Morocco: Feb20, A Year Later


Has it really been a year?

It has. It really has.

A year ago, the Feb20 Movement launched Morocco‘s participation in the broader regional “Arab Spring,” a phenomenon for which the explanations vary, that can be summed up as the people’s express desire for—and in some cases the realization of—a transformation in the region of autocratic, repressive dictatorships into states based on citizen-based sovereignty and the values of social justice and equal opportunity.

[NB: The Guardian newspaper provides a nifty, if slightly unwieldy, interactive timeline of the Middle East protests that began soon after December 2010, showing the relevant dates in the different countries across the region. A more in-depth discussion on the regional uprisings is available through the American University of Beirut’s impressive resource guide, with links to think tank articles, news articles, etc.]


Morocco and the Feb20 Movement

I was in Casablanca in April and May of 2011, and it was an exhilarating time: frank discussion about politics and debates about which way to move forward, and at the same time incredible anxieties about what the change would bring.

If you read the English language international press, you may not have read as much about Morocco’s experience as many of the other countries (Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen). Ex-colonies in Africa and the Middle East usually are covered by newspapers of their former colonial masters, so you’d see more in the French papers on Morocco.

But another reason is that the revolts and calls for reforms in Morocco have not been as plagued with violence as they were in other places and also because the monarchy responded rather quickly to some of the demands, establishing a commission to draft a constitutional reform project that the Moroccan public would approve or reject by referendum (the officially binding constitution is in Arabic, though the government also publishes an official French translation. A non-binding, imperfect English translation also exists).

I say *as* plagued, but it’s not that there was NO violence. In fact, the Feb20 protests last year resulted in five deaths and more than one hundred injuries. There has been violent repression in the past year, and very recent conflagration occurred in Taza, a town in the North, though media-coverage was sparse (here is an Arabic-language report of events in Taza, or a Arabic-language site devoted to Taza news, and a set of French articles on Taza).

But none of the violence in Morocco, as terrible as it has been, compares to Libya or Syria, for example.


Feb20: The Anniversary

A recent article asserts that the Feb20 Movement has lost its way, is elitist, and is not in touch with the youth of Morocco. The article recognizes that the Feb20 Movement brought significant change to the country, something the political parties have been unable to do for decades. But the article argues that because of reforms coupled with a stiff repressive response, much of the mainstream support that swelled the demonstrations to 800,000-strong has disappeared. This is the challenge facing the Feb20 Movement: how to reconnect with the people’s passions and frustrations about social inequality that plagues the nation and mobilize broad numbers into action again.


Accurate analysis?

Originally, the Feb20 Movement did appear to be led by left-leaning youth (and not-so-youth) and right-leaning Islamists of all ages. Certainly, that is how the Monarchy tried to discredit the movement, calling them Marxists and Terrorists. I don’t know that it is an accurate assessment of the rank and file, though.

Having not been back in a year, I am grateful for the article’s insight into what some of Morocco’s youth are thinking and saying, and where the movement for reform and integrity in politics in Morocco finds itself today. Without going there myself, it is sometimes hard to truly determine where things stand—the opinions and emotions on the issue vary widely. And, as evidence that open free debate is not something with a long history, conversations on the topic can sometimes very quickly devolve into shouting matches.

The article fell short, I feel, in glossing over the adept maneuvering by the Monarchy and its agents, the Makhzen (the tentacular oligarchy that functions in the shadow of the Palace, with or without the Monarchy’s explicit direction. Mamfakinch, a core group in the Feb20 Movement, produced a simple cartoon to explain the Makhzen), evidenced in the constitutional reform project and later efforts. It was too pat to simply say, “the Feb20 Movement has lost its way.”

For the sake of transparency, I will disclose that I know some of the people on the constitution drafting committee and I respect them and their commitment to building a better, more just and more equitable Morocco. That said, I still am concerned that a serious problem was created by the limited time given to debate the discuss pro’s and cons of the constitution.


What More Do You Want? vs. This Is Not Everything I Asked For!

