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Morocco on the Eve of the Demonstrations

[Image from the Mouvement du 20 Fevrier Facebook site] [Image from the Mouvement du 20 Fevrier Facebook site]

“When I go out in the street, no cares about #feb20, I connect and boom, the revolution is brewing” (Qd je sors ds la rue, no one cares about #feb20, je me connecte et boom c'est la révolution qui couve).

The above, tweeted yesterday in the style of much that’s being produced on the internet about the demonstrations on Sunday — a combination of text message French and English (and often transliterated Darija) — is a perfect encapsulation of the immediate situation, at least in Rabat (as I write this, demonstrations have just turned to riots in Tangier, to which I’ll return below). Here, however, on the streets, little is visible, in the air an almost palpable lack of tension. But online, the last few days have witnessed a veritable explosion of activity, and in the past twenty-four to forty-eight hours the virtual has begun to take on a far greater degree of tangibility. It would seem that what is being called the 20th of February Movement has now organized itself enough to effectively disseminate information, something which hadn’t been the case as recently as a week and a half ago. In an effort to keep track of developments that are occurring quickly, I’ll provide a survey of the current landscape, starting with a synopsis of what we’ve seen over the past few days. 

The movement began to garner wider attention when it released the YouTube video, posted here by Sinan Antoon on the 16th, in which a number of Moroccans state the reasons for which they’ll participate in the demonstrations; among other things, they’re calling for an end to corruption, better education, accessible health care, improvements in workers’ rights, the abolishment of the shantytowns, an end to police brutality, a new constitution, and a solution to ever-increasing inflation. A second video was released shortly thereafter, specific to Marrakech, under the title shabāb 20 fabrāyir mawqi‘ marrākush, in which the demands are similar with a few additions, like the call for an independent judiciary and, notably, an end to the sex tourism particularly endemic in certain Moroccan cities, Marrakech undoubtedly one of the most beset. After seeing the success of the original video, which was cited in both the New York Times and the Guardian, bringing it to a wide global audience, its producers have just released a second, already subtitled in English, essentially introducing themselves and reiterating some of their positions.

In addition, the movement began circulating a manual in which they state their most important demands:

1) A move from a constitutional monarchy to a parliamentary monarchy in which the king only reigns, but does not rule.

2) The nullification of the current constitution and the formation of a new constitution determined by the authority of the people, and [only] symbolically by the monarchial establishment.

3) The ouster of the current Fassi government and the formation of a provisional replacement government to run the country during the transitional period in preparation for fair elections.

4) The prosecution of the ministers responsible for the destruction of Morocco and everyone who supported them to that end.

5) The recognition of Amazighiyya (Berber) and its establishment as an official language next to Arabic with no distinction between them.

6) The separation and autonomy of executive, legislative, and judicial powers.

7) The release of all political prisoners and respect for freedom of expression and of the press.

8) The sound administration of all Morocco’s revenues and a fight against corruption.

9) And, in the simplest of terms, freedom, dignity, equality, and democracy. (Translated from Arabic)

The document then provides a number of suggestions to the protesters, including what to do when confronted with government thugs or in the event of tear gas, and general organizational tips.

Some of the demands outlined by the movement will undoubtedly prove difficult for the government to meet. While no one at this time is calling for the king to step down — a significant difference with what we’ve seen elsewhere — the contention surrounding his role has a long history, starting with independence. Two days after Muhammad V (the current king’s grandfather) returned from exile in 1956, he gave a speech in which he declared, “Our first objective is the constitution of a Moroccan government that is responsible and representative.”[1] The plan was that there be democratic institutions established by free elections, a separation of powers, a genuine constitutional monarchy. This, however, would have required that the king step back and assume the role of arbiter, that his role be more symbolic than actual. Despite stated intentions, this clearly never came to pass.

