Conventional representations of contentious politics in the Middle East and North Africa tend to oscillate between extremes. Caught in a sort of Catch-22, political activism in the region is, in the words of the Iranian scholar Asef Bayat, “damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t—either it is ‘irrational’ and ‘aggressive,’ or it is ‘apathetic’ and ‘dead’”. This tendency toward the dichotomization of political activism is apparent when assessing the political science scholarship on the “Arab Spring,” and in particular, explanations for why most authoritarian regimes in the region managed to survive. Scores of articles and books have been written on the subject in the past seven years, but the most common explanations attribute authoritarian continuity to a set of key factors: fragmented or otherwise loyal armed forces, increased patronage and rentierism, a dose of repression, and in the case of Morocco, Jordan, and the Gulf kingdoms, the special “legitimacy” of monarchism. According to these analyses, the “Arab Spring” is over, its outcomes known, and political activism in the region restored to its assumed pre-Arab Spring levels of quiescence.
Such a view flows in part from a disciplinary bias toward the study of elites and formal political institutions, yet it leaves little space for capturing the broader brush strokes of popular contention, the ebb and flow of political activism outside the world of elite politics, political parties, and (flawed) elections. In other words, the rush to “code” cases and final “outcomes” obscures broader political changes in state-society relations that the events of seven years ago catalyzed and imposes a teleology on complex social and political processes not easily quantified or perceived from the surface. These processes are ongoing and did not begin from scratch in 2011. Thus, for scholars and activists sensitive to the substrate of popular contention in the region, the so-called “Arab Spring” is a misnomer—neither entirely Arab (e.g., Amazigh activism in Morocco and Algeria) nor limited to the spring of 2011. And while many have explained the Arab Spring mobilizations in the rationalist language of protest cascades and preference updating, such a view is misleading. Indeed, as political science scholar Marc Lynch elucidates, “it was not simply the revelation of thresholds but the transformation of underlying preferences for and beliefs about the moral legitimacy of regimes” that compelled actors to join protests—something which reveals more about “changing identities and values than about updating calculations of risk and opportunity” . In other words, for many, the protests of 2011 altered perceptions of what is possible, what is legitimate, and what is morally right—changes in identity and normative beliefs that remain consequential and generative of future political activism, even in instances of formal authoritarian continuity.
Hirak al-Rif and the Altered Playing Field of Moroccan Activism
The virtues of taking the long-view in analyzing the effects of the “Arab Spring”—or what might be better termed the “dignity revolutions”—are perhaps nowhere better demonstrated than in Morocco today. Since 2016, a sustained, significant, and evolving protest movement called Hirak al-Rif has gripped the kingdom. The Hirak’s demands for political, economic, and social equality have resonated broadly in a country where the experience of harassment, humiliation, and impunity—or hogra—at the hands of officials is widespread and economic inequality has persisted. These realities attest to the ineffectiveness of decades of economic liberalization, Western-backed development initiatives, and ostensibly liberalizing political reforms, like those implemented in the wake of the protests seven years ago. While the Hirak’s leaders have been jailed and given harsh sentences, and the scale of protests appears to have dwindled, the Hirak is just one part of an evolving sphere of public political contention which shows no signs of weakening. In the words of Moroccan journalist Reda Zaireg, as ordinary citizens grow disenchanted with stalled “democratization,” widening inequality, and growing repression, “more and more ‘things are called by their name.’”
There are other signs of a heightened willingness to challenge the status quo and emerging forms of political activism that are difficult to co-opt or repress, like the sustained—and seemingly effective—boycott of some of Morocco’s largest brands and distributors, namely Sidi Ali, Danone Centrale, and Afriquia. While partially over price increases, the boycott also has unmistakable political undertones as a significant portion of large-scale commercial enterprises in Morocco are either owned by the king through his holding fund, or by palace-friendly politicians and elites. For instance, while none of the targeted companies are owned by the King himself, he previously had major shared in Danone Centrale that he sold in 2015. Moreover, the oil and gas conglomerate Afriquia is owned by Aziz Akhannouch, an ally of the palace and current Minister of Agriculture whose party, the Rally of National Independents (RNI), played a key role in Morocco’s months-long blockage that ended the premiership of the ruling Islamist party’s (the Justice and Development Party, or PJD) Benkirane—a figure whose charisma and relative popularity were perhaps too much for the palace to tolerate. The boycotts are also a way to express anger at rising costs of living in a country where, despite relatively healthy macroeconomic growth, economic inequality persists and remains the highest in the region.
