RABAT, Morocco—Faced with a growing pro-democracy movement, King Mohamed VI of Morocco surprised many on March 9 when he declared in a nationally televised speech that he was willing to trim his powers and become a constitutional monarch. Toward this end, he named an 18-member commission to reform the constitution headed by the respected jurist and professor of law at Rabat’s Mohamed V University Abdelatif Mennouni. The king asked Mennouni to submit a report to him by June outlining changes to be voted on in a popular referendum later this year.
Among the reforms announced by Mohamed VI were future elections for prime minister and regional governors instead of palace appointments; elevating Amazigh identity (as the often-discriminated-against Berbers are known here) as a core element of the nation’s overall identity; and transforming the judiciary into an independent branch of the government.
M6, as the king is popularly called in this Northwest African nation of 35 million people, also spoke of “boosting moral integrity in public life,” referring to widespread government corruption. He appointed a close advisor to head another commission to gather suggestions for constitutional reform from political party leaders, trade unionists, NGOs and the potent youth movement that has organized mass demonstrations as part of the ongoing democratic uprising in North Africa and the Middle East.
While the king’s actions are more than the political elite expected, they were not enough for some reformers and many young activists.
Abdoubakr Jamai, former editor-in-chief of the now-defunct Journal Hebdomadaire, told Voice of America that for many in the democratic movement the king’s speech was ambiguous “because he claims that Morocco will usher in an era of democratization with the institution of a constitutional monarchy, with a prime minister who will be designated from the winning party in parliamentary elections, with separation of powers, independence of the judiciary, etc. The problem with all these things is that we were supposed to have them before.”
In his speech, Mohammed VI skirted mention of nationwide demonstrations organized by the February 20 movement on that day. Organizers claimed they mobilized 300,000 people in 53 cities and towns, while the government put numbers at 37,000. In the capital of Rabat, the turnout was 5,000 at most, modest by Moroccan standards. In recent decades, more than one million Moroccans have rallied in support of Palestinians, around one million turned out for an Islamist demonstration against family reform, and some 300,000 showed up when secularists pushed for women’s rights. Several political parties such as the “moderate” Islamist party, the Party for Justice and Development (PJD), and the Party of Progress and Socialism, the successor to the banned Communist Party, did not participate.
The minister of interior denounced the protests before and after they took place. During the Tunisian Revolution in January, the minister twice refused to grant permits for demonstrations in front of the Tunisian embassy in Rabat. However, after Egyptians forced out President Hosni Mubarak in February, hundreds of Moroccans demonstrated in Rabat’s city center. The Interior Ministry, a stronghold of anti-reform elements, told them they could protest, but they could not call for regime change in Morocco.
Demonstrators on Feb. 20 called for lower food prices, more jobs and constitutional reform, such as limiting the king’s power and elections for the prime minister. Most protests remained calm, but violence erupted in several cities as a few hundred young people in each place broke off from the main demonstrations, setting fire to banks (with five deaths in Al Hoceima) and trashing gasoline stations, as well as a McDonald’s and a Spanish department store in Marrakech.
Poor youth vented their anger over the large class divisions in a country with an annual per capita income of less than $2,800, high youth unemployment and an adult illiteracy rate of 44 percent. (The official unemployment rate is around 9 percent, and the real unemployment rate may be double that.)
Oussama El Khlifi, a leader of the February 20 movement, has explained that about 50 men and women in their late teens and 20s, inspired by Tunisia’s Jasmine revolution, created a Facebook group on Jan. 11. It soon mushroomed into a movement of 20,000 youth discussing politics, social justice, poverty and corruption and advocating democratization of the regime. Youth unemployment, the lack of decent housing, poor healthcare and growing inequalities surfaced as major issues in need of redress.
Many youth look to the 47-year-old king, who is seen as responsive to younger generations, to initiate the country’s reforms. After initially denouncing the youth movement before Feb. 20, Mohamed VI changed course, siding with liberal elements in his entourage who convinced him to initiate fundamental changes before the monarchy was pushed aside by a mass revolutionary movement.
Meanwhile, young people have continued to organize on the internet and have held demonstrations throughout Morocco in March to pressure the state to initiate reforms rapidly. Continuing daily peaceful protests and sit-ins by university professors, high school students, Saharan employees and unemployed professionals allow them to let off steam and present their demands.
JOBS AND BREAD
Last December, in response to rumblings in Tunisia, the state boosted police pay by up to 60 percent and added new benefits, hoping to ensure their loyalty. The Ministry of Finance later declared that 10 percent of the 2011 budget would be allocated for job creation.
The former minister of finance had in the past told me that he could not create any state jobs because of opposition from the United States, the World Bank and IMF. He added that he had no discretionary funds after paying the salaries of the top-heavy state bureaucracy.
Once the protest movement grew into a major force, however, the Moroccan government said it would create more than 4,000 state jobs in an attempt to placate thousands of young unemployed professionals who have demonstrated daily outside the parliament for years. Immediately, some 7,000 more Moroccans showed up from among the vast army of un- and underemployed.
