Under pressure from both Islamist and secular groups - and the wider world - the decision to release a journalist looks like an attempt by Morocco's regime to restore control.
The decision by King Mohammed VI to grant a royal pardon for Hajar Raissouni - a Moroccan journalist detained along with her fiancé, a gynecologic doctor and his staff for allegedly 'illegal abortion' - has been pitched as an example of the 'clemency and mercy' of the king. But in reality, it appears the pardon has wider intentions - and is intended to try to kill three birds with one stone.
The first target is to try to end the current regime's isolation, and prevent further media attacks against its restrictive practices. The accusations were never admitted by Raissouni and the others involved, resulting in wide criticism from both local and international media at a time when the regime was already under fire from human rights organizations for cracking down independent journalists and activists. It is being regularly claimed that the application of the country's "penal code" is being abused as an instrument for political control of the regime's opponents and outspoken journalists.
Certainly the Raissouni case does resonate with those claims because she is a journalist with outspoken Moroccan newspaper Akhbar Al Yaoum whose founder Taoufik Bouachrine was sentenced to 15 years prison for accusations of human trafficking, abuse of power for sexual purposes, rape and attempted rape. Accusations which he continues to deny and claims are politically motivated.
There were also suspicions that Raissouni's arrest was motivated by her work as a journalist and her family ties. While in custody, she wrote a letter describing how she was interrogated about her political writings and about her two uncles: Ahmed Raissouni, the president of International Union of Muslim Scholars, and Soulaiman Raissouni, an outspoken and critical journalist. Her defence lawyer has even accused police of torture.
Growing public anger
A second perceived benefit of the pardon is to dissolve growing public anger over perceived abuses of individual and public freedoms. This incident sparked wide-range sympathy on social media and created a rare unanimity among different social forces around this cause.
Women and human rights activists as well as Islamists condemned the detention. Leila Slimani, a famous French-Moroccan author, and Sonia Terrab led an online campaign called hors la loi (outlaw), which called for the abolishment of article 490 of the penal law that punishes premarital sexual relations. Signatures to the campaign swelled to more than twelve thousand in just a few days.
Meanwhile, the AMDH, Morocco's biggest human rights NGO, also launched a campaign of solidarity with Hajar Raissouni, calling for protests in front of parliament. Criticism came not only from independent activists, but also from voices inside the regime itself. The National Center for Human Rights (CNDH), the official human rights body, criticized media attacks on Hajar Raissouni and urged authorities to release her promptly. And the King's cousin, Moulay Hicham expressed his concern about the future of the freedom of expression in the kingdom.
Finally, the third target for the regime is to try and kill off any chance of increased understanding between secular and Islamist groups, as the social mobilization around the case has led, albeit unintentionally, to a rapprochement between Islamists and seculars. Despite their disapproval of abortion and premarital sexual relations, Islamist movements adopted positions in favour of Hajar Raissouni.
The major Islamist group Adl wal Ihssan condemned the arrests with one of its leaders even stating the objective of it was 'to avenge opponents, opinion leaders and journalists'. Montada Karama for Human Rights, a close NGO to the PJD, argued the Hajar arrest was illegal and called for her immediate release. And the Unicity and reform (MUR), also close to the PJD, organized a conference on individual freedoms and criticized authorities' attempts to limit public freedoms.
Disagreements between these groups in regards of sexual and individual freedoms endure, yet the arrests of Raissouni was perceived by both of them as transgressions of freedom of expression and instrumentalization of individual liberties. Secular forces called for the abolition of these articles in the penal code and specifically article 490 that limit sexual and individual freedoms, while Islamists criticize the use of individual liberties to limit public freedoms.
Interestingly, both social forces started to coordinate around this issue, and it has been claimed meetings to coordinate their efforts were also held.
By releasing the journalist, the regime has certainly regained its upper hand. The king was praised on social media and news outlets and, more importantly, the release came at no cost to the existing penal code.
Divisions between Islamists and seculars have also re-opened since, as Ahmed Raissouni wrote an article criticizing individual freedoms, which has been widely criticized by seculars. Under pressure from the Islamists and seculars, and the wider world, the regime's strategy appears to have been effective, with the three birds it has targeted successfully killed.
Dr Mohammed Masbah is Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme