Morocco's rural and urban divide

The village of Anfgou is far from the modern image of the country touted by Rabat.

    The kingdom's cities are seen as battlegrounds where
    secular modernists will  battle political Islam [AFP]
    Moroccans voiced shock and anger last winter when 11 inhabitants of the village of Anfgou in the High Atlas mountains died from the cold.

    Newspaper and TV reporters pushed their way up the snow-filled, cedar-lined valley in off-road vehicles to find a community living in the "Dark Ages".

    Many victims died when the roofs of their mud houses collapsed under metres of snow. Children with hacking coughs were still playing in the icy streets, barefoot in T-shirts.

    Before the crisis ended, at least 20 more people, mostly children, had died. With them, so did interest in Anfgou.

    But the strangers returned last weekend when the first canvassing agents turned up in four-wheel-drives emblazoned with the posters of candidates in the September 7 parliamentary elections.

    'Where were you?'

    The residents gave the visitors a chilly reception.

    Elections 2007

    A series of special reports

    "Where were you when our children were dying of cold? Why do we see you only now?" said a village elder. "Get out of here."

    One agent said his candidate would improve living conditions and help free a villager imprisoned for grazing animals in the cedar forests.

    But after the agent left, villager Said Ouskina said: "We don't trust any of these people. Whoever wins, we'll never know if he went to parliament or went home to sleep for five years."

    Crowds of children gathered up the leaflets scattered from campaign vans, but almost no one in Anfgou can read. Even if they could, the leaflets are written in Arabic, a language foreign to most of the Berber population.

    Anfgou's 1,500-strong farming community, cut off for three months of the year by snow, is far from the image the government wants to tout of a modern, progressive country.

    The kingdom's cities are seen as the election battleground where secular modernists will do battle with resurgent political Islam against a backdrop of social tension and the threat of attacks by religious radicals.

    By contrast, the rural vote is seen as loyalist and conservative.
    But political analysts say that any politician who ignores the countryside does so at his peril.

    Some urban tensions are born in Morocco's remote regions.

    Urban tensions

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    Young people are leaving rural areas to find work in what are increasingly overcrowded cities already struggling with poverty and high unemployment.

    That is complicating the government's efforts to eradicate urban slums because newcomers from arrive to occupy shacks left by people rehoused in state-subsidised flats.

    Some of the countryside is occupied by big, irrigated farms that are efficient and prosperous. But most farmers use ancient equipment to eke out a precarious living on small plots.

    Government critics see the situation as a hangover from colonial times when France divided its possession into "useful Morocco" and the rest.

    The result: Morocco has barely budged from its position of 123rd in the United Nations human development index.

    Though the North African country is a short ferry ride from western Europe and a main tourism spot, about 40 per cent of the population lives in poverty.

    The government stands by its recent record, saying the country is now open for business thanks to new industrial parks, ports and motorways, a tourism boom and real estate projects.

    A campaign to end rural isolation has allowed part of the route from Anfgou to the outside world to be laid as road.

    Two months ago, the village turned off its diesel generator and was connected to the electricity grid. Four months ago, Anfgou joined the mobile phone network.

    But the Atlas valleys have a long history of resisting the authority of lowlanders and cynicism remains widespread.

    On prominent hillsides across the country, the words "God, Nation, King" are marked out in stones or white paint.

    The same can be seen high above the dirt track near Anfgou, but here the words "Nation" and "King" are barely visible.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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