Long before the woefully inaccurate term “Arab Spring” had been coined, the king of Morocco, his advisers and their Western enablers began touting the idea that the country would be an exception to the movement. Morocco, they argued, was a stable and moderate nation, a beacon of liberalism in a region filled with extremism. Just three weeks after the fall of Tunisia’s Ben Ali, for instance, Khalid Naciri, the perpetually optimistic spokesperson for the Moroccan government, maintained that street protests were “a normal thing for Morocco,” because, he said, it has “allowed the practice of freedoms for many years now.” And only six days after the resignation of Egypt’s Mubarak, Naciri maintained that the protests that had been planned for February 20 were “quite ordinary and part of the democratic process that prevails in Morocco.”
But that Sunday in February, tens of thousands of young Moroccans took to the streets in fifty-seven cities and towns throughout the kingdom. They answered the call of a loose coalition of young activists, who had been inspired by the Tunisian uprising and whose ideological leanings ranged from Marxism to Islamism. In some ways, the demands of the February 20 Movement, as the group came to be known, seemed bold: they wanted the entire government and Parliament dissolved. But compared with the demands of the young revolutionaries in Tunisia, theirs were tame: they did not ask that the man who runs the country—the king—step down. Instead, they wanted Morocco to become a parliamentary monarchy, where the king reigns but does not govern.
Their demands were so moderate for several reasons, chief among them the fact that ever since he ascended the throne in 1999, King Muhammad had successfully portrayed himself as markedly different from his notoriously brutal father, King Hassan. The young king had achieved this by distancing himself from the Makhzen. (The term “Makhzen” dates back at least to the eleventh century and once designated the warehouse where tax revenues, whether in kind or in currency, were stored. Over time, the term came to signify the government and the ruling elite.) In Morocco, much of the positive change that has happened over the past ten years—the family law reforms of 2004, say, or the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated instances of abduction and police abuse—has come about as a result of the king’s initiative and under his direct supervision. In this way, while the king gets credit for bringing about progress, the Makhzen gets the blame for everything that ails the country, beginning with rampant corruption and crushing poverty. The February 20 Movement chose to focus its efforts on the Makhzen, a strategy that earned it much support among the country’s youth.
The best summary I have seen of the demands of the February 20 Movement comes from one of the slogans of that Sunday: “Khubz, Hurriya, Karaama, Insaniyya,” which translates as “Bread, Liberty, Dignity, Humanity.” From my living room in Los Angeles, nearly 6,000 miles away, I watched young Moroccans chanting this slogan on a grainy YouTube video and was reminded of a poem by James Oppenheim, made famous during the 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts: “Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;/Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.” The king and his advisers, I suspected, could no doubt figure out a way to deal with the bread; it was the roses that scared them.
Indeed, the king had already doubled economic subsidies on February 15, just five days before the protests. The subsidies helped lower (or at least stabilize) prices of cooking oil, flour and sugar. That should have taken care of the bread. As for the roses, the prevailing mantra seemed to be that they would never bloom in Morocco. “Morocco is not Tunisia,” Khalid Naciri told El País on February 26, sounding as though he was trying to reassure himself that the revolution could be averted.