In an unprecedented move for Morocco, the Casablanca appellate court has upheld a previous ruling that dissolved the cultural group “Racines.”
Rabat – In December 2018, the Casablanca-based nonprofit Racines received an unexpected letter from the Ministry of the Interior requesting the organization, a cultural group, appear at court. None of its seven staff knew why. It was the first step in a legal battle that would entangle Racines for the next five months.
The case ended Tuesday, April 16, when the Casablanca Appellate Court ordered that Racines dissolve and cease all activity—the first time Morocco has ever formally dissolved an established NGO, multiple sources confirmed to Morocco World News.
The court affirmed the prosecution’s stance, which was that Racines had “failed in its actions as provided for in its statues,” organizing work outside of its domain as a cultural nonprofit and offending institutions, a ruling that Morocco maintains is legal both under its Constitution and international law.
In the wake of the ruling, Racines’ staff and supporters gathered at a cafe across the street from the court, disbelieving but resigned. They said the pronouncement raised new concerns about Morocco’s commitment to freedom of expression and association, which the kingdom often promotes in its official discourse.
“But aside from all the politics, we had this hope for justice that would consider Racines’ work,” Dounia Benslimane, co-founding member of Racines and its former executive director, told Morocco World News after the court pronounced its ruling. “It’s a pity.”
The appeal had been their final, tantalizing chance to preserve the association, which for nine years worked to promote culture, the arts, and civic engagement across the country. At a hearing that lasted less than a minute, the judge had swept it away.
“We weren’t expecting this,” Benslimane said. She stirred her coffee and shook her head. Beside her, a friend had pulled up footage of flames eating at the Notre-Dame Cathedral the day before in Paris. For everyone at the table, it mirrored their own loss.
“We expected everything,” Benslimane continued. “But not this.”
But looking back, Benslimane and Aadel Essaadani—another of Racines’ co-founders—admit they could have seen it coming. Since September 2018, there had been signs that the organization was in legal trouble.
A months-long legal fight
Last year, in the months before the initial hearing, the Casablanca authorities had refused Racines their association registration receipt, though withholding such documentation is illegal under Moroccan law. Government officials had made critical comments. The December call to court indicated that the incidents were part of a greater pattern. Racines had attracted the scrutiny of Casablanca’s authorities.
On December 12, armed with a lawyer and a growing sense of apprehension, Benslimane and Essaadani showed up at court, where they were informed that Racines faced charges for “political activity that ran contrary to the association’s statutes” and that contained “clear offenses towards institutions.”
The charges referred to a particularly fiery episode of the contentious YouTube talk show “Un Diner Deux Cons,” (One Dinner Two Fools) which was filmed at Racines’ premises in August and contained criticism of the Moroccan government. The episode received widespread condemnation from Moroccan officials and many of the public.
Racines mounted its defense. First, they said, “Un Diner Deux Cons” was unaffiliated with Racines. The episode, though political, was not part of Racines’ official activity. And either way, an explicit objective of Racines was to promote free expression, so the episode fell within the bounds of its statutes, they argued.
(None of Racines’s activity reports mention the talk show, and, according to an independent analysis, the talk show’s YouTube channel is not linked to Racines.)
Racines presented the arguments at its first hearing and each subsequent appeal, to no avail. But when the world heard of the ruling against Racines in December, there was a swift, clamorous response.
The initial December order raised eyebrows at international organizations like Human Rights Watch and sparked protest from a long line of public figures—from linguist Noam Chomsky to Moroccan director Farida Belyazid.
Morocco rejected the position of Human Rights Watch and other organizations, noting that under international law, the right to association may be restricted “in the interest of national security, public safety, public order, or to protect public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others.”
But the campaign by Moroccan journalist Mohamed Sammouni, “In Solidarity with Racines,” amassed the support of thousands.
The phrase “Dissolution is not the solution” served as the rallying cry of Racines and its supporters, a variation of the association’s original slogan, “Culture is the solution.” In its Casablanca office, the two mottos crop up everywhere—painted on walls, etched on T-shirts, and printed on stickers.
The office, spacious and spray-painted, was the backdrop for the August 24 episode of “Un Diner Deux Cons” that started the whole case. Racines will give up the space now that they are dissolved, although its staff do not know when.
“It’s a beautiful place that reflects really the spirit, the mood of [Un Diner Deux Cons],” said Amine Belghazi, co-creator of “Un Diner Deux Cons.” “This creativity, this liberty, et cetera.”