Similarly, when Muhammad VI came to power, he defined his role as that of mediator. There were a number of gestures that signaled genuine improvements, like the creation of the Equity and Reconciliation Commission, based on post-apartheid South Africa, which investigated the many “disappearances” which took place under his father’s reign during the so-called “Years of Lead,” and offered reparations to the victims‘ families. Many now feel, however, that the path to reform has permanently stalled. The king, in fact, remains an absolute ruler; as novelist Laila Lalami notes in an eloquent piece in support of the demonstrations published in The Nation, “The constitution of Morocco grants him [the king] the discretionary right to name a prime minister and cabinet, without regard for election results. He can also dismiss parliament at any moment and exercise emergency powers.” This is hardly indicative of the transition to democracy that the government promised.

Back to immediate developments, almost simultaneous with the distribution of the February 20th Movement’s official manual, specific information regarding the protest sites was finally provided on the movement’s primary Facebook page. Starting at 10am, they’re to be held in four cities: Tangier in United Nations Square, Rabat in Bab el Ahad Square, Marrakech at Bab el Doukala, and Casablanca in Mohamed 5th Square. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be demonstrations elsewhere: I’ve already seen a call for demonstrations, for example, in Tetouan. And there have been some significant indicators of support. Twenty Moroccan human rights groups have signed on to join the protests, including Amnesty International Morocco, The Democratic Association of Moroccan Women, and the Moroccan Forum for Truth and Justice (the complete list can be found here); the banned Islamic movement Justice and Charity is likewise supporting the demonstrations, in opposition to what they call the "Benalisation" of the regime. The Syndicat national de la presse marocaine (SNPM) has remained silent on the issue, prompting a group of twenty-nine journalists to issue a statement independently, declaring their unconditional support for the 20th of February Movement and their intent to participate. And, thanks to hip hop artists Chaht Man from Casablanca and Muslim from Tangier, the movement has a song, Fin 7a9na (Fayn Haqqna), with a refrain of bi-ruh bi-dim, tamarrud ou-tawra (by our blood and souls, revolt and revolution) and lyrics that give voice to many of the future protesters' complaints; it's unquestionably effective and is being widely circulated.

The question still remains as to how many people we can expect to take to the streets. The only means we have at our disposal to even attempt an estimation are the Facebook pages through which the demonstrations are being organized. There are three major groups, the largest of which is the Mouvement du 20 fevrier, with over 16,000 members. Second to that is the Harakat 20 fabrāyar al-sha‘b yurīd al-taghyīr, with over 15,000 members, after which is Harakat hurrīya wa dimuqrātīya alān with over 9,000 members. It’s safe to assume that there’s some overlap insofar as those registered on these pages is concerned. Based on the above figures, which have grown substantially over the past twenty-four hours, what we would see right now could be anywhere from 16,000-40,000 people. And there’s still time for the movement to grow. Perhaps realizing that in a country with the poverty levels of Morocco, many of those who share the movement’s concerns won’t have regular access to the Internet, organizers have begun to distribute tracts on the street to raise awareness about the demonstrations. A tract disseminated in Casablanca today and written in a kind of Middle Arabic, an intermediary form between Fusha and Darija, explains that the movement aims to stop “the thieves from plundering the country” and calls for all men and women, young and old to attend. There have been confirmed reports that some of those distributing tracts in Marrakech and other cities have been picked up by the police and interrogated, though they were later released. This is regardless of the fact that the government has officially sanctioned the demonstrations.  

It’s important to note that on the eve of the demonstrations, despite growing support for the February 20th movement, public opinion remains conflicted. There are, of course, the usual allegations: accusations that the organizers are immoral atheists, or that the movement is attached to the Polisario (in Egypt the conspiracy theories focus on Zionist spies, here the equivalent is the Western Saharan group seeking independence). But apart from this propaganda, a strong voice remains critical of the movement. They have their own Facebook page, Je suis Marocain(e) & je suis Contre La Marche Du 20 Fevrier, with over 14,000 members, roughly equivalent to any of the major pages supporting the movement. The difference between the two sides is not in their objectives, but rather in the means by which they would like to achieve them. There’s no question that everyone (excluding, naturally, those directly tied to the government and/or those afraid of losing the advantages they enjoy with the status quo) would like to see changes essentially in line with the February 20th movement’s goals. And, in fact, the debate surrounding the disaccord is overwhelmingly civil, and even sophisticated.

