Looking Back on Morocco’s Arab Spring

Arab Spring impacted Morocco in February 2011 beginning with protests of solidarity for the Egyptian revolution and later nationwide demonstrations motivated by a general overwhelming dissatisfaction with current affairs. Moroccan youth, frustrated by their country’s poverty, inequality of opportunity, and authoritarian regime, began protesting on February 20th. The protests were organized and promoted via Facebook and YouTube.

Below is a video clip about the “February 20 Youth Movement” in Morocco.

In response to this and other protests, King Mohammed promised to enact constitutional reforms. These reforms came about in June 2011, but unsatisfied citizens continued protesting through September.

NPR recently (February 7, 2012 – one week ago) reported on the lasting effects of the Arab Spring in Morocco. Here is an excerpt from the online article, describing the reasons for unrest and the continued protests of young people calling for more substantial reform: 

Poverty is one of many issues that ignited protests in the region — and in Morocco. On Feb. 20, 2011, Moroccans took to the streets to demonstrate in a country considered one of the most stable in the region. King Mohammed VI moved quickly to placate the protesters by offering constitutional reforms and calling early elections. But progress toward democracy has also revealed the limits of civil disobedience.

Desire For A Different Kind Of Monarchy

The spark came when a group of young Moroccans called for demonstrations on Feb. 20 with a YouTube video that stated their demands for freedom and equality — their motives for calling for the street march. For the first time, demonstrators were directly challenging the absolute powers of the king, says businessman Karim Tazi, who joined the protest.

“In a lot of Arab countries, the goal was a simple one — get rid of the dictator,” Tazi says. “In Morocco, the situation was more complicated than that. No one wanted to get rid of the king, but they want a different monarchy, they don’t want an authoritarian one.”

Economist Fouad Abdelmoumni says they want a symbolic monarchy more like Britain or Spain and a parliament with powers. They want a democracy, he says, not through revolution, as in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, but through reform.

“We have a whole generation that is emerging to politics, that is beginning to think of politics and beginning to have faith that they can lead their life and change their situation,” Abdelmoumni says.

A year after the first demonstrations, reforms offered by the king are being tested. The head of the new government is an Islamist. His Justice and Development Party, or PJD, won the most votes in November elections, but the king and his advisers still retain substantial power, says Abdelmoumni, and can stall the proposals of the PJD.

“Will they be able to change the mindset where corruption and nepotism [are] the basic behavior of the state?” he asks.

That is the election promise, says Abdelmoumni, and party officials have already pledged to disclose the list of Moroccans who have benefited from a system known as grima, a French word that in Morocco means favors bestowed by the monarch.

“They will pay the price if they decide to go strongly against corruption, and they will pay the price if they don’t go far enough, because the population is expecting a lot,” Abdelmoumni says.

Moroccan King Mohammed VI (shown here in Tangiers in September) moved quickly to placate the protesters of the Feb. 20 movement. Now, though, the limits of those reforms are being tested.

A Limit To The Changes

This population expects jobs. Unemployed college graduates protest every week in the capital. They shocked the country a few weeks ago when five set themselves on fire. Three were hospitalized and one died.

The new government’s strategy is to seek economic growth and curb corruption, but Ahmed Benchemsi says that could lead to a collision with entrenched interests — the elites connected to the king. Benchemsi, the former publisher of a popular news magazine, is now a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. In a visit home to Rabat recently, he explained that the monarch controls much of the Moroccan economy.

“[The king] is the No. 1 businessman in the country,” Benchemsi said. “He’s the No. 1 grocer, he’s the No. 1 farmer, he’s the No. 1 landowner, he’s the No. 1 steel producer, sugar producer. … He’s a huge businessman.”

And despite the new constitution, the king can still block any law he dislikes, Benchemsi says, adding that there are limits to the changes won by the protest movement a year ago.It’s a critique heard across the region from the young protesters who brought so many to the streets.

“They should have worked like a political movement,” says Benchemsi. “But the thing is, the protest movement in Morocco is not a political movement. It is just a bunch of kids who dream of democracy — which is a beautiful thing, but it’s not enough to shake a deeply rooted system like the Moroccan monarchy.”

The demand in Morocco was to shake up the system, not destroy it. But if the government and the king fail to deliver soon, analysts say, the next confrontation could be tougher — against the monarchy itself.

(This article, “In Morocco, Arab Spring’s Mixed Bounty,” by Deborah Amos, can be found at http://www.npr.org/2012/02/07/146526685/in-morocco-the-arab-springs-mixed-bounty)

– Svati Narula

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