‘Arab Spring,’ Moroccan Winter

(Published on Jadaliyya.com)
Read the original here.

Recent analyses of the Middle East and North Africa indicate that the countries in the region are entering a “third phase” of the Arab Spring. The first phase was characterized by the massive mobilization of the “street,” and the second phase by elections and emergent political organization; this third phase will require governments to overcome the social and economic challenges that continue to plague the region. While the Moroccan case does not conform to this tidy account of political disarticulation (despite having elections last November, there were never calls for outright revolution), Morocco will also be entering this “third phase,” facing the same social and economic trials as its neighbors. Although the prominent account of the Moroccan “Arab Spring” suggests that activists mobilized to call for political reform, and their calls were answered by the king, my recent discussions with activists reveal that this simple account does not correspond with the actual developments in the country. Recognizing this narrative as false may provide some indication as to why, nearly eighteen months after the first demonstrations in solidarity with Egypt and Tunisia, little has changed in the country. In February 2011, Morocco’s human development indicators were lower on all accounts than its neighbors in the region and, if anything, the situation has deteriorated over the past year and a half: the economy is faltering, food and gas prices are on the rise, corruption is rampant, and particularly troubling testimonies have recently surfaced describing the rape and beating of political dissidents.

However, the few assessments that have been presented on the Moroccan case avoid addressing these topics, focusing instead on the political reforms enacted in the past year with the rewriting of the constitution and the election of a new Parliament. These reforms were presented by the king in his famous 9 March 2011 speech, a week after the first rallies on ­­­­February; a masterful directive timed perfectly to deflate the momentum of the demonstrations without actually acknowledging them. These recent reforms, hinging on a proclaimed decentralization of power from the king, an independent judicial body, and the election of a new Parliament and new head of state, have earned the kingdom the designation of a “happy outlier,” having avoided the unrest of neighboring countries. The king has been heralded as a great reformer, having been able to offer an alternative path to deeper democracy without inviting outright revolution.

Meanwhile, the 20 February protests, which drew up to 800,000 protestors from all over Morocco at the outset, have dwindled in numbers as many reports suggest that the population has faith in the new constitution and is satisfied with the direction of reform. While demonstrations still occur regularly and receive plenty of press attention, they have been presented at worst as a disorganized and bizarre group of radicals and religious extremists, and at best as a “pro-democracy” movement. Few reports draw links between the content of the protests – Morocco’s current social and economic woes – and the utter failure of the constitutional reforms to address them. Recent headlines from the French magazine Jeune Afrique showcase the conflicting message that is presented by the media: back to back cover stories announce “Le Maroc face à la crise” and present “L’homme qui a changé le Maroc” below an image of Mohammed VI.

While the “change” this particular story features is change in the political landscape, the crashing economy would be fitting content for either title. The protests that began on 20 February intended to draw attention to the poor economic conditions that prevail in Morocco. The World Bank reports official unemployment in Morocco at ten percent, although a recent World Bank study indicated that forty-nine percent of young people in Morocco – making up thirty percent of the population – were neither in school nor employed. Coinciding with regional unrest and the protests in Morocco, the government increased food subsidies from seventeen billion to twenty billion Moroccan dirhams (roughly two billion USD) and by the end of the year, the subsidies bill had reached $5 billion USD. This then prompted the government to cut subsidies in June 2012, driving up the already rising cost of gas by twenty percent, affecting the cost of transportation and of nearly all commodities. In addition to increasing subsidies, the government had increased the salary of public sector workers by 550 million USD; this brings the total for government workers to ninety-three billion Moroccan dirhams, of which seventy-three percent can be accounted for by the salaries of the top three ministries. Additionally, this year has seen the dominant agricultural sector hampered by drought, a twelve percent decrease in tourism, and fewer remittances from abroad; the GDP, which has experienced an average growth rate of 6.2 percent the past few years, slowed to 2.6 percent in the second quarter of 2012. Save some optimistic government officials, nearly all recent reports indicate that Morocco is heading towards a serious economic crisis.

Especially troubling is the nature of the solution that has been suggested. Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane has announced plans for structural reform, and secured a $6.2 billion credit line from the IMF; the first loan of $1 billion is scheduled for this month. Although the loan has been touted by Budget Minister Idriss Al Azami Al Idriss as “protection,” it comes with the promise of economic reform targeting the aforementioned subsidies, public service sector, and tax structure. Recently, this tax reform has included lowering taxes on business, criticized by economist Najib Aksebi as catering to special interests. These preferential tax policies reveal the crux of the socioeconomic problem in Morocco: even during a heyday of high GDP growth, a high level of corruption allows only a small few to reap economic benefits, while the majority of the population is left with no viable recourse to improve their situation. Rather than implement sustainable institutional reform and indigenous economic policy to spur employment, the government has applied a band aid to a gaping wound, one which will likely bleed dry the already vulnerable lower classes while the network of cronies close to the king, known as the Makhzen, continue to enjoy economic and political hegemony.

