Feud With King Tests Freedoms In Morocco
Sunday, February 12, 2006
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.