Saturday, 2 July 2011

The tricky Constitutional Reforms

North Africa is not a homogenous bloc of Arab societies, struggling in unison for one pan-Arab cause.

U.S. media coverage of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt has largely ignored the mass movement of North Africa's ethnic minorities.

But Moroccan Berbers that are 30% of the total population have been on the streets all along, protesting in what they are calling a new Printemps Amazigh or Berber Spring, not to be confused with its Arab counterpart.

Moroccans voted on constitutional reforms today at some 40,000 polling stations across the nation. There is little doubt that the vote will come out in favor of Moroccan King Mohamed VI's gestures toward change.

Among the reforms, the constitutional review will raise the Berber language or Tamzight to official language status, meaning that it will now be taught in Moroccan schools in addition to Modern Standard Arabic.

But the nation's Berbers say the gesture won't help their political marginalization by what they believe is an Arab-dominated government.

"This is a symbolic measure. But there are still those in government who have long worked against the integration of Amazighs (the Berber word for Berber) politically and these measures won't do much about them," said Ahmed Adghirni, the front man for the Berber struggle in Morocco, in a phone interview from Rabat, Morocco's capital.

Adghirni started the Parti Démocratique Amazigh Marocain (PDAM), a political party to represent Moroccan Berbers in 2005, although his gestures to represent Berbers politically started in 1993.

The party was banned in 2007 and formally dissolved by Morocco's judiciary in 2008, on the grounds that race-based parties are illegal in the North African nation. Shortly after, the party reunited under the name Parti Ecologiste Marocain, but remains virtually inactive in Moroccan government.

"The activists in my party are trying to safeguard our rights. We are deprived of participation in Moroccan politics. We are looking for a favorable political climate to continue with our activities," said Adghirni.

Although they are largely unimpressed by the constitutional changes, Berber activists expect some improvement in their integration into mainstream Moroccan society.

"There are some Berber people in the Atlas mountains that come to live in the cities, but they can't make it in Moroccan cities, because they can't speak [Arabic]. Now the Arabs in Morocco need to learn Berber as they do Arabic," said Slimane, a 23-year-old Berber activist and documentarian in Marrakech, who declined to publish his full name out of fear of retribution from the anti-Berber Arab Islamists who have threatened Ahmed Adghirni's life on several occasions.

Both Slimane and Adghirni are practicing Muslims.

Despite the indisputable benefits, Slimane says that an official Berber language won't change popular Moroccan Arab attitudes towards Berbers.

"The Berbers are the ice cream in society -- not taken seriously, but a kind of novelty," he said, explaining that while Berber culture is sold to international tourists in jewelry and couscous platters, Morocco has made no gestures to ensure their political representation.

Berbers consider themselves the indigenous people of North Africa and predate the Arab conquest of North Africa. Berber populations stretch from Morocco to Egypt and as far into Sub-Saharan Africa as Nigeria.

Official Moroccan figures say Berbers make up 40 percent of the nation's population, but analysts say the number ranges from 60 to 70 percent. Berber activists say that Moroccan government statistics attempt to downplay the number of Berbers in the country to maintain an Arab majority.

Unlike Slimane, some Berber activists are outraged by the gesture to quiet Berber activists with what they call a token change in the Moroccan constitution.

"This is a trick to calm Berber organizations," said Hassan from East Morocco. Although the Berber's movement for integration and respect in Moroccan society has long outrun the recent Arab spring, the Jasmine Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt provoked a series of protests this year, calling for democracy, and more specifically, political representation of Morocco's majority-cum-minority.

Hassan said that Berber activists are not convinced by the king's gesture toward change.

"Morocco is a Berber country," he said, "not Arab."

"This is only the beginning of the Berber fight. There won't be any respect for us unless we are represented in government."

Berber militants like Hassan are calling for self-rule.

"There won't be any more legitimacy [in the current government] unless it's run under a Berber system."

But Adghirni, the Berber political representative, has been weathered by death threats from pan-Arabist Islamist organizations.

"Sometimes I think about leaving Morocco, because my personal life and my rights are constantly menaced," said Adghirni.

"But I have a duty to my people -- The Berber activists and everyday people. I'm obliged to stand by them."

