With the ouster of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, the Arab world has erupted in popular protests in favor of democracy and dignity. Morocco, long considered one of the most stable Arab countries, is not immune to this regional trend. Inspired by the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, a group of young activists are using social media to spread the word about a protest in Casablanca on February 20. A video they have made to promote the protests has already gone viral. It features thirteen young Moroccan men and women, speaking in their native Arabic or Berber. “I am Moroccan and I will take part in the protest on February 20,” they all say, and then go on to explain their reasons for marching: freedom, equality, better living standards, education, labor rights, minority rights and so on. (You can view the video, with English subtitles, here.)
The February 20 movement was started by a group calling itself Democracy and Freedom Now. Their demands include constitutional reforms, the dissolution of the present parliament, the creation of a temporary transitional government, an independent judiciary, accountability for elected officials, language rights for Berber speakers and the release of all political prisoners. Democracy and Freedom Now was soon joined by a loose coalition of cyber-activists, traditional lefties, Islamists and twenty human rights organizations, including the Moroccan Association of Human Rights and Amnesty Morocco.
The reaction to the planned protests has been as predictable as it has been depressing. Though the Moroccan government has nearly doubled its food subsidies for 2011, it has not acknowledged the need for meaningful political change. Instead, the communication minister, Khalid Naciri, insisted that Morocco “has embarked a long time ago on an irreversible process of democracy and widening of public freedoms.” On his Facebook page, the youth minister, Moncef Belkhayat, posted a long statement calling on the demonstrators to use dialogue instead. “My personal position,” he wrote “as a Moroccan citizen who lives in Casablanca, and not in Paris or Barcelona, is that this march is today manipulated by the Polisario, with the goal of creating street clashes that will weaken the position of our country in the United Nations regarding the human rights situation in the Sahara.” In other words, while one minister denies that there are any serious problems, the other blames foreign agents provocateurs.
Pro-government activists have also staged a campaign against the young people who appear in the video, uncovering supposed alcohol use, distributing a photo of one of them inside a church or of another one posing with Saharan activists. The implication is simple: the people who are organizing this march are traitors to their faith and to their country. As for the Francophone elite, they seem for now to be mostly ambivalent about the protests, pointing out that the institution of the monarchy is 1,200 years old and asking whether the marchers really want a revolution. But nothing in the February 20 platform or its promotional video suggests that anyone is asking for the toppling of the monarchy; the focus, however, has been on meaningful constitutional reform.
Throughout all this, the king has remained silent.
When King Mohammed rose to the throne in July 1999, he had relatively little to do in order to fill a huge reservoir of goodwill. His father, King Hassan, had left the nation with an appalling human rights record, which included extralegal detentions, torture and censorship; a high level of corruption in virtually all state institutions; a literacy rate that hovered below 50 percent, one of the lowest in the Arab world; a territorial conflict with the Polisario Front; and tense relations with Algeria. Upon the death of the monarch who had ruled Morocco for thirty-eight years, most commentators used some form of the expression “end of an era.”