Facing rising demands for human rights in the early 1990s, Morocco's authoritarian regime sought to reform the image of its national police, who symbolized state repression during the period known as the "Years of Lead."
So, the regime created something new in the Arab world: An authoritarianism that was less violent, corrupt and intimidating and a mass media revolution that recognized the value of public opinion and public demand for the rule of law. Toward that end, the regime first under King Hassan II and since 1999 his son King Mohammed VI has fostered a commercial, non-state media industry that caters to the general public rather than elite citizens. These media focus on previously taboo subjects, especially sensational crime, in pulp novels, true-crime journalism, tabloid newspapers, television movies and advertising. And the central figures in these stories are none other than the police both fictional and real-life who are portrayed not as human rights abusers but as crime-fighting heroes: Think Serpico meets "CSI: Casablanca." The police have cooperated in their image makeover by making some actual reforms and by supplying crime reports, interviews and other material on which the media base their sensational narratives that blend reality and fiction.
Rather than crude authoritarian propaganda, it is a highly sophisticated, unpredictable and at times contradictory engagement driven by the regime's image management goals, the commercial media's profit needs and reform agenda, and the public's appetite for sensational entertainment , says Dartmouth Professor Jonathan Smolin, whose new book, "Moroccan Noir: Police, Crime, and Politics in Popular Culture," demonstrates how popular culture can illuminate contemporary Arab politics.
"Current analyses of the changing nature of authoritarianism in today's Arab world have focused on elections, privatization and the political elite," Smolin says. "Moroccan Noir is the first work to show how mass media images of the police the direct symbol of the country's brutal decades of authoritarianism have reinvented the relationship between citizen and state in the new era. These images display how the state has turned away from the routine coercion and violence of the past to public relations and opinion management in an attempt to maintain its legitimacy in an evolving era."
Smolin says public perception of Morocco's police has improved dramatically, which is a key reason why the Arab Spring protests didn't hit Morocco harder. King Mohammed VI allowed a new constitution and elections that were won by a moderate Islamist party, but he retains most of the power in the country, which is an important U.S. ally in a troubled region.
Professor Smolin is available to comment at Jonathan.Smolin@Dartmouth.edu
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