Sunday, January 29, 2012

Morocco drafts the Arab-European resolution for Syrian crisis

Author's note: 

This is an article I recently submitted to The Humanitarian, a newspaper that my friend recently started in Western Massachusetts. I am acting as her "foreign correspondent" in Morocco. 


This Friday, in collaboration with the Arab League and the U.N Security Council, Morocco distributed a draft of the Arab-European resolution among members of the U.N. Security Council on the violence that the Syrian government has been inflicting on its own people since the summer of 2011. The document expresses, “grave concern” for how the situation in Syria has been rapidly deteriorating despite the presence of Arab League observers in the country and calls for an immediate end to the violence. The drafted resolution also cites the continued transfer of weapons into Syria as a major contributor to the rising casualty count of citizens and calls on member states to abide by requests to halt any future transfers. While the document firmly orders an end to the widespread and abhorrent human rights violations by Syrian authorities, the document also stresses that it is fully committed to Syria’s best interest through promoting its sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity and solving the crisis in a peaceful manner, which includes letting those who fled the country a safe return home. 

The online English newspaper Al-Arabiya News obtained a copy of the new draft, in which it clearly lists the wide range of atrocities committed by the Syrian government on its own people, “the use of force against civilians, arbitrary executions, killing and persecution of protesters and members of the media, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, interference with access to medical treatment, torture, sexual violence, and ill-treatment even against children”. The document continues by stating that all those who are found to be responsible for human rights violations must be held accountable for their actions.  

With the goal of the resolution being a peaceful end to violence in Syria, the drafted document recognizes that peace and stability in Syria is the key to ensuring peace and stability in the entire region. The document outlines the realization of this goal by Syria completing the following steps: ending all violence, releasing political prisoners, withdrawing all Syrian military and security forces from towns and cities, guaranteeing the freedom of peaceful demonstrations, and allowing full access and movement for all relevant Arab League officials and institutions. The international community has more to be concerned about with than just the rising casualty count. Syria is a fragile geopolitical keystone that both the Arab League and the U.N. depend on to act in their collective best interests in order to secure their influence in the region. 

While still speculative, this document holds the potential to change the way Morocco is perceived in the international community. As an example of political and economic stability in a region that has been filled with uprisings and uncertainty, many nations are looking to Morocco as the beacon of regional hope. If this drafted resolution is successful this could mean Morocco becoming a more influential player in international policy decisions. 

A brief history of the Arab League
The Arab League, officially called the League of Arab States, was formed in Cairo on March 22, 1945. There are currently 22 official members and four observers, since Syria’s membership was suspended in November 2011.  

The Arab League was originally formed around the era of pan-Arabism with the goal of strengthening and coordinating political, cultural, economic, and social programs of all members and mediating disputes among them or with third parties. Over the last six and a half decades, the Arab League has focused on creating a close-knit relationship among members through considering the affairs and collective interests of all involved countries while protecting their independence and sovereignty. One of the most famous examples of the Arab League’s ability to limit conflicts was the 1958 Lebanon Crisis. The League has also historically served as a platform for the drafting and conclusions of many important documents that promote economic integration among members. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Moroccans burn selves in unemployment protest - Africa - Al Jazeera English

While having breakfast this morning, I turned on the news and was surprised to find mention of Rabat on al-Jazeera's news ticker. In 2010, Morocco expelled al-Jazeera from the country on account of its allegedly inaccurate and damaging representation of the Moroccan government, especially regarding their politics in the Western Sahara. To my knowledge, this was the most recent update in the al-Jazeera/Morocco saga. Any news coverage from Morocco must be second-hand information. Regardless, this morning on my television screen, Rabat was front-page news on al-Jazeera's World News program.

Though I was pleased that Morocco had finally made headlines after months of silence while the rest of the MENA region had their violent uprisings, fall-outs, and military regimes, my heart sank to find out what made Morocco deserve such a privilege. Earlier this week, after a 12-day sit-in at the administrative building of the ministry of higher education five unemployed Moroccan men set themselves on fire in the capital when security forces prevented supporters from delivering food and water to the protesters. When the five men left the building to get the provisions outside, they threatened to set themselves on fire if the security officials wouldn't let them pass.

According to al-Jazeera and a video recording of the incident posted online, a crowd of supporters are shown tossing loaves of bread over the heads of policemen guarding the building. At that very moment, 5 men jump down from the building and as they run to collect the tossed bread they douse themselves in an unknown liquid and proceed to ignite in flames. While none of the five men died, gruesome photos published online show large patches of their skin scorched. The Arabic-language online newspaper Goud noted that two of the five suffered second-degree burns and were rushed to the Casablanca burn unit.

