For the first time in history, some Moroccan citizens have tried to publicly disobey the law that forbids eating in public during the month of Ramadan. The group, known as MALI (Alternative Movement for Individual Liberties) had planned to hold a symbolic picnic on September 13th in the woods near the town of Mohammedia, not far from Casablanca. Word of the picnic had been spread through a page on the social networking site Facebook.

Zineb El Rhazoui, journalist and creator of the MALI movement had announced in August that “the movement will carry out activities against the daily violations of individual liberties of citizens”.

First demonstration: a picnic in open air during the month of Ramadan to protest against article 222 of Moroccan Penal Code that reads: “A person commonly known to be Muslim who violates the fast in a public place during Ramadan, without having one of the justifications allowed by Islam, shall be punished by one to six months of prison” and a fine.

What the would-be picnickers had not imagined was that the Moroccan security services were also attentively monitoring Facebook and other similar websites. So to their surprise, they were met at the Mohammedia train station by a crowd of a 100 police in uniform, plain-clothed and even mounted.

The Spanish daily El Mundo covered the event with an article titled: “100 policemen against 10 sandwiches”.

Despite the hilarious overtones with which this story was presented by the international press, there was nothing funny in what followed.

Among the protesters that had convened, six were stopped by the police, including Zineb, identified, heavily insulted, and then released, although followed at a distance. The day after, the conservative press gave relief to the police operation with titles such as: “Juvenile provocation or attack to Islam?”, or “They do not belong to us!” and even “The new apostles of Fitna (civil strife)”. Even the provincial council of ulemas (clerics) of Mohammedia felt an obligation to intervene, denouncing the picnic that never took place as a “heinous act.”

Worse, the six were summoned to the police headquarters where they had to undergo a strange interrogation, with questions hinting at the homosexuality of the protesters; whether they believed or not in Allah; whether the movement had been instigated from abroad; and other even less pertinent questions, such as, “Are you with Allah or with Satan?”as one of the youngsters was asked at one point, adding a touch of surrealism to the episode.

Howevcer, as a result of this questioning, the six MALI members were indicted for violating the infamous article 222 and will soon be tried in court.

The best coverage of this story was given by the local TelQuel magazine that in recent years has fought many battles for advocating civil and individual rights. I do not know of any other Arab or Muslim country that permits such a free and liberal voice. Within the panorama of Muslim and Arab countries, Morocco is one of the countries that enjoys more civil liberties. In Morocco, there are no religious police; women are allowed more liberties, particularly after the adoption of the new family law; and even for the observation of fasting, trespassers are punished only if they do it publicly.

Still, Morocco has a long way to go before the country and its institutions can be considered fully democratised.

Separation of Religion from State is something that is still far from the mentality of the general public, except for groups of liberals. Even the younger generation is still trapped in the dilemma of whether to join the global world, full of Western values, or find shelter under the wing of Islam in search of an Arab identity that it perceives as being threatened.

There is also the dilemma of the state security apparatuses, used to having a free hand in public order, who always overreact when somebody poses a challenge to the system.

Even the case of a simple break-of-the-fast (quite a common practice in private) is treated as a threat to the security of the State - not missing an opportunity of invoking a conspiracy theory.

Police officers tried to make the “conspirators” sign a document declaring that they had been induced to stage a protest by some not-better-specified Spanish organization. This makes me wonder why Arab societies are so fond of conspiracy theories.

A conspiracy for eating a sandwich? Come on….

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