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

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.