Morocco’s battle over booze

RABAT, Morocco — The buying frenzy begins around 6 p.m. Men throw elbows and shout, pushing to the front of the checkout line, clutching bottles of booze.

Lines, if you can call them lines, form eight or 10 deep, each man looking for the fastest way through. Buyers jostle and press forward. Some stand on tiptoe to pass clinking baskets of bottles to friends closer to the register. The air reeks of spilled beer.

This is not scene on the eve of a looming alcohol shortage. It’s not a speakeasy in a rough part of town. It’s just an average evening at my local liquor store, in an upscale neighborhood of Morocco’s capital.

One possible explanation for the crush is that everyone is technically breaking the law. A royal decree from 1967 forbids the sale of alcohol to Muslims, which constitute 98 percent of Morocco’s population. Liquor stores and restaurants officially may only sell booze to foreigners.

But the furtive atmosphere may stem from a stigma that’s more social than legal. Even the government admits the law is rarely enforced.

“It’s complicated. Officially, the consumption of alcohol is forbidden for Muslims,” said Khalid Naciri, Morocco’s communication minister. “But the authorities aren’t going to go into every store to see whether Moroccans are buying it or not. This is not our concern.”

This ambiguous truce has existed for years. In theory, the law conforms to what’s preached in the mosque. In practice, those on the street make their own deals with God. Moroccans can buy booze in bars, restaurants and grocery stores in the country’s bigger cities.

But in the past few months, groups at opposite ends of Morocco’s political spectrum have begun challenging the status quo.

In December, a prominent Moroccan cleric, Ahmed Raissouni, published what he called a fatwa, or religious edict, urging Morocco’s Muslims not only to abstain from alcohol but also to boycott any supermarket that sells it — which includes the country’s biggest and most profitable chain stores.

Raissouni has close ties with the Justice and Development Party, or PJD, an Islamist opposition party that courts the religious vote. Although PJD officials downplayed the edict as being just one cleric’s opinion, Moroccan civil liberties activists fired back almost immediately.

Days after the fatwa, an activist group called Bayt Al Hikma, Arabic for House of Wisdom, called for Morocco’s alcohol law to be repealed, asking that more reasonable rules be put in its place.

“This law is a little hypocritical and it’s not realistic,” said Khadija Rouissi, Bayt al Hikma’s president. “What do we really need to ban? We need to ban the sale of alcohol to children, and to ban driving while intoxicated.”

The debate grew still more heated last month in the ancient city of Fez, when local media reported Fez’s mayor Hamid Chabat calling for a liquor ban. The reports quoted Chabat as saying, “Let those who want to drink alcohol do it outside Fez.”

The news drew protest from within Fez’s profitable tourism industry. Officials with Morocco’s central government have said the mayor lacks the authority to enforce a ban, as liquor-selling licenses are granted by local representatives of Morocco’s king.

The mayor later released a statement denying that he’d called for a complete ban, saying he only wanted to shut down bars and liquor stores “near schools, mosques and residential quarters.”

The debate itself seems to represent a struggle between two opposing visions of Moroccan Islam. And both sides frame the fight as one against outside forces trying change Moroccan culture.

“There are people who want to please the West. It’s unfortunate that they believe that modernity requires that we sell alcohol, we have to have prostitution, we have to have homosexuals,” said Lahcen Daoudi, vice-secretary general of the PJD and the current vice president of the legislature’s house of representatives. “Unfortunately, there’s a pressure from outside.”

But civil liberties activists say Islamists are themselves serving an outside agenda — by importing a less tolerant, un-Moroccan form of Islam.

“These groups, like Raissouni in particular, come from a culture that’s not ours. It’s from Wahhabism, from Saudi Arabia, where there are people who come knock at your door and say, are you praying or not?” Rouissi said. “Our parents never accepted this and in Morocco we have never seen this type of thing.”

In the end, the discussion has yet to yield any concrete result. The law looks unlikely to change in the near term, supermarkets continue doing brisk business selling booze, and Moroccans still drink it.

Inside one of Rabat’s most venerable restaurants, Le Grand Comptoir, Moroccans and expats alike continue to sip cocktails and order wine, much of which was bottled in Morocco. Manager Jamal Latifi said the debate hasn’t even registered.

“The only debate in Morocco now is about the floods,” he said. “It's about the rains. It's whether it will be a good year for agriculture. That's it.”