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Dissipating Dissent: Morocco's Stabilizing Spatial Tactics

[An image of some of the new building in the Casablanca Marina Development. Image taken on June 2012 by author.] [An image of some of the new building in the Casablanca Marina Development. Image taken on June 2012 by author.]

When considering the wave of uprisings that swept the Arab world recently, otherwise known as the “Arab Spring,” Morocco is often perceived as the exception to the rule. The country’s socio-political profile led many to believe that it was only a matter of time for the disgruntled masses to take to the streets and bring down another regime that has monopolized governance for decades and on whom the country’s ills can be blamed. Morocco has survived the unrest, however, and its leadership seems to be as strong today as ever. This is often explained with the promises of political reform that King Mohammed VI issued soon after regional uprisings started. This succinct narrative, albeit factual, does not accurately reflect the relationship between the resilient regime and the country at large. Other factors, such as the country’s spatiality (which encompasses the range of constructed physical substance from inhabitable spaces to supporting infrastructure), and how it is being produced, controlled, and reshaped by the regime, can better explain the presumed stability of the political status quo.

Spatial practices have been accorded significant attention over the last few decades by various intellectual traditions, notably philosophy, sociology, geography, and anthropology. It has been adopted as a valid area of analysis used to not only reveal how socio-political factors shape and produce human environments, but also employed in examining the hierarchies, differentiations, exclusions, and other constructed and inscribed (both physically and metaphorically) relationships and meanings embedded within these environments. Recent scholarship on Morocco – and the Middle East at large – has overlooked spatial practices in understanding the current status quo, however, leaving many important questions about the complex contemporary national and regional dynamics unanswered. Space in today’s Morocco, particularly in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, requires considerable attention if an understanding of the country’s delicate equilibrium is to be reached.

Although this inquiry will attempt to explain in broad strokes the relationship between Morocco's spatiality and the local uprisings that have fizzled out since 2011, its primary concern is not the space of dissent by and of itself. An investigation of the direct relationship between the streets or major public arenas, like the Moroccan equivalent of Cairo's Tahrir Square, and why the protests took place, or did not, is not of interest here – if a massive uprising was to succeed, any kind of space could have been appropriated, and only brute violence might have succeeded in deterring the crowds. The relationship between space and dissent needs to be understood differently, particularly in Morocco. The inquiry at hand focuses on larger narratives that have managed to discourage uprisings from happening in the first place. It focuses on aspects of the country's spatiality that are usually accorded little attention - large, pervasive, and enveloping initiatives that are seen to improve the old and bring about the new - aspects which are often overlooked either because they are thought of in positive terms, even by local Moroccans, or because they are so gargantuan in scale, literally spanning the entire country in some instances, that academic analysis often finds it difficult to relate them to more localized and isolated events. It is the ambition here to at least shed some light on these larger, perhaps banal, aspects of Morocco’s physical environment, where, upon examination, the state's spatial tactics are found to be most evident and most effective.

But before getting into the spatial interrogation this inquiry attempts, a minor detour is necessary to evaluate Morocco’s relationship to regional uprisings, and the role the new constitution played in recent events and in justifying the country’s continued stability.

Reforms and Stability

Morocco may be considered an exception to the “Arab Spring,” but it cannot be isolated from its context. As hinted above, protests did take place, as anticipated. The subsequently labeled “February 20th" movement succeeded in early 2011 in mobilizing Moroccan citizens in dozens of cities across the country. The organizers’ demands revolved around civil and political rights and ranged from calls for increased freedoms, equality, and democracy, to putting an end to corruption and curbing police oppression. The demonstrators also raised more pragmatic concerns, asking for improvements to the education and healthcare systems and solutions to the housing problem, and calling for steps to decrease unemployment, to protect labor rights, and to control price inflation of basic goods, among other pleas[1]. The movement struck sensitive chords in the lives of many ordinary Moroccans, and acquired such a massive following that for a moment, the destiny of the regime seemed uncertain. But the growing momentum and the popular excitement generated at the time soon dissipated. The King, days after the first organized protests broke out on 20 February, stunned everyone by coming forward, acknowledging the demands of the demonstrators, and promising substantial constitutional reforms in response. This move is often thought to represent the cunning ingenuity of Morocco’s monarch and the Makhzen (the royal shadow government, or an unofficial body of powerful loyalists who permeate all sorts of critical state organs), who acted swiftly and preemptively to ward off any possibility of a serious revolt that would have jeopardized the regime itself. 