The crux of the split, however, is exemplified by what just occurred in Tangier, mentioned at the beginning of this discussion. What began as a peaceful protest against Amendis, distributer of water and electricity in this Northern port city, the kind of protest held any number of times before, turned to violence as demonstrators set fire to a bank, severely damaged one of the Amendis buildings, and broke the windows of a number of nearby vehicles, most of which were private cars. It reportedly took the riot police until midnight to disperse the crowd.

Strictly speaking, these demonstrations were unrelated to the February 20th movement; the slogan chanted on the street was reportedly al-sha‘b yurīd isqāt amāndīs bi-tanja (the people want the ouster of Amendis in Tangier). But, given the temporal proximity to the twentieth, many are interpreting this as a presager of what’s to come. As soon as the news broke, people began tweeting statements like: “this is what I’m afraid of....protest turning into destruction (hādhā mā akhāf minu...ihtijāj yatahawwal ilā takhrīb). Organizers and supporters, at first relieved that the protests in Tangier were free of slogans related to Sunday’s demonstrations, have also been exhibiting concern, emphatically stressing that the protests be peaceful. Generally, those against the demonstrations see violence as the inevitable result and think reform can be more effectively achieved through other means.

 

But many are clearly beginning to feel that “other means” have already failed for too long. A story related by Laila Lalami in the same article mentioned earlier describes an event in September 2010 in which a construction worker in Salé, Fodail Aberkane, was suspected of being under the influence of hashish and arrested. A judge ordered his release, but when he went to the police station to retrieve his moped he was detained once again due to a dispute about paperwork. Two days later, the police turned his body over to Ibn Sina hospital in Rabat. That incidents like these still occur has lent a sense of urgency to calls for reform. But, to see how many feel this sense of urgency strongly enough to take to the streets, and the way in which the government will respond, we will have to wait until Sunday.

 

[1] C. R. Pennell, Morocco Since 1830: A History (New York: New York University Press, 2000), p. 299.

5 comments for "Morocco on the Eve of the Demonstrations"

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There are three "Berber" languages in Morocco. Why only Amazighiyya and not the other two? Furthermore, what does this say about the forces behind this movement and their ethnic composition and agenda?

ARTH wrote on February 19, 2011 at 04:11 PM
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Well written piece and your last paragraph is exactly why #feb20 should not take place as what is poised to be a peaceful protest will undoubtedly be infiltrated by trouble makers and we would see scenes like those in Tangier. I think the message about change was received clearly since the fall of ben ali, even as Morocco is not nearly in the same catastrophic state as Tunisia was and will remain for a few more years. Any just me 0.02$ from Casablanca

Mounir wrote on February 19, 2011 at 10:43 PM
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Tamazight is the official name of the Berber language. It covers all three variants.

iferiane wrote on February 21, 2011 at 11:00 AM
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The king of Morocco has shown that he has no interest in ceding to real and genuine democracy. As long as his business interests are safe, he is ok. The sad thing is that he could keep his undeserved financial interests but get rid of the new criminals like Mr El Himma, get rid of the sick minister Mr El fassi and reduce the power given to the El Fassi Fihri family who have for many years now dominated pretty much all ministries. The king of Morocco has already been in total charge for more than a decade. The excuse of "We need time" is no longer acceptable. What is needed is a genuine desire to improve people's lives and not cosmetic changes by replacing ministers...to give the illusion of movement.

Saad wrote on February 27, 2011 at 08:17 AM
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many, many eyewitnesses in tangier say that the vandalism was very clearly by police infiltrators and provocateurs. lots of videos on the web demonstrating this: apparently it was not at all subtle, a show for the media which didn't fool any of the actual participants in the demonstrations.

m. wrote on March 07, 2011 at 09:04 AM

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