Morocco: Liberalization as Smokescreen for Democratization
Published Monday, October 31, 2011
Close to 5 months have passed since a much touted constitutional referendum was carried out in Morocco. The move was hailed by various world leaders as a monumental step towards reform in a country depicted as an “exception” to the rule of revolt now governing the rest of North Africa. But the constitutional reform – which was more about issues of liberalization rather than democratization – has done little to change the political system and social reality of Moroccans.
Whatever constitutional change the monarchy embarked on was itself a result of public pressure. Following the outbreak of protests in Tunisia last December, commentators such as Ahmed Charai and Jennifer Rubin boasted that Morocco was an exception amid the Arab revolts. Moroccans, they claimed, are content and protests would not reach the kingdom. But a mere month after Ben Ali was deposed, social media sites became abuzz with calls for mobilization in Morocco. The movement called itself the “February 20th Movement,” named after the first scheduled popular march. The demands included political reform, a separation of the king’s powers in the political, religious, and economic realms, an end to corruption and nepotism, economic reform, and the legislation of secular laws, among others.
A few weeks later on March 9, King Mohammad VI announced the establishment of a commission headed by his advisor, Abdellatif Menouni, tasked with drafting a new constitution. The king’s decision to handpick members of the council drew criticism from members of the February 20th Movement, highlighting the undemocratic nature of the process. Soon after the constitution was drafted, Mohammad VI gave the Moroccan public 10 days to read, decide, and later vote on the document. The vote took place on July 1. The February 20th Movement called for the boycott of the referendum, arguing that the constitution was being used as a tool of liberalization instead of democratization, and that the amount of time allotted to debate it for a country which holds the highest illiteracy rate in the region, was short. Despite calls for the boycott, the Ministry of Interior announced the results of the referendum, with a sweeping 98 percent approval of the new constitution, a result many contested and denounced.
The changes themselves are largely cosmetic. They do not place a serious check on the power of the king. The constitution continues to grant the king authority over “strategic decision making” with no clear limits and the ability to declare a state of emergency. While Parliament has the power to pass laws, the final word rests with the king, who essentially remains the unchecked arbiter of the political system. Additionally, the king’s title as “Commander of the Faithful” or Amir al-Muminin, remains intact, with the new constitution carrying on the controversial Article 19, highlighting his inviolability. The new constitution, instead, demonstrates steps towards cultural liberalization: Tamazight is recognized as an official language, national identity is no longer defined under the guise of Arab or Muslim descriptions, and emphasis is placed on gender equality, among other changes. The overall process demonstrated an abrupt response to public pressure. Like previous constitutions, direction was taken from the monarch instead of the people.
The extent of reforms and their slow pace may be a result of some degree of difference between the nature of the protests in Morocco and those of say, Egypt or Yemen. Unlike Egypt or Yemen, major Moroccan cities lack an architectural public space, such as Tahrir or Change Square. For that reason, most of the protests in Morocco have been carried out in what are referred to as hay cha’abi, or popular neighborhoods. They are suburbs such as Akkari in Rabat or Sbata in Casablanca, areas of low to middle class incomes, relatively centralized in structure, and higher in density. Due to the high illiteracy rate of 56 percent, political activity in Morocco has been limited. In addition to the remnants of fear from Hassan II’s repressive regime, a majority of Moroccans have been hesitant to join and support the movement.
The occurrence of protests in these popular neighborhoods has benefited the movement in mobilizing more participants and in amplifying their voice towards a demographic that can relate to the cause. Additionally, unlike the usual Friday protests that took place throughout the region, protests in Morocco have generally been held on Sundays, the day when most Moroccans don’t go to work.
Members of the movement have repeated on many occasions that their goal is not to overthrow the regime. However, their views have been marginalized by those who oppose the movement, namely the baltajias, or pro-regime thugs. Between the March 9 speech and the July 1 referendum, protests in Morocco intensified and police repression grew violent, with the death of Kamal Omari, an activist in Safi. Consistent footage of riot police violently dispersing protesters kept appearing on various social media. Police responses became particularly brutal after the April 28 bombing of the Marrakech Argana Café.
But, as the police response became more passive as protests grew, baltajias picked up where police left off. There were a number of instances which involved baltajias attacking and harassing key figures and organizers of the February 20th Movement. Unfortunately, the use of the thugs as instruments of violent repression in place of a security force directly attached to the state has been a consistent practice throughout the region. Despite the incitement of baltajias, protests have remained consistently peaceful and recent mainstream media reports have numbered the protesters in the ten thousands.
There have also been instances of arbitrary arrests, including the arrest of Moad Haked, a Moroccan rapper, who has yet to be tried. Friends and family of Haked were also arrested for protesting against his detainment. Moroccan journalist, Rachid Nini, was sentenced to one year in prison for writing about torture practices carried out by the Moroccan intelligence services, DST, in a secret detention center in Temara. Mohammed Boudouroua, a February 20th Movement activist, was pushed off a roof by police, resulting in his death several hours after the fall. Police have denied this, claiming Boudouroua jumped off the roof in an act of suicide, a claim denied by witnesses and his family.
The February 20th Movement has renewed calls for protests in Morocco and has announced their boycott of the November 25 parliamentary elections. Activists have argued that the constitution has not institutionalized any legitimate change, and the aforementioned instances illustrate their claim. The Unified Socialist Party and the Democratic Socialist Party have also announced their decision to boycott the elections.
Morocco’s economic policies have also sparked anger amongst protesters. In an attempt to quell a popular uprising, the government increased public wages and food subsidies. But it has also engaged in unpopular steps such as the recent launch of the US$4 billion TGV, France’s high-speed rail service, a project many Moroccans deemed unnecessary and ill-timed given the budget deficits the country is suffering from. Despite the unpopularity of such moves, there remains a large majority of Moroccans who are uncertain about the movement of change, and some fear the Libyan or Syrian scenarios. But that might eventually become the exception rather than the rule.
Samia Ben Charqui is a Washington-based Moroccan-American blogger.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.