Watching the footage online, I was astonished. How could I have not known about this? The locations were so familiar that even without any contextualization I knew exactly where it was filmed by piecing together a shot of curb and the corner of a building. It is about a ten minute walk from my apartment. I thought back to earlier this week. Did I notice any increase in political tension? Of course, I ran past daily protests out in front of Parliament every morning, but that wasn't any different than usual. As I was racking my brain for missed clues, I realized that the underlying reason I didn't know that this was going on. It wasn't because I'm not fluent in Arabic, or that because as a Westerner I'm out of touch with local society. It was because nobody wanted the public to know about it.

I thought back to the censorship of al-Jazeera and did a little more research. Apparently al-Jazeera is one of many international news broadcasters that got the boot from Morocco due to their unsavory representation of Moroccan politics. Many reporters have had their accreditations revoked after their controversial coverage of the Western Sahara conflict or the alleged socio-political progress being made in the country. As cited in an article on on Morocco revoking al-Jazeera's accreditation, Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, shared the following insight:

 "At a time when King Mohammed VI has pledged sweeping reforms, including stronger human rights protections, Morocco should not place itself among the Arab governments that ban Al Jazeera television...Morocco is home to many correspondents who report for foreign news media," Whitson said. "But the true measure of press freedom in this case is less in the number of reporters it grants accreditation than in the tolerance it shows to those whose reporting displeases it."

I couldn't agree more with this sentiment. The unofficial employment rate for the country is currently at 9.1 percent, though it is ironically around 16 percent for degree-holders and 31.4 percent for those under 34 years old. The Moroccan government boasts a 4 or 5 percent steady employment growth rate for the last few years but this hasn't translated into enough jobs to satisfy the yearly batches of fresh graduates entering the workforce. Yesterday, Parliament announced its new economic plan while the building was picketed by at least a thousand unemployed graduates protesting for job creation. It seems that while Prime Minister Benkirane called on the help of training programs and government programs to absorb some of the unemployed graduates, the government is depending primarily on the private sector to create more job opportunities. With the one-year anniversary of the February 20th movement exactly a month away, I wonder what is in store for Morocco in the coming months. Are we witnessing the final push, or rather the seas of political unrest just beginning to churn before the onset of a storm?

Click here for the full story: Moroccans burn selves in unemployment protest - Africa - Al Jazeera English

Sunday, January 15, 2012

MTV Arabia, Al-Jazeera, and the issue of Arab media censorship

The study abroad program that I am interning for in Rabat offers two different types of housing for students: homestays in the old medina and independent dormitory-style. While female students have the option of living in a single-sex university dormitory, there is no viable alternative for male students who do not wish to live with a homestay. As a result, the program rents out a large 3-bedroom apartment that is a ten minute walk from the study abroad center. Last semester no male students requested the apartment living option, so we were able to live there pro-bono. Although it was sparsely furnished, we relished the ample amount of living space and safe neighborhood surrounded by foreign embassies and government buildings.

Unfortunately for us, we were notified in December that several male students requested the apartment for the spring semester, which meant that we were relocated us to a nearby apartment in a very nice neighborhood. Though I am grateful for the free housing and am happy that this apartment is much better furnished, the size of the apartment took some getting used to, as it is a small fraction of the size the apartment that we used to live in. Downsizing from an apartment that allowed enough space to do ten cartwheels between the kitchen and the living room to a one-bedroom/one bathroom studio is never an easy task.

One big perk about this new apartment, however, has been the satellite television. I realize that this may sound trivial, but after living in Morocco for about a year collectively, it is impossible to ignore the cultural importance that satellite television has in Moroccan society. Even in the most desolate and impoverished areas of the country, perched atop mud huts in the mountains or in the slums outside of Casablanca, satellite dishes sit like huge flocks of migratory birds. I have learned that to live like a Moroccan is to have a television.

Sitting in Café Viking in the city center of Rabat writing this blog post, there are two large flat screen televisions facing me. The choice of broadcasting usually depends on where you are. When there isn't an important football game on, this particular café enjoys showing the National Geographic channel. (From my peripherals, I am watching vultures feeding on a carcass on an exotic beach.)

Since moving into our new apartment, we have explored the vast and numerous channels on our television set: Quranic channels; international news broadcasted in Arabic, French, or English; dubbed over American and Asian cartoons; local channels from Chad or Bahrain; American film channels; Bollywood; international soap operas.

One of the most fascinating channels to watch has been MTV Arabia, which broadcasts a hand-picked line-up of MTV programs (some old, some new, some British) with Arabic subtitles. While the channel shows mostly familiar reality-based programs, such as True Life, Made, and Real World/ Road Rules, the main difference between American MTV and MTV Arabia is the level of censorship.

