoting human rights in Morocco since then.

Personally, all my life has been doing this work, defending human rights in their globality and their universality. I know the upsides and downs of this NGO, along with the background of Morocco, historical and political. As you know, this country has been searching for democracy since its independence in 1956, when the French left Morocco. In a different country where there isn’t a monarchy, it is easier. The Moroccan monarchy is different from modern European monarchies; here, it is ruling in the name of religion. In the constitution and laws, it is written that the king is the descendant of the prophet. None of the governments that have existed in Morocco have accepted genuine democracy to be established here. We have seen steps towards progress however we have also seen steps regressing backwards.

It’s a fragile state of democracy. Morocco of the ‘60s is not the Morocco of today, but we hope for more, for genuine democracy, separation of powers, etc. I believe that protecting human rights is a part of the progress towards achieving democracy.

CPR: In what ways has your work with this NGO been affected by state repression?

ME: The government and the state initially didn’t accept our existence and that meant repressing this NGO. Some were imprisoned among us, and some left Morocco as refugees to France, the US and elsewhere in the ‘80s. Up to now we have had to fight for our existence as an NGO which is a pity. Since there should have been some roots towards building democracy in Morocco. Perhaps you are the first American to learn it, but on Monday morning, the minister of interior named us by the name as an NGO, saying, this is in the parliament, “this NGO has not said a good word about the state for ten years.” We know this is a message, we know here in Morocco that when the Minister of Interior names you and points you out, it means that you are under their fire, and you should expect worse times to come in the future. We knew better days before 2011, we knew a large margin of democracy and liberties here in Morocco, there wasn’t that tension that we live now.

CPR: Why was 2011 a turning point? Has there been a significant regression of democratic values erasing the progress made since Hassan II’s reign?

ME: In 2011, there was the Arab Spring but it has disappeared now. We hoped at that time for a new democratic constitution as a first step and the next steps would be genuine democracy and perhaps a real separation of powers, less power for the monarchy. We had a new constitution but it’s not a democratic one, inside it we don’t find separation of powers and the monarchy is everything in this new constitution. We hoped that the next steps would have an impact on the life of Moroccans. Documents, constitutions, laws don’t mean anything if they have no impact on our daily lives, meaning our economic situation, our rights, equality between men and women.

CPR: Does the constitution as a document have much impact in the day to day life of Moroccans?

ME: No! Even the positive articles in it, they are not respected by officials here. So we hope for more, for a better standard of living. However now there is more repression, since 2014. You know there are particular points of repression, with the Rif in the North and Jerada in the East and they are centered on economic claims, for work, hospitals, roads and so on, which I find completely right! If there was a state which respects itself, this is its job to create infrastructure for the population, but it is not, it is not so! On the contrary we find young people in prison, on trial and so on for their demands.

CPR: Your activism took place at a time when the regime was especially repressive. What was it like to live through state persecution and imprisonment?) 

ME: I spent quite a long time in prison, from November 2, 1985 to 1994 continuously. I was sentenced to 15 years but I spent just 8 years and 9 months. I was given amnesty by the other king, father of the current king, with other prisoners of opinion here in Morocco. This was done under pressure as we were supported by Amnesty International and other international NGOs. We were released one night, July 22. They came to us saying, “gather your bags and things, you are going to leave this place.” We looked at each other and we gathered our clothes and books mainly. They began opening our cells and said, “you are free you can go.” We went until the big door of the prison in Casablanca, and we didn’t know about everything outside. Our families and journalists, they knew before us that we were going to be released. So there were procedures, signing papers, getting our things—this watch was one of them! [Signals to watch on his wrist]. They took it away from me when I was arrested and that’s why I stick to it now. When I was freed I looked for it, and asked the guard for my watch! We went out to find our families and journalists. In other prisons, such as Kenithra, other prisoners were released. We received amnesty due to pressure from international public opinion and because the father of this king was dying, very ill and was preparing a transition for his son. Hassan II died in 1999, and when the new monarch came to power, he was faced with a transition phase. [The state]tolerated many things from NGOs, civil society, democratic political parties, and individual citizens. We knew from that time till 2011 a margin of democracy and it was not a genuine margin as it was a state in transition. The transition now is done. For us in our jargon here in Morocco, the bracket is closed.

CPR: Do you think that it is even possible for the state to move backwards, considering the fundamental changes undergone by Moroccan society?)

ME: Yes, I am afraid that our society is going backwards. It is not just the will of the state, but I believe there are other factors. There has been a religious transformation due to the influence of Wahabbi-Salafi way of religious rule. Another factor is the widening economic gap. There is a high percentage of poverty in many postcolonial states, and the rich in Morocco are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. But I hope that the democratic forces here in Morocco manage to convince the state to move forward for an open democratic society, where there are more chances for equality between men and women, more chances for people to better their standards of living. If the percentage of poverty rises, then illiteracy rises as well, and I believe that these factors are pushing people to join Salafist groups and commit to extremism.

CPR: Considering the long and complex history of neo-colonization tied in with the construct of human rights, do you think that universalism could be dangerous?

ME: I personally believe that universalism means respecting human rights everywhere on the same level, but superpowers use this card of human rights to intervene whenever they like. They don’t listen to NGOs, but they listen to states.e are publishing hundreds of communiqués about what’s going on and no embassy here in Morocco contacts us to acknowledge our communiqués—nothing. There is a change. Just before, in the ‘90s, states in Europe reacted differently than they do now:they were more critical of the Moroccan state on the issue of human rights, and they were sensible of reports from local NGOs. The colonial powers are colonizing in other ways across Africa and the Middle East, via multinational firms. We can do nothing, as our regime has the support of the superpowers. During the Arab Spring, France, the US and others were present to preserve their interests in the region. Just an example: United States was making a lot of efforts to make the Moroccan state let the Islamists be in power. They wanted to promote a certain moderate model of Islam—they don’t want leftist democratic forces to take over, and moderate Islamists would respect the interests of superpowers. This has a very bad impact on our democracy. The Islamist Moroccan political party has executed the worst economic programs since the ‘80s, when there was a structural reform, [a demand from the World Bank], and Morocco had resisted it initially but when the Islamists came to power, they executed all the demands and raised taxes—very obedient students to World Bank.  

CPR: Finally, do you have any advice for future generations of  journalists and activists who will have to deal with state repression?

ME: I believe that all democracies in the world have known sacrifices. They (the next generation) should have courage and be careful about what they write. They should be very professional and verify and contact all possible sources so as to get a complete picture. Without courage and sacrifice, nothing can be done in a country like ours. I have big hope in these young journalists, even though they are frightened when they are targeted for writing the truth.