The boycott campaign is unfolding at the same time as another, social media-driven burst of political activism: a campaign against rampant sexual harassment and violence in Morocco. Called “Masaktach” (“I will not be silent”), the campaign has spread online among Moroccans fed up with a perceived culture of tolerance and indifference toward sexual assault survivors. While a new anti-harassment law has recently gone into effect, critics contend that it does not go far enough—for example, its wording is vague, making enforcement difficult, and it fails to fully prohibit child marriage. The campaign has been spurred in part by the arrest in France of Moroccan pop star Saad Lamjarred for alleged rape—the third such allegation he has faced—and Moroccans have taken to social media to pressure Moroccan radio stations to stop airing his songs. The case of Khadija, a seventeen-year-old Moroccan woman who was kidnapped and both physically and sexually assaulted by a gang of men, has also contributed in mobilizing supporters around the campaign, with news and images of the young Moroccan spreading across social media in recent weeks. While “Masaktach” and the boycott campaign are very different in their origins and goals, they both represent a form of activism that is difficult to repress or co-opt, and reveal the strength and vibrancy of the sphere of public political contention in Morocco, seven years after calls for dignity and freedom mobilized citizens across the MENA region.
These new forms of political activism take place in a domestic media environment that has changed significantly in the past two decades, thanks in part to increasing access to the internet and halting attempts at political liberalization. Independent press outlets, like Le Journal and Lakome, expanded in number throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, and helped contribute to the political environment that launched the February 20th Movement in 2011. However, in hybrid authoritarian regimes like Morocco, such independent or citizen media have trouble, in the words of scholars Fadma Aït Mous and Driss Ksikes, transcending the “liberal moment” in which they were founded, ultimately succumbing to political intimidation, repression, or co-optation. Yet regardless of the fate of any specific independent journalistic outlet, it is increasingly hard for any authoritarian regime, as sociologist and media scholar Zeynup Tufekci notes, to censor unfavorable information online or squash online campaigns with political undertones . Indeed, in just the past month, news has circulated online in Morocco regarding the death of a twenty-year-old Moroccan law student, identified as Hayat Belkacem, who was shot by the Moroccan navy while trying to flee the kingdom—prompting a spontaneous and remarkable protest during a soccer match in Tetouan where spectators chanted their desire to renounce their Moroccan citizenship. Around the same time, news of a protestor in Azrou dying at the hands of police during a demonstration over collective property rights spread online and reached the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (known by its French acronym AMDH), the largest such independent organization in the country. While the government claims the victim, named Fadila, died of a heart attack, AMDH and eyewitnesses contend she was smothered to death with a Moroccan flag—a tragic and disturbing event with powerful symbolism.
These examples, which are only the most recent, are not meant to imply the veracity of teleological and often facile arguments about social media’s role in promoting democracy. However, they do suggest the continued adaptation of Moroccan activists to an altered media environment in which politically sensitive information can be shared quickly and widely—important for controlling the narrative and sowing doubts about official regime accounts. In all, these examples add to a growing sense that the regime’s time-tested strategies of sowing division and co-optation are no longer enough to contain popular discontent, and are a warning to political scientists obsessively focused on political parties, elites, and formal institutions. Halting attempts at superficial liberalization, beginning with former King Hassan II’s appointment of an opposition prime minister in 1998, have done little to “democratize” Morocco. The consequence of this, as scholar Mounia Bennani-Chraïbi writes, is the decreasing power and relevance of political parties and institutions and the concomitant “extension of the protest arena, the protestors’ accumulation of skills and know-how, and the development of increasingly autonomous coordination capacities that thwart the regime’s co-opting propensities.” Thus, the Hirak, alongside other emerging forms of political activism in Morocco, reveal to some extent the dangers of superficial reform and empty promises. Indeed, the demands reverberating across Morocco today echo those of seven years ago and lay bare for an increasing number of Moroccans the hollowness of previous efforts at “reform.”
Revisiting Monarchical Legitimacy and Moroccan Exceptionalism
Where does this leave the Moroccan case vis-a-vis the political science literature on authoritarian durability and the “dignity revolutions?” Much has been made of Morocco’s response to the protests, with analysts hailing the Moroccan “third path” and pontificating about Moroccan—and monarchical—exceptionalism. In fact, the trope of Moroccan exceptionalism and the unique legitimacy of the monarchy is so recurrent and widespread that some Moroccan scholars and activists have taken to satire. Yet such conclusions about the durability of the Moroccan regime are not only premature and based on a superficial evaluation of formal political institutions and processes, as suggested earlier; they also rest on questionable empirical and theoretical foundations. Empirically in the case of the “dignity revolutions” and their immediate aftermath, it is far from clear that it was the monarchy itself that ensured Moroccan regime survival. Rather, what was more decisive was the lack of sustained support for the February 20th Movement from a cross-cutting coalition  of middle class bureaucrats, religious groups like al-Adl wa al-Ihsane, and other protest movements, like the unemployed college graduates who have been demonstrating regularly in Rabat for decades . Diverse coalitions are key to challenging authoritarianism in any context, and the failure of such a coalition to form reflects more the challenges of collective organizing in the face of co-optation and repression than the innate strength and legitimacy of monarchism itself.