Surely the “Arab Spring” reached Morocco; the events described here could not have happened if it were not for the coverage of concurrent developments in Egypt broadcasted by Arab television channels like Al-Jazeera around the clock to the entire region; more importantly, the youth responsible for the February 20th movement would not have dared to go public with their campaign were it not for the recent fall of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, a country with which Moroccans identify culturally more closely. The distinct outcome of Morocco’s “spring” to date – as this is clearly an ongoing process – is often justified with the fact that the King chose, ostensibly at least, to negotiate and make concessions. His stance was taken to heart by the public, as evident in decreasing popular interest in subsequent demonstrations, in anticipation of the promised reforms. Morocco’s revised constitution was finalized and released a few months later; upon closer reading however, it gave observers many reasons to be cynical.

Perhaps one of the most important changes in the revision is that the King relinquished his divine right to the throne, which means, at least in theory, that it is no longer legally blasphemous to question the legitimacy of the monarchy. The constitution simultaneously articulates, however, that the King remains the Commander of Morocco’s faithful, a position that secures for the monarch the last word in religious matters and affords him control over Friday sermons at mosques across the country. The constitution goes further to point out elsewhere that it is in fact illegal to question the monarchical system and to violate the sacredness of the King’s person. Moreover, the King remains the head of the Supreme Ulama Council, presides over the Supreme Judicial Authority, and chairs the newly established Supreme Security Council (effectively controlling the military, security apparatus, and the country’s intelligence force). It is within the King’s capacities, as the new constitution stipulates, to dissolve the parliament whenever he wishes, to personally appoint half of the Constitutional Court, and to declare a national state of emergency. Thus, in summary, the new constitution ensures that actual power ultimately remains in the hands of the monarch, while the elected government is expected to negotiate the contentious political process and deliver on the exasperated public’s expectations and demands.

Yet cynicism aside, the new constitution also promises a series of reforms that are worth noting. It stipulates that the Prime Minister will no longer be appointed by the King, but is an elected public servant who is endowed with the power to appoint members to key positions in the government he forms. Additionally, the new constitution recognizes the freedoms of expression and demonstration. It commits to universal human rights, a free and honest electoral process, and equality between the sexes. It promotes transparent and accountable governance. It promises that the state will do its best to arrange for the citizens to have decent housing, social security, modern education, access to healthcare, and employment opportunities, among other rights and privileges the new document pledges to guarantee. The list of assurances can be criticized as vague rhetorical flourish without a solid possibility for a realistic practical application, but the revised constitution does indeed spell out noble ambitions, and describes a possible trajectory towards a transformed governance system with more democratic features.

This appraisal of the new constitution, perhaps slightly lengthy for an analysis more concerned with spatial practices in Morocco, is necessary to respond to the many claims that the current stability can be explained by the release of such a document, with the series of reforms it promises. This is indeed far from being the case. The open-endedness of the possibilities afforded by the new constitution is the very problem with the revised edition (and with political analysis that credits it with the current political stability of the country). The truth is the new constitution is at best ambiguous about the issues that the February 20th demonstrators raised. It spells out many aspirations, but the government has yet to put in place the mechanisms and institutions that activate such language and turn it into a reality, let alone to empower the newly elected political players to realize these reforms.

