On September 13, 1991, after nearly 17 years in the prisons of His Majesty Hassan II, Moroccan activist Abraham Serfaty was released and expelled to France. This was not, to be sure, out of human rights considerations, or a measure of royal clemency: According to the Ministry of the Interior, an “in-depth” — if belated — examination of Serfaty’s legal status had revealed that he was not entitled to Moroccan citizenship. His father had lived in Brazil for 17 years before returning to Morocco in 1923, three years before Serfaty himself was born. He was thus expelled as a “veritable impostor.”
Ironically, the same argument was used by the French colonial authorities in 1952 to expel both Serfaty and his sister, Evelyne, to house arrest in France for three years. Serfaty had joined the Moroccan Communist Party at the age of 18, and it was his participation in a general strike in Casablanca that led to his expulsion under the Protectorate. But Serfaty also had a degree in mining engineering and, following independence in 1953, he helped develop various economic projects with the new government. He briefly served as a director of the national phosphate company — until he sided with the miners in a labor dispute — and then received an academic post at the elite Muhamadiyya engineering school.
Increasingly dissatisfied with the Communist Party at the end of the 1960s, he joined poet Abdellatif Laabi to create Souffles / al-Anfas (Breaths), a kind of new left magazine, and in 1970 became one of the prime movers of the newly formed Marxist-Leninist organization Ila al-Amam (Forward). Arrested and tortured in the first wave of crackdowns in 1972, he was subsequently released and spent two years in hiding (with the aid of French high-school teacher Christine Daure, who became his wife). In the notorious Casablanca trial of 1977, he and 138 other leftists were charged with plotting to overthrow the monarchy, inciting civil war, and illegal association; Serfaty was sentenced to life in prison. By the time of his 1991 release, he was the oldest political detainee in Africa.
For those who have followed the uncompromising political trajectory of Abraham Serfaty — not only as a Moroccan opposed to the monarchy but as a Moroccan supporting the POLISARIO Front in the Western Sahara and as a Moroccan Jew committed to the Palestinian cause — it was no surprise that the first words out of his mouth, as he stood in the doorway of the Royal Air Maroc plane that had brought him to France, were: “I have two protests to raise!” Before placing a foot on French territory, he denounced the continued detention of his three comrades from Block A of Kenitra Prison, as well as that of other political, military and ordinary prisoners living in “unbearable and undescribable conditions,” notably in the secret penal colony of Tazmamart in the High Atlas, and then went on to protest the “farce” of his expulsion from Morocco as a Brazilian citizen.
Less than a week later, the 30-odd survivors of Tazmamart, half of the number imprisoned there in 1973, were removed — some to Kenitra, others directly to the hospital — and the infamous prison-fortress was razed to the ground. Early last March, Hassan II announced a constitutional reform as well as a flurry of elections — municipal, professional and legislative — preceded by a referendum on the new constitutional reform. I spoke with Abraham Serfaty in Paris two days before the referendum which, true to Moroccan electoral tradition, came out 99.9 percent in favor of Hassan II.
How do you see the changes that have taken place in Morocco over the 17 years that you were in prison?
I have a problem, of course, in that I was released last year and immediately “parachuted” into France. But our strategic objective remains valid, and also the essential lines of our struggle in Morocco. Class differences are so pronounced, so antagonistic, that the concept of class struggle remains immediate for many people, especially high-school and university students from poor backgrounds. But society has changed, and we have to take that into account, as we’ve done in recent years in relation to the Berber question in particular.
What about the question of religion, not to mention religious fundamentalism?
I understood in the mid-1960s that Marxism had to integrate the phenomenon of religion — not to set it aside, pretend not to fight against it yet fight against it all the same, but to really integrate it as a profound human reality. What’s called religiosity, which Marx called the religious spirit, and what I call transcendence, is inherent in every individual. Human beings are naturally inclined toward something that transcends them, whether belief in God or the struggle for the future of humanity.
