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.”
In his first official speech as head of state, King Mohammed outlined his plans for the country: constitutional monarchy, multiparty system, economic liberalism, regionalism and decentralization, building the rule of law, safeguarding human rights and individual and collective liberties, and security and stability for all. He defined his role as one of arbiter—one who does not side with any parties—as well as architect—giving general orientations and advice. He renewed his father’s commitment to alternance, a system that had allowed leftist parties, after nearly thirty years in the opposition, to finally hold cabinet positions and influence policy. The speech gave a lot of Moroccans great hope that their country would emulate Spain, their neighbor across the Mediterranean, and transition toward a democracy.
The king made many symbolic decisions in the early months of his reign. He allowed Abraham Serfaty, the Marxist politician and longtime foe of the regime, to return home to Morocco. He freed Abdesslam Yassine, the leader of the banned Islamist group al-Adl wal-Ihsan (Justice and Charity). He fired Driss Basri, King Hassan’s fearsome right-hand man and one of the most despised men in the country. He established an Equity and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated cases of disappearance and torture during the infamous Years of Lead and offered reparations to survivors. A reform of family law, which feminist activists had been working on for many years, was finally adopted. He instituted quotas for women’s representation in parliament: today, ten percent of Moroccan members of parliament are women. He desegregated one of the country’s theological seminaries, thus allowing female religious leaders to work in mosques and provide community services.
But the honeymoon period was over very quickly. Although he defined his role as architect and arbiter in his coronation speech, the king’s role has in fact been that of absolute ruler. The constitution of Morocco grants him the discretionary right to name a prime minister and cabinet, without regard for election results. He can also dismiss parliament at any moment and exercise emergency powers. Between 1999 and 2009, Morocco held two major legislative elections, but it has had three prime ministers, five interior ministers, three ministers of education and two ministers of foreign affairs, coming from various parties of different, and often divergent, political persuasions: socialists, religious conservatives, independents and technocrats. The current prime minister, Abbas el-Fassi, is best known for his role in a disastrous scheme to offer 30,000 job contracts on an Emirati cruise ship to unemployed Moroccans. Tens of thousands of people were officially registered by el-Fassi’s ministry, and asked to pay a 900-Dirham fee (about $100) for a medical exam. The jobs turned out to be a mirage. And no restitutions were ever made. That this man is now the head of the cabinet only serves to show that the cabinet is not accountable to the electorate; it is accountable to the king alone.
For the last ten years, the Moroccan government has insisted that it was “on the right track”—on the right track to where, it was never specified, but one was led to believe that this was an ongoing process of democratization. Still, there were some details in this story that didn’t quite add up. Take, for instance, the fact that the earliest crackdown on freedoms came just six months after King Mohammed’s ascension to the throne, in December 2000, when a demonstration in Rabat demanding the legalization of al-Adl wal-Ihsan was repressed. Take the fact that, after ten long years, the literacy rate hovers a little above 50 percent, as opposed to a little below it. Take the fact that 15 percent of Moroccans live on under $2 per day. Take the fact that 70 percent of Moroccans think that corruption levels have stagnated or increased. Take the fact that, in the most recent United Nations Human Development Index, a composite measure of health, literacy and standard of living, Morocco ranked 130, behind Gabon, Fiji and even the occupied Palestinian territories.
Or take the fact that, between 1999 and 2009, the Moroccan government arrested, charged, prosecuted and sentenced nearly thirty journalists, including Ali Lmrabet of Demain; Aboubakr Jamaï, Ali Amar and Fahd Iraqi of Le Journal Hebdomadaire; Ahmed Reda Benchemsi and Karim Boukhari of Tel Quel; Driss Chahtane, Mustapha Hirane and Rachid Mhamid of Al Mish’al; Driss Ksikes and Sanaa el-Aji of Nichane; Abderrahim Ariri and Mostapha Hormatallah of Al Watan al An; Rachid Nini, Said Laajal and Youssef Meskine of Al Massae; Taoufik Bouachrine and Khalid Gueddar of Akhbar al-Youm; Ali Anouzla and Bouchra Eddou of Al-jarida Al-Oula; Noureddine Miftah and Meriem Moukrim of Al Ayam.
For a long time now, there have been many signs that Moroccans do not think that things are on the right track. Sit-ins by unemployed university graduates have become regular fixtures on the main avenues of major cities, and make for a particularly memorable sight in Rabat, the capital. Two years ago, jobless protestors blocked the port of Sidi Ifni for several days, preventing goods from being loaded or unloaded. A police force of 8,000 officers entered the city and engaged in beatings, theft and even, allegedly, rape and murder. A group of university students taking part in a peaceful demonstration in Marrakech in 2008 were imprisoned and held without charge for several months. The only woman in that group, a 21-year-old by the name of Zahra Boudkour, was stripped naked, beaten and tortured in the prison of Boulmharez. She was released last year.
But government abuse is not directed solely at political activists; it is also directed at ordinary citizens. In September 2010, for instance, Fodail Aberkane, a Moroccan construction worker, was arrested by the police in the Hay Salam district of Salé, on suspicion of being under the influence of cannabis. He was released on judge’s orders, but when he returned to the station to pick up his moped, he was detained again after an argument about paperwork. He never left his cell again. Two days later, he was turned over to Ibn Sina Hospital in Rabat, where he was pronounced dead.
Which brings me back to the February 20 movement. I love my homeland. And it is because I love it that I want it to be a place where everyone is treated equally under the law; where the legislative, judiciary and executive branches are independent of one another; where human rights are respected; and where the government is accountable to the people. This makes me a supporter of the February 20 movement and, I suppose, the kind of person the youth minister was denouncing on his Facebook page.
For now, the Moroccan government is allowing the protest to go forward, though its proxies and allies are already hard at work, calling the protestors a ragtag group of agitators with divergent and unreasonable demands. But dismissing the February 20 movement because its supporters have different personal agendas is no different from signing on to the status quo in Morocco. And for the sake of the unemployed and the illiterate, for the sake of the poor, for the sake of the victims of police abuse, for the sake of all those who have been rendered in secret prisons: the status quo cannot go on.