Morocco Reforms: Criminalizing Dissent

Demonstrators take part in a demonstration called by the February 20 movement to ask for more democracy in Rabat, 22 July 2012. (Photo: AFP - Fadel Senna)

By: Samia Errazzouki

Published Friday, July 27, 2012

It has been over a year since the first pro-democracy protests began in Morocco. Since the beginning of the February 20 Movement on 20 February 2011, Morocco has adopted a new constitution which promises measures of liberalization. Rushed parliamentary elections brought the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) to the forefront of the new government. Supporters of the regime argue that it will take time for reforms to be enacted, but there is little to indicate that Morocco is truly heading toward a path of democratic reforms.

On Sunday July 22, the remaining chapters of the February 20 Movement staged nationwide protests – from Rabat to Casablanca and al-Jadida. The Movement has dwindled in numbers but activists are still pushing for the same reforms they have been calling for since their first day as a popular movement: the elimination of corruption, a separation of powers, economic and education freedom, and the right to freedom of expression.

Moroccan citizen media portal, Mamfakinch, covered Sunday’s protests and published a set of graphic photos from the march in Jadida, a city just south of Casablanca. The images showed protesters with blood and bruises after they were beaten by riot police who dispersed the demonstration using truncheons.

After the protests on Sunday, police kidnapped and detained six activists (five men and one woman) in Casablanca. Laila Nassimi, the only female among the arrested, was released on bail. Her trial is due to resume on 3 August, along with the five others, who were all denied release on bail. Speaking with Abdesslame al-Bahi, one of the lawyers for the activists, he explained the violent nature of the activists’ detainment. Al-Bahi said that the five activists who remain in jail had sustained injuries. Despite being promised medical treatment, they have yet to be visited by a medical examiner.

The six activists are being charged with belonging to the “banned February 20 Movement,” violence against the police, and the disruption of traffic – charges that are being contested by their lawyers. The charges come at a time when the regime crackdown on the February 20 Movement continues to intensify. There are reports of the arrest of 11 activists in Casablanca, simply for their association and activities within the movement. A member of the Unified Socialist Party (PSU),which has publicly supported the movement, was also arrested.

The movement saw its peak between April and May, prior to the constitutional referendum, with the numbers of protesters estimated at between 10,000 and 20,000. This period also saw the height of violent police repression, which drew greater international media attention.

The momentum was short-lived, and soon after the July 1 constitutional referendum, which the movement boycotted because of the constitution’s cosmetic reforms, numbers began to decline. After the November 25 parliamentary elections, the Islamist faction within the movement, al-Adl Wal-Ihsan (AWI), quit the movement, arguing that they “have suffered marginalization at the hands of some parties in February 20 and this involved the ceiling of political demands, a ban on making public statements and the use of slogans that reflect our group’s ideology.”

Another cause for its decline was the regime’s continuous alienation of the movement and the state-media embargo, which effectively constrained the movement’s mobilization in Moroccan society. The movement was constantly vilified as being radical, separatist, far-leftist, and Islamist — a narrative quickly accepted by mainstream sentiment.

After Mohammad VI’s March 9 speech, in which he announced sweeping constitutional reforms in response to the movement’s demands, the vast majority of the Moroccan population felt that it was worth waiting for the new constitution. And with the near doubling of subsidies aimed at cushioning any predicted rise in food and fuel prices, most Moroccans had little incentive to join the movement in its weekly Sunday protests.

The pro-democracy February 20 Movement continues to experience a steady decline in numbers, and analysts are already forecasting the movement's "fall." Yet, the recent July 22 protest and the regime’s swift repression and crackdown on activists indicate that while the movement may have declined, its core, however small, remains persistent and is considered a nuisance by the regime. The Casablanca judge’s decision to charge the activists for associating with an “illegal movement” indicates a sharp deviation from the regime’s limited tolerance of the movement. While the former communications minister, Khalid Naciri, employed harsh words in describing the movement, no regime official had ever described it as “illegal.”

Prominent Moroccan blogger and “lawyer on probation,” Ibnkafka, took to Twitter in light of the verdict:

He went on to speculate that in labeling the movement as “illegal” the stage has been set for what he described as the regime’s “harsh but discreet crackdown” on the movement.

The verdict raises questions about the decision-making process behind such cases. The lack of transparency makes it difficult to assess and measure the monarchy’s role in such decisions. The 2011 constitution does not institute a clear separation between the monarchy’s power and the judiciary process. According to article 56, “The King presides over the Superior Council of the Judicial Power.” The following article notes that he also approves the appointments of magistrates by dahir an incontestable royal decree. And even though article 107 states, “The judicial power is independent of the legislative power and of the executive power,” the next line explicitly says that the king is the “guarantor” of its independence, obstructing the law of separation, once again.

The judge’s verdict itself stands in direct conflict with article 10's commitment to protecting the opposition’s “freedom of opinion, of expression, and of assembly.” Designating the February 20 Movement as “illegal” is a major step toward further marginalizing a movement already muffled by the regime’s continued and systematic repression. By criminalizing the movement, the regime has indicated that its commitment to democratization is nothing more than well-crafted PR-talk aimed at molding an image of stability and content for outsiders. Times are certainly changing for the only kingdom in North Africa – but not for the better.

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