A lot has also been made of the gains achieved by the Justice and Development Party (PJD) and its charismatic leader Abdelilah Benkirane, who became Morocco’s first elected Prime Minister not appointed by the King personally. Despite the widely popular moderate-Islamic ideology of the PJD, and although the party has practically dominated the political process in Morocco since the parliamentary elections of 2011, it remains to be seen whether the new political players have sufficient and actual power to bring about effective reforms. Not only is it premature to evaluate the PJD’s ability to implement the new constitution’s promised reforms, it is also highly questionable whether the party will succeed in keeping popular frustration at bay for much longer.

The popular articulation of these frustrations is nothing new to Morocco, and the discourse around the main issues the new constitution promises to reform has been in circulation for several years – it did not necessarily come about as a result of, or a reaction to, the violent upheavals of the “Arab Spring”. In addition to the relatively liberal – compared to the previous King’s – political and economic tendencies Mohammed VI has exhibited since coming to power, public pressure has gradually increased, taking advantage of the new freedoms gained since the demise of his infamous father. A nascent civil society in Morocco has emerged in recent years that negotiated its growth with the reforms previously advocated by the monarchy; several groups with diverse agendas have pushed for reform on several fronts such as human rights, labor affairs, corruption, accountability, and inequality, among others. The discourse was only emboldened, however, and public mobilization gained momentum following recent regional events, particularly regime collapses in Tunisia and Egypt. The recent constitutional changes can therefore be seen as a smaller step in a longer process - the timing was certainly chosen strategically, but the content was not much of a surprise. 

This inquiry does not wish to entirely dismiss the recent reforms' effectiveness in stabilizing the country - issuing the new constitution was the immediate remedy for a potentially explosive situation in 2011; the new document, and its timing, were critical in placating the public following the regional uprisings. These reforms, however, have to be understood differently: first, as a continuation of a process already underway, and second, as themselves of little meaningful substance. Thus the turn to space, to understand where else, particularly in the physical environment people inhabit, one can locate the state's more effective stabilizing tactics. Morocco’s spatiality can testify to the country’s policies and reforms that have been leading up to the release of the new constitution – the country’s space has been an outcome of, and has been largely shaped by such policies.

Spatial Tactics 

The new constitution alone cannot fully justify the current status quo in Morocco, and a reading that privileges only political factors in understanding Morocco’s equilibrium is insufficient. An alternative hypothesis can be put forward. The Moroccan monarchy avoided the fate of other regimes in the region, and the tumult of the “Arab Spring” by not only introducing constitutional amendments that promised much needed reforms, but also by altering the country’s spatiality to stave off dissent and fortify the foundations of a carefully-constructed stability. Space throughout Morocco reveals premeditated and long term-oriented intentions; it indicates a political commitment to slower, and thus perhaps more sustainable, reforms. 

The country’s spatiality tells an eloquent story about the current state of affairs; the Moroccan government has for several years been intelligently managing space through a dual spatial approach that simultaneously emphasizes tradition and modernization. While the former is evident from the diligent preservation of indigenous architecture, the latter can be witnessed in private and public investments; private developments indicate independent investors’ optimism about the stability of the state and the future prospects of the country, whereas large-scale building projects highlight the government’s investment priorities. This provides an understanding of the regime’s long-term vision for the nation, and furnishes a veritable example of how the state physically interacts with the citizenry. In other words, Morocco’s contemporary delicate balance is the result of not only statements or decrees issued by the government, but it involves a host of long-term spatial tactics that touch the public in more immediate and palpable ways than mere political rhetoric. A few examples from contemporary Morocco can illustrate this hypothesis, and can show that although many projects undertaken by the state have effectively carried out its vision, these projects’ drawbacks could imperil the regime’s future. Rather than delving into the specifics of a singular case study, the survey presented here will touch upon several aspects of state involvement in Morocco's spatiality – thus it will operate intentionally within the large scale, sacrificing fine resolution for the sake of a general appreciation of its overarching concern, namely to bring attention to the salience of space in constructing Morocco's current reality. 

