Prospects for change in the Kingdom of Morocco

Published in Morocco
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By Mohamed Darif

As with other Arab countries, a wave of protests calling for change is sweeping across Morocco. These protests have largely been inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, and the revolutionaries believe that the current period provides the opportunity to put pressure on the ruling regime by mobilising the Moroccan street, and calling for a series of far-reaching institutional and political reforms. The wave of protests began with an appeal to Moroccans to join a protest on 20 February 2011, a date that has since been associated with the movement calling for change, which is now eponymously called the ‘February 20 Youth Movement’. Since the announcement of protests for that date, political groups and rights organisations have engaged in a series of actions throughout Morocco.

 The February 20 Movement also called for demonstrations on 20 March and 24 April, and defied a ban on protests by again taking to the streets on the 22 May in protests that saw riot police wounding dozens of protesters. 

During these demonstrations various questions emerged as to the possibilities of the movement being able to achieve extensive change. Beyond the debate raging between those asserting the potential for the movement’s success and those who warn of Moroccan exceptionalism, the path taken by the February 20 Movement’s demonstrations and the nature of their demands complicate the observer’s task of hypothesising about the prospects for change in Morocco.The starting point in a discussion about change in Morocco must, on one hand, take into consideration the forces calling for such a change, and, on the other hand, examine the realities facing the February 20 Movement

The forces of change: Beyond ideology

There are three main groupings calling for change in Morocco: 

  1. The first are Islamist groups, particularly the Justice and Charity Group; the Civilized Alternative Party (banned by the government in February 2008); and the unlicensed Umma Party.
  1. The second grouping is embodied by radical left organisations, including political parties. The most prominent of these are the Democratic Socialist Vanguard Party, the Unified Socialist Party, and the Democratic Way – and legal action groups such as the Moroccan Association for Human Rights.
  1. The third grouping is comprised of members from the Amazigh movement which consists of three main currents: the Makhzani who are loyal to the regime; the democratic current that is embedded in progressive democratic political parties; and the third current which declares its fundamentalist hostility to everything that Islam and Arabism stand for.

These three groupings have called for political change for decades, but have not succeeded in transforming these calls into any substantial counter-force to challenge the regime. Rather, they have remained confined to activities in clubs and university campuses, sporadically taking action on the street to express solidarity with Arab and Islamic issues. This highlights the significance of the February 20 Movement that called on Moroccans to take to the streets to demand change.

An important question is: how did this movement emerge and what constitutes its identity?

In a paper published by the February 20 Movement on 16 February 2011, the movement presented itself as a Moroccan youth movement independent of all political organisations and parties, and bearing great love for their country – a love that has driven them to demand change in order to bring about freedom, democracy, dignity and social justice. The movement also defines itself as a natural extension of Moroccan protest movements; as an expression of the youths’ online interaction with these forces an interaction that has found expression through the formation of virtual groups on Facebook, including the group ‘Moroccans in dialogue with the King’.

On 27 January 2011, before the formation of the February 20 Movement had been announced, ‘virtual’ youth groups initiated a call for a day of peaceful demonstrations, to take place on 20 February, in various Moroccan cities. This loose coalition called itself ‘Freedom and Democracy Now’, and based its call on a platform of five points: 

  1. Demanding a repeal of the current constitution and the appointment of a competent body, composed of Moroccan personalities who are known for their integrity, to draft a new constitution that will place natural limits on the power of the monarchy;
  2. Calling for a dissolution of parliament, government and political parties that have contributed to the consolidation of political corruption;
  3. A commitment to take immediate, real and tangible action to alleviate the suffering of the Moroccan people, and for the establishment of an unemployment fund;
  4. A demand for the release of all political prisoners;
  5. A demand for the appointment of an interim government to run state affairs while the new constitution is being drafted, discussed and approved of by bodies from all sectors of society who are characterised by integrity – as part of a new social contract between the monarchy and society.

Freedom and Democracy Now defined itself as an independent and democratic Moroccan movement that reflects the aspirations of all who believe that they belong to the land and its geographic and cultural diversity, and who value and hold sacrosanct the rights of freedom, diversity and the desire to live together. It called on the king to keep apace with global changes by minimising the role of those who take an outdated and narrow security-driven and militaristic approach to governance.

In the context of the call for the demonstrations to take place on 20 February, two ‘virtual’ youth movements emerged and joined forces with Freedom and Democracy Now. These were the ‘People Want Change’ and ‘Intifada for Dignity’ movements. The three movements issued a joint communiqué on 15 February 2011, and this new coalition called itself the ‘February 20 Youth Groups’. It outlined its approach as follows:

  • Asserting that the peaceful demonstration planned for 20 February demanded real constitutional change that would see Morocco transformed into a constitutional monarchy;
  • Warning against any attempt to co-opt either their unambiguous and clear demands, or the degree of these demands for protest;
  • Calling on all Moroccans to join the peaceful protest while maintaining discipline and responsibility;
  • Appealing to intellectuals, activists, and patriots to break the silence, and to work together to achieve desired change.

