There is vibrant energy to move forward, to catch the world and Africa’s attention. But when will Morocco finally arrive?
Rabat – The stakes are high for Morocco’s development aspirations, and there has been a deluge of infrastructure and development projects. And yet, the abiding feeling that some things will not (easily) change remains deeply embedded in the national imaginary.
High speed train accident raises questions
The social media firestorm that erupted after the glaring miscommunication that followed the first accident of Morocco’s newly inaugurated high speed train reflected the doubt that some Moroccans and Morocco watchers had raised even before Rabat inaugurated Africa’s first high speed train: Can one big project do way with the country’s entrenched structural dysfunction?
The mood was mainly festive on November 15 when King Mohammed VI and France’s Emmanuel Macron took the first ride on Al Boraq (Pegasus), the evocative name given to the new train connecting Casablanca to Tangier in just 2 hours.
Al Boraq enthusiasts cheered on social media. Meanwhile, Stop TGV, the anti-Al Boraq coalition which questioned the project from the start, was largely silenced by the excitement that the inauguration generated on the continent.
Sub-Saharan African students in Morocco marveled at the project, comparing Morocco’s infrastructure to those back home. “Let critics speak. But for me Morocco is a model for the continent in terms of infrastructure and construction projects,” said Ali, a Malian student in Rabat.
A number of international media picked up the enthusiasm, with France’s Liberation newspaper singing the sharpest pro-Al Boraq hymn. The paper ran an article that consecrated Tangier’s metropolis status. Tangier, Liberation proposed, has undergone “spectacular changes” in the last decade. With its promise of speed and comfort, Al Boraq was the illustration that Tangier’s “forced metamorphosis” bore “a final royal touch.”
But the enthusiasm has faded in one month. At the least, the enthusiasm has been largely sidelined by the country’s everyday issues, the ones that do not get headlines or prime time television.
Two weeks ago, however, on December 14, social media experienced a renewal of enthusiasm about Al Boraq. This time, rather than being celebrated, Morocco’s national rail operator ONCF was being castigated.
The company’s “unforgivable mistake,” angry social media users commented, was its seeming lack of concern for the life of a “fellow Moroccan” hit by the country’s celebrated bullet-shaped train.
“On December 14 around 18h55, Al Boraq made an urgent stop between Sidi Lyamani and Aqouass Biech en route to Tangier after it hit and killed a man who threw himself in front of the train,” read an ONCF press release later on the same day.
Noting that the situation was well managed and that things “returned to their normal state at 21:45,” the company added the backbone of the press release: “ONCF apologizes to customers for the discomfort.”
Apparently only interested in the comfort of its customers, ONCF’s statement glaringly neglected to mention the slightest caring remark about the man the train had hit. The move ignited a firestorm, with many suggesting that the deceased’s family had the right to condolences, however symbolic.
“No respect for human life!” one commenter exclaimed in disbelief. Another, more explicit, hit: “What is this text? ONCF has no civic sense! No humanity!”
But while reactions shared the same pattern, indignation at an “irresponsible lack of communication,” the reasons for venting that frustration on ONCF’s Facebook post were different.
The undertone of the social media protestations, as one exceedingly ONCF-pessimist explained, was that the accident and ONCF’s statement raised questions not only about the company’s horrible communication, but the country’s preparedness for a project as big as Al Boraq. Can one fast train be the answer to Morocco’s litany of issues linked to bad governance?
Mohammedia, a city located between Rabat and Casablanca, does not feature on Al Boraq’s itinerary. The train only stops in Rabat and Kenitra en route to Tangier. But that is no impediment for Hassan, an IT worker constantly travelling between Tangier and Mohammedia.
Hassan is “professionally based in Tangier,” where he has a well-paid job, but his “sweetheart” is in Mohammedia. “I come here every weekend to see my girlfriend,” he said. He takes Al Boraq from Tangier to Casablanca and then uses a regular train to come to Mohammedia.
Commenters and activists may have convinced the Tangier-Casablanca-Mohammedia trotter about the wildly high cost of the project. Two billion dollars is too much for one single project, Hassan said.
“Those who say that it is all about prestige are right. But they are missing something important: Prestige counts for an emerging country that aspires to greatness, to big development plans.”
Hassan’s pro-Al Boraq remarks are not meant for ONCF, however. He holds the company responsible for making him arrive late at a number of appointments in the past when he could only use the regular train.
But with Al Boraq, he can enjoy his weekends in Mohammedia with his “sweetheart,” and still make it to Tangier on time for work. “No longer eight tiring hours on a train that never keeps its schedule,” he said. He spoke of his experience with regular trains like a prehistoric moment he harbors no nostalgia for.
“This is Morocco,” he offered, now commenting on the sad Al Boraq incident. “It was a big mistake. People pointed it out and called out ONCF. I think the company will not make the same mistake again.”
“This is Morocco” has been differently interpreted, depending on where each commenterr stands.
For some, it is an admission of the country’s permanent duality in socio-economic relations. On the one hand, there is first-class Morocco, made up of the “makhzen” (the ruling elite) and the few in the prestigious educated class from engineering and business schools. And then there is forgotten and invisible Morocco, made up of “the rest,” the social residue.
Al Boraq, critics recently told the Guardian, was meant to satisfy first-class Morocco’s obsession with the external gaze. Intent on appealing to the outside world but unmindful of the pervasive poverty in some quarters of the country, “visible Morocco” wanted to “notify the world—and the world’s foreign investors—that Morocco has arrived.”
In a second line of analysis, “This is Morocco” is code that mediocrity, elite complacency, and lack of communication are embedded in the country’s socio-political DNA. It means some things will never really change in Morocco.
When Moroccans use it among themselves, wrote columnist Karim Boukhari, they have reached the end of the conversation, the point where “there is nothing else to add.” It is a euphemism for corruption, bad government performance, and poor education levels, Boukhari explained.
But what was Hassan’s meaning? Where did his “This is Morocco” stand in the ongoing conversation about the paradox of a high speed train and many unaddressed issues?
“Moroccans like making big statements to flaunt their importance. That’s one reason we cheered the high-speed train project: To give the impression that Morocco may not have arrived yet, but it is already flying far above the skies of the African continent, boldly stressing its leadership ambitions. Even if it means being blind to some deeply rooted problems, that’s okay. It’s one step at a time.”