Beards are back, but no Che

July 20, 2001

On Moroccan campuses, revolutionary ideals have been supplanted by Islamic fundamentalism, says Hassan Bouzidi.

In the heyday of the Union Nationale des Etudiants du Maroc, the beard was worn as a revolutionary sign - just like Che Guevara. Students took to the streets in jeans and T-shirts. The campus was a liberating space, upholding the values of freedom and tolerance and promising a better future. Today, Unem is a thing of the past. The last union conference was held in 1981. The face of student politics has changed since and the beard has acquired new meaning.

When Unem was created on December 26 1956, it was to defend students' interests and improve their conditions. However, after its first three years in an independent Morocco, the union's political character was obvious. Students' demands centred on issues such as the departure of foreign armies, the bringing of collaborators to justice, the reform of the administration, and the furtherance of individual and public liberties.

Two opposition parties battled for control of the campus: the Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires, which was by far the most heavily represented within universities and held sway over four decades, and Istiqlal, a more conservative party that boasted its own student union, the Union Generale des Etudiants du Maroc, but whose influence on campus was limited.

Unem was soon to become the school of ideology par excellence . Students read Lenin, Mao and Allal al-Fassi and held heated debates and discussions on the basis of written texts. They were the prime audience for the political parties, which cared about how many students read their literature. By the same token, the union was a nursery where those parties sought to win over enthusiastic recruits, many of whom would later become political leaders. The finance minister in the current socialist government, Fathallah Oualalou, was elected leader of Unem in 1966.

In 1968, Moroccan students, following their counterparts in Europe, organised demonstrations up and down the country and demanded that reforms be carried out both within and outside the universities.

The authorities saw the university as a source of subversive and anti-government action and sought to contain student wrath using every means.

One means was the introduction of the garde universitaire , more commonly known as the "Awacs" - a reference to the American reconnaissance planes - to undermine student activism. Dressed in their navy blue uniforms, the Awacs' initial role was to "reconnoitre student territory" and to gather information on student movements. Some worked undercover, posing as students and infiltrating student ranks. These same Awacs would later convert as a force d'intervention with a licence to "kick butt".

The students found themselves caught between two fires. On the one hand, they were constantly deluged with propaganda from antagonistic political parties. On the other hand, they were repressed by the authorities.

The culmination of this official obsession with security was the arrest of union members and the banning of Unem between 1972 and 1979, a period from which the union never recovered.

The 1980s would constitute a chaotic transition between Unem's prime and its eventual dismantling. In this period, the teaching of sensitive subjects such as philosophy, sociology and psychology discontinued. Instead, new departments of Islamic studies were created to counteract the progressive student movement, a policy that would prove to be decisive in moulding the face of student politics to this day.

These new developments would soon blunt students' excitement as political parties started deserting the campuses and Unem finally succumbed. The ensuing vacuum was largely filled by students belonging to al-Adl wa al-Ihsane (Justice and Benevolence), a religious fundamentalist party.

An increasing number of students are tuning in to the prevailing religious discourse. They are attending open-air lectures offered by members of al-Adl wa al-Ihsane. More and more women students are wearing veils (some do so willingly, but many others because they feel pressured) and men are growing beards as a sign of allegiance to the party.

For the past few years, intolerance has reigned within the universities. Members of al-Adl wa al-Ihsane, whose campaigns of intimidation have created a climate of fear and distrust on campus and are disrupting courses, overwhelmingly run the student bodies. The little entertainment that remains is also being thwarted by al-Adl wa al-Ihsane, which sees activities such as music and dance as the work of Satan. My English department has a drama club, but its members are compelled to keep a low profile for fear of reprisals. Their rehearsals of Beckett and Pinter are being performed behind closed doors.

A last desperate attempt to defuse the situation was initiated by the government in 1997. A tripartite agreement brought together the interior, justice and higher education ministries with the result that all political activity on campus was banned. Once more, the Awacs were called in to restore order and reinforce the new law.

Today, the majority of students no longer care about ideology. They have stopped believing in student activism and have disengaged altogether from politics. According to a recent survey, only 5 per cent of students in Moroccan universities show an interest in politics. Pragmatism seems to have replaced the idealism of the past. Their foremost concern now is the search for that elusive job.

Hassan Bouzidi is lecturer in English language at the University of Agadir, Morocco.

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