The day after the joint statement was issued, the groups joined forces to become one movement. Thus, the name ‘February 20 Youth Movement’ appeared for the first time in the communiqué of 16 February, that outlined the following demands: 

  • Adoption of a democratic constitution that represents the true will of the people;
  • Dissolution of the government and parliament, and the formation of a temporary transitional government obeying the will of the people;
  • Establishment of an independent and impartial judiciary;
  • Prosecution of those involved in corruption, abuse of power, and looting of the homeland;
  • Recognition of the Amazigh (Berber) language as an official language alongside Arabic, and attention to the specificities and diversity of Moroccan identity, language, culture and history; and
  • The release of all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, and the prosecution of those responsible for their imprisonment.

virtual revolution to popular mobilisation

What led a group of virtual youth movements to transform, in record time, into the February 20 Youth Movement? The main reason lies in the immense support elicited by the call, on 27 January, by Freedom and Democracy Now. For example, as of 2 February the ‘Moroccan Rights Movement’, that includes twenty rights and civil society organisations, rushed to express their support. Within two weeks, this movement called for:

  • support of the February 20 Movement, and all peaceful protest movements that had pledged their commitment to the demands and the rights of the Moroccan people, especially those calling for constitutional change and the adoption of a democratic constitution; and
  • calling on Moroccan authorities to deal with the 20 February initiative in a civilised way; to respect the will of its citizens to peaceful protest, and to ensure their right to express their aspirations for a country in which they can enjoy freedom, dignity and citizenship.

In addition to the Moroccan Rights Movement, the Justice and Charity organisation joined in calling on Moroccans to take to the streets in demonstrations, and authorising its youth sector to choose the methods and forms that it deemed appropriate for their participation in the demonstrations on 20 February.

Questions have been raised about who was behind the February 20 Youth Movement: are they independent of the country’s political parties, as stated in their statement issued on 16 February, or are they an extension of the Moroccan groups who have been demanding change, whether Islamist, leftist, or Amazigh? Regardless of the answer, given the following two factors, we cannot separate the February 20 Youth Movement from those forces that support it:

  • The first factor is related to the fact that the demands of this movement have evolved through interaction with other groups and parties. At the beginning, for example, the virtual youth groups did not demand the formation of a council that would draft a new democratic constitution. The first statement on 27 January from Freedom and Democracy Now, for instance, only called for the appointment of a committee, a demand that evolved into one calling for an elected constituent assembly. The initial groups also simply called for a more circumscribed role for the monarchy in the new constitution, that is, to put the monarchy in its natural place; while the 15 February statement of the February 20 Youth called for fundamental political and constitutional changes that would transform Morocco into a constitutional monarchy. Furthermore, Moroccan rights organisations’ 17 February press release demanded the adoption of a democratic parliamentary system that would confirm the separation of powers, and would push forward the February 20 Movement’s demand for a constitutional monarchy.
  • The second factor is that a large section of those who participated in the demonstrations of 20 February, 24 February, 24 April and 22 May were activists from the Justice and Charity organisation and the radical left. This makes it difficult to distinguish between them and the February 20 Youth Movement.

Given this second factor, it has been necessary to emphasise the value of the February 20 Youth Movement in being able to bridge the divide between the different political forces that have been demanding change, especially the divide between the Justice and Charity organization and the radical left. All of these respected the level of the agreed-upon demands such as the demand for a constitutional monarchy through the adoption of a democratic constitution, and the demand to combat tyranny and corruption. Activists from opposition forces have put aside their differing ideological positions; there is no longer the demand for the establishment of an Islamic or socialist state, but instead there is an emphasis on the establishment of a modern civil state that will enshrine dignity and citizenship.

It is without question that the dynamics that emerged in the wake of the February 20 Movement have drawn on what took place in Tunisia and Egypt. This dynamic has led the monarchy to take several reform measures, including: workshops on constitutional reforms that came about as a result of the King's address to the nation on 9 March; the formation of an advisory committee to amend the constitution; and a set of measures and actions to consolidate mechanisms for the exercising of individual and collective freedoms, such as the conversion of the the Royal Advisory Council for Human Rights to the National Council for Human Rights, the conversion of the Office of the Ombudsman to the al-Waseet(moderate) institution, and the creation of a ministerial commission for human rights. Further actions were also taken, meeting the demands of the February 20 Youth Movement, such as the release of some political prisoners, and the prosecution of some of the people accused of stealing public money.