The king himself personifies this hegemony. He is head of the Ministry of the Judiciary; he presides over the Council of Ulammas, parliament, and judiciary council; and he has power to appoint half of the constitutional court. He is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and has the all-purpose role of “the Supreme Representative of the State, Symbol of the unity of the nation, Guarantor of state continuity and sustainability, and Supreme Arbiter of institutions.” Through the royal investment firm, Société National d’investissement (SNI), he holds a near monopoly on many sectors of the economy. In March 2010, SNI merged with the group Omnium Nord-Africain (ONA), another financier owned by Mohammed VI. ONA was the subject of international headlines in December 2010, when Wikileaks cables revealed corrupt business practices in the venture. Despite this exposure and the downward trend in the economy that sent protestors to the street, SNI boasted a fifty percent increase in profit in 2011, and Forbes magazine has featured the king as one of the richest royals, citing the $960,000 per day operating cost of the royal entourage, spent “mostly on gasoline and clothes.”

Given the economic indicators, perhaps the positive analyses and conclusions of progress refer to an increased liberalization or deeper democracy in the kingdom. However, there are myriad examples that this is not the case either, suggesting that rather than a move towards democratization, the political reform and temporary economic measures were merely the carrot to a carrot and stick approach in avoiding public outrage. Moroccan rapper El Haqed was jailed not once but twice for making music critical of the Palace, prompting his lawyer, Omar Benjelloun, to declare that that an independent judiciary is absent in Morocco, calling his client’s arrest a “flagrant disrespect of the rule of law.” Equally troubling is the case of Rachid Niny, a journalist imprisoned and silenced for his dissension; even after his lawyer, Mustapha Ramid, was appointed to the position of Minister of Justice, he still could do nothing to free the political prisoner. Niny served his entire yearlong sentence before he was released in April 2012. Police forces have provided proof of the protestors’ accusations of repression better than any signs or banners could, attacking dozens of protestors during demonstrations in El Jadida, in Casablanca, and most recently in Rabat, and then physically and sexually abusing them while in custody.

These cases can hardly be viewed as separate instances or outliers in an otherwise positive trend towards democratic reform and liberalization. They are symptoms of a disease of corruption and repression endemic in the social landscape, one that is, in fact, hampering both economic growth and movement towards democracy. The same 2010 cable released by Wikileaks exposing ONA’s poor business practices concluded:

“The influence and commercial interest of the King and some of his advisors in virtually every major real estate project here. A former U.S. Ambassador to the Morocco, who remains closely connected to the Palace, separately lamented to us what he termed the appalling greed of those close to King Mohammed VI. This phenomenon seriously undermines the good governance that the Moroccan government is working hard to promote.”

This trend has been documented by international watchdog organizations Transparency International and Freedom House. In a recent publication, Transparency International described corruption in Morocco as “endemic,” “persistent,” and “substantial,” with little change since 2007. Freedom House’s freedom rating for Morocco in 2012 was actually worse than in past years.

While these disturbing trends can hardly be attributed to the constitutional reforms enacted last year, it is no surprise that the reforms did little in the way of inspiring improvement. This is the great irony of these most recent reforms; while they have been publicized as a response to the demands of the 20 February protests, they did nothing of the sort. The 20 February protests shone a light on a social problem; the reforms offered a political solution. At no point did the protesters demand a new parliament or a renaming of the king’s powers – they called for a critical awareness of the link between the tangible problems of poverty, lack of access to education, unemployment, silencing of dissent, state surveillance, loss of dignity, and the understood – but rarely challenged – hegemony over the social, political and economic spheres of power held by the king and the Makhzen. Given this reality, it is absurd to propose that a plan for reforms proposed by the king himself, consisting of a governing body appointed by the king, and resulting in a constitution that preserves the existing power structure, in any remote way addresses demands from the street. Proof of this absurdity was recently proclaimed by head of state Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane himself, who, in an interview with Al Jazeera declared that he is “powerless” to shine a light to the corruption of the state.

Given the evidence of the failure of this political solution, why then are the protests drawing fewer numbers now than they had eighteen months ago? The unpopularity of protest must be considered in the context of fear. This begins with the first analyses in the media and in the academic realm of the 20 February protests and the oft used label of “movement.” This is a label which was never sought by the activists who organized the first demonstrations and one which begs a decision: either stand with the “movement” or against it. In fact, the purpose of the protests was to raise awareness and to declare a population who was against the social ills that result from corruption and repression. By using this label, rather than focusing on grievances that are relatable to the average Moroccan, the demonstrations are encapsulated as a symbol of resistance against the king and current government, a stance that is too dangerous for most. This dangerous position is reinforced by the highly publicized arrests and imprisonment of protest organizers and sympathizers.

While it is not the role of the media or academic community to support a protest movement, the one-dimensional portrayal of the protests neglects the full truth of the political economy in Morocco. This suppression of information has not changed with the new constitution, and perpetuates a fear of bringing to light the true endemic nature of corruption. Rather than exposing the truth, the international community has been presented a palatable account of a benign Moroccan version of the “Arab Spring,” while at the same time, giving Moroccans enough of a reason to stay home and despair. This, more than the satisfaction with a new government, seems a plausible reason for the – at least compared to last year, and perhaps not for long – empty streets.

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