While most American viewers are accustomed to hearing a few "bleeps" during reality programs when characters use exceedingly vulgar language, it shocked me when watching an episode of True Life and realizing that the channel decided to blur out the faces of a teenage couple sharing a kiss.

Along with public displays of affection, MTV Arabia also censors words like, "sex", "breast", and "butt", but still allows footage of female Arab pop stars wearing bustiers and gyrating in glittery music videos. To me, this level of censorship only seems to promote an unrealistic notion of sexuality that encourages fetishization and objectification of the female body and Western culture. Frankly, I don't understand the logic.

Arab pop star Dominique Hourani

After doing a bit of research on the subject of Arab media censorship, I learned that up until the 1990's almost all television channels in the Arab world were strictly owned and monitored by the government. This changed in the 90's with the boom of satellite television. A perfect example of this change cited by an article from the online publication is the al-Jazeera network, which is owned by the Qatari government. In the mid 90's, al-Jazeera became one of the first channels to broadcast in-depth live news broadcasts from all over the world, including Israel. Its discussion-based programs that presented dialogues on previously taboo subject matter promoted a, " atmosphere of increased freedom and competition" in Arab media.

With the much of the Arab world in the midst of socio-political crisis, Morocco is being looked to both within the MENA region and the West as a beacon of progress and hope for a brighter future of the entire Arab world. As Morocco continues down this road to modernization and transparency, will media censorship and regulation lighten up, or will the presence of the PJD, the moderate-Islamist party holding majority in Parliament keep a tight leash on media rights?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Praying for Rain: Morocco's reaction to climate change

Yesterday my flight landed in Casablanca after spending 3 weeks at home on the East coast. When I was home, no matter how much I tried thinking about going back, it was difficult to fully visualize what would be waiting for me. I am still growing accustomed to my international lifestyle (not that I’m complaining, but it is certainly a transition from growing up in a Boston suburb and taking the occasional week-long family trip outside the country). Just as it takes a few days to adjust one’s biological clock, I believe that with your mind and heart in different places, I think it is possible to have a few days of emotional jet lag as well. 

However, let’s get one thing straight: I am beyond enthused to have the opportunity to be here. I am also very pleased to say that my language skills haven’t seemed to have atrophied at all during their lack of use back in the United States. If anything, I feel refreshed from my weeks at home and am ready to give the next few months my all. 

What struck me with being home was how mild the weather was on average. Majority of my days home had temperatures in the 40’s when this season is supposed to be filled with snow, ice, and extreme wind chill. While it was certainly pleasant to not have to wear snow boots everyday, I couldn’t help but feel anxious about this abnormally warm weather. Where did winter go? 

Leaving work this afternoon in Rabat, I remarked to a co-worker about how I forgot how this time of day felt like here during the winter - it is nearly dusk and the air is filled with a cold humidity. She instantly understood what I was describing and told me the Arabic word for it: na-da. We began talking about how the climate change is affecting Morocco. The winter months are supposed to be when Morocco gets the majority of its rainfall. When I was in Morocco in the spring semester of 2010, it rained almost everyday in February, and I was told that it was a continuation of very similar weather in January as well. As an agrarian society, Moroccans place a high value on the seasonal rains and are very concerned about what its absence could mean in the months ahead. Rain has been described to me many of times by locals as the “money of Morocco”. Especially with a large portion of the country in a desert climate, it is worrisome that the lack of rain could equal immense droughts later on in the year during the hotter months. 

King Mohamed VI is no exception to this growing concern. Last Friday, the King ordered that everyone go to the mosque during Friday mid-day prayer to pray for rain. While this royal decree may seem like an archaic remedy, Morocco is not the only Muslim country to have done this. On Christmas Eve, Saudi Arabian King Abdullah called on his citizens all over the country to pray for rain as well. 

While the Moroccan King’s sought God’s assistance to alleviate this symptom of climate change, it doesn’t change the fact that the Moroccan government recognizes that it is going to take more than prayer to change the environmental damage already done. The Moroccan government has created a national environmental policy that stresses the importance of societal awareness. It has also already established a national inventory for sources of emission and of energy resources as well as signed and ratified the most recent global climate change treaties at the Summit Convention in Rio in 1992 and the Kyoto Protocol in 2002. Though statistically Morocco’s contribution to global emissions is rather insignificant to international averages, the Moroccan government continues to carry out a vigorous environmental policy based primarily on the establishment of a legal team to carry out national regulation.

A map of Morocco showing average yearly rainfall

It is now Wednesday evening in Rabat and there is still no sign of rain in the forecast. I walk past produce stands filled with crates of brightly colored fruits and vegetables and wonder to myself what this scene will look like a few months from now if the rain doesn’t come. Whether by an act of God or an atmospheric shift, I hope that the rains come soon.