Morocco has not been successful in creating jobs over the years due to structural factors such as sparse state funds for jobs spending, the reluctance of Moroccan capital to invest in labor-intensive industries and a poor education system that barely trains potential workers for the jobs that do exist. Foreign investment is limited because Morocco inherited progressive labor legislation from the colonial period. Workers with contracts have good benefits and decent salaries, making their labor much more expensive than workers in China or India.
On March 1 the government increased subsidies on staples such as bread and olive oil to address inflation. While the lack of jobs and the rising cost of living need to be tackled, the youthful protesters, as is the case elsewhere in the Arab world, see the need for political reforms as well.
Morocco is also burdened by the billions of dollars spent on the conflict in the resource-rich Western Sahara, which it entered with the “Green March” in 1975. A war against the Algerian-backed Polisario Front has largely become a political conflict since a 1991 cease-fire. Morocco previously stated that it was increasing its military budget by 25 percent to counter Algeria’s growing military budget, which is being fed by rising oil and gas revenues. The United States supplies both countries in a growing arms race.
The Moroccan monarchy concentrates most power in the Makhzen, the palace bureaucracy surrounding King Mohammed VI. Since succeeding his iron-fisted father, King Hassan II, in 1999, M6 has liberalized the political system to the point that the press is relatively free. Certain subjects are off limits, however: no criticism of the king, the army, or state policy toward Western Sahara is allowed. That still leaves a lot of room to speak about corruption, which exists at every level of the state apparatus.
A December 2009 U.S. State Department cable released by WikiLeaks described “the appalling greed of those close to King Mohammed VI.” It singled out the palace’s use of “major institutions and processes of the Moroccan state … to coerce and solicit bribes in the country’s real estate sector.”
Unemployed college graduates have organized an association that demonstrates daily in front of the parliament in Rabat. For the past two years, they have begun to block traffic through the city center. About six months ago I witnessed something remarkable. The police were called in to push the demonstrators out of traffic. A police captain was about to hit a protestor with a truncheon when the crowd at hand started hissing loudly. The captain froze, put his arm around the man and walked him to the sidewalk, while gently asking him to go home. The crowd represents a popular force, since most people no longer accept the brutal police tactics used by King Hassan II.
Many other associations have formed. Women’s groups have proliferated, pressing demands for further liberties. A new family law was instituted that gave women greater rights. Human rights organizations, free from state controls, branches of Transparency International, and other NGOs exist and criticize shortcomings in the regime. The press freely reports their findings.
Much more needs to be done to lessen the king’s monopoly on power and the economy. However, Moroccans suffered through nearly 40 years of heavy-handed dictatorship under Hassan II and are relieved that repression has abated and they can now express themselves somewhat. Class tensions are high, with rich people living in Beverly Hills-like luxury and masses of people in poverty. M6 is trying to reduce the long-standing animosity between Arabs and Berbers, the original inhabitants of North Africa before the Arab conquest and a substantial part of the population. Most army officers are Berber, so a military takeover of Morocco would frighten the Arab majority.
There are also Islamist movements, the largest of which, al-Adl Waal-Ihssane, is illegal but ever present underground. In demonstrations March 20, the youth wing of this movement led the march and protected property to avoid any violence. The legal Islamist party, the PJD, has a block of deputies in Parliament, but no members in the coalition government. The king has initiated a policy of supporting traditional Sufi (mystical) brotherhoods to try to reduce support for Islamism. The PJD program offers no solutions to economic problems, focusing instead on moral issues.
Few Moroccans want to embark on the Tunisian model for fear of unknown consequences. The question remains whether a traditional monarchy can meet the demands of thousands of unemployed graduates and a large mass of impoverished and illiterate people in a society marked by wide class divisions.
The political class has no constituency-based offices. Once elected, parliamentarians are far more loyal to their respective parties than the people, but opportunism is rampant. None have community offices to serve the people, and more than 100 have switched parties since the last elections. Most of them moved to a new party founded by a friend of the king, creating major shifts in political loyalties and discrediting the political system in the minds of voters. Only 37 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots in the last parliamentary elections.
Democracy cannot be implanted overnight where authoritarian structures exist throughout society. Families remain patriarchal with fathers in charge. Zaims, charismatic leaders, dominate local and national politics. Revitalized brotherhoods maintain master-disciple dichotomies with masters demanding blind obedience from adepts. Local notables expect gifts and obedience from underlings. Those structures have been in place for centuries and will not go away because of constitutional reforms.
No one, including the youth, is addressing these structural manifestations of authoritarianism in Morocco. The reform movement is the first stage in a long process to change social relations. Tradition will not evaporate, and it will present an ongoing obstacle to the urban-based reform movement.
Ali Bouabid, the son of one of the founders of the Socialist Union of Popular Forces, best summed up the political crisis facing Morocco when he asked if party leaders were ready for democracy. In other words, can Moroccan dinosaurs become butterflies under the pressure of a growing mass youth movement?
Stuart Schaar is professor emeritus of Middle East and North African history, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and co-author of The Middle East and Islamic World Reader. He lives and teaches in Rabat, Morocco.