CASABLANCA. MOROCCO, September 2003
Morocco is holding local elections tomorrow – nearly four months after they were postponed because of a series of coordinated car bombs in car bombs. More than forty people died, a hundred were injured and seven hundred have been rounded up as part of a security sweep to stop any more attacks. The elections may show how the attacks impacted on the popularity of the Islamic political movement. Most of the suicide bombers came from one specific area of Casablanca.
By mistake, I stepped on a layer of garbage. My foot sank in releasing a stench of rotting food. Laughter from children scared circling crows. Their shadows curved around the wasteland of the slum and left.
‘This will all be pulled down soon,’ said my interpreter, Hassan Alaoui. ‘You know it can’t go like this.’
‘Yes,’ I replied, moving forward to more solid ground. ‘But this is where the bombers came from, isn’t it?’
‘Absolutely,’ said Hassan. ‘There were thirteen suicide bombers. And eleven lived in this slum.’
He was talking about what the Moroccans call May 16th, when this modernizing Muslim country was rocked by a wave of suicide bombings in Casablanca. Five explosions within half an hour of each other left more than forty dead and a hundred injured.
Hassan and I stepped through a line of washing towards Sidi Moumen, the shanty settlement where the families of the bombers still lived. Inside the warren of crumbling single-storey houses, the sun suddenly disappeared. We moved through a criss-cross of alley ways of closed doors, scampering children, but few adults. Those who did pass us kept their eyes to themselves.
A boy ran up with a mask of rubbish paper, his eyes teasing, his tongue poking through a hole he’d torn in it. It was a page from a pamphlet, covered in thumb-nail photographs of candidates for local government elections. They were to have been held in May, but were put off because of the bombing. They’re now taking place tomorrow, and I had come to Sidi Moumen to see how people would be voting.
Deep inside the slum, amid the shadows and smells of poverty, the only sign of electioneering were leaflets blowing across puddles and dirt. No-one dared put anything on their doors, whatever their allegiance. This was a place where democracy and speaking your mind spelt danger.
‘That’s the father of one of the bombers,’ said Hassan, as a tall, bespectacled figure passed quickly by us. Hassan greeted him in Arabic, but the man waved his hand sadly, and disappeared through a door.
‘He says ‘don’t remind me,’ translated Hassan. His attention was distracted as the curtain across a half open door slid back an inch. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘That’s the mother of one of them….’ And before he could finish, the door closed with the sound of locks being bolted from the inside.
Across the alley was a middle-aged man, a graying beard and a wariness in the eyes, the product perhaps of the place in which he lived. He was almost certainly a parent, with children of an age which might be tempted by the glamour or terrorism.
‘Did he know any of the bombers,’ I ask.
The answer is evasive. ‘When you live on a street it’s quite normal to know your neighbors,’ he says.
‘Then can he show us where some of them lived?’
The man lowered his head, muttered something and shuffled away into the sunless gloom.
‘What about him?’ I asked turning to a younger man, in a bright blue shirt and an alertness about him.
Hassan laughed. ‘No. Not him. He’s one of our minders.’
Then I realized that behind us were five or ten minders, clustered against walls, half hidden, but following, sent by the local intelligence agencies to keep an eye on everything that was going on.
Morocco is a fascinating example of shifting political sands. It is fighting creeping Islamic extremism with the same security apparatus that it once fought creeping extremist Marxism.
Earlier, we had been to a rally of the Socialist Party, now the most popular one in parliament.
‘I feel for them,’ said one of its veterans Mohammed Guessous, talking about the Islamist movement. ‘In the seventies and eighties we were all being beaten up and jailed and they were being encouraged because the government thought they represented the best protection against communism. Now, we its us who offer the protection against Islamism. And what do we have in common. We both represent the interests of the poor.’
The only local election candidate we met in Sidi Moumen had been delivered by our minders to show democracy in progress. He was a school teacher from the socialist party.
‘The Islamist politicians,’ I said. ‘Are they terrorists?’
‘Of course,’ he replied without a second thought.
‘All of them?’
‘Oh. They support. Yes,’ he said.
He began knocking on doors, but found them being opened suspiciously, then closed again. And no sooner was his back turned, than his leaflets were dropped to the ground, swept off in the wind and picked up by laughing children to make face masks.