Traditional space is found throughout Morocco; the country’s terrain is encrusted with historical gems – exquisite instances of indigenous architecture, sometimes encompassing entire medinas. It is no wonder that the cities of the Maghreb remain representatives, or perhaps representations, of the Orientalist idea of the so called ‘Islamic City’- a generic categorization of traditional North African Arab cities which claims that their spatial composition is the sociological expression of their inhabitants’ Islamic faith. This perceived link is capitalized upon by the Moroccan monarchy; it employs, in sync with the country’s landscape of indigenous architecture, an elaborate system of state rituals and ceremonies, traditional fashion choices, titles and honors, among other strategies, all in order to preserve a constructed image in which the monarchy is not only inseparable from the nation’s Islamic heritage, but also from the very historical foundations of Morocco. Tradition is indeed very much enshrined in the daily practices of the monarchy and the nation, constantly reiterating a secure and tenacious tie between the two.

The imperial cities – the old capitals of various Moroccan dynasties – play a significant role in this narrative, which can be verified today more than ever before. Marrakesh for instance has evidently been transformed recently, and its economy is becoming increasingly dependent on the hordes of tourists flying to its new Menara International Airport, arriving to experience the Maghreb’s ultimate Orientalist spectacle. The old Medina has undergone a massive makeover, and many of the city’s important monuments have either been, or are currently being, restored. Fes, on the other hand, known as Morocco’s cultural and religious capital, is emblematically stuck in history, with the city’s vitality still revolving around its old Medina; however, the old city is not doing well. Local authorities are desperately preserving it with the assistance of various foundations from the United States and the European Union. As one navigates the city’s alleys, bracing structures are encountered at various points, supporting old buildings on the verge of collapse, giving the impression that impending tragedies are only being delayed rather than thwarted.

Perhaps the balance of traditionalism and modernization is most evident in Rabat, the seat of government. One of the most obvious orchestrated links to the past the monarchy has attempted is at the site of Tour Hassan, a historical complex featuring a large incomplete medieval mosque and minaret. The modern mausoleum of Mohammed V and Hassan II, the current monarch's immediate ancestors, has been integrated into the historical complex in a clear gesture suggesting the seamless continuity of Morocco’s royalty with the ancient, yet incomplete and ongoing, nation-building project. The monarchy’s role as both the custodian and ultimate arbiter of tradition in Morocco lends it not only renewed legitimacy, but it also bestows it with the impression of permanence, much like the architecture it rigorously preserves. 

Modern communication networks and new architecture increasingly complement Morocco’s well-maintained landscape of tradition. This carefully calibrated formula ensures that the country is modernized without upsetting the historical landmarks that constitute the backbones of its idiosyncratic identity. Such a combination, of modernization along with traditionalism, recalls conventional nation-building discourses which require the state to work diligently on maintaining remnants of its history that prove continuity with the past and the inevitability of the current moment as the climax of a long national narrative. Concurrently, the state connects the nation’s disparate parts in an attempt to homogenize, and centralize access to, the citizenry. The process may be happening relatively late in Morocco compared to other mature nations around the world, but its symptoms are unmistakable. 

Modernization attempts are plentiful, and can be witnessed around major urban centers in particular. Instances are especially evident today, as outcomes of a prolonged period of relative stability in the country coupled with recent aggressively liberal economic policies, both conducive to substantial building activity. Major new highways linking important Moroccan cities have recently been inaugurated. Most of the train stations in large cities are either new or have recently been renovated. In Casablanca, a tramway system is currently being constructed (another system, only one year old, is already operational in Rabat). An opera house is reportedly planned for in Casablanca. Substantial private investments can be seen in the many new buildings rising throughout the city, and in major commercial developments such as the Casablanca Marina. The first American-type mall has just opened, bringing international luxury brands to Casablanca. These projects indicate a healthy economic activity, as well as demonstrating that serious investment is being poured into the country. The same projects are not devoid, however, of drawbacks and controversies. For the sake of clarity, contemporary modernization efforts can be categorized into either private or public enterprises. The two spheres however often overlap in Morocco, as the worlds they describe are inextricably linked in a complex web of entrenched interests, and as the boundaries of state involvement (particularly that of the monarchy and its cronies) are usually difficult to delineate.

