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A Changing Arab World : The Pace of Reform

Terrorism Tempers Shift to Openness

By Craig Whitlock and Steve Coll
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 18, 2005; Page A01

Second of two articles

RABAT, Morocco -- They have testified in community centers, schoolhouses and municipal halls, and on live television. They have been withered mothers, grieving grandchildren, scarred old men -- a diverse parade of ordinary Moroccans bound by a common experience of political terror. This year, they have become players in a national spectacle almost unheard of in the Arab world: an official investigation into past government abuses.

"My story is that of thousands of Moroccans," said Jamal Ameziane, 52, who testified that 30 members of his family were harassed or tortured after his father was forced to flee the country in the late 1950s. "I dream of lifting the veil on the dark years."


Kuwaiti women rallied for broader political rights last month near the parliament building in Kuwait City. The sign in foreground says "Women's rights now." (Gustavo Ferrari -- AP)

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Between Morocco's independence in 1956 and the early 1980s, known as the "years of lead," the government of King Hassan II locked up thousands of Marxists, rebellious military officers and others opposed to the monarchy without fair trials. Many were tortured and killed; others simply vanished. Now Hassan's son and successor, King Mohammed VI, has encouraged a public exhumation of these events. Morocco's Equity and Reconciliation Commission has so far filed reports of more than 22,000 cases of repression. Its stated purpose is to ensure that such abuses never recur in Morocco.

Yet even as the hearings unfold, a new generation of aggrieved relatives and angry defendants is being born in Morocco. Alarmed by evidence that al Qaeda-inspired cells have taken root here -- a threat made plain by suicide bombings on May 16, 2003, that killed 45 and wounded scores more -- security forces have arrested more than 2,100 people. About 1,000 remain in prison, and some have leveled torture allegations. The government denies them and defends its crackdown as essential to national security.

Morocco's forward-and-backward steps on civil liberties reflect a wider pattern across the Arab world, as reformers and governments debate the pace and potential of democratic change. Continuing recruitment and violent attacks by radical Islamic groups in North Africa, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the smaller emirates of the Persian Gulf region are encouraging Arab governments to adopt sometimes draconian security regimes even as they consider a new era of political openness.

Democratic reform and effective counterterrorism measures may not be mutually exclusive, but in Arab countries with little experience of pluralism and long records of harsh treatment of dissidents, the balance is proving difficult to define and establish.

Saudi Arabia's monarchy staged its first limited elections in four decades this winter, but at the same time the government launched a massive sweep against al Qaeda that resulted in scores of detentions, pressure on dissident writers and recruitment of thousands of neighborhood police informers, according to Saudi officials and independent human rights researchers. In neighboring Kuwait, where Islamic radicals staged a rare series of attacks this winter against security forces, parliament held a secret emergency session to endorse new laws to strengthen police powers.

The recent crackdowns have been encouraged and supported with training and equipment by the Bush administration, which publicly is pressing Arab governments to move toward democracy. "We are concerned and puzzled by this double talk on the part of the United States," Moroccan Justice Minister Mohamed Bouzoubaa said in an interview. "If we do fight terrorism, we are told, 'You went too far.' If we don't, we are told, 'You have not done enough.' "

This spring, al Qaeda-inspired violence against local targets has surged in parts of the Middle East, particularly in the Persian Gulf. Resulting crackdowns by Gulf states have had strong popular support, as wealthy societies that long felt insulated from Osama bin Laden's wrath have reacted with revulsion to a wave of violence that began in Riyadh in 2003 and appears to be spreading to Saudi Arabia's smaller neighbors.

After a suicide bomber drove a truck into a British community theater on March 19 in Doha during a performance of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," killing one Briton and wounding about a dozen people of diverse nationalities, Qataris rallied in the streets to back their monarchy as it rounded up potential radicals.

In Kuwait, recent security sweeps aimed at al Qaeda have dismayed some of the emirate's weak liberal groupings, which are often ad hoc or located in places such as universities or business chambers because formal political parties are banned.

Some democracy campaigners say they fear that more stringent security laws will be used against them. Others emphasize that a long, systematic campaign led by the monarchy may be required to suppress violent Islamic groups that were allowed to flourish in Kuwait over decades -- and that such a campaign may necessarily slow political reforms.

Morocco and Kuwait, monarchies at opposite ends of the Arab world that have moved faster than many of their neighbors to adopt political reforms, offer case studies of how the simultaneous pursuit of democratic change and repression of terrorism has created new sources of tension and uncertainty.

Kuwait's Ideological Battle

On a sunny weekday afternoon, the curb outside Kuwait University's business school was lined with BMW 7-Series and Mercedes E-Class sedans, Land Rovers and Lexus sports cars. Students drifted by in mixed fashions: neatly pressed traditional robes, American football jerseys, hip-hugging bluejeans, Ray-Ban sunglasses.

