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Morocco Big Buck PR

By Samia Errazzouki

Here's what the Moroccan crown wants you to think: After protests broke out across the country one year ago, the kingdom reacted more receptive to the demands of its people, as opposed to the crumbling dictatorships elsewhere in North Africa. King Mohamed VI instituted sweeping reforms, most notably a strikingly liberal constitution, approved in an entirely unsuspicious referendum by a whopping 98 percent of Moroccans. Sure, the country still has problems — notably, the ongoing friction between an Islamist-leaning elected government and the monarchy — but by and large, in Morocco's version of the Arab Uprisings, the people chose reform over revolution.

It's a narrative that the monarchy is willing to pay handsomely to advance in Washington's corridors of power. Through the help of lobbying and PR firms, subsidized junkets, and panel discussions composed entirely of pro-regime analysts, the Moroccan regime has solidified its presence in the U.S. capital and successfully shaped public opinion in its favor.

Beneath this façade, however, the regime is grappling with a disgruntled populace. Little by way of reforms has changed. Additionally, the familiar faces of cronyism and corruption from the previous government reappeared as royal advisers, appointed by the king himself. Throughout social media, calls for anti-regime protests on January 13 proliferated, drawing sizeable crowds, which were of course met with police truncheons and arrests. Aside from political dissent, demands for economic reform and employment opportunities remain, as unemployed graduates march on a regular basis in the streets of Rabat. The king himself was even the target of both political and economic dissent as crowds gathered in Rabat denouncing the palace budget.

The kingdom's spin doctors may try to paint Morocco as a land of tranquility, but all conditions point toward more unrest in the country's future.

Morocco has advanced its message through organizations with anodyne names, such as the Moroccan American Cultural Center, Moroccan American Trade and Investment Council, and the Moroccan American Center for Policy, all of which are offshoots of the Moroccan American Center. The Moroccan American Center is a nonprofit funded and supervised by the Moroccan government. While these may sound like a cultural organization or an independent think tank, they are actually a vehicle for advancing the Moroccan regime's interests.

Public records available on the Department of Justice's Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) site show the Moroccan American Center for Policy (MACP) has been actively lobbying U.S. policymakers immediately since its registration in 2004, in support of the priorities of the Moroccan regime.

MACP's latest supplemental statement  also shows a long list of contacts with Congressmen and members of the media. It also includes a breakdown of MACP's expenses, showing that the organization spent $648,590on consultants and another $183,279 on advertising and public relations — from May to October 2012.

MACP pushes the regime's agenda on a wide array of issues, notably its territorial claims over the Western Sahara and its bilateral relationship with the United States. The policy section on MACP's website lays out Morocco's position on the Western Sahara dispute, linking to a 2009 letter sent to President Barack Obama by 233 Congressmen that warns of the emergence of al Qaeda in the region, and claims, "The single greatest obstacle impeding the security cooperation necessary to combat this transnational threat is the unresolved territorial dispute over the Western Sahara." Direct Al Qaeda involvement with the Polisario remains a speculation, one peddled by proponents of Morocco's autonomy plan.

None of this is illegal, and such activism has gotten results for the Moroccan kingdom. On Dec. 23, 2011, for the first time, Congress and the president approved the use of U.S. aid money to Morocco in the Western Sahara.

MACP has also employed the public relations firm Beckerman to advance its message, according to FARA records. A 2007 letter by the managing director of MACP to Avalanche Strategic Communications (ASC), which was acquired by Beckerman in 2009, states that ASC "will focus on strategic and programming services related to the media, news and policy makers...outreach to the Jewish community and media, and other groups and individuals that impact US foreign policy."

Between March 2011 and September 2011, Beckerman billed MACP a total of $106,136.73 in costs detailed as "professional services," reimbursements, and travel expenses. Naomi Decter, senior vice president of Beckerman, is publicly registered as a foreign agent to conduct media relations for MACP. Decter links the Moroccan monarchy with the pro-Israel right-wing of American politics: She is the daughter of neo-conservative journalist Midge Decter and sister of Rachel Decter Abrams, who is married to former deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams. Rachel Abrams was also involved in a controversy with Washington Post blogger, Jennifer Rubin, whose posts on Morocco have constantly spoken highly of the regime's "reforms." FARA records also note that MACP has previously met with Rubin, discussing topics that include "women's rights, extremism, and Morocco."

