Is Marrakech’s Westernized Female Mayor a Real Figure for Change?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Alice Fordham for TIME

Fatima Zahra Mansouri, mayor of Marrakech, Morocco

Upstairs in the old city-hall building in this ancient tourist mecca, there is an unexpected sight: in the sprawling mayoral suite, the head of Morocco’s third biggest urban area, a city with more than a million people, is dressed in a slim-fitted jacket and trousers, her hair hanging loose and makeup expertly applied. The mayor of Marrakech admits she hardly fits the stereotype of the Arab politician on the rise. But in this North African country, that is the point. Having averted an Arab Spring–style revolt, Morocco, a country of 30 million people and a key U.S. ally against Islamic militancy, is attempting to remake itself, bit by bit, while leaving intact its top-down politics: a compliant Parliament accountable to a powerful monarch, King Mohammed VI. “People were surprised to see a young woman like me elected,” says the mayor, Fatima Zahra Mansouri, 37. “I realized people were hungry for change.”

If Moroccans want change, there are few more stark outward signs on offer than this city’s mayor, who won election in 2009 at the tender age of 33. A French-trained lawyer, whose father was a long-time Marrakech official, Mansouri ran a Western-style election campaign, almost unknown to Moroccans. She pounded the sidewalks, quizzing locals about their grievances, in a country where many people fear expressing their views openly and where challenging the King’s rule can bring arrest. “I still go into the neighborhoods and meet people,” she says, stressing that such direct conversations are entirely new in Morocco.

(MORE: The Winter of Morocco’s Discontent)

Mansouri, who represented a new political party called Authenticity and Modernity (known by the French acronym PAM) was no radical activist. Her party consists largely of elite Moroccans, many with connections to the King, who seek a liberal, secular democracy with increasing modernization and private enterprise as an alternative to rising Islamic fervor. Despite that, she found a receptive following in Marrakech, among locals who had been seething for years over corruption at city hall — an echo in some ways of grievances in Tunisia and Egypt, before the revolts exploded there two years ago. Mansouri ousted the incumbent mayor, Omar Jazouli, a conservative politician in his 70s who has since been convicted of misusing public funds and fined more than $1.3 million.

To many locals, Mansouri’s election seemed to suggest that with some fresh energy, entrenched political interests could perhaps be shaken up, without an all-out uprising or a seismic Arab Spring revolution. “Before her we had a mayor who was a thief and did nothing,” says Youssef Boukri, a local construction supervisor, sitting on a park bench near Marrakech’s old city, Morocco’s single biggest tourist draw. Before Mansouri, property developers routinely paid bribes in order to obtain building permits, he says. “There was a real change after her election.”

That change has not been easy. Mansouri says many people find it difficult to believe that a woman (let alone one so young) can wield real power, and suspect that male advisers guide her decisions behind the scenes. She laughs at the suggestion — and in fact, the only male visible in the mayoral suite is the King, whose standard-issue portrait hangs above her desk.

Presiding over a 96-member city council, Mansouri sees as one of her top priorities boosting Marrakech’s sports facilities, which she says are key to easing the frustrations of thousands of jobless youth, similar to those who stormed the streets of Tunisia and Egypt and ignited the Arab Spring. “These youth come out of school and have nothing to do,” she says. “Those are the hours we have to work on.”

(LIST: Top Female Leaders Around the World)

In addition, Mansouri says she is determined to rein in the rampant tourist development in Marrakech that proliferated during the boom years in the mid-2000s, threatening to overwhelm the city’s desert serenity. She says she has persuaded several developers to change their plans. “When I came into office, there were 20 golf courses authorized — and 12 of them had been built — in a city with a water problem!” she says. Her tough stance has drawn fire from some developers. “When you are mayor, you have real power,” she says. “I could make you rich or poor, if I didn’t have a conscience.”

