Since January 15th, media discourse on the Arab world has almost uniformly coalesced around a single term, “contagion.” This is a telling semantic choice given the word’s broader associations with disease; a synonym for “infection” or “contamination,” it carries rhetorical connotations that are hardly subtle. The Wall Street Journal has analyzed Egypt’s “contagion risk” (Feb. 1st) and in the past two and a half weeks The New York Times has published at least half a dozen articles on the topic, with the same word always employed. On Feb. 2nd, for example, Sara Hamdan asked, “which countries will be most susceptible to contagion?” The risk of contagion, the susceptibility to contagion, any possibility of reading the word with a sense of neutrality is destroyed by the resolutely negative context in which we find it. And the obsession with contagion here is simply the flip side of the same coin we’ve seen for years. The political metaphor turned cliche of the “Arab street,” thought until a few weeks ago to be incapable of popular grassroots revolt, is now being homogenized in the opposite direction.
Tunisia’s revolution caught most observers by surprise, but the question since has unanimously been, who next? The guiding assumption (or fear), of course, is that a domino effect will come into play and one by one the various countries of the Arab world will push through their own revolutions from the bottom up. There’s no need to comment here on the obvious irony inherent in the position taken by the United States, who should not just be supportive, but euphoric to see organic democratic movements gain such widespread support. The topic at hand, rather, is the homogenizing impulse itself, because regardless of whether or not we fear widespread uprisings or, conversely, are inspired by the potential of a master narrative of revolution encompassing the entire region, the result is that we risk losing sight of the very real specificities of the numerous and variegated countries that comprise the Arab world.
The prevailing media discourse has lent a surreal quality to watching recent events unfold from Rabat. In its coverage of Egypt this week, The New York Times described the current moment as follows:
From minute-by-minute coverage on Arabic channels to conversations from Iraq to Morocco, the Middle East watched breathlessly at a moment as compelling as any in the Arab world in a lifetime. For the first time in a generation, Arabs seem to be looking again to Egypt for leadership, and that sense of destiny was voiced throughout the day.
What I am about to say is not at all to minimize the import of the events that we’ve all been watching transpire over the past ten days. It is, however, nevertheless the case on the ground that Morocco does not seem to be either watching “breathlessly” or “looking again to Egypt for leadership.” A case in point: apart from two small demonstrations on January 31 in Tangier and Fez, the first ‘large-scale’ demonstration in support of Egypt’s revolution took place only yesterday (Friday the 4th), long after a number of American and European cities had begun demonstrating in solidarity. Held in Centre Ville near the main post office, the capital’s standard site of protest, it lasted a mere couple of hours and the numbers are estimated to have been in the low hundreds. Al-Jazeera, with its twenty-four hour coverage of Egypt since the 25th, remains the network of choice in the city’s cafes, but it essentially serves as background rather than the perpetual axis of conversation implied in the above quote.
While the American media has been content to off-handedly group Morocco with other countries thought to be “vulnerable,” on Monday the 31st, the Spanish daily El Pais included no less than four articles dedicated exclusively to Morocco. The central theme was that, “Morocco will not be the exception,” and the general tone was sensationalist and alarmist. The phrase itself, Marruecos no será la excepción, was taken from an interview with Prince Moulay Hicham, later quoted in both al-Arabiyya English on the 31st and an article in Jeune Afrique (appropriately titled, “The risks of a revolutionary contagion cause debate in Morocco”) on February 1, in which he states: “Morocco has not been reached yet, but make no mistake, all authoritarian systems will be affected by this wave of protests. Morocco will probably not be an exception.” Prince Moulay Hicham, however, has been calling for the reform of the monarchy for nearly twenty years and if we put the immediate context aside, the content of the interview differs little from one held at his alma mater Princeton in October of 2002.
This type of media coverage sheds little light on the state or mood of the country in the wake of Tunisia’s revolution and in the midst of Egypt’s, nor on its future prospects. The only news this week that may be a portent of something to come was neglected by all the international media outlets except al-Jazeera Arabic. On February 2nd, two protestors demonstrating in front of the ministry of education, contracted teachers demanding that their positions be made permanent, set themselves on fire following the pattern of self-immolations more and more common since Mohamed Bouazizi’s act served as the catalyst for Tunisia’s revolution. There have now been four such attempts in Morocco, none of which have resulted in death.
With the above all but left out of the press, by what measure can a journalist like Sara Hamdan declare Morocco to be “among the most vulnerable,” among the most open to “contagion”? The point here is not to offer a system of apologetics for the current Moroccan regime; it nevertheless needs to be recognized that to elide Morocco under Muhammad VI with Tunisia under Ben Ali or Egypt under Hosni Mubarak based exclusively upon a number of risk factors (high unemployment rates, high inflation, great disparities of wealth, a population predominantly under thirty), regardless of how valid they may be as deep-rooted societal problems, is to make too great a generalization based on too little. One of the fundamental things that has been consistently ignored as Morocco is included in Tunisia’s and Egypt’s ranks is the populace’s view of its own government’s legitimacy, considerably more complicated than the Tunisian or Egyptian examples, both of which were/are characterized by the complete lack thereof. The Alaouite dynasty, however, stretches back to 1631 and claims descent through the Prophet, specifically through his daughter Fatima al-Zahra and her husband, ‘Ali, the fourth Caliph. The current king’s grandfather Muhammad V was not only the hero of the independence struggle — a figure who had defied the French, was exiled to Madagascar as a result, and who staged a triumphant return — he was, additionally, the amir al-mu’minin, or commander of the faithful. Muhammad VI holds the same title, and the dual role of political and religious authority, which is the characteristic feature of the Moroccan monarchy, continues to carry resonance with the population at large. In short, Ben Ali and Mubarak were/are reviled by the people whom they govern/ed; significantly, in Morocco, even among those who want reform, Muhammad VI is not.