Moroccan voters set to back king's new constitution

New constitution the monarch's response to demands for greater freedoms resulting from the Middle East unrest

Moroccans voted on Friday on whether to adopt a new constitution that the king has championed as an answer to demands for greater freedoms – but that protesters say will still leave the monarch firmly in control.

The referendum on the constitution is near certain to result in a resounding yes vote, like all past referendums in this North African country and generally throughout the Arab world.

It is buoyed by a huge media and government campaign, and is seen by some as a way to tentatively open up Moroccan politics, while heading off the kind of tumultuous regime change seen elsewhere in the region.

Some voters at the country's nearly 40,000 polling stations described the ballot as a vote of confidence in King Mohammed VI, a 47-year-old who assumed the throne in 1999 and is seen as a relatively modern monarch.

Preliminary results are expected after polls close Friday night.

A popular tourist destination, the generally stable, Muslim kingdom is a staunch US ally in a strategic swath of northern Africa that has suffered terrorist attacks – and in recent months, popular uprisings against autocratic regimes.

Morocco, like the rest of the Middle East, was swept by pro-democracy demonstrations at the beginning of the year, protesting a lack of freedoms, weak economy and political corruption.

The king, however, seems to have managed the popular disaffection by presenting a new constitution that guarantees the rights of women and minorities, and increases the powers of the parliament and judiciary, ostensibly at the expense of his own.

Protests have continued nevertheless, and the 20 February pro-democracy movement has called for a boycott. It insists that the new constitution leaves the king firmly in power and will be little different from its predecessor.

Their voices have been drowned out as nearly every political party, newspaper and television station has for the past several weeks pressed for Moroccans to vote in favour of the constitution.

The monarch was among those voting, casting his ballot in a chic Rabat neighbourhood and, like every other voter, his voting card and ID were checked against the list. He voted with his brother, Prince Moulay Rachid.

Crowds were small but steady at voting stations in a working class neighbourhood of Sale, outside the capital, Rabat.

Voters were given two pieces of paper – one for a yes vote and one for a no vote – and placed one in an envelope which they put into the urn. The yes ballot was white, and the no ballot light blue, so that illiterate voters could participate.

In the Moroccan countryside, voter turnout was stronger in the morning, before a searing heat descended. Officials at different voting stations said turnout was around 25% to 35% by late morning.

Cafile Roqiya, a 54-year-old in glasses and a headscarf in the town of Benslimane, said she was voting yes "because there has been much progress". "It is much better than before. The king keeps us stable and at peace amidst much upheaval," she said.

On the eve of the referendum, a pro-democracy demonstration of a few hundred people was swamped by thousands of government supporters who had been bussed in for the occasion wearing matching T-shirts supporting the constitution.

The activists had to take refuge in a gas station under the protection of police while they were hounded by raucous pro-government demonstrators who threw eggs at them and called them "traitors" and "agents".

During the weekly prayers on 24 June, imams in the mosque read out sermons issued by the government urging Moroccans to vote yes as an act of faith.

In cities around the country, banners paid for by local merchants exhort people to come out and vote, a practice seen throughout the Arab world when governments call a referendum and local businessmen want to stay in the good graces of officialdom.

Most observers agree that the real signs of change for Morocco will come with how the new constitution is implemented.

"We say yes to the constitution, but how it turns out in practice, well that's another struggle," said Saadeddin al-Othmani, a top official in the Islamist Development and Justice party, which like most political parties supports the new constitution.

Al-Othmani sees it as a beginning of reform and Morocco's own way of responding to the Arab Spring – not by toppling their leader or repressing the people, but through gradual measures.

The February 20 movement, and the groups that support it, including smaller labour unions, leftist parties and the country's banned Justice and Charity Islamist movement, lack al-Othmani's faith in the process.

They see the king's 9 March speech and three-month consultation period before the new constitution was presented 17 June as the latest in a long line of cosmetic touches to an absolute monarchy.

"We want to liberate the country from the state's monopoly on politics and economy," said Mohammed Lekrari, a leader of the Democratic Confederation of Labour, a union representing around 800,000 public sector workers. "We would like to leave the Middle Ages."

