Despite the overwhelmingly positive reactions to the journalist’s release, the King’s last minute reprieve for Raissouni has prompted debate over the motives behind the move.
Rabat – The granting of the royal pardon to Hajar Raissouni has ignited a firestorm of mostly positive reactions.
“Finally a happy and wise decision,” tweeted Youness Maksine, the publication director of Akhbar Al-Yaoum, the Arabophone newspaper where Raissouni works as a staff writer. Feminist activist Ibtissame Betty Lachgar said Raissouni’s liberation was a promising signal for the “fight against dranconian and sexist laws.”
While some have raised thinly veiled concerns over the political calculations behind the royal move, others, and it would appear the majority, have expressed satisfaction that their numerous calls and pleas had finally been heeded by a “wise” King. Mostly, the reactions came with a note of delight, sometimes gleeful reflections on the promises and challenges on the road of those fighting for a more liberal vision of Morocco.
At the beginning of this week, on Monday, there was an air of renewed fervor over the Raissouni case, with Morocco’s individual freedoms and human rights advocates repeatedly calling for the release of the journalist.
Even after weeks of social media campaigns and rallies, “We stand with Raissouni” advocates ran into a brick wall in the form of an unrelenting Moroccan judiciary which had already made up its mind about the price to pay for “illegal abortion” or “sex outiside of marriage.”
Raissouni’s case became, as a result, the cause celebre of those fighting for an alternative vision of Morocco, from feminist activists to liberal Moroccans and moderate Islamists striving to end what they see as an instrumentalization of religion for political purposes. To stand with Raissouni became synonymous with standing against a “backward,” “obsolete,” and “suicidal” vision of Morocco.
Quickly–and quite naturally, some would argue–the Raissouni case jumped beyond the confines of defending the “inalienable rights” of one particular woman and morphed into the ultimate embodiment of the daily struggle of Moroccans–mostly women– feeling that they were constantly self-censoring to fit into the codes and regulations not representative of the societal transformations their country has been through in recent years.
The mess was big enough, but its shifting from Raissouni vs Public Prosecutor to Conservative Moroccans vs Liberal Moroccans made it even greater, murkier, and complex.
“I think that Moroccans, mostly the youth and women, have had enough. For their sake, we will not give up,” Moroccan writer and activist Sonia Terrab said on Monday, announcing the second public engagement phase of an advocacy group she had helped launch in the wake of the Raissouni incident.
Terrab, who spoke with the religious zeal of somebody who “has had enough” of the perceptibly unconscionable shackles society was imposing on her and other Moroccans’ self-expression, asserted that the common goal for Morocco’s freedom fighters should be to have the authorities release Raissouni.
Regardless of their political or ideological affiliations, for advocates of a new and rule of law-governed Morocco, the now released journalist became the cross-ideological glue they had not asked for.
A conciliatory move
The royal pardon came amid such a deep divide between clashing visions of Morocco. Particulalry interesting, however, is the fact that the royal pardon, granted to Raissouni, her fiance, and the medical staff said to have carried out the abortion, provides a fertile ground for a host of narratives.
One line of reasoning, immediately plausible after the unexpected but not at all surprising royal move (royal pardons, especially in the wake of controversial prosecutions, are a common thing in Morocco) was that, as always, the King was again taking into his own hands an extremely divisive matter to broadcast yet another message about his reconciliatory vision of Morocco.
Like the adult in the room rising above the legitimate but sometimes petulant claims of two diametrically opposed camps, the King placed himself above the ideological divides while simultaneously giving credit to both camps when needed.
By not interfering with the legal procedure that culminated in a one-year prison sentence for Raissouni, he was respecting the judiciary’s constitutional right to independence. And yet by overruling the Rabat court’s decision barely a month after its was pronounced, he was also telling the other Moroccans, those standing with Raissouni and (purportedly) perpetual victims of the political status quo, that he has heeded their pleas and calls for an intervention.
Reactions from both Raissouni and the ministry of justice make for this particular reading.
“The royal pardon has corrected an unjust prosecution,” Raissouni told AFP. She held up to her apparently undimmed conviction that the whole affair had been politically motivated. At the same time, she was happy and relieved that the King was attentive to her plight. To her, the royal move was humane and a breath of fresh air.
In a press release after most Moroccan publications aired the news about the King’s call, the ministry of justice was quick to provide its own reading. The statement obviously disagreed that the prosecution had been unfair or politically motivated.
The ministry highlighted the King’s “compassion” and “concern” for a young couple’s future and dreams. While the prosecution of the couple was motivated by their “mistake,” the press release argued, they are entitled to their dream of “founding a family in accordance with legal and religious prescriptions.”
Self-serving vagaries and rationalizations aside, the ministry’s message, like Raissouni’s to AFP, seemed to be one of rejoicing in the royal move. But where the former saw a respectable and commendable discharge of royal duty in accordance with the country’s Constitution, the latter saw the King deploying his “compassion” for a righteous cause.
“I am innocent…. I have suffered a great injustice and a terrible aggression,” Raissouni stressed after her release. But she suggested she is moving beyond resentment, acrimony, or self-serving indignation. All she now hopes for, she said, is for her case to “serve as an engine” to drive debates forward on the penalization of abortion, sex outside marriage, and all the other litany of practices Morocco’s individul freedoms advocates deem “obsolete” and unrepresentative of modern Morocco.
While it would be tempting to engage in the appealing and inevitably protracted debate over which reading is more reflective of the underlying premise of the royal move, it also begs stressing that both reasonings appear to agree that, at bottom, the move was motivated by human considerations.
External interference in Morocco’s affairs
Meanwhile, a third camp has taken the royal pardon as an opportunity to hit back at what it sees as unfair external criticisms of Morocco’s march forward.
As should have been expected, the Raissouni case went beyond Morocco’s borders. At the outset of the controversy, a number of international observers and human rights advocacy groups lambasted the country for its supposed culture of politically motivated trials when prosecuting government critics or dissidents.
“Morocco’s arrest, prosecution, and brutal violation of Hajar Raissouni’s private life illustrate the country’s lack of respect of individual freedoms, and apparently the selective enforcement of unjust laws to punish critical journalism and activism,” Ahmed Benchemsi, Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa communications director, said in the aftermath of Raissouni’s prosecution.
Although relatively inaudible in the hot debate of visions between conservative and liberal Moroccans, the third camp saw in the frenzy of reactions from foreing news outlets and international NGOs a “regrettable” tendency to interfere with Morocco’s internal debates.
However, like the two dominant camps, proponents of the third reading also hail the King’s resolve to put himself above the clash of visions driving Morocco’s societal debates.
“The King made his call without taking sides in the necessary debates Moroccans have been having about the evolution of their society,” one government source told AFP. “Regrettably, however,” the source added with a discernible note of frustration, “some foreign intellectuals, NGOs, and media organizations have invited themselves in this legitimate debate.”
All these readings have a certain kernel of truth to them. But beyond conflicting rationalizations of what may have motivated the royal pardon–whether a perfectly calculated PR move or genuine concern for the plight of a citizen who somehow embodied the continued struggle of Moroccan women–the King’s ultimate message echoed the “I am the King of all Moroccans” spirit his speeches and public statements have so earnestly emphasized over the past months.