So we didn’t reject Islam as religion; rather, through a Marxist analysis, it was possible to determine to what extent the different forms of Islam corresponded to different interests. In the history of Islam in Morocco, there are two opposing trends — a popular Islam, adopted by the Berber tribes in particular, and an Islam spread by the big merchants who were trying to control the gold routes from sub-Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean in alliance with tribal chiefs along these routes. That alliance gave rise to the empires that have dominated Morocco for 13 centuries, and which corresponded to the official Islam of the shari‘a. In contrast, the Berber tribes, along with Arab tribes, adhered to an early, progressive form of Islam, carried on by the Khawarij and later by important zawiyas, or Sufi orders. It’s possible to criticize both the official Islam of Hassan II and the Islam of the fundamentalists without going against the religious aspirations of the vast majority of the Moroccan people.
Isn’t it the fundamentalists who have appropriated those aspirations?
In the Arab world, progressive movements have generally not managed to integrate two fundamental problems of the masses of the population: that of identity and that of political responses to their aspirations. The communist parties of the Arab world had adopted the Soviet theory that it was necessary to let the bourgeoisie dominate the stage of a bourgeois democratic revolution before thinking about the socialist stage — a theory that proved catastrophic everywhere in the Third World, and especially in the Arab world. The result is that those who bring a mythical response to the question of identity — the fundamentalists — have taken the space left by the progressive movements.
In his July 7, 1992 interview with Liberation, Hassan II seemed to pride himself on the country’s economic wellbeing in contrast to Algeria.
It’s true that since the 1980s Morocco has been the obedient disciple of the IMF. But the problem is this: Since the 1970s, Morocco has developed more modern relations of dependency with Western Europe through textile and leather subcontracting. This allowed a certain number of people, who might be called capitalists but who are really brokers for the European textile industry, to make a fortune. This fortune has spread throughout all the networks connected to them, creating a level of prosperity for specific social categories. A whole series of other social groups have latched on, including those in the state apparatus, in the universities, the urban bourgeoisies, and the technocrats. That’s what accounts for the prosperity of the booming modern sections of cities like Casablanca or Rabat.
At the same time, the majority of the people are sinking into greater poverty. These textile sub-industries have employed some 700,000 girls and young women. But the wages, even at the legal minimum, are 9 dirhams a month — about $100 — and very often much less than that. Even if 700,000 jobs have been opened up in this sector, no real industrial jobs have been created. The balance for the whole of modern industrial jobs has been negative for the past 20 years.
These girls and young women are not working at these wages just for themselves, but for their entire families. They’re often young mothers, and when their babies get sick, they don’t even have the money to buy medicine to save that child’s life. Morocco’s infant mortality rate is among the highest in the world.
In the countryside, thanks to the same European-linked ruling class, there are the million hectares of irrigated land that Hassan II was bragging about in Le Monde just yesterday [September 2, 1992], but which is used to grow citrus and other export products, while the Moroccan people don’t have enough to eat. There’s an increasingly pronounced impoverishment of the rural areas. In recent years, particularly from the Rif, you have the phenomenon of “boat people” going from Morocco to Spain. They know that the odds are 50-50, but they take the risk because they have no alternative.
This puts the king’s political reforms in quite another light.
These political reforms correspond to certain necessities. The reality of Morocco’s reign of terror has become clear in the eyes of the world. That reality has to get a face-lift. Since early January of last year, Hassan II, with the complicity of France, has been trying to clean up the image of the Moroccan government, first of all by making people think there are no more political prisoners. At the end of last year, certain “stars” were released. Moroccan human rights organizations have identified 503 detainees. The total number is estimated at between 700 and 800.
Are people still being arrested?
Since the autumn of 1991 there have been repeated and sizable waves of arrests among students at the University of Fez, because of its particularly strong progressive movement. The Moroccan police, using the fundamentalists as a cover, have carried out violent attacks on the students at this university, and also at Oujda.