The mayor’s priorities were thrown into turmoil in April 2011, when a massive suicide bomb exploded on Marrakech’s central Djemaa el Fna Square, in a café popular with Western tourists, killing 14 people. She says she remains deeply affected by what she witnessed that day. “I get goose bumps when I think about it,” she says. “I saw a 10-year-old girl die in front me, for nothing.”

Tourism dipped only briefly. Four million tourists visited Marrakech in 2012. Mansouri, who inherited a $90 million budget deficit in 2009, now has a surplus of about $130 million. Many credit the turnaround to the mayor’s crackdown on graft. “We didn’t expect much of her, but we have definitely seen a big drop in corruption,” says Abdelrahim Jeddi, a local lawyer for the Moroccan Association of Human Rights. Similarly, Hamid Bentahar, chairman of the Marrakech Tourism Council, admits that the mayor has done wonders for the city’s image, especially as many foreigners are concerned about the rise of Islamic parties since the Arab Spring. “To have a young woman who is mayor has been very attractive for tourism,” he says.

Yet Mansouri’s ambitions appear far bigger than boosting Marrakech’s tourist appeal. In national elections in November 2011, she won a seat on Morocco’s Parliament, as part of a liberal coalition in opposition to a moderate Islamic party, which won the vote. Mansouri, who has two small children, now splits her work week between Marrakech’s city hall and the capital, Rabat, 180 miles away, where she is regarded as a rising star within her PAM party.

Yet for all her dynamism, Mansouri’s political views remain cautious — in some ways mirroring the tensions in Morocco, whose government is determined to avert a revolution by introducing just enough reforms to ward off mass protests.

(PHOTOS: Exploring Morocco’s Changing Culture)

Mansouri attributes Morocco’s relative political quiet to the King’s rapid actions after Tunisians revolted in December 2011 and drove out the country’s billionaire autocrat. Clearly worried that Moroccans might follow the example of another French-speaking North African country, King Mohammed VI (himself worth an estimated $2 billion) rushed through a new constitution in mid-2011, guaranteeing broader political rights. The November 2011 elections brought to power a moderate Islamist party. “The Moroccan government did something extremely intelligent at the beginning of the Arab Spring,” says Mansouri, who says she benefited from the reforms, since her party picked her to run for Parliament as a fresh face for a more open political moment. Among the King’s smarter initiatives, she says, were “more jobs for youths, less corruption and more transparent politics.”

Yet those reforms only go so far. Despite the King’s actions, young Moroccans are all too aware of the stunning changes in the region — and that their own economic situation has scarcely improved since the revolutionary wave began. On Dec. 28, violent protests erupted on the streets of Marrakech against soaring electricity costs, as demonstrators hurled rocks at police, enraged at the rising cost of living.

Such tensions might well continue, absent true political change. In the eyes of many Moroccans, the King’s new constitution failed to address the key demand for a constitutional monarchy; instead, he retains extensive executive authority and controls key portfolios like defense and foreign affairs. The King’s advisers also have far-reaching powers, and he still appoints the Prime Minister, despite the new constitution. Morocco has “turned to controlled political openings cloaked in the language of freedom but intended to perpetuate the status quo,” Hicham Ben Abdallah el-Alaoui, who is third in line to the Moroccan throne but clearly seeking changes in the monarchy, wrote in a New York Times blog last August. “Such policies cannot indefinitely quiet the restive middle classes, who are no longer satisfied with constrained pluralism and demand genuine participation.”

Like other parts of Morocco, Marrakech locals hope for greater political freedoms, despite the changes under their new mayor. Jeddi, the local human-rights lawyer, says people are keenly aware of the gains made in the Arab Spring revolutions and want changes too, from basic ones, like economic opportunities, to political rights, like the ability to question the King’s rule. “There are many young unemployed people who are educated and who understand the injustices,” he says. “For them, they feel like they have nothing to lose.” And that’s even with politicians like Mansouri on the rise.

