Something major is happening in North Africa and the rest of the Arab World. The recent revolts, especially those in Tunisia and Egypt, have changed the idea that Arab societies are inherently averse to democracy. This change is evident in the two countries in terms of government and social participation in the public sphere, but what also must be taken into account is the deep influence this new framework of protest has on the rest of the Arab World.
After the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, Arab societies have started to awaken and rise up in the Middle East – Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria – and in the Arab Maghreb, particularly Morocco.
On Dec. 17, when a Tunisian street seller named Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself to protest government harrassment, the Arab Spring was born. The demonstrations that followed compelled many Arab regimes to become concerned about the future of their own autocratic systems and they exerted efforts to prevent similar circumstances at home.
In Morocco, as a first measure to limit the social influence of the Tunisian revolt, the ‘Alawi regime authorised the acquisition of 255,000 tons of cereals in January and allocated a $2.142 billion budget to the Compensation Fund to avoid a price increase, thus doubling the budget for 2011 by February. The regime also instituted other social measures, such as the protection of unemployed graduates, workers, etc.
Despite the government’s best efforts to stave off discontent, protests erupted in Rabat, Tangiers and Fes at the end of January, when hundreds of Moroccans took to the streets showing solidarity with their Tunisian and Egyptian brothers. In this framework, the tense situation increased when two Moroccan teachers burned themselves to protest their work conditions and an unemployed young man burned himself to death Feb. 12 in the city of Ben Guerir. After these incidents, a new wave of political and social protests began to spread through the social networks, especially Facebook, through which demonstrations and sit-ins were organized across the country to ask King Mohammed VI for constitutional reforms, effective measures to fight corruption and the liberation of political prisoners.
Generally, Moroccan protesters were not demanding the end of the monarchy, but for the end of injustice, corruption and poverty that they consider to be part of the current political system. In other words, they do not blame the king directly, but they hold him responsible for maintaining this situation and for keeping his close friends Mounir Majidi – his personal secretary – and Fouad Ali El Himma – the king’s former Cabinet chief and Minister Delegate of Interior and now leader of the Authenticity and Modernity Party (AMP) – at the head of the most powerful political and economic structure of the state called the Makhzen. With these claims topping the list, a social movement took shape following the organization system of the Tunisian and Egyptian protests: the 20F (Feb. 20) movement. Led by young people and social and media activists, the first nationwide demonstrations were organized Feb. 20. Many social organizations, human rights associations, labor unions, left-wing political parties and even Islamists from the main Islamist organizations joined the demonstrations, showing their desire for change. During these massive protests in major Moroccan cities, thousands of people demanded freedom, real democracy and change in presenting a new scenario for Morocco.
These demonstrations were neither the first nor the most important protests organized in a country where demonstrations of workers and unemployed graduates, among others, have been commonplace in the past few years especially in Rabat, the capital city. Yet this time there was something new. On one hand, the organization of the movement was not led by professional activists or politicians but by young people and professionals engaged with new technologies and social networks and media; on the other hand, the international situation and the influence of the Arab revolts in Tunisia and Egypt were strongly felt from the beginning of the movement. Thus, for the first time, the idea of an empowered citizenship facing the traditional autocracies in the Arab World became increasingly important to protesters and helped them believe in the real possibility of change. On Feb. 21, King Mohammed VI warned that he would not give in to the protesters’ “demagogy.” Protesters responded with a new wave demonstrations and riots across the country, forcing the king to change his strategy. On March 4, he announced that he was creating an impartial commission to defend and strengthen the struggle for human rights.
But the real surprise came some days later on March 9, when the king made a televised speech to the nation announcing that he would support major constitutional reforms to strengthen the role of the government and the Parliament and restrict his own powers in the political sphere. According to articles 19 and 23 of the Moroccan Constitution, the king is the Amir al- Mu’minin, “Commander of the Faithful,” making his religious legitimacy sacred, as well as maintaining his political legitimacy as the Supreme Representative of the State, keeping most political powers in his hands, including appointing the prime minister or presiding over Cabinet meetings.
This new constitution, according to the royal speech, would strengthen the principle of separation of powers – with the related checks and balances – and promote the democratization, revamping and rationalization of institutions through a Parliament emerging from free and fair elections, and in which the House of Representatives plays the prominent role. It would expand the scope of legislative action and provide Parliament with new powers that enable it to discharge its representative, legislative and regulatory missions. It would allow for an elected government, which reflects the will of the people through the ballot box and which enjoys the confidence of the majority of the House of Representatives. It would require a confirmation of the appointed prime minister by the political party that wins the most seats in parliamentary election.
These changes also relate to the process of “regionalization” started some years ago by Moroccan authorities to put an end to the conflict of sovereignty in the Western Sahara. This territory, a former Spanish colony until 1975, is still undergoing a decolonization process supervised by the U.N. It is claimed by Morocco as a part of its territory and also by Western Saharians, who seek an independent state. In the king’s words: “Our ultimate objective is to strengthen the foundations for a Moroccan regionalization system throughout the Kingdom, particularly in the Moroccan Sahara provinces. It should be based on good governance, which guarantees a new, more equitable system for sharing not only powers, but also resources between the central authority and the regions.” According to the royal speech, the reforms should also “enshrine in the Constitution the rich, variegated yet unified character of the Moroccan identity, including the Amazigh component as a core element and common asset belonging to all Moroccans.” This would mean recognition, for the first time in the Moroccan Constitution, of the multi-ethnic and multicultural component of the society. The king set up an Advisory Committee headed by the constitutionalist Abdelatif Mennouni to analyze the situation and start working on these amendments. The constitutional overhaul was expected to be ready in summer 2011 and then approved by Moroccans in a referendum.
But beyond the words of this historic speech, there are some questions that should be answered in the short term: Is the king really committed to establishing a real democratic framework and putting an end to corruption and economic patrimonialism in the country? Is he ready to share the benefits of the economic elite with a population of more than 33 million people, nearly a third of whom fall below the poverty line? Is the Makhzen really ready to enter a new democratic era of political rights and civil freedoms in a country considered not free by the United Nations? The monarchy has yet to provide answers to these questions. So long as the regime evades answers, the protests and demonstrations will likely continue well beyond summer and fall. Although the royal announcement about constitutional reforms was a turning point in the reign of Mohammed VI – he came to power in 1999 after the death of his father, King Hassan II – the 20F movement has continued its protests and demonstrations because it considers these constitutional amendments as not going far enough, especially since they are being designed from within the current system without taking into account social demands. The “Moroccan Spring” was born when thousands of people peacefully took to the streets in more than 50 cities calling for an end to social and economic injustices and for the implementation of a real and democratic constitutional monarchy. The movement continues to press ahead, with recurrent demonstrations, police repression and riots. Beyond the protesters’ distrust of the usefulness and effectiveness of the new constitutional reforms, the demonstrators seek to empower the concept of citizenship and social participation in Morocco through the mirror of the Arab Awakening. In a few months, they have managed to change the attitudes of many people inside and outside Morocco. This is a good start. No doubt there is a change in progress in Morocco but the question today is how far it will go.
Dr. Juan A. Macías Amoretti is Assistant Lecturer in Arabic and Islamic Studies in the Department of Semitic Studies at the University of Granada, Spain.
A TIMELINE OF THE REVOLUTION IN MOROCCO
2/21/11 Demonstrators protest for an end to corruption and a new government.
3/20/11 Protests erupt after Moroccan King Mohammed fails to institute reforms as promised.
7/04/11 Moroccans vote in favor of King Mohammed’s reforms, although activists say they didn’t go far enough.