Will Moroccans’ protests be heard?
18 June, by Balint Szlanko
A self-confident, vocal protest culture has begun to grow in Morocco since the Arab Spring protests in 2011. Demonstrations and sit-ins are everywhere, not just the big cities. According to official statistics, there may be up to 50 incidents a day (slightly down from 2011 and 2012). People protest over everything from unemployment to environmental issues and workers’ rights, trying to push the limits in this restrictive Arab monarchy.
“Things changed in 2011,” says Khadija Riyadi, former head of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights, an NGO, and winner of the UN’s human rights prize. ”The fear has diminished. People are more aware of their rights.”
It’s difficult to walk down the street in Rabat or Casablanca without running into a demonstration. Private-college students stand in front of parliament, demanding that the state recognize their degrees. Fired mill-workers have a sit-in in front of the owner’s house, demanding that their court-ordered compensation be paid (they’ve been at it since 2003). … And in April, ten thousand people protested against the government’s austerity plans.
“These protests are less about politics and more about economic and social issues,” says Maati Monjib, professor of north African history at the University of Rabat. “People are less afraid of the state. When a factory sacks half of its workers, people demonstrate. That never used to happen before.” Bib Elmoumni, a student, who leads the college demonstration in front of parliament, says cheerfully: “It is now very difficult for the police to beat you because people know that they have rights. They might still beat you but now at least it’s possible to discuss things with them.”
King Mohammed VI may have avoided the fate of some of his fellow Arab autocrats. In 2011, seeing the intensity of the protests engulfing his country, he offered timely political concessions including a new constitution, under which the monarch must appoint the head of the biggest party as prime minister. This produced a mildly Islamist government after the 2011 elections. But opposition critics say that in practice little has changed: real power still resides with the Palace and security services, and the government merely acts to obey the king’s directives — and take the rap for the IMF austerity programme. Moreover the king seems to care little even for the letter of the constitution: in April he removed Morocco’s UN ambassador and named a new one, even though that is the government’s prerogative.
The many demonstrations show that Morocco is hardly the police state it once was. Yet the security services are again clamping down. Ali Anouzla, a journalist who has written about corruption cases and criticized the king’s absences from the country, is facing terrorism charges after his website linked to an Al Qaeda video on a Spanish news portal. I asked Anouzla (now released on bail) whom he thinks he offended. He answered: “The king. I criticized the monarchy too much and how he’s got so much money. He doesn’t like criticism because he is afraid it will lead to the emergence of a critical public opinion.”
Mohammed VI certainly has plenty of money. Forbes estimates his fortune at $2.5bn, making him the 8th richest monarch in the world. Through the royal holding, he is Morocco’s biggest investor, with interests in mining, insurance, banks, real estate and supermarkets. He is also the biggest landowner. Critics say that his political power is mainly for protecting his business interests and those of his friends. “Much of this is about money,” says Maati Monjib. “The king has access to land for free so he can sell flats 15-20% cheaper than his competitors.” The royal holding is even part owner of Brasseries de Maroc, which distributes Heineken in the country.
On 22 May nine young activists were sentenced to up to a year in prison for taking part in a protest. “This has already been decided, the judge is just waiting for the telephone call,” said Boudad Mohamed, the father of one of the defendants, before the ruling. His son, Ayoub, says he was fired from his job after his arrest. “There is a revenge campaign against us,” says Khadija Ryadi. “They are trying to take back what they gave.” She reckons there may be a hundred pro-democracy activists in prison or in detention. At the end of May, Mouad Belghouat, a hip-hop artist whose songs inspired the 2011 protests, was charged with the unlikely crime of attacking a policeman while drunk and illegally selling tickets at a football match.
Morocco’s modern-day kings have always been astute political tacticians. In 2011, Mohammed VI may have felt he had no choice but to share some of his power. Now that the Arab Spring’s momentum is gone and most of the revolutionary states have either sunk into civil war or have seen the power of the old guard restored, he may calculate he can strengthen his autocratic rule again. “We have less freedom now than even before 2011,” says Ali Anouzla. “The regime is trying to scare people, telling everybody it will be like in Egypt, like in Syria, and we should be happy that Morocco is at least stable. But all that is just to protect their power.” Shortly after this interview Anouzla was given a month’s suspended prison sentence for “defaming public institutions”.
Most activists I spoke to see little hope of meaningful political change in Morocco any time soon: the Palace is too strong and most political parties accept the system as it is. But some are more optimistic. Abdullah Lefnatsa, an independent trade unionist, says: “The political activists have been weakened. But their ideas and practices have spread, even to the most remote areas of Morocco. People used to expect the elite to provide them with answers to their problems. Now they go out and get them. Protests here used to be very isolated — only students, human-rights types, trade unionists. But now it’s everybody.”