What began as a nationwide call for protests during the earlier days of February 2011 in Morocco has turned into the loudest voice of dissent in the North African kingdom. Its weekly Sunday protests resulted in a new constitution and early parliamentary elections. Despite these measures by the regime, the movement continues to protest calling for genuine reform claiming its demands have not been met.
While the Tunisian pro-democracy movement led to exile of Ben Ali, a different movement was brewing in Morocco. Amidst the movements in Egypt and Tunisia, vindicated experts expressed their views of the so-called “Moroccan Exceptionalism,” arguing that Morocco would be immune to the wave of protests throughout North Africa. However, just several weeks after Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, calls for a February 20th demonstration throughout Morocco were spreading on social media sites. Unlike the movement in Tunisia, Moroccans were not calling for the fall of the regime but for democratic reforms. From that Sunday on February 20th, members of the February 20th Movement marched on the streets weekly, until today. Within days of the first protest, Fadoua Laroui, a single mother, set herself on fire in protest against the treatment she received as a single mother and after her request for social housing was denied by the local town hall in Souq Sebt. Her story, along with the graphic video, went viral and she was dubbed as the “Moroccan Bouazizi.”
During the beginning weeks of protests, members of the February 20th Movement marched relatively unbothered by riot police. Members of the movement began creatively expressing their dissent by staging a freeze mob staged in front of Parliament. The movement was gaining momentum as international coverage grew, and without even a full month since the movement’s beginning, King Mohammad VI made a public move in response to the movement. On 9 March, Mohammad VI made a speech on national television announcing constitutional reforms. The response was undoubtedly swift for reasons of interests in order to maintain power, just as the February 20th Movement understood it to be. The decision to appoint a council tasked with drafting a new constitution, comprised of figures handpicked by the monarchy, only further reinforced the views that any reforms that were to be executed lacked legitimacy.
Despite the monarchy’s announcement of reforms, the February 20th Movement held their ground and continued protesting every Sunday as planned. However, the weeks following the 9 March speech saw the greatest brutality on the part of riot police. On 24 March, during a demonstration of teachers demanding better benefits, a teacher was brutally beaten by police in front of Parliament. Between late March until the 1 July referendum, police repression of protests was brutal and members of the February 20th Movement were consistent targets of arbitrary arrests. The month of May saw a significant spike in police repression, with many videos going viral. The following is a list of footage and images of police repression:
- 12 May: Students protesting on a campus in Kentira violently dispersed by riot police
- 14 May: Riot police chase and beat protesters in Khroubiga
- 15 May: Police beat protesters indiscriminately in Temara
- 15 May: Graphic images of injured protesters from Temara
- 15 May : Riot police assemble in response to a February 20th Movement protest
- 17 May: Clashes unfold between riot police and protesters in Tangier
- 22 May: Riot police beat and disperse protesters in Oujda
- 22 May: Riot police violently disperse protesters in Rabat
- 22 May: A man recounts an arbitrary detainment in which he was beaten and had his possessions seized by authorities in Rabat
- 22 May: Protesters violently beaten in Rabat
- 29 May: Riot police violently disperse protesters in Casablanca as a woman is singled out by riot police for exclaiming « You’re our brothers. »
- 29 May: Riot police beat a woman holding her child in Casablanca
The above videos spread through social media sites, indicating a regressive democratic reform process, clearly opposing the image propagated by the Moroccan regime. The death of February 20th Movement activist, Kamal Omari, sparked nationwide outrage and initiated a shift in the regime’s response to protests. Security forces withdrew their truncheons and pro-regime thugs, known as baltajiya, resumed the violence against activists. Kamal Hassani, a February 20th Movement activist, died after being stabbed in broad daylight by a baltajiya, along with other activists who were systematically targeted by the baltajiyas. Veteran Moroccan blogger, Larbi.org, curated a series of images and videos illustrating the pro-regime thugs at work in « The Saga of the Baltajias in Morocco. »
With security forces no longer publicly wielding their truncheons against peacefully protesting activists, the Moroccan regime could focus on marketing its reform process. After announcing the constitutional reforms in mid-June, the Moroccan population was given ten days to make sense of the newly drafted constitution. Despite a call for a nationwide boycott by the February 20th Movement, the referendum carried on, resulting in a 98% “yes” vote. Widespread allegations of election fraud, instances of bribery, and ballot-stuffing were reported. Regardless, world leaders praised Morocco’s handle of the call for reforms, calling it a model to be followed in the region. The constitutional referendum was later followed by parliamentary elections. Yet, despite the reforms and elections, the regime’s response to dissent remains stagnant.
