CASABLANCA, Morocco — On an early August morning, one avid Facebook user in Morocco posted 49 desperate words: “I am someone looking for love,” he wrote. “I am tired of pretending. I want to be cared for.”
He wasn’t alone in hoping to meet "The One" on this Facebook group designed expressly for Moroccan gays.
Aziz, a 19-year-old college student in Rabat, also posted a hopeful message and soon afterward met his boyfriend via Facebook.
“A guy posted that he was looking for love and I decided that I wanted to know more about him,” he said. “We chatted and then met up for coffee. It was love at first sight.”
In the past few years Facebook has been a key way for Moroccans who want to reconnect with lost friends, keep in touch with others or simply to post daily interactive updates.
As Facebook has opened up to the rest of the world, it has reached an unprecedented level of popularity, especially in countries with fewer individual freedoms. In Morocco, for example, Facebook has an estimated 1.5 million users.
In a place where the majority of people don’t have the option to go to a bar to meet people, or are not allowed to publicly express some of their opinions, Facebook is a gold mine. No need to buy someone a drink, subscribe to an expensive dating site or bravely ask for a phone number on the street — one click for a friend request followed by a quick chat and relationships can bloom.
According to Aziz, an engineering major, who still lives with his parents, it is extremely difficult to meet people in Morocco, especially within the gay community.
“There is nowhere I can go to meet someone,” he said. “The internet is my only option.”
His boyfriend Najib believes that Facebook changed his life.
“I wouldn’t be able to live without it,” he explained. “It is free, easy and the only place in Morocco where I can connect with others.”
Not everyone is necessarily looking for love. Others, like Salim, are using the social network to have some fun. He regularly dates women he meets on the site.
“A lot of girls friend me on Facebook, they’re a lot less shy than they would be in person,” he said. “You look at their picture. If you think they’re cute you add them as friends, you chat and see if you have things in common and then you might meet up."
“Facebook is so popular because one does not need any technical knowledge to use it and it is extremely easy to have all sorts of interactions with others,” said Stephane Koch, a communications professor at University of Applied Sciences (HES-SO) in Western Switzerland, where he specializes in social networks.
He adds that the success of Facebook in countries like Morocco with limited freedoms is due to the fact that anyone who wants to have a community of followers can create a page and write anything they want.
This social network has indeed also impacted Moroccan politics. It only takes a few minutes to start a page, invite subscribers, and start sharing ideas and debating them with other users.
“It has enabled us to reach out to people and express ourselves in a way that is impossible in a country like Morocco,” explains the political activist, Ibtissame Lachgar, who recently wrote to the 2,400 members of the group MALI (Alternative Movement for Individual Liberty), calling for action in the name of religious freedom.
“We inform our members that during the month of Ramadan, a time that is restrictive in regards to the freedoms of those who practice other religions or no religion at all, a symbolic action will be launched,” she wrote. “Many organizations are joining our fight.”
The MALI group has been fighting for individual freedoms for almost a year. In 2009, during the month of Ramadan, Lachgar and a group of people attempted to have a picnic during the day to protest a national law that forbids breaking the fast in public places. They were arrested, intimidated by the authorities and the public, which then led to a media frenzy that was picked up by the internet. They used their fame to reach out to others and continue the debate over religious freedom.
The enigmatic and famous political blogger, Ibn Kafka, whose real identity remains unknown, believes that Facebook is a great tool but that one that also makes people vulnerable to government scrutiny and easily spotted.
“Activists should use other platforms, more anonymous ones, like Twitter to reach out to even more people,” he said. However, he concedes that it allows people who think alike to find each other and unite.
Koch warns that when a social network allows people to freely express themselves it also allows the government to profile the population.
“The government can easily identify people and strike back in other ways,” he said.
Facebook was pressured by several governments to require in their terms of service that people open accounts under their real names. The Moroccan activist Kacem El Ghazzalli, who started the group, “Youth for the Separation between Religion and Education,” says that he was subjected to the Facebook terms of service and that his account and his group were removed. He contacted the company to find out why but never received an explanation.
But Aziz does not really get involved in politics. For him, and many other Moroccans, Facebook remains a place to interact with people from everywhere.
“I never had a boyfriend before,” he said. “I am so happy now.”