Sunday, February 12, 2006

Feud With King Tests Freedoms In Morocco

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 12, 2006; A01

SALE, Morocco -- The monarchy in this North African country dates back 1,200 years and has survived foreign invaders, civil wars and communist plots. Now it is confronted by a new threat: a grandmother who preaches nonviolence and democracy.

This week, Moroccan prosecutors are scheduled to resume a criminal trial against Nadia Yassine, a leader of Justice and Charity, an underground Islamic movement that has become increasingly aggressive in testing the rule of King Mohammed VI. Yassine, 47, was charged last June with publicly criticizing the monarchy after she stated in a newspaper interview that the country would be better off as a republic than as a kingdom.

"I don't think we'll die if we no longer have a king," Yassine said then. She could be sentenced to three to five years in prison and receive a stiff fine if she is convicted.

Although Yassine's comments echoed remarks she had made many times, her statement struck a nerve in the royal palace, which, like the leadership of many other Muslim countries, is struggling to maintain its grip on power in the face of pressure to embrace democracy.

Since ascending the throne in 1999, Mohammed has transformed his country by approving parliamentary elections, a robust press and equal rights for women, giving Moroccans more freedom than most of their Arab neighbors in North Africa and the Middle East. Those changes have also given new life to long-suppressed opposition groups that are demanding more concessions from the king but do not necessarily believe in a Western-style democracy.

As a result, Moroccans are watching to see who wins the latest battle between Mohammed and Yassine, whose families have feuded and dominated the nation's politics for decades.

Yassine has shown no signs of backing down. When she appeared for her arraignment last summer in Rabat, the capital, she marched to the courthouse with a piece of adhesive tape over her mouth, emblazoned with a red "X." A huge crowd of supporters followed along. More than 150 lawyers volunteered to defend her right to freedom of speech.

Since then, she has set up a Web site, which is posted in three languages, French, English and Arabic. People who know her say she's almost eager to risk jail time to become a political martyr for her cause.

"I refuse the taboo of silence," she said in an interview last month at her home here in Sale, a city of 400,000 across the Bou Regreg River from Rabat. "I refuse to pay with my freedom."

The Moroccan constitution makes it illegal to criticize or insult the king, who traces his lineage to the prophet Muhammad. Authorities said they had long tolerated Yassine's outbursts but that this time she went too far.

"In certain countries, you can talk about republican values," said Nabil Benabdallah, Morocco's minister of communications. "Here, we have monarchic values, and she is transgressing these values."

While the trial has attracted international attention as a test of Morocco's commitment to free speech and democracy, it has shed less light on Yassine, a complicated figure whose dedication to individual rights is questioned by many people here.

She has cast herself as a feminist and a champion of democracy whose Justice and Charity movement has sworn to remain nonviolent. But Justice and Charity also favors the establishment of a strict Islamic state and has strongly opposed many of the democratic changes that have taken place under Mohammed, such as a new family code that gives more rights to women.

Justice and Charity was founded by Yassine's father, Abdessalam Yassine, a cleric who adheres to Islam's Sufi branch and who has spoken admiringly of the Iranian revolution and has been called Morocco's version of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The movement is banned from participation in national politics, but its existence is tolerated by the government and it is considered perhaps the most potent popular force in the country.

Many democracy activists in Morocco say they fear the Yassines have no intention of participating in a multiparty democracy. Among Morocco's secular elite, worries are widespread that if Justice and Charity came to power it would immediately ban alcohol, force women to cover themselves with veils and crack down on some of the other freedoms that make the country one of the most moderate in the Arab world.

Some who have fought hard for Morocco's emerging democracy said they have had to grit their teeth as Yassine's trial has unfolded.

"This is really infuriating for people who have fought for women's rights and democracy," said Latifah Jbabdi, president of the Union for Feminist Action, a Rabat-based group that has tangled with Justice and Charity. "She knows the new king is moving toward democracy, but that's not where the fundamentalists want to go. The bottom line is that they want an Islamic state. They want ayatollah power in Morocco. We cannot go there."

Another person with mixed feelings is Abdelaziz Koukas, the editor of al-Ousbouia al-Jadida, who interviewed Yassine last year and printed the comments that got both of them in trouble with the law. He is a co-defendant in Yassine's case.

At an interview at a bar in Casablanca, he said he did not regret giving Yassine space to express her views in print. "They are fundamentalists, but democracy is supposed to bring all opinions to light," he said. "It's more dangerous to suppress opinions."

Koukas looked into his glass of beer as he mulled the prospects of an Islamic movement coming to power. "If Sheik Yassine was the king, we couldn't come here," he said. "We couldn't look at girls. If the fundamentalists get into power, we as journalists will lose our freedoms."

Even leaders of Morocco's officially sanctioned Islamic party are dubious about Justice and Charity.

Abdelkader Amara, a parliamentary leader of the Justice and Development Party, said Yassine and her movement have avoided working within Morocco's increasingly democratic system.

"People want to know what their agenda is," Amara said. "To be honest, in the religious field, I'm from the same house. But up to now, I don't really understand what they want to do."

The Yassines have been challenging Moroccan kings for more than 30 years.

In 1974, Abdessalam Yassine committed the brazen act of writing a 120-page public letter to King Hassan II, questioning the legitimacy of his claim to the throne and warning him of a coming Islamic "deluge" that would sweep him from power.

The challenge was considered so outlandish that Hassan, known for using torture and repression to hold on to power, had Yassine declared insane and committed to an asylum. Yassine stayed locked up or under house arrest for most of the next quarter-century.

After Hassan died in 1999, Mohammed pardoned several well-known political prisoners and ordered Yassine released. If Yassine was grateful, he did not show it. Instead, he put pen to paper again and sent another letter to the palace. "To whom it may concern," it began, before accusing Hassan of having stolen $50 billion from the Moroccan people and demanding that the new king pay it back.

Mohammed ignored the letter and instead collected accolades from home and abroad for encouraging a new political openness, including the creation of a commission that investigated human-rights abuses during his father's reign. But the show of tolerance didn't quiet the Yassines, who have kept up their criticism, with Nadia Yassine becoming the public face of Justice and Charity.

"My father never had any personal fight with Hassan II. The problem was with our Muslim history," Nadia Yassine explained at her home. "The monarchs under which we live represent the autocracy we are fighting. Our problem is with their political philosophy. It has nothing to do with them personally."

Since her trial began, Yassine has drawn support from some unexpected corners.

Morocco has long been one of the most reliable U.S. allies in the Islamic world. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings, U.S. and Moroccan counterterrorism agencies have become close partners, and the two nations signed a free-trade agreement that took effect last month. However, the State Department rebuked the Moroccan government after Yassine was first prosecuted. It released a statement saying that it was "troubled" by the case, adding, "This move contradicts many of the important advances Morocco is making in promoting human rights."

Gregory W. Sullivan, spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, said the agency was closely monitoring the case. "We still have concerns about what Nadia Yassine's arrest represents for the future of reform and the freedoms of press and speech in Morocco," he said.

Yassine has found another ally in the king's cousin, Prince Moulay Hicham, a Princeton graduate who is second in line to the throne. In an open letter, he proclaimed his "full solidarity" with her defense, although he disagreed with her political views. "The survival of the monarchy itself will ultimately depend on its capacity to weather adverse opinion, however extreme it might be," he wrote.


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