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After walking out of a debate over the merits of $3 billion planned high speed rail network, Morocco’s transportation minister defended the project Saturday as vital to the country’s development.
Unveiled by King Mohammed VI and French President Nicolas Sarkozy to great fanfare in September, the line between the port of Tangiers and the commercial capital of Casablanca, a distance of about 300 kilometers (185 miles), has been criticized as a wasteful vanity project for an impoverished nation.
Transport Minister Abdelaziz Rebbah and the head of the railroad Rabie Khlii had originally agreed to debate the merits of the project on Thursday with an organization of critics known as Stop TGV, for the French acronym for high speed train. He stormed out of the meeting after he said the critics were distributing insulting literature.
“The debate has to be civilized,” he told reporters.
“We are no longer speaking just about the competitiveness of companies, but also the competitivity of states,” he said. “The high speed train is one of the best ways to improve Morocco’s competitiveness.”
The no-bid project was awarded to France, which will be funding 38 percent of the project with the rest covered by loans from oil-rich Arab countries of the Gulf.
The 200-mph (320-kph) train will cut travel time between the North African kingdom’s two commercial hubs from nearly five hours to just over two hours and is expected to be completed by 2015.
Criticism erupted over the project almost immediately however, with many pointing out that the country could ill afford a fancy new rail network when much of Morocco still isn’t served by the railroad.
The two cities are also connected by a brand new toll highway that rarely sees a great deal of traffic.
Most of Morocco’s 1,100 miles of rail was built by the French during the colonial period and there has been little expansion since.
The website of the Stop TGV campaign lists dozens of other ways the money could have been spent, particularly on Morocco’s ailing health and education sectors, such as 25 new university teaching hospitals or 100 new engineering schools.
Critics also charge that the motivation behind the project is more about good relations with France rather than Morocco’s economic need.
The huge project is seen to have royal backing and in the past such major undertaking bearing the king’s seal of approval would never have been criticized.
Since the pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring swept Morocco in 2011, however, there has been increased efforts to challenge taboos and hold the government more accountable.
“It is great that they have started to communicate, now we have to compare our numbers so that the debate can be public,” said Karim al-Hajjaji of Cap Democracy Morocco, an activist youth group that helped set up the original debate.
The group prepared its own estimated budget of the project to show that it was much more expensive than the government was revealing.
“The government didn’t convince me with their presentation, I am still against the high speed train,” added al-Hajjaji.
The project was conceived and announced during a period of relative prosperity for Morocco that had seen several years of robust growth around 5 percent.
That is set to end, however. An expected poor harvest in 2012 and an economic crisis among Morocco’s main European trading partners is expected to send the growth rate plummeting, while the state budget is already badly over-stretched with high spending on subsidies.
Omar el-Hyani, another member of the anti-high speed train collective pointed out that the national train company’s finances are also in bad shape, especially with the expected withdrawal of business from its most important customer.
“With the withdrawal of the Office of Phosphates as its main client, the situation will get worse,” he said, explaining that phosphates will soon be carried via pipeline instead of by train. “The state will have to inject even more money in the company after work on the line is finished.”
Half of the railways’ revenues, some $180 million, currently comes from hauling phosphates, Morocco’s chief export.