It has been over a year since the first pro-democracy protests began in Morocco. Since 20 February 2011, the beginning of the February 20 Movement, Morocco has adopted a new constitution which promises measures of liberalization. Rushed parliamentary elections brought the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) to the forefront of the new government. Supporters of the regime argue that it will take time for the reforms to be enacted, but there is little to indicate that Morocco is truly heading toward a path of democratic reforms.
On Sunday 22 July, the remaining chapters of the February 20 Movement staged nationwide protests – from Rabat to Casablanca and al-Jadida. The Movement has dwindled in numbers but activists are still pushing for the same reforms they have been calling for since their first day as a popular movement: the elimination of corruption, a separation of powers, economic and education freedom, and the right of freedom of expression.
Moroccan citizen media portal, Mamfakinch, covered Sunday’s protests and published a set of graphic photos from the march in Jadida, a city just south of Casablanca. The images showed protesters with blood and bruises after they were beaten by riot police who dispersed the demonstration using truncheons.
After the protests on Sunday, police kidnapped and detained six activists (five men and one woman) in Casablanca. Laila Nassimi, the only female out of the group, was released on bail and her trial is due to resume on 3 August, along with the five others, all of whom were denied release on bail. After speaking with Abdesslame El Bahi, one of the lawyers of the activists, he explained the violent nature of the activists’ detainment. El Bahi said that the five activists who remain in jail had sustained injuries, and despite being promised medical treatment, they have yet to be visited by a medical examiner.
The six activists are being charged with belonging to the “banned February 20 Movement,” violence against the police, and the disruption of traffic – charges being contested by their lawyers. The charges come at a time when the regime crackdown on the February 20 Movement continues to intensify. There are reports of the arrest of eleven activists in Casablanca, simply for their association and activities with the movement. Also, a member of the Unified Socialist Party (PSU), a party that has publicly supported the movement, was also arrested.
The movement saw its peak between April and May, prior to the constitutional referendum, with the numbers of protesters estimated at between ten and twenty thousand. This period also saw the height of violent police repression, which drew greater international media attention.
The momentum was short-lived, and soon after the 1 July constitutional referendum, which the movement boycotted because of the constitution’s cosmetic reforms, numbers began to decline. After the 25 November parliamentary elections, the Islamist faction of the movement, al-Adl Wal-Ihsan (AWI), quit the movement, arguing that they “have suffered marginalization at the hands of some parties in February 20 and this involved the ceiling of political demands, a ban on making public statements and the use of slogans that reflect our group’s ideology.”
Another cause of its decline was the regime’s constant alienation of the movement and the state media embargo, which effectively constrained the movement’s mobilization in Moroccan society. The movement was constantly vilified as being radical, separatist, far leftist, and Islamist—a narrative quickly accepted by mainstream sentiment.
After Mohammad VI’s 9 March speech, wherein he announced sweeping constitutional reforms in response to the movement’s demands, the vast majority of the Moroccan population felt that it was worth waiting for the new constitution. And with the near doubling of subsidies aimed at cushioning any predicted rise in food and fuel prices, most Moroccans had little incentive to join the movement in its weekly Sunday protests.
The pro-democracy February 20 Movement continues to experience a steady decline in numbers and analysts are already forecasting the movement`s "fall." Yet, the recent 22 July protest and the regime’s swift repression and crackdown on activists indicate that while the movement may have declined, its core, however small, remains persistent and is considered a nuisance by the regime. The Casablanca judge’s decision to charge the activists for associating with an “illegal movement,” indicates a steep deviation from the regime’s limited tolerance of the movement. While the former communications minister, Khalid Naciri, had employed harsh words in describing the movement, no regime official had ever described it as “illegal.”
Prominent Moroccan blogger and “lawyer on probation," Ibnkafka, took to Twitter in light of the verdict:
1. Very important news from Morocco: a Casablanca court has prosecuted protesters simply for belonging to the #Feb20 protest movement.— ibnkafka (@ibnkafka) July 25, 2012
2. That court has labelled the #Feb20 movement as "illegal" - which it isn`t, since it is not formally a legal entity. It`s a loose network.— ibnkafka (@ibnkafka) July 25, 2012
3. More importantly, there has been no official prohibition of that movement. The court order would seem to be a stealth move...— ibnkafka (@ibnkafka) July 25, 2012
He went on to speculate that in labeling the Movement as “illegal” the stage has been set for what he described as the regime’s “harsh but discreet crackdown” on the Movement.
The verdict raises questions about the decision-making process behind such cases. The lack of transparency makes it difficult to assess and measure the monarchy’s role in such decisions. The 2011 constitution does not institute a clear separation between the monarchy’s power and the judiciary process. According to Article 56, “The King presides over the Superior Council of the Judicial Power.” The following article exerts that he also approves the appointments of magistrates by dahir - an incontestable royal decree. And even though Article 107 states, “The judicial power is independent of the legislative power and of the executive power,” the next line explicitly says that the king is the “guarantor” of its independence, obstructing the law of separation, once again.
The judge’s verdict itself stands in direct conflict with Article 10`s commitment to protecting the opposition’s “freedom of opinion, of expression, and of assembly.” Dubbing the February 20 Movement as “illegal” is a major step towards marginalizing an already muffled movement due to the regime’s continued systematic repression. By criminalizing the movement, the regime has successfully indicated that its commitment to democratizing is no more than well-crafted PR talk aimed at molding an image of stability and content for outsiders. Times are certainly changing for the only kingdom in North Africa – but not for the better.
[This article was originally published on Al Akhbar]