When it comes to private investment, Morocco’s relatively liberal economic policies have been a distinct feature of the state’s interaction with the country’s growth. Morocco, unlike many other Arab countries, hardly ever pursued a socialist model in which the state would preside over the most vital aspects of national development. This stance is often reiterated, and was articulated once more in the recent constitutional amendments, in language that defines the role of the state, when it comes to public goods or services, more as a facilitator rather than a direct provider. But to perceive that private investment is severed completely from public political life in Morocco would be a misconception.

Even while disregarding the alleged extensive network of corruption and cronyism which guarantees dividends for political elites in every new private project that goes up in Moroccan cities, the state influences private enterprise in various ways. In Casablanca, for instance, the country’s economic heart and its most populous city, the host of new buildings currently being constructed reveals a sense of excessive optimism about Morocco’s future prospects. Speculative private developers would not venture into such projects without risk calculations; therefore their current activity, in building various structures to international standards of quality, speaks to their belief in the stability of the current political system and their hopefulness about Morocco’s foreseen future – a future, in other words, that does not involve a radical political change. Private investors can thus be seen as implicated in the monarchy’s development-oriented ambitions, successfully carrying out its vision for the country. It can be said that in Morocco, the state is involved in animating even those independent projects happening beyond its direct control and activity. 

Despite this vigorous building activity, however, not all Moroccans share the benefits of private investment. Most private development is targeted at the country‘s wealthy Moroccan diaspora wishing to own property back home, and foreigners, or others who can live up to the lifestyles afforded by the new resorts, hotels, and apartment buildings it is spawning. These projects surely stimulate the economy and provide employment opportunities for many Moroccan construction workers, but the luxury-driven investment climate often excludes the middle-class from benefitting from, or inhabiting, the new structures. Although most of these projects are integrated into the city and not necessarily isolated into gated communities as can be expected, their aura is prohibitive to certain strata of the population, who cannot be seen within their lofty bounds. There may be a trickle-down effect to some extent, but the revenues from these projects are reaped mainly by the upper class in Moroccan society. 


[Image of neighborhood across the road from the Casablanca Marina. Image taken June 2012 in Casablanca by author.]

If private developments constitute an indirect link between the state and the country’s spatial composition, public investment foregrounds the more direct impact of state policies, and can demonstrate the government’s economic or political orientations in the third dimension. Most contemporary public works in Morocco come with a catch, however. For instance, the new high-speed train system that the government is building presents a perplexing paradox. The proposed system, based on France's TGV, and which is being built and will be operated by French companies, is meant to connect Casablanca with Rabat and Tangiers, cutting current travel times by more than half. French involvement is only one of the reasons behind a big controversy surrounding the investment; the King is said to have awarded such a massive public works project to the French as a political gesture in 2007, and France's president at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, acknowledged the favor last year during an inauguration ceremony by praising Mohammed VI's recent democratic reforms. The larger debate that the project raises, however, revolves around Morocco's need or readiness for such an investment. Large parts of the country, particularly the rural areas where about half of the country’s population lives, remain without train access or a basic road network, making spending a considerable percentage of the country’s budget on a fast train system that improves upon existing links between major cities a questionable choice. The use of such a large chunk of the country's financial resources brings forth other areas where urgent investment is much more needed, such as the healthcare and education systems. A campaign opposing the project, called “Stop TGV!”, has garnered wide support among civil society groups within Morocco. The project criticizes the logic behind the project, and estimates that the sums invested in the new train system could have instead been utilized in building thousands of rural schools or dozens of hospitals. Above all, and despite the fact that the construction of the new system, as well as its later operation, creates job opportunities for Moroccans, the project can ultimately be evaluated by its purpose, or who it eventually serves. With ticket prices of the current train system considered rather expensive for a large part of Morocco's population, the new speedy trains will likely only cater to the wealthy, or foreign tourists, putting further doubt on the wisdom of the government's investment. 