In the absence of approval polls — an obvious anathema to the monarchy — we can turn to the same social media so pivotal to the initial coordination stages of the protest movement in Egypt for an impression of public opinion. Like many of the countries in the region, Morocco is organizing its own day of pro-democracy protest, set for February 20. Noteworthy is that in contrast to what we’ve seen elsewhere, there are to be preemptive popular anti-demonstration demonstrations, likewise organized through the blogosphere and on Facebook. A segment of the same tech-savvy youth responsible for the unprecedented flow of information that has recently come to characterize modern protest movements have organized to reaffirm their support for the king. So we have both the “Manifestations du 20 février au Maroc” and the “Anti-marche de 20 février au Maroc” or “Marche d’amour,” scheduled for February 6th. Whether or not people will take to the streets en masse for either of these demonstrations is an open question; regardless, the cyber debate surrounding the protests and anti-protest protests show the way in which the young educated middle class are interpreting recent events in their own context.
We can look, for example, at a blog called bigbrother.ma, a major local political blog with over 3,000 Facebook fans, a significant following for Morocco. Clearly against the upcoming pro-democracy demonstration, on January 31 he wrote, picking up on the rhetoric of contagion, “The neo-analysts and experts on Morocco born in the last storm [of events] all dream of a contagion of the Tunisian or Egyptian revolution in Morocco. As if revolution is a virus transmitted in the air without valid reasons” (translated from French). The position he carefully outlines is one we find reiterated through the social media sites again and again: in sum, he is in favor of a greater shift towards further democratization, but not through revolution, which would be unnecessarily destructive in the Moroccan context. Incidentally, the long entry which the above quote initiates was shared over 1,100 times on Facebook.
A direct response to bigbrother.ma’s post on another blog, electron libre, offers something of a manifesto against attendance of the February 6th demonstration, but for reasons which may go against conventional assumptions. Titled “Why I will not participate in the February 6th march,” her explanation is as follows:
Because in such an international context it can only imply that there is a problem in our country; because, rightly so Mr. Bigbrother, revolution is not a virus transmitted in the air without valid reasons; because I have had enough of this argument according to which all Arab countries are identical; Because I can no longer stand people implying that supporting the revolution in Tunisia means that one wants to overthrow the monarchy in Morocco; because I am for demanding our rights; because, no, I do not think that a revolution along the Tunisian model is the solution; because the problem is not the king; because it would be an insult to the Tunisian, Egyptian, Algerian and Yemeni martyrs; and simply, because it makes no sense. (translated from French)
Despite being in support of the revolution in Tunisia, and despite advocating that people demand their rights, she is plainly against a blind replication of the Tunisian or Egyptian examples in her own country. And even among those organizing the pro-democracy demonstrations, the stated goal is generally not the ouster of the king, but rather a curbing of his authority and changes in the current government. The calls for protest are scattered among different Facebook pages, but one of the largest, with approximately 3,400 members, cites the demonstrations’ goals as: “extensive political reform...constitutional reform, the resignation of the current government [this would refer to the ruling Istiqlal party dominated by wealthy Fasi families, not the king], and the dissolution of parliament.” There is little indication at present that the general populace will come out in significant numbers, that all the presages of “contagion” are warranted, though only time will tell if there is genuine popular support behind the virtual debate. In regard to the upcoming protests and the media through which they have been organized, speaking on behalf of the government on February 3rd, Minister of Communication Khalid Neciri expressed little concern, commenting that, “nous percevons cela avec énormément de sérénité."
The overriding point here is not to offer a polemic for Morocco`s exceptionalism. The same argument could be made using Jordan, Yemen, or Syria as a case study; the difference would be in the details, not in the central thesis. Because homogenization comes at a price. The cost of blindly grafting our assumptions and expectations onto a group of countries which, though united by a common language, are in fact quite heterogeneous from each other, is not just that we fail to achieve any but the most disingenuous understanding. This is undoubtedly the case, but beyond this, one of the repercussions is that we efface the voices of these countries` populations. It means we assume we know what the people want, or what they should want, and the way in which their countries should move forward. I am reminded of the sometimes disappointed reactions I face when asked about the effect of the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt on Morocco. If, for example, we do not see a momentum-driven protest movement here, it does not mean that the Moroccan people have failed. Instead, why not consider that they have chosen a different course of action appropriate to their circumstances, and look more closely at what those circumstances are? While the elucidation of general structural trends has its utility, a compromise needs to be found in which the specificities of the particular are not forgotten.