Return of military service divides Moroccans

RABAT: Some view it as gainful employment for youths with too much free time, others as a tool to blunt protest movements — Moroccans are divided over the looming return of military service.

Twelve years after conscription was scrapped, the royal palace announced in mid-August that compulsory military service is to be restored.

Millions of Moroccans aged 19 to 25, male and female, would have to serve for a year.

I'm “ready to join the army if needed,” said 19-year-old Hassan, who works in a central Rabat restaurant. It's “normal to defend your country”.

Fellow 19-year-old Kenza said that like many Moroccans she was “very surprised” by the palace's announcement. But “for delinquent youth, it's a good thing,” she said.

Jail for draft dodgers

The draft bill grants exemptions for students, the physically unfit and those who are raising children.

If passed by parliament in its present form, prison sentences of between one month and a year face those who refuse to answer the call of duty.

The bill has whipped up controversy, as people question how it would apply to Morocco's large number of dual nationals and the relevance of military service to young people's needs.

Opponents have created a Facebook group urging the government to reverse its decision. So far, 4,000 people have joined.

The bill was unveiled “without the slightest debate,” said 24-year-old group moderator Abdellah.

Eighteen-year-old student Bassma also opposes conscription.

It's a “backwards measure … (and) extremely costly for the government,” she said.

“As a developing country, I think that we should devote the money to other areas, including education and health,” she added.

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Some suspect the growth of protest movements in Morocco explains the government's enthusiasm for military service.

The under-developed northern Rif region was rocked by demonstrations in 2016 and 2017.

In June, a court jailed over 50 of the protesters for terms ranging from one to 20 years.

People have also demonstrated against unemployment in Jerada in the northeast and over water shortages in the south.

Conscription is a “tool to tame young people who have been the driving force of protest movements,” said political analyst Mohammed Shakir.

There is a historical precedent.

Morocco first brought in compulsory military service in 1966, a year after bloody riots.

Back then, student leaders — considered instigators — were among the first draftees.

To spur 'integration'

An official report has pointed to a gulf in Moroccan society between the 15 to 34 age group and the rest of the population.

Unemployment, unfinished schooling, poverty, social isolation and frustration leave young people open to delinquency, extremism and migration, the report said.

Military service would improve their “integration into professional and social life” and boost their sense of citizenship, according to the kingdom's royal cabinet.

Mohammed, a 24-year-old photographer, buys into this message.

Military service “offers young people training that can help them achieve and integrate into the job market,” he said, seated in a busy Rabat park.

Others are less convinced.

The government's reliance on national service to generate employment indicates a “lack of confidence in its ability to create jobs over the short term,” said analyst Shakir.

Many believe it would be wiser to invest in the education system, which is often lampooned over shortcomings.

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The bill is to be debated in parliament this week and the first conscripts could be drafted by the end of 2018. — AFP