Another example of public investment is Casablanca’s new tramway system. Evidence of the new project, currently underway, can be seen around various points in the city: the construction of the new tracks that support the ambitious public transportation system is taking place along various streets, across many intersections, and through several squares. One can find segments of the project at inconsistent degrees of progress, from initial ground preparation, to completed stops fully equipped with railings, shading structures and distinctive lighting fixtures. This is because the project is behind schedule. The construction of the system’s first line, a 30 kilometer segment that links Casablanca’s main neighborhoods serving a quarter of a million passengers daily, was supposed to be completed in 2010[2]. Today, the new system draws a lot of complaints from locals because construction work is seen to have been going on for a long time, and because its dispersed nature has caused ongoing traffic jams due to the obstruction of several vital thoroughfares in the city’s core. The project is reportedly stalled because of political feuds[3]; apparently, different political actors – belonging to some 38 legally recognized parties – are sabotaging progress just so their opponents do not get the political boost such an important project would bestow, not to mention the financial gains associated with its contracts.  A similar story seems to also have happened with the new opera house proposed by Casablanca’s mayor, and the project was shot down before it saw the light. Such accounts bring to the fore an irony inherent in many large public projects in Morocco – despite the critique of the monarchy’s tight grip on power, Moroccans realize that substantial public works with potential long-term benefits like the Casablanca tramway would not happen, given the current political culture, without the direct involvement of the monarchy itself. That is to say, although the actions of the monarchy can be perceived as hegemonic, the lack of actual power, the chaos, and the corruption that characterizes the political sphere within which elected civil servants are active, implies that it is only this hegemony that can produce effective results. This further maintains the image of the monarchy as the benevolent patriarchal authority that can get things done when all else fails. Democratically elected players are yet to prove (or gain) their potency. 


[Image of the progress on the Casablanca Tramway. Image taken June 2012 in Casablanca by author.]

The fact that the new tramway systems in Morocco are partly funded by loans from France, and are partly constructed and operated by French companies, not only reignites popular resentment about the perceived continued dependence on Morocco’s ex-colonizer, but may also suggest further political favors at the highest levels during the project’s inception. But despite these considerations, the initiative promises to improve on public transport in populous Moroccan cities, and to reduce people’s reliance on taxis or private vehicles, both of which can be positive outcomes.

Perhaps there is no other development that speaks to the monarchy’s long-term desire for access and control more eloquently than the inter-city road network which has been under construction for several years. New segments are completed every now and then, most notably, the Marrakesh-Agadir and the Fes-Oujda have been inaugurated in recent years, confirming the government’s commitment to linking major cities throughout Morocco with modern expressways. The national economic benefits of such a massive public works project are many, but the enterprise is not free of its drawbacks. Moroccan road users with modest means, such as taxi drivers, complain that the tolls of the new highways – probably necessary to pay back the massive state investment - are too expensive (the same drivers also complain about the recent hike in petrol prices, a strategy by the government to cut back on petrol subsidies for the rich, but which ends up affecting the poor primarily). These drivers prefer to use the old national road network, which remains toll-free, but which means considerably longer travel times, as they are often two lanes clogged with slow-moving trucks. Thus, the new highways mainly serve the wealthy (who mostly own private vehicles in any case), or perhaps those for whom it is economically viable to use, such as commercial drivers. Furthermore, with the King’s private investment firm probably holding a considerable share in the country’s cement industry, new construction projects, particularly the hundreds of kilometers of new roads, contribute significantly to the monarch’s personal wealth, making him the key beneficiary of such projects. The recent WikiLeaks exposé, released months before the 2011 protests, accused Omnium Nord Africain (ONA), the King’s holding company, of monopolizing access to the real estate market in Morocco and coercing independent developers to enter into contracts that benefit the royal firm. If these allegations are true, it is natural to speculate that most government public investments would, directly or indirectly, be advantageous to the royals before anyone else. The allegations also serve to illustrate the strong links between public enterprises, elite gains, and private investment – links that taint, the otherwise potentially positive, Moroccan modernization efforts. 