Proponents of Morocco’s reform argue that time and patience is needed for full implementation, and rightfully so, the democratization process requires steady reform and evolution. Yet, the following high-profile cases illustrate that a regressive political reform process has overrun the progressive facade marketed by the regime:
- Rachid Nini, Moroccan journalist: Imprisoned a few weeks prior to the constitutional referendum, remains in jail for writing about torture abuses carried out by security forces.
- Mouad Belrhouate (L7a9ed), rapper: Wrote songs criticizing the Moroccan regime, and was imprisoned for 4 months before his trial, in which he was charged for assault but acquitted on time served.
- Walid Bahomane, 18-year old citizen: Shared a 2009 caricature of the king by Damien Glez on Facebook, charged for “violating sacred values,” and sentenced to one year in prison.
- Abdessamad Hiddour, February 20th Movement activist: Expressed views regarding Moroccan regime and monarchy during a four-minute video, charged for “violating sacred values,” and sentenced to three years in prison.
Additionally, multiple reports following Morocco’s constitutional referendum indicate a less than stellar reform process plagued with vague rhetoric and policies of liberalization in the place of democratization. The Economist’s annual Democracy Index placed Morocco at the 119 rank, three spots lower than its previous position. Even with its reforms, Morocco ranks significantly lower than its regional counterparts in multiple categories pertaining to democratization, human, and economic development, factors debunking the painted image of long-term stability.
[Note. I = Corruption rank; out of 178 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2010 (highest is most corrupt). II = Unemployment rate (%). III = % growth of GDP per head, 2001-20. IV = GDP per head (US$ at PPP). V = Life expectancy (years). VI = Mean years of schooling. VII = Median age. VIII = Internet users per 100 people, 2008. IX = % satisfaction with freedom of choice, according to a Gallup survey in 2009. X = % who voiced opinions to officials, according to a Gallup survey in 2008. Sources: Economist Intelligence Unit; Transparency International; IMF; UN Development Programme; World Bank. Image source here]
A late 2011 report from Freedom House analyzed Morocco’s reforms, along with a multitude of factors. The report indicated the following:
“Though the king promised that the new constitution would enhance the prerogatives of the prime minister and parliament, strengthen political parties, increase the independence of the judiciary, and devolve more power to the local level, the proposed changes were vague and fell far short of the protesters’ demands.”
A December 2011 paper published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace echoed the same points as the Freedom House report:
“The constitution does not transform Morocco into a constitutional monarchy (or a parliamentary monarchy, in the language favored by Moroccans) where the king does not govern […]The constitution reserves three crucial areas—religion, security, and strategic policy choices—as the king’s exclusive domain. When such issues are discussed, the king will preside over the cabinet, which automatically ensures that he will have the last word—and probably the first—in any decision.”
The Moroccan regime’s commitment to democratization is constrained through its vaguely-worded constitution and regular arbitrary arrests met with questionable legal processes. However, the monarchy’s royal advising appointments were the greatest cloud over the reform process. Before the cabinet list was made public in early January 2012, King Mohammad VI had already recycled some of the previous government’s most notorious figures as royal advisers. Fouad Ali El Himma, the target of widespread dissent during February 20th Movement marches, was announced royal adviser after his party, the Party of Authenticity and Modernity, performed poorly alongside its Islamist counterparts. El Himma, a former classmate of the king and criticized for his questionable political and business practices in the palace, was a symbol of the cronyism and nepotism that had initially drawn thousands of Moroccans to the streets. The monarchy’s decision to appoint former foreign minister, Taib Fassi-Fihri, as a royal advisor proved to be a clear indication that the monarchy was bent on titling its closest allies with legally undefined positions. Additionally, former minister of tourism and member of the royalist Rally of National Independents, Yassir Zenagui, was also appointed as a royal adviser, despite having only three years of experience as a minister.
As the February 20th Movement will be commemorating its one year anniversary, their role as a protest movement has propelled the flaws of the Moroccan political system to a world stage during a historical period of transitional junctures and political turbulence. The constant pressure of their weekly Sunday protests have proven that Morocco is far from a regional exception and not entirely void of dissent. Most importantly, the Moroccan regime has failed to give a reason for the movement to cease protesting. With a rushed referendum and elections that had no impact on the existing power structure, the regime’s sincerity in democratizing has proven to be empty and dishonest. Despite the beginning of a new year, it appears little has changed in Morocco.