The monarchy in the balance

A question that continues to be asked about the prospects for change in Morocco is: will change extend to the transformation of the country into a constitutional monarchy, or will it be limited to reformist logic, leaving the monarchy largely untouched?

The answer is necessarily linked to both internal and external factors driving or inhibiting change. The external factors can be seen in the following: 

  • The necessity for Morocco to follow through with its commitment to fulfil its obligations towards the European Union (EU). It is widely known that in October 2008, the EU granted Morocco advanced status in its relations with Europe, in return for Morocco committing to the democratisation of its institutions, respect for human rights and associated freedoms, and the establishment of the rule of law. The association agreement also required the king to refrain from intervening in the economic sphere, in effect compelling him to sever his ties to the financial and business world. These demands were reiterated at the EU-Granada summit in Granada on 7 March 2010. Preceding the summit, in an announcement on 3 January 2010, the king announced Morocco's involvement in a series of far-reaching institutional reforms that would pave the way for a new political system.
  • The attempt by the Moroccan regime to obtain the support of the US administration for its Western Sahara autonomy proposal was met with a positive response, conditional on the king’s commitment to political reforms.

As for internal factors, particularly in light of the Tunisian and Egyptian experiences, decision-makers in Morocco are aware that the demands of the Moroccan people are not solely of an economic and social nature, but also of a political nature. Since the ascension of Mohammed VI to the throne in 1999, he has prioritised social matters, as can be evidenced in the ‘National Initiative for Human Development’ project that he announced on 18 May 2005. The revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt have made Moroccan decision-makers pay increasing attention to the existence of a strong demand for democracy from sectors of society that are not necessarily demanding bread and work. In other words, while the poor and marginalised groups that suffer from social exclusion demand improvement in their social conditions, many segments within the middle class suffer from an exclusion of a different kind – political exclusion – and are demanding their right to participate in decision-making processes through the establishment of a democratic political system.

However, there are many forces that come up against those driving change,including: 

  • Many political forces that see no interest in far-reaching reforms. These are forces that derive political and economic advantages from the status quo and are not interested in change. At the forefront of these are several political parties that have never seen constitutional reform as a priority, and have expressed their opposition to the February 20 Youth Movement, refusing to join protests. Even when the king made clear, in his speech of 9 March, 2011, his intentions to engage in serious constitutional reforms, and asked political parties to submit proposals for constitutional amendments, the amendments proposed by these parties did not go beyond the spirit of the speech itself. This despite the speech stressing that parties formulate potential ways forward.
  • Conservative religious forces that reject the separation of religion from politics, particularly as it pertains to the king’s authority. This position was stated clearly in the statement issued on the 30 March by the Supreme Council of Ulama, that is formally headed by the king, and who the Council addresses as Amir al-Mu’minin, the Commander of the Faithful. The statement stressed the central role played by the ulama in their capacity as the conscience of the nation; in other words, the ulama consider their representativeness to be superior to that of the parliament. The statement also rejected the notion that the function of the Commander of the Faithful be reduced to the management of religious affairs, asserting that it must include the management of political affairs. This was a clear response to political forces that have been calling for a revision or cancellation of Article 19 of the current constitution. The statement also implicitly criticised the February 20 Youth Movement by asserting that doctrinal and moral corruption is more dangerous than political and financial corruption.
  • Divisions among the youth have been encouraged by some of the forces opposed to change, to the point that there are now two movements: the February 20 Youth Movement, which calls for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy presided over, but not governed, by the king; and the March 9 Movement which calls for the maintenance of an active monarchy, presided over and governed by the king.

It seems that factors inhibiting change are greater than those driving it, especially since the February 20 Youth Movement has not been able to convert the momentum from the street into a counter-authority challenging the regime. Furthermore, opposition forces supporting the February 20 Youth Movement have not succeeded in transforming their radical positions into a strategic plan and programme of action that can shift the balance of power in their favour. In this situation, and without ignoring important internal factors, the process of change seems to be governed by external factors. Such a situation will undoubtedly affect the executive monarchy system, but without actually and fully transforming it into a constitutional monarchy. In other words, through the constitutional review process now under-way, Morocco will witness a shift to a more balanced monarchy, but the process will not affect the central role of the institution of the monarchy.

* Mohamed Darif is a professor of political science at Hassan II University, Morocco

**This article is published in terms of a partnership agreement between AMEC and the Doha-based AlJazeera Centre for Studies. It was originally published by the AlJazeera Centre in Arabic, and was translated into English by AMEC

Last modified on Wednesday, 18 February 2015 11:42

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