The other aspect of the current political operation is Hassan II’s pretension to reform the existing constitution in order to make it more democratic. It’s a total farce. The king holds all the reins of government in his hands. Take, for example, one of the pillars of democracy, the independence of the judiciary: In Morocco, the judiciary is the sole prerogative of Hassan II. The corps of magistrates has always been a part of the system of the corruption of power. During our trial in Casablanca in 1977, we saw the policemen in the room downstairs tell the president of the court what had to be done every step of the way.
There’s also a provision in the old Moroccan constitutions, carried over to the current one, whereby only two thirds of the parliament is elected by popular vote. The other third is appointed indirectly by the representatives of the local notables and the socioeconomic institutions, so this third is always loyal to the king. Since elections are held under the control of the police, Hassan II is assured of a majority.
Even while maintaining his power, Hassan II could have gone a little further with the reform. But that’s impossible because he is — and I’m choosing my words carefully — a gang leader. The police apparatus that’s developed in Morocco over the last 40 years is a gang that’s extorting the country. The leader is Hassan II.
All but one opposition party finally called for a boycott of the referendum on the reforms.
Over the last year, they were hoping to get something serious from Hassan II. The rank and file of these parties also includes people who are technocrats, especially the academics, and they have an interest in an arrangement with Hassan II: They honestly want things to go better, without rocking the boat. But Hassan II couldn’t meet their demands.
How important is the women’s issue in the debate over the constitutional reform?
One of the factors that’s starting to change civil society deeply is the emergence of the movement for the liberation of women — within the democratic forces in Morocco but also as an independent women’s movement. Since the 1980s, there have been several women’s organizations, and they’ve now set up a coordinating committee calling for change in the personal status code. This text, from 1959, imposes the shari‘a on relations between Muslim men and women, with comparable regulations for the Jewish communities. In the August 20 speech announcing the constitutional changes, Hassan II launched into an insulting diatribe against women activists, telling them, “What business is it of yours? This is an affair that concerns religion, and religion only concerns me, as Commander of the Faithful.” He indicated that he was going to look into the problem with the ‘ulama’. Everyone knows that the Moroccan ‘ulama’ are the most narrow-minded, archaic guardians of religious conservatism. At the time of these women’s movement activities — which are certainly going to continue — some of the ‘ulama’ wrote that these women are subject to the death penalty as apostates.
What do you say to Moroccan intellectuals who tell you, “If it’s a choice between Hassan II and the fundamentalists, ‘Long live the king!’”?
Islamism in Morocco feeds on Hassan II’s tyranny — quite apart from the concrete evidence that the Moroccan police work with the fundamentalist movements. The more despair there is among the Moroccan population, the longer there is no democratic alternative, the more that despair is going to give rise to fundamentalism. The longer Hassan II lasts, the stronger fundamentalism gets. Conversely, the faster we can propose a democratic alternative, the more we can block fundamentalism in Morocco.
What about the role of foreign powers in the current reforms? Why the pressure now, after so many years of abuses?
The governments knew very well what they were dealing with all along. They were among those who helped to build this tyranny. But the public — the majority of the people, not the most conscious elements — really did not know. It was only in the last two or three years that the truth came out, in an explosive way, with Gilles Perrault’s book, Notre ami le roi, which, it’s now known, was prepared in collaboration with Christine Daure. That’s why the French government is trying to rebuild Hassan II’s public image, so that it can continue to support him. Four times this year the French government has tried to get a plan for financial aid to Morocco approved by the European Parliament. Four times the democratic parliamentarians turned it down.
In addition, France and Spain are now proposing the creation of a free trade zone with Morocco. Hassan II says Morocco should become the Mexico of Europe. You know what that means for the Mexicans, but you have to realize the deeper significance. Now we have the “wetbacks” of Morocco who try to cross the Strait of Gibraltar to Europe. So when you think that Morocco is going to become a new Mexico, you can see what that means, both for Morocco and for Europe. That’s why we tell not only the European democrats but even the capitalists who are able to take a strategic view — and French leaders aren’t among them — that it’s necessary to think about another kind of relationship between Morocco and Europe, and another kind of Morocco than that of Hassan II.