Contributed by Ibn Kafka
The popular protests in Morocco, coming in the wake of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, haven’t attracted that much attention abroad – yet. Less deadly than their Bahraini, Libyan, Syrian and Yemeni counterparts, these protests do not – for the moment being – aim at overthrowing Morocco’s ruler, King Mohammed VI, who retains a sizeable personal popularity in the country. They remain ground-breaking however in the Moroccan context, and might probably durably alter the political balance power, heavily skewed in favour of an absolutist monarchy since the 60s. Here’s a sketchy attempt to summarise this protest movement.
The popular protests started on Sunday February 20th this year, and have taken place at regular intervals since then, always on Sundays, which is a day off in Morocco. The protest movement incidentally calls itself the February 20 movement – this date doesn’t have any other symbolical meaning than as a reminder of when the protest movement started, even if it also happens to be the United Nations’ World Day of Social Justice.
While the largest numbers have gathered in Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city, and Rabat, its capital, large protests have also taken place a bit everywhere in Morocco, even in small, provincial cities, as the mapping of protests on the pro-Feb 20 website mamfakinch.com shows. In fact, all seven fatalities thus far have taken place in smaller or medium-size cities such as Sefrou (1 death, Karim Chaib on February 23), Safi (1 death, Kamal el Omari on June 2) or Al Hoceima (5 deaths – Nabil Jaafar, Imad Qadi, Jaouad Benkaddour, Jamal Salmi and Samir Bouazzaoui – on February 20). Protests in the Sahara have been noticeably subdued this time around, which would tend to counter the argument often made by régime die-hards (such as the sports and youth minister, Moncef Belkhayat) that protesters would be in sync with the Algeria-backed separatist movement, Polisario (for the record, I oppose the Polisario as strongly as I support the February 20 movement).
Much like the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the February 20 movement involves a motley crew of leftists, islamists, secularists,
trade-unionists, human rights defenders, feminists and – this is specific to Morocco – Amazigh (Berber) militants, as well as a sizeable chunk of non-partisan, non-ideological protesters, such as the «diplômés-chômeurs», unemployed graduates who have been protesting for jobs in the public sector since the early 90s. The movement has even reached out to hitherto unusual protest profiles such as well-known liberal businessman and philanthropist Karim Tazi, who has backed it. Added to the geographical spread mentioned earlier, this diversity obviously strengthens the protests.
As for political parties, the protesters include the usual protesting stalwarts of marxist Nahj adimoqrati (The Democratic Path) party, as well as other leftist organisations (PADS, PSU, CNI and small trotskyist Al mounadila) and even, on an individual basis, a few militants of established, pro-government parties such as formerly socialist USFP and post-communist PPS. They also include the Al Adl wal ihsan organisation, a non-recognised but tolerated popular islamist movement led by Abdeslam Yassine -his daughter Nadia Yassine is the movement’s spokesperson and one of Morocco’s rare few public republicans.
What has particularly riled the authorities has been the alliance of leftist and islamist militants, a first in Moroccan politics – with the exception of course of the massive popular protests in 1991, 2002 and 2003 against the wars in Iraq and the occupation of Palestine. Such an alliance is seen by the régime as a serious threat to its crushing domination of Morocco’s political scene: the militancy and intellectual radicalism of the leftists, the popular social demands of non-partisan protesters put together with the surmised popular appeal of islamists could weaken the régime’s ideological grip, and threaten its fear-mongering routine – «us or the islamists» – especially if it turns out the islamists actually back secular claims.
The islamists are however in a minority in the February 20 movement, which has no religious overtones. They are also divided internally: while Al adl wal ihsan is squarely behind the movement, the salafists have been split, with some joining the
movement (in part as a protest against the severe human rights violations that thousands of salafists have suffered since the May 16, 2003 terror bombings in Casablanca), while others have accused the protesters of being un-Islamic. As for Morocco’s main islamist party, the PJD, it has by and large stayed clear of the protests and has been happy with playing its part as H
is Majesty’s loyal opposition (it is the main opposition party in Parliament) – although some of its more outspoken members, such as MP and lawyer Mustapha Ramid, have called for an end to absolute monarchy.
