Dispatch From Morocco: ‘Excuse Me, Aren’t We About to Start a War Here?’

Syria’s fate may be decided in Morocco on December 12; nobody’s talking about that at the Marrakech International Film Festival.

The stars come out in Marrakech on a night that distracted many film fans from asking where their Arab Spring has gone. (Photo: Ray LeMoine)

Dec 6, 2012

During the five days I’ve spent in Morocco at the Marrakech International Film Festival, not a single person I’ve spoken with knows that a few days after the festivities close, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton arrives here to meet with King Mohammed VI. The next day Clinton will attend the Friends of Syria conference, at the same venue that’s housing the festival.

Even with NBC News citing reports from unnamed U.S. officials that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has loaded missiles with sarin nerve gas, everyone in Marrakech was more concerned about attending a dinner hosted by Dior.

A lot of people in the movie business—George Clooney and Angelina Jolie are just two—prove by where they put their money, their mouths and their time that they care about politics and human rights. But those aren’t people I’m running into in Marrakech. Remember the scene in Bruno where Sacha Baron Cohen’s titular character goes to see a charity-advisement public-relations firm?

MORE: Syria: No Warrant Needed (Video)

“Climate change is very hot right now,” the PR hand said.

I may be paraphrasing here, but really: Why is there no market for Save Syria T-shirts?

Mingling among a mix of the international film crowd has shoved me right up against the hard dichotomy between fantasy and reality. I’m seeing red carpets galore, princely dinners, paparazzi, dozens of screenings and hotels nicer than Dubai’s best. But no one’s talking about NATO approving Patriot Missiles being deployed on the Turkish border of Syria.

Yet Morocco is at the center of geo-politics right now. On top of a visit by Secretary Clinton and the Syria conference, the country is chairing the U.N. Security Council this month.

In September, the U.S. announced a “strategic partnership” with the kingdom. That proffer of partnership seemed to have excited visions of a democratized process back home to Deputy Foreign Minister Yousef Amrani, who told the Washington Post: “We would like to include new players—civil society [leaders], business leaders. We want a unique . . . mode of cooperation, consultation and understanding. We think we can be a model.”

Now, back to reality. Let’s get this out there: Morocco is a closed society, an authoritarian monarchy. Average Moroccans aren’t even allowed into the nice hotels with Westerners (much like Cuba, another horrible-for-humans system).

A group of young Moroccans, all dressed in amazing tracksuits, stood waiting for stars to arrive and walk the festival red carpet. “None of those people want us to be free” said one. “The French would still control us if they could. The West thinks Arabs aren’t worthy of freedom.”

During the Arab Spring, King Mohammed VI acted when protests erupted, promising constitutional changes. The king made good in August 2011: Power over the government council was transferred from the throne to the prime minister.

These reforms are steps in the right direction, but the king still heads the council that approves all judges. He exerts absolute control over the military and religious issues. Secretary Clinton should push for more.

Much of the buzz at the Festival has been about Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s film reenacting the killing of Osama bin Laden, a production that the Obama administration cooperated on. If only these people buzzing also cared about the politics behind the movie. At a moment when the Mideast is in throes of war and revolution, Americans are tuning out. We’re back to the oblivious pre-9/11 mindset.

Who cares about Syria, right? Well, if the regime uses chemical weapons, as reports have it, then America will likely be at war. An estimated 75,000 U.S. troops would be needed to secure the chemical weapons.

The other night I spoke with a group of young Moroccans, all dressed in amazing tracksuits. They stood waiting for Bollywood stars to arrive and walk the festival red carpet.

These boys are called Ultras—hardcore soccer fans. In Egypt, they were at the forefront of the revolution and are still protesting now.

“We like our king,” a young Moroccan named Abdul told me. “But we are ready for democracy.”

Looking at a gaggle of French actors and actresses making their way into the festival, he added, “None of those people want us to be free. The French would still control us if they could. The West thinks Arabs aren’t worthy of freedom.”

Sadly, my experience here somewhat confirms that. Almost 10 years after Operation Iraqi Freedom, news of NATO upping the ante on Syria and the perils of containing Assad’s WMD have yet to become talking points among average Westerners.

Have the recent allegations that President Assad is preparing sarin gas weapons brought Syria into your conversation? Say how or how not in COMMENTS.

Show Comments ()

More on TakePart

John Besh: Why I Take Part in Rebuilding New Orleans