February 20th Movement in Retrospect: The Treacherous Path of Reform
By: Samia Errazzouki
Published Thursday, January 5, 2012
Morocco, like its North African neighbors, has recently seen the rise of a leaderless pro-democracy movement. The February 20th Movement drew on inspirations from movements in Tunisia and Egypt, while adapting its message to the political context of Morocco.
But the path of change took on a more moderate tone. Unlike neighboring pro-democracy movements, the February 20th Movement called for political reforms, not the ousting of the regime. Every Sunday for about eleven months, members of the movement have marched on the streets to put pressure on the Moroccan regime, resulting in a new constitution and parliamentary elections in which the Islamist Party of Justice and Development came to power. The movement’s inclusive nature has drawn a wide array of activists who contribute in different ways to the growth and maturity of a campaign that initially began as a call for protests on Sunday, February 20.
As they look back at their experience, Moroccan activists are proud of their achievements despite the need for continued struggle. One of the most familiar faces of the February 20th Movement is Zineb Belmkaddem, a single mother based in Rabat who can often be seen as the face of the movement on international news networks or the figure holding the megaphone in a march leading chants. Her role in the movement, like many other activists, grew out of accumulated frustration over a combination of living conditions and the political system in Morocco.
“When I saw what happened in the other Arab countries, I wanted to express all these feelings, and after I watched the first call for protests on Youtube, I had tears in my eyes and decided the journey would start there, and it did,” explains Zineb.
When asked about her role in the movement, Zineb responds, “I can't think of something I haven’t done.” With her multi-lingual background, she found herself speaking on behalf of the movement on major media outlets, including France24, Al Jazeera, and PBS. Within the movement, she has worked with logistics in addition to coming up with slogans that have since been chanted throughout the country. Online, she also regularly provides coverage on the protests.
The movement has struggled in gaining popularity within Moroccan society, which remains predominately apolitical. Zineb counters the widespread criticism, “Our role is to steer this movement and our society, as individual citizens and groups, towards positive change and democracy.” Sure enough, within less than three weeks of the movement’s first protest, King Mohammad VI announced constitutional reforms on March 9.
But the biggest accomplishment was the movement’s ability to act on its dissent independently of the Moroccan government. Zineb emphasizes, “Moroccan people deserve to do positive things for Morocco without having to get blessings, guidance, and orders from the king.”
Without limiting themselves to the February 20th Movement, Zineb, along with other pro-democracy activists are working together to form a political party, the Moroccan Pirate Party, whose three goals are education, transparency, and rule of law. The party channels the spirit of the pro-democracy movement with the aim of working within existing political institutions. The Pirate Party hosts members throughout the world.
One of the members of the Pirate Party, a Moroccan blogger based in France, is also an active figure in Morocco’s pro-democracy movement. Hisham Almiraat, has been on the media front of the February 20th Movement through his role in co-founding Mamfakinch, a citizen media platform which provides consistent coverage on the movement. Hisham explains how the idea for Mamfakinch emerged out of frustration over the Moroccan government’s hold on mainstream media outlets and the need to provide an outlet for the movement to reach an audience.
“We found ourselves as an extension of what was going on on the ground,” reflects Hisham. Within just weeks of the movement’s start, Mamfakinch became a major source for footage, images, and accounts of the movement’s developments. Their weekly liveblog and mapping of protests in Morocco draws a regular online audience throughout the world. Mamfakinch maintains an international audience by publishing in Arabic, English, and French, powered by a volunteer based network of activists, writers, and professionals.
The project has not been without challenges. Hisham admits that one of the major obstacles has been competing against print media in a country where the internet is not a key source for information, an issue tied to a 56 percent literacy rate. However, what sets Mamfakinch apart is its uncensored material, which Hisham highlights as an advantage to its audience, given the tools to interpret the content on their own.
Nadir Bouhmouch is another Moroccan activist who is working on propelling the movement’s message to a greater audience, both within Morocco and throughout the world. Nadir is currently studying Film and International Security/Conflict Resolution at San Diego State University and is also the president of his local chapter of Amnesty International. He has spent the last several months in Morocco pairing his fields of study working on a film project titled, My Makhzen and Me, which chronicles the February 20th Movement and the tactics used against the movement by the regime.
After attending multiple protests and meetings with members of the movement, Nadir noted a general failure to use art to further the movement. “Art is a great way to expand the numbers beyond those protesters who have become regulars at every demonstration,” says Nadir. He mentions detained Moroccan rapper, L7a9ed, whose music has been critical of the Moroccan regime, while his detainment has been a major rallying point for the movement.
Nadir stresses the need for arts in addition to the weekly protests, “Going out to the street is the most direct and effective way to get a government to its knees, but the streets have to be complimented by the arts.” His film, My Makhzen and Me, is due for release on 20 February 2012, the one year anniversary of the movement.