Aside from Beckerman, additional firms who received payment from MACP include The Moffett GroupGray Loeffler LLPVision Americas, and Blank Rome Government Relations LLC.

MACP's original website was hacked in November 2011, with a ticker under the home page title displaying"HACKED BY KADER11000 ...FUCK MAROC FUCK ROI." For several days, the site remained hacked. Now, MACP's URL redirects users to Morocco on the Move, which touts Morocco's recent reforms and elections, in addition to the reposting of press releases from Moroccan state-run media, Maghreb Arabe Presse (MAP).

Morocco on the Move featured an Experts Sources, which lists a number of people who are actually on the payroll of the Moroccan government.  MACP Executive Director Robert M. Holley is on the list, as is former U.S. envoy to Rabat Edward Gabriel — president of The Gabriel Company LLC, an officially registered lobbying firm for the kingdom of Morocco. The list formerly included Lahcen Haddad, Morocco's recently appointed minister of tourism and member of the Popular Movement party, currently part of the four-party ruling coalition in parliament.

On Dec. 8, 2011, less than two weeks after Morocco's parliamentary elections, the Moroccan American Center hosted a panel discussion that featured these experts — and it's hardly a surprise that they offered a rosy view of the kingdom's political reforms. On a press release about the panel, Gabriel is quoted as saying, "Much of the credit for the orderly transition can be attributed to the strong bonds between His Majesty King Mohammed VI and the people of Morocco."

This paid applause, however, cannot disguise the fact that Morocco's reforms are little more than window dressing. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit's 2011 Democracy Index, Morocco's democracy ranking actually declined over the course of the past year, dropping from its previous ranking of 116 to 119. A 2011 report published by Freedom House also bolsters these claims, arguing that the king's proposed reforms "were vague and fell far short of the protesters' demand."

Nor is the kingdom's new constitution as much a victory for liberty as its proponents suggest. It upholds the rhetoric regarding the monarchy's inviolability, and does not legally address a separation of the king's powers in the legislative and judicial branches. "The constitution does not transform Morocco into a constitutional monarchy (or a parliamentary monarchy, in the language favored by Moroccans) where the king does not govern," a December 2011 report  published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace adds. "[T]hat was not the intention."

Nor does the new government represent much of a clean break with the past: Several public figures from the previous government, including former Minister of Tourism Yassir Zenagui, former Foreign Minister Taib Fassi-Fihri, and Fouad Ali El Himma, a close friend of Mohammad VI, were all appointed royal advisors. Aziz Akhennouch, who is described in a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable as "a business tycoon close to the Palace" was also able to maintain his position as minister of agriculture and fisheries.

These facts have not been lost on the Moroccan people. On Jan. 4, protesters in the northern city of Taza chanted slogans denouncing the monarchy and the king's personal wealth — eventually leading to clashes with riot police. On Jan. 18, after a group of unemployed graduates had been protesting for several days due to lack of jobs, five set themselves on fire in protest in downtown Rabat.

The judiciary and the police, which have continued to carry out arbitrary arrests and detainments, have been a particular target of activists' ire. On Jan. 12, a dissident rapper Mouad Belghouat, who goes by the stage name al-Haqed, was convicted and sentenced to time already served - more than four months in jail — for what was widely viewed as a political charges due to a confrontation with a former member of a royalist youth group. He was arrested again on March 29, was charged for "attacking the image of the security forces" due to his lyrics, and sentenced to a one-year prison sentence that he is currently serving. On Jan. 19, activist Mehdi Moujahid, was charged with inciting public outrage for simply holding a poster that read, "Long live the People." Abdessamad Hiddour and Walid Bahomane are also victims of Morocco's strict laws on freedom of expression--both are serving jail sentences for material posted online deemed as "violations of Morocco's sacred values." On July 22, members of the February 20th Movement were arrested and subsequently charged for "belonging to an illegal movement," resulting in varying prison sentences. The list continues.

However, the monarchy's aggressive crackdown on internal dissent has done nothing to resolve its population's political or socio-economic grievances.  Morocco's image as a progressive country, free from the instability and repressive politics that has bedeviled the rest of the region, has been years in the making. The king's men in Washington may have succeeded in shaping the perception of Morocco in the short term — but in the end, they are merely buying a temporary reprieve for a broken system. Unless real and radical reforms come to Morocco, the monarchy will risk meeting the fate of its neighbors across North Africa.

[This article was originally published on Free Arabs.]

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