Don't mention the King (or the Prince)

The unusually harsh treatment of Fouad Mourtada, who was given a three-year prison sentence for creating a spoof Facebook profile of Morocco's Prince Molay Rashid, has many wondering what happened to the promise of turning the page on history.
Fouad Mourtada. R.R.

CASABLANCA, Feb. 28, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Legal specialists and Moroccan bloggers are still reeling from the shock. Sure, Fouad Mourtada, a 27-year old computer engineer may have been naive when he created a Facebook profile in the name of Prince Molay Rashid. But the severity of the punishment he was given last Friday defies belief.

It all goes back to February 5 of this year when Fouad was abducted by the judicial police in Casablanca.

Since his family lives in a small village south of Casablanca, nobody noticed his disappearance at first. Only his colleagues were a bit surprised when Fouad didn't show up for work in his downtown office on February 6. His cellphone was shut off as well.


When Fouad's Casablanca roommate showed up at the office, concerned that Fouad hadn't come home the previous night, calls were made to his family who were just as clueless. A search began in the city's hospitals and morgues, until the Arab Morocco News Agency, the only media outlet allowed to give out news about the royal family, broke the story.

At first it all seemed like a bad joke. But then news about Fouad allegedly being tortured started spreading among journalists and bloggers in Morocco and the rest of the world.

Among Facebook users there was widespread disbelief. Anyone who has used the popular social networking website knows that is teeming with spoof profiles of celebrities, from people like Nicolas Sarkozy (more than twenty profiles) or George Bush (about fifty profiles), over famous actors and musicians, to yes, even King Mohammad VI himself.

Most Facebook users know that these pages are not real and that they do not relate to the actual personalities.

But many Moroccans are not familiar with Facebook and so it seemed to many as if Fouad had impersonated the Prince in order to embezzle funds or other fraudulent behavior.

Fouad Mourtada was not known to have any political activities; he was just a regular young man.

All that changed on February the 5th.


Since then, the Moroccan blogopshere has held a 24-hour strike on February 19, and a dedicated website has been created in support of Fouad at A spoof Facebook profile of Prince Molay Ismael (a cousin of Morocco's King) was created by someone residing outside Morocco in solidarity with Fouad.

"They do not understand that they are demeaning the image of Morocco on the international scene with these practices," a Moroccan legal expert at the trial said of the judicial process.

Ahmed Reda Benchemsi, Editor-in-Chief of Tel Quel (French) and Nichane (Arabic) magazines, wrote in an editorial on Friday February 22, "It is enough for the words "King" or "Royal" to feature in any kind of complaint to have everyone go ballistic."

No citizen or journalist is known to have been acquitted after having been charged with "breach of the respect due to the King."

The difference in Fouad Mourtada's case is that the Moroccan law punishes anyone who assumes the identity of another for the purpose of embezzlement, swindling or fraud, which is not true in Mourtada's case. Furthermore, Fouad told the judge that he never answered any of the messages sent to the Prince's profile on Facebook.

Fouad's case has already had repercussions for the Moroccan blogosphere. Mohamed Drissi Bakhakhat, a university professor, has decided to suspend his popular blog.

"When I see the very dangerous and grave developments in the case of Fouad Mourtada, and the trivial reasons [why] he was arrested, lynched, tortured, and detained without being granted release on bail, this does not bode well [for freedom of speech in Morocco]," Bakhakhat wrote in his final entry. "In the current circumstances it has become too hard and too risky to express a critical point of view [in Morocco]."

Fouad Mourtada is not the first to be given a harsh punishment for what seems an innocuous offense involving the royal family. Often, it is sufficient for one citizen to accuse another of using the name of the King in vain for the latter to be jailed. This most recent case was that of Ahmad Naser, a 95-year-old man. He had a dispute with a bus driver who accused him of insulting the King.

This happened on September 6, 2007. Even though the physically challenged sheikh's family produced a medical certificate attesting that the man suffered from psychological problems that made him check into a mental hospital several times, and that he, by virtue of his age, may sometimes say things he does not mean, the judge still sentenced him to three years in jail.

In the end, Ahmad Naser spent only five months and a few days of his sentence in jail, as he died on February 13, 2008, in a dark cell, away from his family.

All this is happening in a Morocco that has promised to "turn the page on history and the Years of Lead."