Marrakesh Elects Its First Woman Mayor

Equal Rights and a Change of Generation

Last summer saw the election of the 33-year-old Fatima Azzahra al-Mansouri as the first woman mayor of the city of Marrakesh in the south of Morocco. As Alfred Hackensberger reports, she won the vote in spite of the warnings of conservative politicians

Fatima Azzahra al-Mansouri (photo: private copyright)
Fatima Azzahra al-Mansouri was elected mayor by a majority of 54 to 35 in the Marrakesh city council. Her election brought to an end 12 years of rule by the conservative city baron Omar Jazouli

​​ "The election of a woman as mayor of Marrakesh is a positive sign for me," says Saida El Farah, who is a senior manager in a Moroccan company. "It shows that women can make it right to the top in politics!"

It's not so easy for women with political ambitions in Morocco. Male party officials, mostly from prominent or wealthy families, are the ones who determine what happens in the political world and who wins nominations.

"Even in the parties which have existed for a long time," says Fatna Lakhail, who sits for the Mouvement Populaire in the Moroccan parliament, "women are looked down on."

Career and family

Fatima al-Mansouri is young, open-minded, educated and successful. She doesn't fit into the clichés of orthodox Muslim society, in which women wear headscarves and stay at home with the children.

A French-trained lawyer, she knows how to combine career and family. Following her studies, she set up her own legal practice specialising in property and commercial contract law.

But her new position, as mayor of a city with 1.6 million visitors from throughout the world every year, demands much more responsibility and far more time than her legal practice.

The image of a modern Morocco

For Sheikh Muhammed Biyadillah, secretary-general of the Party for Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), her election reflects the "image of a modern Morocco". It was his party which nominated al-Mansouri as a candidate.

Women in Morocco (photo: picture alliance/Godong)
-Mansouri's election victory marks a change of generation and, at the same time, a step towards gender equality in a society traditionally dominated by men

​​ But it wasn't as easy to get her elected as the PAM secretary-general would like to make it appear. The PAM is the second largest party in the council and had to negotiate intensively behind the scenes with its coalition partners before Mansouri could be assured of election.

Her opponents accused her of "lack of experience in public institutions and in management." And indeed, she had virtually no political experience.

One local politician who prefers to remain anonymous says, "There was obviously influence used. The PAM is trying to give itself a new, youthful image, and it will have used its influence all the way up to the king."

An allusion to the former interior minister, Fouad Ali al-Himma, who's a friend of King Mohammed VI and who founded the PAM in 2008 as a counterweight to Islamist political groups.

The local elections of last June were the party's first test, from which it emerged the winner, with 27 percent of the country's council seats.

The existing parties accused the authorities of having supported the PAM actively. "The party used every possible method to push itself through," says Ismail Aloui, secretary-general of the Party for Progress and Socialism (PPS). "They put up candidates who had no political scruples."

Votes for sale

There were complaints about the local elections on the day of the poll even before the polling stations had closed. Some 900 complaints about unfair competition were submitted: votes, it was alleged, were being bought with "dirty money" – especially the votes of the lower social classes.

King Mohammed VI of Morocco (photo: AP)
King Mohammed VI is seen as committed supporter of women's rights

​​ Between 100 and 1,000 dirham (between 10 and 100 euros) was paid for each vote. This is not an unusual procedure in Morocco.

"I see who pays best," says Mounir, a taxi-driver n Tangier. And his brother in Rabat says he does exactly the same: "It's a useful bit of income on the side," he says, and he adds with a smile, "It's just a shame that elections aren't more frequent."

There are other ways of making money from elections. Butchers or grocers offer their shop fronts for advertisements to the politician who offers most.

Mayor for three weeks

In Marrakesh on July 13th, the administrative court declared the results of the vote in the Menara constitutions invalid, after a candidate for the opposition party Front des Forces Démocratiques submitted a complaint.

As a result al-Mansouri's election was also declared invalid. She had been mayor for just three weeks. A new election would have to be held to fill the now-vacant post.

The situation is being blamed on Mounir Chraibi, governor of the Marrakesh-Tensift-El Haouz region. He also wanted to convince al-Mansouri to give up some of her responsibilities as mayor, such as that for housing construction.

But she responds, "I couldn't accept that point. He was pushing too hard, especially in respect of my giving up responsibilities."

A week later, Mounir Chraibi was dismissed by the interior ministry. In a statement, the ministry said it had observed "serious dysfunction" in his administration.

The opposition parties, including the Islamist Parti de la Justice et du Développement (PJD), expressed surprise at the mood, and suggested that their competitors in the PAM had once more brought their royal contacts into play. "There are some people who are just lucky, and who always find their way through," said Lahcen Daoudi, deputy chairman of the PJD.

Women have to offer more proof

By now, Fatima al-Mansouri has probably got used to the speculation and the scepticism of her opponents. Initially, she may well have been surprised by the significance which was being attached to the election of the first woman mayor of the city.

​​ There was never any such fuss over Asmae Chaabi, who was elected mayor of Essaouira on the Atlantic coast in 2003, and was the first woman mayor in Morocco.

After all the controversy over her, al-Mansouri will scarcely be surprised by any future developments. She's now back in office, after the appeal court in Marrakesh reversed the administrative court ruling. The supreme court will shortly make a final decision.

But it is regarded as unlikely that al-Mansouri will lose her office once again. After she returned to the position, al-Mansouri said, "Women are used to having to prove themselves particularly intensively."

Fight against poverty

Now she has to prove herself again and achieve the ambitious aims she has announced. "If we want to remain an attractive city in spite of the international crisis," she says," we have to improve the conditions of the people in Marrakesh. It is unacceptable that a city which is undergoing such an economic boom should be suffering from such a social inequality."

But it's still unclear how she intends to bring about such long-term changes. The tourist numbers in Marrakesh as in other tourist destinations have fallen sharply this year.

It's doubtful whether a new autumn campaign in Europe really will "promote Marrakesh as a tourist destination and increase demand" – as the Moroccan tourism minister, Mohamed Boussaid, imagines – especially in the current economic climate.

These are unfavourable conditions for Fatima al-Mansouri and her plans, which need plenty of money. She will make herself no friends if she takes millions from her tight budget to improve the infrastructure for those who live in corrugated iron huts. And she'll make even fewer friends if she tries to do anything about the city's widespread corruption.

Alfred Hackensberger

© 2009

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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