Equivocal Vision

As far as stabilization of the political dynamics between the state and the public is concerned, the monarchy’s spatial tactics have been successful to date. While tradition and its implied association with the ancient monarchy helps maintain the inherited cultural status quo, modernization appeases the masses with the image of progress it projects. The latter, in turn, attempts to connect all parts of the country, centralizes and facilitates both state access and control. Such tactics amount to a comprehensive strategy on behalf of the state to control Morocco’s space and to communicate specific laconic messages through this medium to the citizenry - messages about who oversees the vision to change the environment, who possesses the power to implement such transformations, and who will benefit the most from the outcome. This overall strategy may not be articulated in a single official document, yet it is evident from a close study of the state’s multifaceted involvement in the country’s spatial composition. Even if the developments described here are carried out unconsciously and in isolation, they collectively comprise an intelligent meta-strategy that consolidates governance, maintains stability, and contributes to the ongoing nation-building project.

Curiously, Morocco’s nation-building efforts bear conspicuous similarities to the French experience, which has taken place primarily in the nineteenth century. The hallmarks of France’s efforts to consolidate the state’s control over the nation’s territory, from the Haussmannization of Paris (already implemented by the French authorities in Morocco’s villes nouvelle), to establishing immense communication and transportation networks that connected the capital with the rest of the Republic (currently being attempted by the monarchy in Morocco), to the institutionalization of most aspects of political, social, and cultural life (perhaps underway in Morocco - a project mostly challenged by entrenched corruption), and so on, can begin to illustrate the affinities between the two national spatial strategies. What needs to be contemplated, however, given the obvious spatio-temporal gap that separates the two experiences, is whether the same formula would succeed today in producing the desired results.

A fair critique cannot be leveled against the relentless preservation of traditional architecture. Although its main beneficiary is the regime which takes advantage from its reiteration of favorable historical narratives, the significance of historical structures as the country’s cultural heritage, as well as their utility in the case of continuously used buildings, justifies the care lavished on them. Modernization efforts, however, deserve closer inspection. Most public and private investment is geared towards the upper crust of society, excluding the vast majority of the population, whose problems require serious and urgent attention. Furthermore, the new architecture is actually exasperating, or at least highlighting, the disparities that exist between the very wealthy, and the vast poor population - a gap that is only growing wider (although there has been a steady rise in GDP per capita since independence, with a substantial hike since Mohammed VI came to power, the Gini coefficient for Morocco has also increased over the years, indicating that as national wealth has gone up, so did income inequality). Today, it can simply be a street that separates the poverty-stricken old and dilapidated parts in Casablanca, from the new and luxurious parts where the wealthy or foreigners afford to live. Some Moroccans predict that such a condition is not sustainable, while others claim that Moroccans are content and that the country has always had such disparities. The 2011 protests clearly show that a large swath of the population is anything but content, and it is no surprise that these demonstrations came about as new infrastructure and building projects are proliferating around Moroccan cities, blatantly pointing out the country’s ills and unequal distribution of wealth.

Most investment poured into Morocco today is thus double-edged, and the monarchy’s vision for the country, as detected from its development measures, is deficient and incomprehensive. It cannot be denied that such projects create jobs, save travel time, improve environmental conditions, and contribute to the larger ongoing political nation-building effort. But most modernization initiatives are partial and selective, focusing on a particular stratum and serving highly specific goals. This demonstrates an apparent disregard to the pressing challenges facing the majority of the country’s struggling population. Morocco continues to be plagued by dire illiteracy rates and a worsening education infrastructure, widespread poverty, high unemployment, and gender inequality, among other serious social problems. According to the United Nations, Morocco ranked 130th in 2011 among the world’s nations in terms of human development, falling behind Syria and Egypt. The country is in desperate need for modernization programs that ensure sustainable development and that can touch a wider, underprivileged, spectrum of the population – the benefits of which would reach further and lower, and the prime objective of which would be to ameliorate targeted social problems where intervention is much needed.