Some of the young women covered themselves in scarves or a fuller hijab; a few did not. They chatted with the men outside, but as they turned to their classrooms, they entered a newly constructed world of strict segregation.

Kuwait University's student union, the student government representing an enrolled population of about 18,000, is the largest fully democratic institution in the oil-gushing kingdom. Unlike in voting for the emirate's parliament, which is restricted to men 21 and older who are not soldiers or police officers, both men and women are eligible to vote and seek office in the student union.

The outcome is that student life at Kuwait University is dominated by a coalition of tradition-bound, sometimes anti-American Islamic groups that have harassed young women about their dress, forced the university to build expensive separate facilities for male and female students, split sections of the faculty into bitter ideological factions, and helped ignite a national debate about the risks and benefits of political liberalization.

Islamic groups rule not only the student union, but Kuwait's national teachers union, other professional associations and scores of charities and businesses. When these civic organizations have held elections during the last decade, Islamic groups frequently have swept to power.

The best known of these is the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian-rooted international network that recruits from elite professions and advocates Islamic government, usually by peaceful means. In the past, the Brotherhood has been connected with political violence in Egypt and elsewhere, but it is seen by some Western analysts as moving toward ordinary politics.

In Kuwait's parliament and at its national university, the Brotherhood jockeys with two rival Islamic groupings that adhere to Salafism, a school of Islam patterned on the earliest days of the faith. Among other things, some Salafi preachers and writers have emphasized the illegitimacy of non-Muslims and are accused by Kuwaiti liberals of providing ideological succor to violent radicals, such as those who attacked security forces in January and February.

All of the openly political Islamic networks recruit young leaders at Kuwait University, cultivating student union officers as future organizers and potential candidates for parliament. Their adversaries charge that the religious groups maintain clandestine, indirect ties to violent Islamic radical cells, but no clear evidence has been produced.

Because of the recent and unprecedented violence, a long-simmering contest between Islamic groups and urban liberals over Kuwait's political and cultural identity has intensified, just as the wider Arab world debates the risks and benefits of rapid political liberalization.

"The fight between liberals and fundamentalists is over terrorism," said Shamlan Essa, director of Kuwait University's Center for Strategic and Future Studies. "Every week there's a young Kuwaiti who dies in Iraq. Who sends these young people? . . . The real criminals, nobody touches them -- the politicians, some of them in parliament, and the preachers who are connected with them."

In a conference room beside Essa's campus office sat political science professor Ahmad Baghdadi, expounding bitterly on a court verdict he had received the day before. For writing in a newspaper column that he believed "learning music is more important than learning the holy Koran," Baghdadi was sentenced to either two years in prison or a $6,000 fine -- a clear signal, he said, of the rising power of Islamic radicals in Kuwait, including those brought to power by elections.

"The government is not strong enough to face all these problems between liberals and Islamists," Baghdadi said. Instead of resolving basic constitutional issues such as the relationship between government and religion, the ruling Sabah family prefers to suppress all dissent, Baghdadi argued, while creating only a veneer of democracy. "This is the easiest solution: 'Everybody shut up.' . . . This is what you call despotic."

Immediately after the attacks in Kuwait this year, said Mohammed Jassem, editor of al-Watan newspaper, the prime minister tried to intimidate editors and sought broad powers to close newspapers in the name of national security. "The government will use the security issues to implement their dreams of political control," Jassem said.

Popular anger about violence has nonetheless put Islamic groups on the defensive this spring.

Islamic activists in parliament denounced this winter's attacks and lent credibility to the government's security crackdown. "Let us play our role in putting the peaceful message to these groups," said Naser J. Sane, a Muslim Brotherhood member in the National Assembly. "Let us give support to Muslim scholars to play their role. Without these scholars, young people will misunderstand Islam and use it in a militant way."

But urban liberals and other rivals of the Islamic groups, such as leaders of Kuwait's minority Shiite Muslims, while crediting members like Sane with a constructive role, see elected Islamic activists as double-edged swords at best.

"Not all of them are radicals and extremists," said Hasan A. Joer, a Shiite member of parliament. "But they have links with each other. You need a very slow and moderate process to contain them."

"The government wants to use" the Islamic activists in parliament, said Masoumah Mubarak, a women's suffrage activist, "but on the other hand, they are using the government."

As part of its sweep against al Qaeda, Kuwait's government this winter closed more than 100 illegal Islamic charities whose fundraising kiosks and publicity booths had been tolerated on the emirate's streets for years. Liberal activists applauded the clampdown but complained that their own efforts to open secular civic groups such as human rights organizations had been stifled, even as the royal family had long accepted the Islamic charities.