At a deeper theoretical level, the notion that the Moroccan monarchy is exceptional in its social legitimacy because of its religious and nationalist credentials is more indicative of the palace’s decades-long efforts to link Moroccan nationalism with the institution of the monarchy than it is a reflection of reality. Indeed, while King Mohammed V is vaunted in official narratives for his role in ensuring Moroccan independence in 1956, the role of the Moroccan Liberation Army and the scores of other activists who risked their lives for independence is minimized and sanitized. Paradigmatic is the downplaying in official narratives of the story of Riffian activist and political leader ‘Abd al-Krim al-Khattabi, who led the self-proclaimed Rif Republic in Northern Morocco in the 1920s, which successfully fended off Spanish, and later French, colonial forces for several years. As Moroccan activist and scholar Samia Errazzouki writes, “the presumed centrality of the monarchy in [the histories of Moroccan state formation] comes at the expense of mischaracterizing actors, groups, and events that have long been forgotten and selectively remembered. Moreover, this narrative has largely shaped the normative ways in which the Moroccan monarchy is presented as exceptional.” As for religious legitimacy that stems from the Alaouite dynasty’s claim to descent from the Prophet, it is worth noting that the largest and arguably most powerful religious group in Morocco, al-Adl wa al-Ihsane, explicitly rejects this claim, and while the group is legally barred from formal participation in politics, it is known for its ability to mobilize its members—as it has, at least temporarily, during February 20th Movement and Hirak protests. Moreover, the claim that Moroccans are predisposed to accept the political legitimacy of the monarchy because the vast majority of them are Muslim is not only essentialist, it misapprehends the complex ways in which identities and political beliefs interact and shape one another—and indeed can change.
Arguments about the inherent social legitimacy that flows from the Moroccan monarchy’s religious and nationalist lineages are thus reductive at best. At worst, they represent a normative claim about the appropriateness of Moroccan monarchy masquerading as an empirical one. For political science analyses of Morocco, these arguments, combined with a disciplinary bias toward the study of elite politics and formal institutions, leave scholars blind to the broader social, economic, and political fault lines within Moroccan society, and the ways in which novel forms of political engagement and contestation have developed in the wake of the protests of seven years ago. From the Hirak, Masaktach, and boycotts, to expanding online circuits of information-sharing, the broader substrate of popular contention in Morocco shows few signs of weakening. And this time, it is far from clear whether superficial reforms, minor concessions, and conciliatory language will prove sufficient to quell popular discontent.
 Asef Bayat, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2010), 210-211.
 Marc Lynch, “Introduction,” in The Arab Uprisings Explained: New Contentious Politics in the Middle East, ed. Marc Lynch (New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 9.
 Samia Errazzouki, “Under Watchful Eyes: Internet Surveillance and Citizen Media in Morocco, the Case of Mamfakinch,” The Journal of North African Studies 22, no. 3 (2017): 361–385.
 Abdelfettah Benchenna, Driss Ksikes, and Dominique Marchetti, “The Media in Morocco: A Highly Political Economy, the Case of the Paper and on-Line Press since the Early 1990s,” The Journal of North African Studies 22, no. 3 (2017): 386–410.
 Zeynep Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).
In authoritarian environments, as Tufekci writes, a better strategy for authoritarian regimes is to control the direction of online attention by spreading disinformation and sowing doubts about the authenticity of any particular piece of content—a strategy the Moroccan regime took when, for example, it attempted to defame the Hirak leader Nassar Zafzafi by leaking doctored images of him online. The Moroccan TV station 2M has also used videos of violent protests and falsely claimed they were from the Rif protests.
 Sean L. Yom, and F. Gregory Gause, “Resilient Royals: How Arab Monarchies Hang On,” Journal of Democracy 23, no. 4 (October 12, 2012): 74–88.
 Montserrat Emperador, “Unemployed Moroccan University Graduates and Strategies for ‘Apolitical’ Mobilization,” in Social Movements, Mobilization, and Contestation in the Middle East and North Africa, ed. Joel Beinin and Frederic Vairel (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2011), 217–35.