50 comments
ZouhairElMansouri
ZouhairElMansouri

@sumpathie4all: she was elected to parliament in november 2011, far ahead of any PJD opponent.

hamidMernissi
hamidMernissi

Great article.  Great roll model as a responsible official serving a city based on tourism for its income.  We all know that tourism is most corrupt of all developments.  Call Ms. Mansouri whatever you wish but for me she is a successful astute women with vision and guts.  She in a very short time in office did better than any official who took over Marrakech for the last fifty years.  Hope to see more men and women following on her footsteps for a better Morocco and a progressive society.  

Mirashand
Mirashand

@AmyFeldtmann @TIMEWorld You'd be surprised at how progressive Moroccan women and society are #toomuchgeneralisation ask us!

AhmedBenchemsi
AhmedBenchemsi

@AidaAlami Thanks for sharing this. Nice story. Fairly optimistic yet--for once--not blindsided @ldadd

aborifi
aborifi

مقال @vivwalt يُعبر عن صورة_نمطية لسائحة غربية التي تُسحر بدخان جامع لفنا ويشتعل جسدها بحرارة #خودنجال المُراكشي فيذوب حبرها في #المامونية!

BudgetMorocco
BudgetMorocco

@TIME @TIMEWorld So few people seem to know Marrakech has a female mayor P.S. the link didn't seem to work

MedManny
MedManny

Simplistic generalizations, shallow comments, phony analysis, prejudices, hyper parochialism, or simple ignorance? She is "westernized", she ran a "western"-style campaign, etc. If a society, especially a predominately Islamic one,tries to change, to evolve, to become more just and equitable, more progressive as some would say, moves toward gender equality, it becomes automatically "westernized" . Sorry Ms. Walt, but societies are a little more complicated than that, and maybe you should consider taking a few courses in sociology, history, political science, etc. It will help you overcome your western-centered parochialism, and becoming a better journalist.

asifkay
asifkay

@LailaLalami maybe because "Easternized" is synonymous with oppression, intolerance, backwardness and small mindedness.

HasnaAnkal
HasnaAnkal

cc @vivwalt RT @LailaLalami Why is "Westernized" synonymous with better? http://t.co/Nht1TF9Y About Marrakech's 'Westernized' female mayor

justinforall
justinforall

@LailaLalami @tweetsintheME I think because it’s become synonymous with “progressive”, which is thought of as better than “regressive”.

SCsongulCan
SCsongulCan

@DiplomatValise @timeworld from my experience ; NO but I hope one day it will be a YES

DeeKay_NY
DeeKay_NY

@SaidiAymane PSG galek ils veulent absolument mourinho et ronaldo pour la saison prochaine, faisable ?

sweetchew4u
sweetchew4u

@ahmedmarcouch Gelukkig Nieuwjaar! van Ger Soetekouw net als jij ex diender en docent mijleer (Mieke HVA ) succes dit jaar in de 2e kmr.

Hamech
Hamech

Westernized and female are not synonyms of Competent plzzzz

pschemm
pschemm

Also Tunisians began their revolt against Ben Ali in December 2010, not 2011 as appears in the article

pschemm
pschemm

The April 2011 Marrakech bombing was not a suicide attack, the man accused of carrying out the attack and several accomplices was convicted in October 2011 and sentenced to death.

NazishMunch
NazishMunch

@TIME @TIMEWorld Just by being a woman, she is a figure of change. Making a change, a difference to society, is now up to her...

YounesB
YounesB

There are Oh so many things wrong with this article: the patronizing
tone, the ethnocentric point of view, the superficial and completely
misguided reading of Moroccan politics, that I'm at a loss for words!

sympathy4all
sympathy4all

Her election was before the arab uprising. Her party was courted from everywhere because of the connection between the former head of the party, Fouad ALi El Himma, and the king. Now he is his advisor.