Near the center of Kuwait's debate about democracy today lies a fear among both the royal family and the major urban merchant families that their country's golden egg -- its bountiful oil, which has made Kuwait one of the world's wealthiest and most privileged societies from top to bottom -- may be under slow assault from religious groups that seek not pluralism but power.

Many of Kuwait's Islamic activists "believe democracy has been imported from outside and that it is alien for our culture, even as they participate in the elections and have their members in the parliament," said Ahmad R. Haroun, director general of the Kuwait Chamber of Commerce and Industry. "Maybe they are using this for other goals."

A New Direction in Morocco

Under Mohammed VI, Morocco's democratic reforms have gone further than Kuwait's, creating more vigorous and varied competition among numerous legal political parties and turning the kingdom into one of the most open and democratic-leaning countries in the Arab world.

Parliamentary elections were held in 2002 and municipal elections a year later. A boisterous free press has emerged. Last year, the king pushed lawmakers -- over the objections of some Islamic groups -- to approve a new family legal code giving more rights to women and children.

The liberalizing atmosphere, however, changed suddenly after the May 16, 2003, suicide bombings in Casablanca. Within days, Parliament passed an anti-terrorism law that gave the government broad powers to detain people considered a threat to the state. Of 2,100 people arrested on suspicion of terrorism, only a small fraction were accused of playing a role in the Casablanca attacks.

Mustapha Ramid, a leader of the Party for Justice and Democracy, said the crackdown was a severe setback for Morocco's democratic movement. "We have witnessed the return of things that we thought were behind us, like kidnapping and torture and unfair trials," he said. "After May 16, we went back completely to the old days."

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, documented cases of secret detention, abuse and suspension of due process. For months, Moroccan officials said the allegations were exaggerated and argued there was no proof that torture occurred.

But in January, the king acknowledged that the roundup was overzealous. "There is no doubt that there may have been arbitrary detentions," he told the Spanish newspaper El Pais in a rare interview.

U.S. Ambassador Thomas T. Riley said the post-May 16 arrests were excessive but understandable, given that the country's leaders were completely taken aback by the bombings and did not know the extent of the domestic terrorist threat. "I would say under the circumstances that it was an overreaction, but not a surprising one," he said.

But many democracy activists said they worried that the king took advantage of the attacks to consolidate his power. Morocco's constitution still gives the king absolute authority to dissolve Parliament and the government, and to rule by royal decree.

Last year, in a scene reminiscent of the years of lead, police forcibly disrupted a protest outside the central prison in Kenitra -- a longtime detention center for political prisoners -- organized by family members of jailed Islamic fundamentalists. The Moroccan Human Rights Association reported that several inmates were being held in isolation and deprived of medical care. The government has ignored the complaints and taken no official action, according to the State Department, which cited the incident in its annual report card on human rights.

"There is no political will to go very far in making democratic changes," said Abdelaziz Nouaydi, a constitutional law scholar and member of the Moroccan Organization for Human Rights. "There is an assumption in Morocco that the state has had its glasnost already."

Prince Moulay Hicham, a cousin of the king who has irritated the palace by calling upon the monarchy to give up some of its powers, said Morocco missed "a big window of opportunity" to bolster its democracy during the first two years of Mohammed's rule, which began in 1999.

"The responsibility is collective for that missed opportunity," he said. "Certainly, the monarchy is partly to blame. The political parties are to blame. The political elites share the blame, too. It has been squandered by everybody."

"The national sport in the politics of Morocco is waiting. Waiting, waiting, waiting -- and not rocking the boat."

Many Moroccans have pinned their hopes for more democracy on the Equity and Reconciliation Commission, which was set up by the king before the Casablanca bombings but only began holding public hearings in December.

The voices those hearings have produced -- and the sense of political possibility they suggest -- have resonated with Moroccans well beyond a mere process of fact-finding or criminal investigation.

In January, in an overflowing school auditorium in the small desert town of Figuig, near the Algerian border, Mohamed Boudrara, 57, testified about the three years he spent as a political prisoner in the 1970s and how fellow inmates at the Corbis detention center in Casablanca went insane.

"My testimony is one of the collective memory of the Moroccan wound," he said. "When an individual is tortured, it is all of society that is harmed in its dignity and freedom."

The investigative commission has been accused of being too meek, criticisms that reflect Morocco's new openness and rising expectations.

Domestic human rights groups have complained that the panel stopped televising its public hearings and have chafed at the government-imposed restriction on victims naming their torturers or repressors. For all the emotional testimony, no one has yet been held accountable.

Members of the commission said they recognized the limitations but defended the process. Salah Ouadie, a political prisoner in the 1970s who serves on the panel, said there was no comparison between the years of lead and Morocco's human rights record today. The country is zigzagging forward, he insisted.

"We've come a long way," Ouadie said. "All the people came and said what they had to say, and they told the truth. They went very far and said things that were never said in Morocco before."


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