Last Tuesday, after reading an Al Jazeera article on the release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, a Moroccan expat named Hisham Twittered the following:
It’s true; things haven’t gone too swimmingly for Moroccan journalists of late. Criticizing Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, they’ve learned, will cost you 3 million dirhams (about $370,000); discussing off-color Islamic humor will get you suspended from journalism. And on August 1, the Ministry of Communication seized 100,000 copies of the provocative French-language magazine TelQuel and its Arabic sister-pub Nichane because they contained a poll on King Mohammed VI’s popularity. Conducted on the tenth anniversary of the king’s ascension, the survey, it has since been revealed, showed a 91% approval rating for the king (known as le Roi Cool, or simply M6, by the more affectionate of his subjects.)
Hisham’s hashtag, “#9pcMaroc,” refers to the remaining 9%.
It might seem baffling that a monarch would suppress a poll that swung so overwhelmingly in his favor; not so in Morocco, where, along with the disputed territory of the Western Sahara, the person of the king is a subject strictly off-limits to journalists. “Even if the poll had shown 100 per cent favorable, the response would have been the same,” communications minister Khalid Naciri told The National. “The monarchy is not the center of a public debate.”
The nine-percenters disagree. Iran taught the world that suppression on any scale breeds a Twitterstorm, and the mini-drama that’s played out on newsstands and monitors over the past week and a half highlights three central paradoxes in the debate over Morocco’s future.
Too Liberal or Too Conservative?
“In any case, we can’t accuse the king of being static; it’s quite a trek from the extreme left to the extreme right.”
The nine-percenters persistently cast the king as a hard-line conservative on human rights. (Never mind that SpyJones would call the government “monarcho-Stalinist” just a few hours later.) Yet the poll whose confiscation bred the movement reveals a starkly different view of Mohammed VI. While it shows overwhelming general support for him, it also underscores another common opinion: that the monarch’s liberal reforms have gone too far.
The target of public skepticism is Mohammed VI’s 2004 reform to the Mudawana (the Moroccan family code). The new code, adopted over the fierce objections of Islamists and polygamists, granted women equal status in marriage and transformed the country into a model for gender equality in the Arab world.
According to the poll, however, 49% of Moroccans think the law gave women too many rights; an additional 30% believe it was sufficient and no more reforms are necessary. Just 16% said they wanted to see women’s rights further expanded.
In an interview with Rue89, Ahmed Benchemsi, publisher of TelQuel and Nichane, called that result “the big surprise” of the poll.
“The people also believe that the king is too feministic,” he said. “Aside from those critiques, our poll about the king didn’t have much of note.”
9% > 100%
The nine-percenters’ Facebook group has boomed since a week ago Sunday, amassing 535 members and 145 wall posts by late last week [the first one is a plea: “If the poll gets published in Le Monde, please scan it and send it around ;)]. It was founded by Ibn Kafka—”Son of Kafka”—a pseudonym, he said in a phone interview, that he chose because “In Morocco, sometimes you feel like you’re in The Trial. You don’t know why you’re being sued or confronted by the administration. The only thing you know is that you’re not getting out of this labyrinth easily.” The group hosts commentary in French, Arabic, and English. Many of the members have changed their profile photos to the movement’s logo.
In response, a rival Facebook group has sprung up: the 100-percenters, conservatives devoted to M6. In a tidy little manifesto, the 100-percenters stage their counter-protest, praising a king with “the courage to accompany his people bit by bit in changing their traditions.”
“Two newspapers collaborated to publish a useless poll with a title even more so,” the 100-percenters write on their Facebook page. “It would have been more pertinent,” they write later, “to title it ‘Morocco loves its king’ rather than ‘judges its king'; we don’t judge our king for the simple reason that he has never judged us.” They’ve got some reservations about free speech, as well, which they say has strings attached—one of the prerequisites is “Love for one’s country.”
But the 100-percenters have yet to achieve the broad base of the nine-percenters; at the time of publication, the group boasted 15 members and zero wall posts. Which begs the question: If the self-proclaimed majority can’t outnumber the netroots minority, how real is the former’s “Morocco of 100-percenters, united and strong”?
“Don’t Pick At It—You’ll Only Make It Worse”
The final irony is that the government’s attempts to stifle press freedom have only pushed the country’s popular communications into new—and harder to monitor—realms. The #9pcMaroc hashtag is buzzing with activity, and Ibn Kafka, a blogger of several years who tweeted for the first time “a few weeks ago, one or two weeks after the Iranian election,” is now a leading contributor. On Wednesday alone, he published 52 tweets, 26 of them under the #9pcMaroc hashtag.
It isn’t the first time that government suppression has prompted a wave of Web protest. Last year, a journalist’s arrest for criticizing a royal charity program prompted an outpouring of media criticism, as well as a Facebook group called “Free Moroccan Blogger Mohammed Erraji.” (Twitter hadn’t yet caught on in Morocco, Hisham said in an email interview, but “the solidarity movement spontaneously gathered steam throughout the blogosphere and in video sharing websites.”) Under pressure, the king pardoned Erraji.
In both the Erraji case and the 9% movement, the netroots’ greatest success has been attracting international media attention, Ibn Kafka explained. “The fact that bloggers reacted and that groups were created on Facebook—in itself, it’s not sufficient. But what really makes the authorities pause is that we get such coverage abroad.”
Many of the nine-percenters themselves reside beyond Morocco’s borders. Hisham lives in Paris, and Moroccan expats are among the most prolific users of the #9pcMaroc hashtag.
Yet despite the successes of the movement in targeting the global community, at least one nine-percenter sees a missed opportunity:
Ted Scheinman is the Web editor of the Washington City Paper. Aaron Wiener is the assistant editor of The Washington Independent.