In spite of the Moroccan government's campaign—through its official media, its ministers and its allies—to discredit the February 20 movement, peaceful protests took place today throughout the country. Thousands of protesters gathered simultaneously in Rabat, Casablanca, Tangier, Tetuan, Beni Mellal, Kenitra, Agadir, Marrakech, Essaouira and in other, smaller cities such as Bouarfa, Sefrou, Bejaad and Jerada.
As I explained in an earlier post, the campaign against the movement included accusations that it was led by agents of the Polisario Front; by atheists and other assorted non-Muslims; by republican revolutionaries; by Moroccans living comfortably abroad; or by people who are disorganized, unclear about their demands and leaderless. But even before the democracy protests got underway today, it was clear that the tide was turning and that the virulent government campaign had only served to bring about support from a wide cross-section of Moroccan society.
Thus, Abdellah Hammoudi, the well-known and widely respected professor of anthropology at Princeton, wrote a letter expressing his support for the peaceful march, which, he said, is “the only way we have left to demand the kind of reforms that can solve the problems of our country.” A group of independent journalists—including such household names as Aboubakr Jamai, Ali Amar, Ali Anouzla, Nadia Lamlili, Ahmed Reda Benchemsi, Driss Ksikes and Kenza Sefrioui—signed a petition in favor of the movement and calling on the government to allow local reporters to cover the events. The majority of business leaders remained studiously quiet, but Karim Tazi, now the president of the Banque Alimentaire, was among the protesters in Rabat. “We are at a historical moment,” he said, “and we must not miss it.”
Support also came from people who are associated with the monarchy. Hicham Alaoui, the rebellious crown prince of Morocco, gave an interview to France24 in which he, too, expressed his admiration and support of the movement. The historian Hassan Aourid, a former spokesperson for the palace, also declared himself in favor of a constitutional monarchy, giving the example of Great Britain as a good model.
Today, the peaceful protests that took place throughout the kingdom put the lie to all the accusations that the pro-government forces had been spreading. No one held signs demanding the ouster of the king or offering support to the Polisario Front or any other foreign entity. Instead, protesters denounced corruption and oppression, and demanded democracy and freedom: “Yes to a parliamentary democracy.” “In favor of a democratic constitution.” “Accountability for thieves / of money and dignity.” “The king reigns, but doesn’t govern.” My personal favorite was the multicolored banner that quoted the famed lines of the Algerian poet Tahar Djaout: “If you speak, you die. If you stay silent, you die. So speak, and die.” (You can view some of the signs here.)
The influence of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings could be felt in some of the slogans. “The people want / a change in the constitution,” the crowd chanted. And while socio-economic concerns were definitely on people’s minds, the demands focused on the larger issue of power for the people: “Bread, liberty, dignity, humanity.” Lastly, some of the chants indicated that people feel that a threshold may have been crossed: “Either today or tomorrow, change is coming.”
The February 20 movement was started by a group of young activists, who have used social media to organize simultaneous protests throughout the country, thus proving to the old guard that they are serious about change. Their demands may be attacked, but their presence and their seriousness cannot be denied. This new generation of Moroccans wants dignity—and that is only possible in a true democracy.