Ben Barka’s Nightmare

“Once upon a time, there was a Sultan who had a beautiful elephant, whom he adored. Much to the dismay of the local population, the animal wandered freely in the city of Fez, causing every day, enormous damage. Gathering all their courage, the people of Fez decided to send a delegation to the palace to present their grievances. On its way, the delegation lost most of its members. All but two daring delegates, who courageously came before the Sultan: “Majesty, you own an elephant so charming that the people of Fez are happy to offer it the company of a female.”

This is a story, reportedly, the late internationalist Moroccan opposition leader, Mehdi Ben Barka, liked to tell his young comrades (see page 299 of Gilles Perrault’s Notre ami le roi -Folio – 1990), whilst teaching them the merits of democracy and freedom.

Mehdi Ben Barka: a Spirit that Refuses to Die

Mehdi Ben Barka: a Spirit that Refuses to Die

With an unflinching belief in the future, Ben Barka’s generation, inspired by an international drive for emancipation, helped pull the country from its feudal past, and, bearing tremendous sacrifices, despite a reluctant and brutal regime, helped plant the seeds of a modern state.

Forty four years after his abduction in Paris, which anniversary we’ll be commemorating tomorrow, needless to say that the elephant still tramples on the holy mess of Moroccan public and political life, with even more damage than what ever Ben Barka could have envisaged.

What started as a benign transition toward a brighter, liberal and free Morocco, looks now more like a cheesy play, where protagonists, stuck in an empty theater and exhausted by a boring story that repeats itself again and again, try to convince themselves that their master will end their torments one day. But this never happens.

On a weekly basis, journalists are being dragged before judges, handed down prison sentences, financially asphyxiated and treated like criminals. During the dark era when Ben Barka and later on, leftists were tortured or put to death, there was at least one man in charge. Hassan II was a cruel despot, no doubt, but at least he didn’t lack neither presence, nor charisma, nor ingenuity in crime. Today, the feeling is of a shady group of powerful and privileged, who are pulling the strings, lurking in an inner circle close to the king, who seems to be the last one to know when his own subjects are beaten up in his name. Giving way to an insidiously dangerous perception of a ship without a captain.

And whilst the truth about the assassination of Mehdi Ben Barka still is one of the most guarded state secrets, the spirit of the man will keep haunting us, inspiring generations upon generations of Moroccans who no longer want to be considered as mere subjects of his majesty. Citizens who have the courage to point at the elephant and say: this is wrong!

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