In the episode, titled, “The Epic of the Nihilists,” eight men, including Essaadani and Belghazi, lounge at a long table, eating dinner and bantering about Moroccan politics. Most of the discussion revolves around an August speech by King Mohammed VI, which they criticize. It was the second episode of the program filmed at Racines’ premises.
“The Epic of the Nihilists” drew condemnation from media outlets and government officials after its release, both for the inflammatory statements and for the behavior of the guests, some of whom drink alcohol on camera.
Idriss Azami Al-Idriss, a politician with the ruling Justice and Development Party (PJD), was one of the episode’s most high-profile critics. In a September 2018 speech, he decried the show, warning that such content could harm Morocco’s society and stability.
“The program does not have any real added value in the social debate, as much as it turns around and distracts [people] from social issues that contribute to ensuring justice, development, and dignity,” Al-Idriss said.
Some comments on the video from Moroccan viewers strongly criticize the show, arguing it depicts Morocco poorly. Others are supportive.
But Belghazi maintains that the intentions of “Un Diner Deux Cons” are only to present an honest depiction of Moroccan society.
“[The show] is like the meetings we organize in private life,” he said. “Just with cameras.”
Belghazi claims the show has more supporters than it does critics. But controversy has dogged “Un Diner Deux Cons” since its first episode, and legal retaliation did not surprise him. He intended the show to be polemical. What was unexpected, said several involved, was the action against Racines, as it only hosted the program.
“There is a trend of suppression of free speech in this country, and that’s been going on for quite awhile. So in that regard, I was not surprised—that there was a reaction,” Ahmed Benchemsi, communications director for Human Rights Watch’s MENA division and a guest on the August episode, told Morocco World News.
But Benchemsi found the order to dissolve Racines strange.
“Because why attack Racines? They didn’t do anything,” he said. “They could have gone after the show itself. Why didn’t they do that? That’s a question that remains open.”
‘Culture as public service’
Co-founding Racines marked a radical shift in Dounia Benslimane’s life. She had worked for years in pharmaceuticals—rigid, meticulous work utterly unlike that of Racines, which operates in the messy realm of culture.
Benslimane, Essaadani, and several others started Racines as a side project in 2010. The association soon mushroomed into a much larger endeavor.
“It started to be very important for me to have this feeling of being useful to the community, to be part of something bigger,” Benslimane explained at their office back in March, over several cups of tea. At the time, she and the rest of the staff were busy at work on a cultural citizenship project and an incubator for local artists. They were dangling in legal purgatory, but they could still work. Spirits were high.
Racines used culture as a medium for social change and civic engagement. It trained artists, created resources on citizenship and civic education, and advocated for social change through diverse mediums—comics, theater, exhibitions, and workshops.
Moroccan officials had supported Racines’ work in the past, and the organization has taken some government funding.
But Tuesday’s ruling was based on the logic that as Racines was a cultural organization, political activity lay outside of its domain. Essaadani disputes this.
“They think we are working in the field of culture because it’s about artistic things,” he said in March. “But when you work on culture, you need the freedom of expression for operation. It becomes political.”
Racines, its staff said, was always about more than just art. And it was always about more than just Moroccan society.
‘A global movement’
Racines was part of a vast global web of such civil society organizations with partnerships in dozens of countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. Just last week, its staff helped launch a free speech observatory in Paris with several of their partners.
“It’s quite huge, the work that we do,” Benslimane said in March. Today, she reckoned with the reality that the work must end. That was particularly difficult to think about, she said, considering the number of partnerships and donors they would lose, both at home and abroad.
“It’s a very big step back, because it stopped everything,” she said. “But we are still individuals. We are part of this process also as individuals.”
Racines’ staff would continue to work outside of the association, she explained. But a fundamental value of Racines was always collective action. The ruling took away that option.
That is the great irony of the case, according to Benslimane and Essaadani. Racines’ spent nearly a decade working towards freedom of association and expression on a global scale, rights they believe the ruling violated.
“It’s not only an issue in Morocco, in North African countries. These kinds of obstacles to civil society organizations are really becoming a worldwide issue,” Benslimane said. (A February Amnesty International report gave the example of Racines in its broader critique of Morocco’s human rights track record, although Rabat has strongly opposed Amnesty’s narrative, noting that civil society organizations in Morocco number in the hundreds of thousands.)
Racines was always aware of the global challenges facing freedom of expression and association, its staff said. It just never believed it would fall prey to them.
But no one at the table voiced regret, just as it was in March, when Essaadani stood surveying Racines’ imperiled office, full of color and morning sunlight. When asked if he would choose to host “Un Diner Deux Cons” again if he could go back, he replied without hesitation.
“If we have to do it again, we will do it,” he said. “It’s about freedom.”