6 September 2016

Five years on, is Morocco still vulnerable to revolution?

By Ben Bowers

Given the dramatic events in the Arab world recently, it is no surprise that many people are looking for the next domino to fall. And one obvious candidate is Morocco.

The country is, to all intents and purposes, an economic and demographic time bomb. It is a young nation: 43 per cent of its population are under the age of 24, and just under a third of young people are unemployed. By 2020, almost 70 per cent of its population will live in cities, and if the labour market conditions do not improve, it could stir dissent amongst the urban poor. Government subsidies on commodities such as fuel, have disproportionately benefited the richest 20 per cent of society and exacerbated the level of inequality. Legislation earlier this year banned the use of Skype, Viber, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger calls which angered young people and expatriates.

Morocco’s political structures are also riddled with problems. The king, Mohammed VI, is responsible for the big projects, such as infrastructure, which give the impression of a thriving and successful nation. Therefore, the more important issues such as education reform, are left to the weaker government which finds it difficult to pass legislation, some of which the king has blocked.
So what does the future hold?

The first thing to say is that events outside of Morocco have limited the calls for radical change. Since 2011 only Tunisia, whose population is a third of Morocco’s, has managed a relatively peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy. Egypt has slid back into a military dictatorship, Libya is in a state of anarchy and brutal civil wars have engulfed Yemen and Syria. Morocco is trying to present itself as a beacon of stability in a turbulent region. This has resonated with Moroccan citizens, who would prefer a slow pace of change over a violent revolution. Memories are also still fresh of the civil war in Algeria, Morocco’s neighbour, in the 1990s in which over 100,000 civilians were killed.

In February 2011, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, ordinary Moroccans took to the streets to call for an open democratic society and remonstrate against the endemic corruption in Morocco. The demonstrations came from all sections of society; from radical students to the urbanised middle class. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, the king responded swiftly to the demands with the creation of a new constitution. This included pledges for the king to select the Prime Minister from the biggest parliamentary party and an official recognition of the Berber language (Amazigh).

It was a shrewd move by the king – the protests lost momentum and eventually died out. Yet the constitutional reforms were cosmetic. They failed to alter the political balance of power because it is impossible for any political party to get more than 20 per cent of the seats in parliament, exacerbated by the fact that all the main political parties support the monarchy. Additionally, the king still holds power over a number of important policy areas, such as foreign affairs.

In 2011 Morocco was not immune to repression itself. The security forces clamped down on protesters, killing two citizens in Safi, and arrested the key protagonists of the February 20th protest movement, the largest protest group in Morocco during the Arab Spring named after the date of the initial uprising. This deterred many ordinary civilians from taking to the streets.
It has been over five years since the Arab Spring begun, and the initial hopes of an open and democratic Middle East have dissipated. However, there are some Moroccans who have not given up just yet. Is it too late?

It is important to understand that the monarch enjoys a high level of popular support. A portrait of Mohammad VI is adorned in almost every public area in Morocco. He has taken on a more modern image, in contrast with his tyrannical father and predecessor, Hassan II, who ruled from 1961 to 1999. Since Mohammad took over he has enacted laws to improve women’s rights in marriage and he established a truth commission to look into human rights abuses under his father’s reign. The king also possesses huge religious legitimacy. The monarchy claims to descend from the prophet Muhammad and the king participates in a number of annual symbolic rituals to boost his religious appeal. Therefore, the monarchy has monopolised Morocco’s religious space (99% of the country’s population is Muslim) and this has limited the appeal of alternative Islamist movements, such as al-Adl wal-Ihsane (Justice and Good Deeds).

The king is especially popular amongst the poor, who tend to be more conservative and believe that they have a special psychological relationship with the king, according to author Mohamed Daadaoui. Most of the protestors were not demanding regime change, they were simply calling for a constitutional monarchy which limited the political power of the king, an end to corruption and a more open society. Morocco is religiously homogenous and the current Alaouite dynasty has ruled Morocco since the 17th century, making it an intrinsic part of the Moroccan heritage and national identity. Events such as the war in Western Sahara have strengthened Moroccan nationalist sentiment, and the monarchy is a key element of this.

Despite the limited success of the 2011 protests, something more fundamental changed in Moroccan society. It was the first time that the king was openly criticized without repercussions from the security forces. This marked the end of a long-held taboo. The February 20th movement attained a large level of public support. The security forces were successful in weakening the movement, which now spends most of its energy calling for the release of imprisoned members and discussing logistics for future protests.

From the outside it looks like the 20th February movement has failed in its objectives of a fairer and more open Morocco. Its monthly demonstrations average around 200 protestors, a far cry from the tens of thousands who took part in 2011. However, many observers see the February 20th movement as more than just a protest platform. The youth are more liberal and they want a Morocco which is more Mediterranean in its outlook. It is an idea of a more open Morocco and the barriers of fear are being gradually removed. Whilst the movement has been weakened, the spirit of the February 20th movement lives on.

In the short term, the king faces no serious threat to his rule. The security forces have remained loyal to the monarchy and ordinary Moroccans do not want a violent and bloody uprising, having seen the chaos and destruction in other parts of the Arab world. The king is popular amongst the conservative and religious elements of Moroccan society. Yet social media and globalisation are giving young Moroccans an insight into a more Western way of life. In the long-term, the ruling establishment will eventually have to deal with the structural issues which plague Morocco, such as unemployment and inequality. If they do not, the time-bomb of a young urban nation may well explode.

Ben Bowers is a CapX contributor.