For some, it was a good thing the Monarchy heard the people and responded with alacrity: “You want reform? OK! We’ll give you reform!” But, it was a bit rushed, all things considered. King Mohammed VI announced on March 9 that he would form a commission, he appointed people to this commission, they drafted a constitution (with no review by the public or public comment until the final product was produced). Then the new constitution was presented to the public in mid-June and the referendum was set for by July 1.

In the end, the constitutional reform did not satisfy the Feb20 Movement, in addition to voting being rushed. But the Constitution was approved by a majority of Moroccans.

So, the demonstrations continued.

It is true that some Moroccans felt that having “won” the constitutional reform, there should be no more demonstrations. Many in the Feb20 Movement felt otherwise—they wanted to keep the government and Monarchy accountable, and let them know that they would remain engaged and pushing for the reforms they felt the country needed.

Both “What more do you want?” and “This is not everything I asked for!” camps are speaking up, which is itself a welcome change from the silent fear that used to dominate Moroccan political discourse. It was amazingly exhilarating to witness a people freed from (most of) their fear of speaking up and speaking out on a range of issues. It continues to be inspiring.



In late November 2011, Morocco held elections, under the new Constitution.

Reflective of the frustration about the process, these elections only generated a voter participation of 45%, not as high as the 2002 election participation of 52%. The political process and politicians do not hold the people’s confidence. Compared with other places (Iraq, South Sudan, Egypt, Tunisia) where people have been starved for a voice in self-rule and empowerment, the rate of participation is drastically low. In addition, up to a fifth of all ballots cast were blank or had all the options crossed out, another demonstration of dissatisfaction with the system and the options.

The Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) won a plurality in the November 2011 elections and with that, the leadership of Parliament, and have split with the Feb20 Movement. The PJD is now on the “inside,” no longer a part of the Feb20 Movement.


What comes next?

I wonder whether the Feb20 Movement is politically naïve (inexperienced). They have been learning by doing, and doing a great job of organizing. They also clearly have talent, and an ability to tap into and express the desires of a broad swath of the country for change, for justice, for fairness. But inexperience with politics and political organizing may be at the root of the difficulties to which the article alludes.

By the same token, I’m not convinced it is fair to call the Feb20 Movement (even—especially?—without the PJD) elitist, not when I think of the real elites in Morocco.

As the transition from apathy and avoidance of politics (for fear of repression, historically) to civic engagement continues, I hope the Feb20 Movement will recognize that demonstrations alone do not change things.

I can completely understand the incredibly liberating feeling of speaking up after many years of fearing to say anything. There is a sense of being alive for the first time. And protest is a viable way of moving a conversation forward or of raising an issue, but sometimes you have to be strategic, have clear objectives [Moulay Hicham says this to a Feb20 activist, around 16 minutes in], and even make compromises when engaged in political efforts.

My advice: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good (not original, but maybe new to the Feb20 folks). And don’t get stuck in anger. Anger alone is not productive or generative of solutions.


Are Moroccans ready for democracy?

I would say the answer is yes (and admit to some trepidation).

Of what am I afraid?

I fear the depths of anger, boiling under the surface for generations, submerged by decades of political (and social) repression. I fear this anger will erupt without any productive direction. Continuously stoked by those who remain intransigent in the face of insufficient reforms or even backsliding by the Makhzen and the Monarchy, I fear this anger won’t only destroy the elites, in their clubs, behind their walls camouflaged by hibiscus bushes. The entire country is at risk. No longer anger, it will be an annihilating tsunami of rage.


What’s to be done?

The promise and the goal of the Arab Spring was the transformation of the region into societies that prize and embody the twin principles of equality and equity. With the corruption and concentration of wealth and power that exists in Morocco, these goals are distant and much anger remains. I understand the people’s rage.

I sincerely hope the Powers That Be are paying attention and will stop with their political maneuvers, their attempts to outwait and outwit their critics.

Because whether rational or not, reasonable or not, the anger must be addressed, the injustices must stop, the inequities must be resolved.

To fail in this could very well be catastrophic.


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