There is a whiff of medieval in the frenzied hype around the need for a yes vote, says his colleague Othmane Baqa, because a vote for a constitution is being seen as a vote for the king – like the oath of allegiance, the "baya," given to Muslim kings for hundreds of years and still practiced annually in Morocco.

"They want this baya through the referendum, so all Morocco must swear allegiance," he said. "It becomes a vote for unity and the king."

Friday, 1 July 2011

Facts about Morocco that holds reform referendum

Here are some facts about Morocco which is holding a referendum on constitutional reform on Friday.


·        Morocco expected GDP growth of 5 percent in 2011, its planning commission minister said this month.
·        The growth is supported by the strong agriculture sector. The economy relies heavily on agriculture, whose fate depends on rainfall levels that can be erratic.
·        Inflation for 2011 will be 1.4 percent, according to the central bank.
·        Morocco's grain harvest this season is seen at 7.8 million tonnes, slightly up on last year's figure but below the Agriculture Ministry's estimate of 8.8 million tonnes.

In response to the protests around the country, Rabat boosted subsidies for items such as wheat, sugar, gas and oil by 15 billion dirhams ($1.84 billion) in addition to the to the 17 billion dirhams already allocated in the 2011 budget.


GDP (2010): $103.5 billion.
Per capita GDP (PPP, 2010): $4,800.
Labour force (2010) 11.63 million
Life expectancy at birth: 71.8


  • POPULATION: 32 million. The population of disputed territory Western Sahara is around 385,000.
  • ETHNIC GROUPS: Arab 70 percent, Berber 30 percent.
  • RELIGION: Mainly Sunni Muslim (99 percent). There are Christian and Jewish minorities.
  • LANGUAGE: Most people speak Darija, a mixture of Arabic, European and Berber languages. Arabic is the country's official language. Berber languages are spoken in mountainous areas and the south and many Moroccans also speak French or Spanish.
  • AREA: 446,550 sq km (172,414 sq miles), bordering the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Algeria lies to the east and to the southwest lies Western Sahara, a disputed territory which the Rabat government says is part of Morocco.

Sources: Reuters/CIA/State Dept/UNDP/MENA Today

Gap Coming To Morocco, Egypt

The Gap Inc. (NYSE:GPS), as part of its expansion project in the $1.4 trillion global apparel market, has taken a maiden step to bring its brand to Africa. The company is expected to unveil the latest trend in Egypt and Morocco in July and October, respectively.

The company has plans to open a Gap store in Egypt while The Gap and Banana Republic stores in Morocco. Only last year, The Gap had taken an initiative to sell its products in Egypt, Morocco and South Africa via its international online shipping provider.

Through contracts with its existing franchise — The Fawaz Al Hokair Group — Gap expects to introduce its first store in Egypt in the Mall of Arabia, located in the capital city of Cairo. The company also plans to open two more Gap stores in Cairo’s City Stars Mall and Sun City Mall in October.

In Morocco, the company expects to open its first Gap and Banana Republic stores in Casablanca. Morocco has a flourishing retail market and a growing urban population, an advantage that the company would like to cash in on in its efforts to spur growth. The Gap through a new franchise agreement with Aksal Group will first make its products available to Moroccan customers in the city’s new Morocco Mall.

The leading global specialty retailer has lately consolidated its foreign business under one division from London. The rationalized division, which is headed by Stephen Sunnucks, is responsible for all company-operated and franchised stores across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, Asia Pacific and South America.

The Gap currently has expanded its franchise store base to more than 180 and stretched out its footprint from 2 to 29 countries which includes Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Australia, Chile, Serbia and now Africa. The company expects to increase its franchised store base to 400 by 2014.

Based in San Francisco, California, The Gap Inc. is a premier international specialty retailer offering a diverse range of clothing, accessories and personal care products for men, women, children and babies. Its flagship brands include Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, Piperlime and Athleta.

However, The Gap operates in a highly fragmented market and competes with well-established rivals like American Eagle Outfitters Inc. (NYSE:AEO) and The TJX Companies Inc. (NYSE:TJX).

The Gap’s shares maintain a Zacks #4 Rank, which translates into a short-term Sell rating. Our long-term recommendation on the stock remains Neutral.