Last December, Maati Monjib — a Moroccan historian and former Patkin Fellow in the Middle East Democracy and Development Project at Brookings — was arrested by Moroccan security services while having lunch at a restaurant in Rabat. Monjib, a prominent and long-time critic of the government and an internationally known human rights activist, was charged with money laundering. Pro-government outlets and commentators have argued that the authorities followed correct legal procedures, and in January, a Moroccan court sentenced him to one year in prison for “undermining the internal integrity of the state and fraud.”
In reality, Monjib’s arrest and sentencing without due process is a reflection on the continued retreat of human rights in Morocco, and resurgent authoritarianism in North Africa.
Not the first, and won’t be the last
Monjib, a leftist activist during the reign of King Hassan II, left Morocco to complete his doctoral studies and returned at the beginning of the reign of King Mohammed VI to take up an academic position at Rabat University. Like many other Moroccan activists in exile, he returned when Mohammed VI took the throne in 1999, promising a new era of transparency and human rights. As it became more apparent that the king’s rhetoric did not match reality, Monjib became more and more outspoken in his criticism of the regime, arguing that he had to speak because of the regime’s “infringements on the freedoms and rights of citizens, the suppression of the free press, and arbitrary arrest of activists.”
While Monjib was pleased by the political opening that unfolded in Morocco in 2011-12 after the Arab uprisings, he understood that ultimately the king and the deep state, known as the mekhzen, continued to call the shots in the background. In a 2011 paper for Brookings, Monjib argued that if the Moroccan government does not engage in comprehensive reform, it risks threats to its position and power. While no friend of the Islamists himself, he wrote that Islamist parties should be recognized as legitimate political parties and should be protected from police harassment.
Indeed, it was the Islamists who gained the most from the 2011 opening, winning multiple elections since then. The Justice and Development Party, described by one academic as “The king’s Islamists,” were allowed to govern as long as they did not cross the palace’s red lines. (Another Islamist movement in Morocco, the Justice and Charity Movement, rejects the electoral process.) For journalists and activists like Monjib — and others like Hicham Mansouri, Hisham Almiraat, Mohamed Sber and Abdessamad Ait Aich — crossing those red lines would make them targets of the regime.
The 2016 hirak and the resurgence of authoritarianism
The king’s 2011 constitutional changes ushered in a period of relative calm in Morocco’s polity. That was shattered in 2016, with the hirak protests that demanded an end to marginalization in Morocco’s Rif region. Viewed by some Moroccan analysts as a continuation of the February 20 movement from 2011, the government responded with a hard crackdown on activists and protesters.
Since 2016, the Moroccan regime continued their crackdown on various perceived challenges to its authority. Students, activists, and everyday citizens have been arrested for expressing critical views on social media as the regime moved to tighten its control of the digital sphere. Omar Radi, another prominent journalist and activist, was arrested in 2019, released on probation, then arrested again in 2020 and charged with espionage, as well as rape, after publishing a number of articles about land grabs by corrupt officials.
Monjib had been brought to court 20 times since 2015, but never convicted until this year. He had been subject to illegal surveillance for years: A 2019 Amnesty International report found that he and other activists were targets of spyware created by the Israeli firm NSO, which is also used by other Arab states to monitor dissidents.
The Biden administration and Morocco: Between values and interests
The Biden administration’s approach to Morocco is complicated by President Trump’s last-minute deal with Morocco to recognize its sovereignty over the Western Sahara in exchange for partial normalization with Israel.
Described as a “booby trap” left by Trump for Biden, the U.S. recognition of Morocco’s claims presented the Biden administration with a dilemma: whether to uphold this U-turn in U.S. policy, or reverse it. Last month, 27 senators wrote to Biden, urging him to reverse Trump’s “misguided” Western Sahara decision.
Morocco has been a strong ally of the U.S., and the Biden administration risks alienating it if it reverses the deal with the Trump administration. Jailed Moroccan activists like Monjib, Radi, and others will unfortunately be caught up in this, and will be used by the kingdom as bargaining chips.
The Biden administration will have to balance between value-based and interest-based diplomacy in Morocco. This is no simple task, especially as other powers such as China and Russia seek to play a larger role across the Middle East and North Africa. It is unlikely that the U.S. will reverse course on the Western Sahara, given that it will have an impact on the Israeli-Moroccan normalization agreement, which the administration hopes to build on.
The Biden administration has put human rights back on the agenda in its dealings with states in the Middle East, and has moved to rejoin the U.N. Human Rights Council. Despite the realpolitik in U.S.-Morocco relations, the administration should back up its human rights rhetoric with action and make human rights and the release of prisoners a priority in its discussions with the Moroccans. The Moroccan government, for its part, should release Monjib, Radi, and other political prisoners, as continued arrests are destroying what’s left of Morocco’s liberal reputation.