Morocco aims for normality

Haitham Nouri , Monday 25 Sep 2023

Morocco is adamant about regaining its vibrancy as it strives to overcome aid, construction, and tourism challenges in the wake of this month’s earthquake.

Morocco aims for normality
A woman walks amid debris in the earthquake-hit village of Imi N Tala (photo: AP)


The cold winds of winter are already blowing over the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, and despite Moroccan efforts and assistance from neighbouring countries that Rabat has agreed to accept, thousands of earthquake victims in the southern Moroccan region of Al-Haouz are still sleeping under the open sky.

The earthquake, measuring 6.8 on the Richter Scale, struck the Al-Haouz region located south of the historic city of Marrakesh on 8 September. Some 3,000 people died as a result of the earthquake, and about 6,000 were injured.

Hundreds of thousands of residents of villages in the Atlas Mountains were forced to abandon their homes, many of which suffered complete or partial damage. Entire villages have been decimated.

The Atlas Mountains are known for significant snowfall in winter, with depths reaching up to one metre in some areas. Engineering associations have estimated that the majority of homes and public, as well as private structures in the area, require complete reconstruction.

The Moroccan Royal Court has rejected the idea of moving residents from their villages, a decision supported by the people of Al-Haouz itself. However, the challenge of reconstructing earthquake-resistant buildings has emerged.

Morocco has accepted offers of assistance from four countries – the UK, Spain, the UAE, and Qatar. The decision has sparked public debate in Algeria and Morocco about why Rabat refused to accept a similar offer from neighbouring Algeria.

Some Moroccan activists have attributed this refusal to Algeria’s stance on the Western Sahara issue.

However, Mohamed Abdel-Karim, a professor of African studies in Cairo, argued that this interpretation is “inaccurate.” He said that Morocco has also declined assistance from the US, even though Washington recognises Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

The UK does not officially acknowledge Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara, he said.

Abdel-Karim added that “the countries recognising the Sahrawi Republic [the Western Sahara] are primarily developing nations, and the Western European countries are notably absent from this list.”

The Arab countries that recognise Morocco’s sovereignty include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Sudan, Somalia, Qatar, the UAE, Oman, Kuwait, and Bahrain.

“The majority of countries capable of providing assistance either acknowledge Morocco’s sovereignty over the Sahara, or at least do not recognise the Sahrawi Republic. They may endorse Morocco’s proposal for resolving the Sahara crisis, which involves granting expanded autonomy within Moroccan sovereignty,” Abdel-Karim said.

The dispute between Algeria and Morocco has given way to verbal altercations with France, the former European colonial power in the Maghreb. Many social media users have criticised a recent speech by French President Emmanuel Macron on the issue, perceiving it as an encroachment on Moroccan sovereignty.

They say that a foreign president should not directly address the Moroccan people, and any communication should be conducted through the King or the Moroccan government.

The controversy has not been devoid of historical and contemporary political implications. Some view Macron’s remarks as being a form of nostalgia for the colonial era, while others frame them within the context of France’s perceived hostility towards Islam, citing the French Ministry of Education’s recent ban on wearing the abaya, a form of women’s dress, in French state schools.

Meanwhile, the Moroccan Civil Protection Authority has issued a statement emphasising the importance of “recovering victims from beneath the rubble to preserve the dignity of the deceased and the feelings of their families.”

Hopes of finding survivors have been dwindling, however, given the challenging circumstances. The earthquake occurred in the evening, in a rugged mountainous region across a wide area, and in villages predominantly composed of mud-built structures.

Adel Ghanem, an Egyptian engineer and architect, said that “when they collapse, concrete structures may still allow some air to pass through the ruins, increasing the chances of survivors being found under the rubble. In contrast, mud-brick houses tend to collapse into piles of earth, which significantly reduces the chances of survival.”

Following the earthquake, large segments of the Moroccan population mobilised to provide assistance, prompting the state authorities to coordinate relief efforts.

The government issued multiple ministerial statements urging Moroccans interested in offering aid to collaborate with civil protection agencies, civil society organisations, and the Royal Armed Forces.

At the grassroots level, substantial quantities of food, medicine, blankets, and tents have been collected. Many people have also participated in efforts to clear roads, although this complex task has fallen primarily to the Moroccan army and Moroccan and foreign rescue teams from four countries.

Moroccan citizens have also turned out in significant numbers to donate blood, and dozens of doctors have volunteered their services in the Al-Haouz region.

The Royal Palace has announced programmes to provide displaced individuals with alternative housing and financial assistance, particularly for those who have lost their homes. Orphans affected by the earthquake have also been included among “those the state fosters”.

The UN expects Morocco to request international assistance in the wake of the disaster.

According to the Moroccan Chamber of Tourism, Marrakesh accounts for 33 per cent of the country’s tourism. Fortunately, Marrakesh hotels remained unaffected by the earthquake, as it occurred 150 km away.

Some Moroccan reports have suggested that few French travel agencies have advised their clients to cancel or postpone reservations in Morocco, indicating there is no widespread panic among tourism companies.

Marrakesh is set to host meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, which will gather around 10,000 officials, including central bank governors, finance and economy ministers, senior bankers, and financial experts.

This presents an opportunity for the city to return to its usual vibrancy and provides a much-needed boost to the tourism sector.

There have been no statements from the Moroccan Ministry of Culture regarding the annual film festival held in Marrakesh.

It is now important for the “City of Joy” to make concerted efforts to regain its normality, and Moroccan communities around the world can contribute by visiting the city and spending their vacations there.

While Marrakesh tourism is expected to recover, the battle to address the destruction caused by the Al-Haouz earthquake will likely continue to be a major challenge in the coming months.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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