The movement’s diversity is reflected in its main demands. While political demands loom large – constitutional reform throughan elected constitutional assembly, resignation of sitting government, fresh parliamentary elections, liberation of all political prisoners, an independent judiciary and the prosecution of fraud and corruption – socio-economic demands – recruitment of unemployed graduates in the public sector an better quality of, and access to social welfare services – are probably the main factor behind the high level of mobilisation achieved.
And not to forget: the demand for constitutional recognition of the Amazigh (Berber) language has of course helped the movement to mobilise in Amazigh-speaking areas (according to the last census, Amazigh-speakers account for 28% of the population).
Violent popular protests have been recurrent in Morocco, but that was some time ago: violent rebellions shook the Rif and Tafilelt regions in 1958, and violent riots took place in 1965 (Casablanca, Rabat), 1981 (Casablanca), 1984 (Marrakech, Nador, Al Hoceima) and 1990 (Fès). These were bloody – up to one thousand deaths in 1981 – but relatively localised and without any organised popular mobilisation behind or explicit political aims. Since Mohammed VI’s accession, some localised riots have taken place – Laayoune 1999, 2005 and 2010, Sefrou 2007, Sidi Ifni 2008 – but again, they have been localised and without any overarching political claim (with the exception of the separatism-tainted riots in Laayoune).
This time around, the protests have been planned, countrywide, politically motivated and decidedly non-violent. This is groundbreaking. Even more groundbreaking is the frontal opposition to the régime – well short of régime-change à la tunisienne however – that the protesters have provoked: although the King has been targeted by some protesters, the main thrust has been against the undemocratic constitution, the corrupt cronies and the need for a strictly parliamentary monarchy, with limited powers to the today all-powerful monarch.
Since King Mohammed VI’s accession to the throne in 1999, an initial period of continued liberalisation (it is often forgotten that most liberal reforms took place between 1991 and 1998) soon turned into a disillusioned succession of jailed journalists, closed newspapers, tortured terrorist suspects and corrupt cronies. While the King has maintained a high personal popularity with public opinion, the level of corruption, the continuous poverty and the persisting authoritarianism have led to widespread dissatisfaction with the government, led by lacklustre royal sycophant Abbas el Fassi.
The King’s reaction has been initially savvy – less than three weeks after the first protests, he announced on March 9 a constitutional reform to be worked and submitted to popular ratification. While rejecting the February 20 movement’s demand for an elected constitutional assembly and appointing yes-men to draft the reformed fundamental law, the KIng also doubled the public subsidies on staple products such as oil, bread, sugar and tea, and freed 196 political prisoners, including many convicted on (dubious) terrorism charges.
Noises have even been made as to the royal family’s purported intent to have Morocco’s largest holding, the SNI group which it owns, sell its stakes in most of the companies it owns – many of which are in monopoly situation in heavily subsidised sectors, food oil (Lesieur) and sugar (Cosumar)for instance. This is an issue that has been very embarrassing for the King, as even the usually supine business circles have been fretting over the spectacular conflict of interest involved being head of state and owner of the largest holding in the country.
After an initially relatively permissive approach to the protests, those taking place on May 22 and 29 have been violently suppressed, leading to fears of a bloody clampdown. The negative foreign media and Internet coverage following this led however the authorities to a more lenient approach this last Sunday (June 5). As the draft constitution is due to be presented this week, with the referendum taking place the first days of July, the protesters will however have to devise a strategy beyond what already seems as a foregone conclusion – few serious commentators expect the King to lose a referendum which most Moroccans will see as just another pledge of allegiance.
Whatever happens the next few weeks, what is certain is that Moroccan politics – and the King’s absolute institutional and ideological domination – will not remain untouched by the revolutionary change taking place just now in Morocco, where for the first time since independence ordinary people openly, forcefully and peacefully confront royal absolutism.
Some interesting Internet links:
Start with mamfakinch.com (mamfakinch = we won’t move), a high-profile pro-protest website – there’s some material in English. It has a micro-blogging sister site on posterous with a lot of videos and press communiqués, as well as a FB page and a Twitter account.
You’ll also find quite a lot of links by perusing the #Feb20 hashtag on Twitter.
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