It is unfortunate that when conversing with Moroccans today, many are convinced that they are better off with the current regime, that is, with a stable situation where they can go on with their lives rather than ending up with total chaos and an unknown future – a view that can be attributed to their observation of tragic developments in regional events, particularly in Syria. This is unfortunate simply because it implies a decline in internal pressure on the monarchy to live up to its promises, at least for the time being.

Stability does not only come from the current wishes of the people, however; it is also the national status of the monarchy itself in Morocco that comes across as incontestable. Although a degree of popular defiance is certainly becoming increasingly felt, as many citizens take advantage of the government's leniency, believing that repression has become something of the past, the monarchy remains off-limits. An integral part of the national and independence movements, as well as being an inseparable component from the country’s history prior to French colonialization, the monarchy is perceived as a deep foundation in the cultural structure of Morocco, a change to which is unimaginable for many. It is not surprising, therefore, that it was hardly a stated ambition of the February 20th movement to challenge the monarchy. What was demanded instead were meaningful political reforms and an end to the country’s glaring problems. But despite the monarchy’s survival and its favorable popular perception to date, there are no guarantees for stability in today’s Morocco. Continuing down the path illustrated by the country’s spatiality, the path of mismanagement, corruption, unequal and unfair distribution of national wealth, marginalization and disregard for the needs of Morocco’s underprivileged population, is no longer an option. The decisive combination of unaddressed prolonged public social and economic grievances, with just the necessary spark, may yield a massive eruption that brings in its aftermath the toppling of any regime, and Morocco’s is no exception.

[I am grateful to the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) at Harvard University for facilitating a research trip to Morocco this past summer, and to the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin for a fellowship that made the writing of this paper possible; a policy-oriented version of the same paper was published by SWP.]


[1] Videos released by the movement’s organizers, articulating these demands, circulated the web prior to the demonstrations, in a strategy similar to that employed by fellow organizers in Egypt or Tunisia who were using online social media to reach the public. Although the effectiveness of these videos in Morocco, in mobilizing a population that has a reported low use of the internet, can be debated, their success in communicating the movement’s agenda to likeminded middle class and educated young activists should not be underestimated. Some of these videos can be seen at: "Morocco campaign #feb20 #morocco" [video file], February 16, 2011, < http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=S0f6FSB7gxQ>; and "Second Moroccan February 20th Campaign Video" [video file], February 18, 2011, < http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Lli6YpMjGO8>

[2] About a year later, reports predicted the completion date of the first line of the new tramway system will be late 2012. See: "HM the King launches construction works of Casablanca tramway platform, worth 6.4 bln dirhams" in Morocco's News Central, August 12, 2009, <http://news.central.co.ma/economics/hm-the-king-launches-construction-works-of-casablanca-tramw.html>. Later news on delays that could affect the promised completion date were published a year after: "Tramway al-Dar al-Baida' Qed La Yera al-Noor Qareeban" [Casablanca's Tramway May Not See the Day of Light Soon] in Telexpress, November 15, 2011, <http://telexpresse.com/news2127.html>.

[3] Although the justification provided here is based on an interview with a Moroccan official in Casablanca, local news reports alluded to these feuds. In this recently published piece, Casablanca's new Mayor is reported to have expressed his willingness to work with all estranged members of the City Council, to revitalize all projects that have been put on hold due to personal political interests: Al-Dar'i, Abdul-Wahid, "Wali al-Dar al-Baidha' al-Jadid Yedduq Naqoos Khatar al-Masharee' al-Mutaqqifa" [Casablanca's New Mayor Rings the Alam Bell on Halted Projects], May 24, 2012, <http://www.ahdath.info/?p=82834>. 

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