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12/13 Rule of Law

A recent conversation discussing the rule of law in Morocco. A is an American living in America. B is an American living in Morocco.

A: ...this is why Morocco needs the rule of law.
B: Morocco has the rule of law.
A: [skeptical silence]
B: OK, let's say somebody - call him X - commits a crime. He can be arrested, tried, sentenced, just like in America.
A: And how long will he serve?
B: Depends on the crime, of course. The bigger the offense, the more his family will have to pay to get him out. For a really big crime, it'll take a while to amass enough for the bribe. Or, if the family is really influential, it might go more smoothly; the patriarch could just use his influence to protect his son/nephew/whatever.
A: That's not rule of law.
B: [pregnant pause] Oh, my God, you're right. I ... I've been here long enough that ... it just seems normal. But no, paying bribes isn't part of the legal system. It just ... feels like a system of fines. It's so regular and orderly and understood... But... that's... not... [trails off]
A: Yeah. Sentences that get waived for the wealthy and influential? It's not like it never happens in the first world - white collar criminals, anyone? - but criminals should actually serve their terms. Any system that operates under the assumption that sentences are meaningless fails to be a system for long.
B: [in a small voice] That's why violent crimes really never get reported; because the criminal will be back in the community pretty soon, anyway, plus he'll now be angry that you reported him. As will his family, friends...talking to the gendarmes puts you on the wrong side of your community.
A: Yeah.

It shows up in so many ways:

  • the pollution that fills Moroccan skies because it's cheaper to pay off the car inspector than pay for engine repairs.
  • the transits and dump trucks that transport people illegally (and dangerously) on top, because the checkpoint cops will waive you through for a small "fee".
  • the medicines and condoms that should be distributed freely to sex workers - provided by NGOs - that the distributors charge for, pocketing the cash and paying a percentage to whoever is supposed to regulate it.
  • for that matter, the sex workers themselves; prostitution is illegal in Morocco, but that just means that the cops get to demand bribes (in cash and trade) from the prostitutes, who have no recourse
  • the street signs and road lines that serve only as suggestions, because a bribe will get you out of any ticket
...and so many more.

The first time I saw a bribe change hands, I was shocked. Graft exists in every culture, to be sure, but I thought it was generally hidden. This happened in plain sight of at least 20 people. That alone should have indicated to me just how small a role the legal system plays - neither party had any fear that anyone would report them, or that if they did, that anything would be done.

It doesn't shock me anymore. It doesn't startle me anymore. I don't even register it anymore, really. Oh, we all have to climb out of the taxi so the driver can go up to the checkpoint and work out the amount of the bribe without revealing just how many passengers he has? (Since the more he's making off the trip, the more he'll have to pay.) Not only am I not surprised that I have to wait on the side of the road, I'm find myself thinking, during the ten minute wait, that I'm impressed by the bargaining savvy of the taxi driver.

Oh, I can't climb up on top of the transit until we're a kilometer past the checkpoint? OK, sure, I'll crowd inside for now. It's not like the checkpoint cops don't know what it means to see ten people clinging to the back of the truck...but for a nominal fee, they'll pretend that they believe we'll ride like this for the next four hours, not the next four minutes.

When my backpack was stolen off the top of a transit, where it should have been under the watchful eye of the driver's assistant, I complained to the gendarmes. I didn't want anyone to go to jail, but I thought that the threat of the law might get the assistant to pull some strings and get the bag back from whoever he'd given it to / watched take it.

He was indeed scared at the thought of punishment... so he appealed to one of the most respected people in the town, who assured him that no, of course I wouldn't go through with filing a complaint - and then came to talk to me and explain why I couldn't do it.

A good, honorable, kind soul - one of the people I respect most in Berberville, or indeed in Morocco - was using his wisdom and influence to convince me not to file a police report.

And he was right. Having a local son interrogated, beaten, and presumably jailed would have ruined my reputation in the town. I'd be The Tarumit Who Got Our Boy Thrown In Jail.

So I withdrew my complaint, the boy paid a hefty "fine" to get back the ID card that was seized during the initial questioning - and had the temerity to ask me to kick in for the fine! - and the disappearance of my bag just became a benign topic of conversation for the next month. Oh, Kauthar, did you ever find your bag? No? Ah, well, as God wills.

And I smile through fixed teeth and think, God doesn't will this.

But where do you find Principled governance in a system so thoroughly corrupt that the corruption itself is the system?

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