The Moroccan ‘Exception’

The Moroccan ‘Exception’

The king says his realm is a beacon of liberalism, but the people demand bread, and roses too. 


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.

If Morocco was not Tunisia, it still had much in common with it and with other North African and Middle Eastern dictatorships: widespread corruption, an appallingly low level of literacy, high rates of unemployment among university graduates, a judiciary that is subservient to the king and a police force that engages in beatings and torture. Little wonder, then, that the February 20 Movement sparked so many heated discussions in cafes, classrooms and online, and that protests took place the following Sunday, beginning a tradition that continues today.

I watched with increasing awe as battle lines were drawn between those who supported the goals of the February 20 Movement, if not its entire platform, and those who supported the status quo ante and referred to the reformists as a ragtag group of agents provocateurs funded by the West, Islamists or the Polisario Front. The reformists and royalists engaged in discussions that grew very heated, particularly online, where anonymity afforded people greater freedom to speak. It was unclear, however, where the majority of Moroccans—those who did not go online and did not attend demonstrations—stood.

But like his father before him, King Muhammad acted swiftly to co-opt the movement for change. On March 9, only seventeen days after the protests started, he announced that he would put forth constitutional reforms, based on seven principles: plurality of the Moroccan identity, consolidation of the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, separation of powers, a greater role for political parties, accountability for public officials and protection of human rights. This new Constitution, he said, was “a major step in the process of consolidating our model of democracy and development.” He appointed an ad hoc commission, headed by the jurist Abdeltif Mennouni, to begin drafting the text, which would be submitted to a referendum after three months.

The announcement took almost everyone by surprise, and forced them to deal with facts rather than ideas. Those who had been in the status quo group suddenly began praising the king for being a visionary who anticipated everything the youth wanted. But members of the February 20 Movement pointed out that the constitutional reform process was fundamentally undemocratic: Mennouni and his colleagues on the commission had been appointed by, and were solely answerable to, the king. In addition, the people most associated with corruption and abuse of power—such as the royal advisers Fouad Ali El Himma and Mounir Majidi—had not been mentioned at all in the speech.

Meanwhile, the king dispatched his ministers abroad to preach the gospel of the Moroccan “exception.” Assia Bensalah Alaoui, ambassador-at-large, told France24 that the climate of revolution in the region had merely offered an “opportunity” for change, but that the process of reform had been started more than eleven years earlier, when the king ascended the throne. Why the king waited eleven years to reform the Constitution, she did not explain. Edward Gabriel, a former US ambassador to Morocco and now a lobbyist for the regime, wrote columns in support of the king’s plans for The Hill, the Congressional newspaper.

And there were the usual encomiums from Western leaders, lawmakers and pundits. French President Nicolas Sarkozy praised the proposed reforms immediately, as did Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain. All this happened at a time when, as Bernard-Henri Lévy so memorably put it, it was “very difficult to make blow jobs to dictators in the Arab world.” Thus, while most Western governments scrupulously refrained from praising their former allies, they made an exception for Morocco: it received a free pass, merely on the promise of reform.

At home, however, the king’s advisers and ministers sought to undermine the February 20 Movement systematically through a variety of strategies: physical threats against activists, accusations that they were drug addicts and alcoholics, hacking of social media accounts, press censorship, and salary raises for public sector employees and riot police.

In addition, demonstrations that took place after the king’s speech were often repressed, sometimes quite savagely, as happened on March 13 in Casablanca, when the police assaulted the headquarters of the Parti Socialiste Unifié, where protesters had sought refuge; and on May 22 in Rabat, when truncheon-wielding officers chased protesters through the streets of the capital; and on May 29, again in Casablanca, when police officers on motorcycles charged through crowds of protesters in the Sbata neighborhood. Seven people were killed during these weeks of protests: five in Al Hoceima, one in Sefrou and one in Safi. Students went on strike, followed by teachers and even journalists from the official press agency. By June, the number of protesters had grown to 60,000.