El Himma was one of the main target after people took to the streets in  11th of february , 2011. He steeped down from the party and joined the palace as an advisory.

We will still if she still the mayor after this year elections.



Read more: http://world.time.com/2013/01/03/is-marrakechs-westernized-female-mayor-a-real-figure-for-change/#ixzz2Gzs0Qlll

AmyFeldtmann
AmyFeldtmann

@Mirashand Totally agree! Visited Morocco twice & huge fan. Always tell friends how modern the country, people are. Happy for Time article.

AidaAlami
AidaAlami

@AhmedBenchemsi as opposed to "the cool king" cover? haha @ldadd

DiplomatValise
DiplomatValise

@SCsongulCan @timeworld In some regards, it seems that change is long over due here, but reform doesn't happen over night.

AhmedBenchemsi
AhmedBenchemsi

@AidaAlami no, u're right. Cover title was "the cool king". I'll never forget the "devilishly twinkling eyes" part. Kinda disturbing… @ldadd

SCsongulCan
SCsongulCan

@DiplomatValise and that "one night" is the longest night in history ... The never ending one night!?

SiHaMiX
SiHaMiX

@AidaAlami bonne nuit! Je vais les lire, merci :) @ahmedbenchemsi

AidaAlami
AidaAlami

@SiHaMiX @ahmedbenchemsi sinon je vais #offline. Bonui :)

AidaAlami
AidaAlami

@SiHaMiX si tu lis l'article et l'interview tu verras qu'il ai dit ke l'itv etait en anglais.On peut debattre apres lecture @ahmedbenchemsi

SiHaMiX
SiHaMiX

@AidaAlami Ça dépend du contexte,de la langue, chassez le naturel... @ahmedbenchemsi

AidaAlami
AidaAlami

@SiHaMiX kil l'appelle papa en interview me fascine. apres chacun sa perception :) @ahmedbenchemsi

SiHaMiX
SiHaMiX

@AidaAlami et puis c'est son prédécesseur aussi, normal qu'il fasse allusion a lui non? @AhmedBenchemsi

SiHaMiX
SiHaMiX

@AidaAlami en koi est-ce fascinant? Ts ls marocains disent Allah yrehmou/Allah yerhamha en parlant 2 leurs parents décédés @AhmedBenchemsi

AidaAlami
AidaAlami

@AhmedBenchemsi tres vrai...

AhmedBenchemsi
AhmedBenchemsi

@AidaAlami On peut faire autant d'analyses politologiques sur le Maroc qu'on veut, LA clé pour TOUT comprendre est łà et nulle part ailleurs

AidaAlami
AidaAlami

@AhmedBenchemsi "affectionately calling him "Dad" and following up each mention of his father with the words "God bless his soul." fascinant

AhmedBenchemsi
AhmedBenchemsi

@AidaAlami Non sérieux, dans la version brute, les références à "my father" pullulaient. CT impressionnant… et prémonitoire en quelque sorte

AhmedBenchemsi
AhmedBenchemsi

@AidaAlami Non sérieux, dans la version brute, les références à "my father" pullulaient. CT impressionnant… et prémonitoire en qq sorte

AidaAlami
AidaAlami

@AhmedBenchemsi " To govern is not to please, that is what my father used to say" hihihi

AhmedBenchemsi
AhmedBenchemsi

@AidaAlami ben, chuis pas sûr qu'il jogge autant qu'avant… :) @ldadd

AidaAlami
AidaAlami

@AhmedBenchemsi mais celui la l'a meme accompagne durant son jogging quotidien...je le vois mal aujourd'hui donner une intv comme ca @ldadd

AhmedBenchemsi
AhmedBenchemsi

@AidaAlami Ignacio Cembrero, Anne Sinclair… Hardly 4 or 5, in 13 years @ldadd

AidaAlami
AidaAlami

@AhmedBenchemsi is there any journalist who got this close to him? c'etait une grosse exclu... @ldadd