While the Mennouni commission was working on the draft Constitution, however, the revolutions in other parts of the Arab world turned bloody, particularly in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Libya. In Morocco these outbursts of violence created widespread fears of chaos, which were exacerbated when, on April 29, a bomb exploded in the Argana Café in Marrakesh, killing sixteen people. The Moroccan government said that the bomb was the work of Al Qaeda and swiftly arrested seven suspects.

The bomb in Marrakesh reminded people of the threat of Islamist violence and in some ways reinforced what has long been a prevailing narrative about Morocco, whether at home or abroad: the king represents stability, while the Islamists (and, by implication, those who associate with them) represent chaos. The fact that the February 20 Movement included activists from Justice and Charity, a banned Islamist party, increasingly became a point of contention. At a lecture I gave in Los Angeles, for example, a Moroccan attendee told me that she had supported the reformist movement until she found out that it included Islamists among its ranks.

In June, when the Mennouni commission finished its work, it presented the draft Constitution to political parties in a single, ten-hour session, which was closed to the public. The parties were not given a written copy—the text was read to them—and there were no reports that Mennouni had amended the text in any way as a result of the discussion. The king gave another televised speech, this time to outline the most significant changes in the new Constitution. For instance, it recognizes the language of the indigenous Amazigh people as an official language of Morocco. The prime minister, renamed the “head of government,” must be selected from the party that wins elections and can propose ministers for the cabinet. Those who hold public office must be held accountable.

But in reality the new Constitution largely preserves the king’s powers: he remains entirely in charge of the military and of religious affairs. He still chooses all provincial governors and the heads of all major national companies. And he can dissolve Parliament at will. Perhaps the best measure of how much, or how little, has changed is the fact that while the old Constitution referred to the king as “sacred,” the new one calls him “inviolable.” At the end of his speech, the king asked Moroccans to vote yes in a referendum to be held on July 1, just two weeks later.

Those two weeks seemed to take the entire country back to the heyday of King Hassan’s propaganda, when television anchors acted like town criers rather than journalists. The “yes” campaign received ample screen and radio coverage—as much as 89.6 percent of airtime, according to a report issued by the Haute Autorité de la Communication Audiovisuelle. Banners promoting a yes vote were hung at the entrances of medinas and at city intersections. Youths were paid to carry flags and pictures of the king. Ads were taken out by major companies saying that they and their employees intended to vote yes. Mosque preachers throughout the kingdom were ordered to read the same sermon, which advocated for a yes vote. Members of the Boutchichiya Sufi order marched in several major cities to show their support for the Constitution. When Jalal Makhfi, the Morocco correspondent for Dubai TV, dared to mention the “no” campaign in a report, Khalid Naciri had him and his editor sacked from that network.

On the evening of July 1 the government announced that the new Constitution had been approved by 98.5 percent of the voters, with turnout at 72 percent. Western leaders, including the French president, the representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, found much to admire in the referendum. Analysts were even more forthcoming. Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution argued that the king had designed a “model of real reform” for the Middle East. Lee Smith of The Weekly Standard argued that Morocco was “on its way to democracy” and could even be said to be on the winning side of a “fundamental confrontation, between obscurantism and democracy.”

Few of these Western enablers seemed to question the one-sided campaign that had led to the vote or to wonder about the widespread reports of irregularities. At a mall community room in Los Angeles, where I voted, I was asked for my ID card, not for a consular registration card, as required by Moroccan law. My name was not checked against a voter list. No one asked for my signature. And although I pointed out to the official that my ID card had long ago expired, he said it did not matter and handed me a ballot.

The February 20 Movement, which had called for a boycott of the referendum, responded to its results with a mixture of derision and disbelief. The protesters resumed their street demonstrations on the first Sunday after the plebiscite, and they have continued ever since. Still, the wild hopes of that sunny Sunday in February seem to have been deferred. Back then, I remember, protesters had carried a banner that said, “We do not seek better conditions of servitude; we want freedom from servitude.” For the moment, better conditions of servitude are exactly what the king has offered Moroccans.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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