Eight years on, how is Morocco recovering from Arab Spring?

The popular protests demanding political reforms eight years ago in Morocco have turned into social movements.

al-monitor People hold signs during a peaceful march to show solidarity with Tunisians and mark the first anniversary of the Arab Spring revolution, Rabat, Morocco, Feb. 11, 2012.  Photo by REUTERS/Stringer.

Mar 3, 2019

CASABLANCA, Morocco — It has been eight years since the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring. At that time, the February 20 Movement was born in Morocco, led by Moroccan leftist parties and supported by Al Adl Wal Ihsane, a political Islamic association that is not legally recognized by the Moroccan state. On that day in 2011, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Rabat and many other Moroccan cities to demand freedom, dignity and social justice.

Among other things, protesters called on dissolving parliament and the government, which was headed by Abbas El Fassi at the time. Many Moroccans saw Fassi as a symbol of political monopoly as his family and relatives occupied various positions in power since the beginning of the 20th century. In addition, protesters demanded the adoption of a democratic constitution that expands the powers of the government and the parliament, and ensures the independence of the judiciary.

On March 9, 2011, in a speech that broke protocol, King Mohammed VI addressed the nation by announcing changing the constitution and strengthening the independence of the executive, legislative and judicial authorities. On July 1, 2011, over 98% of Moroccans voted in favor of this constitution during a national referendum.

Under the new constitution and following the first legislative elections held on Nov. 25, 2011, the Islamic Justice and Development Party won a majority in the parliament and the king appointed the party’s secretary-general, Abdelilah Benkirane, to head the government on Nov. 29, 2011.

Today, Benkirane continues to defend the king's direct involvement in the executive authority even after the king removed him from his post in 2017. Morocco’s king had dismissed Benkirane in March 2017 from his position as designated prime minister after the latter failed to form a government following the 2016 parliamentary elections.

During several meetings with the press and his youth supporters, Benkirane reiterated his rejection of a parliamentary monarchy in which the king reigns without actually ruling, supporting the king’s direct intervention in the executive authority, as is the case today.

Political observers in Morocco consider that the promises Mohammed made in his 2011 speech merely aimed at absorbing the street's anger, and that the most important authority, i.e., the executive power, is still in the hands of the king, despite the new constitution.

Benkirane's view of the nature of the monarchy is no different from that of the majority of pro-regime parties as well as the opposition. Perhaps the only political party in parliament that explicitly calls for establishing a democratic parliamentary monarchy in which the king reigns and does not rule is the Federation of the Democratic Left.

According to Article 48 of the current Moroccan Constitution, the king presides over the Council of Ministers: “The king can, on the basis of a specific agenda, delegate to the head of government the presidency of a Council of Ministers.”

In this regard, Khalid Bakari, professor of language didactics at the Regional Center for Education and Training Profession in Casablanca and expert in social movements in Morocco, told Al-Monitor that the youths of the February 20 Movement are feeling rather disappointed because the constitutional document did not fulfill its promises.

“In 2011 a large part of the February 20 Movement had leftist political affiliations. The movement was shaped by these people and a large number of them believed in change from within the institutions. They had confidence in the central authority's response to the demand for democratic transition,” he said, believing this never happened.

Nabila Mounib, secretary-general of the Unified Socialist Party, one of the components of the Federation of the Democratic Left and one of the few political parties that supported the February 20 Movement, told Al-Monitor that the constitution did not live up to the expectations of the Moroccan street.

“The constitution of 2011 provided some minor developments, but it is still far from reaching the basics of democratic transition. As long as the constitution does not guarantee separation of power, independence of the judiciary and respect for popular sovereignty, we cannot even say that it is a constitution suitable for democratic transition. The current constitution gives the royal palace an opportunity to strengthen its prerogatives and leaves the prime minister with very limited powers,” she said.

Journalist and former member of the February 20 Movement Omar Radi told Al-Monitor that the regime wasted the opportunity of democratic transition in 2011. “The state could have seized the opportunity of the Arab Spring to strengthen the foundations of democracy, but unfortunately it did not, sparking resentment in the Moroccan street. This is why popular movements erupted back then, calling for social rights. When political slogans turn into social demands, it means the crisis has the majorly aggravated,” he said.

Meanwhile, Bakari said that “most of the demonstrations and protests that followed in 2011 were led by people without a partisan background, and these movements had a regional social character such as the Hirak protest in the Rif [region] or in other areas such as Jaradah and Zagora. In essence, they all questioned the conflict of interest between power and the accumulation of wealth among decision-makers.”

He added, “It is true that the February 20 Movement has been dissolved, but we cannot say that it disappeared completely. On the contrary, cultural and artistic dynamics such as Masrah Mehgour theater or street musicians emerged as a form of restoring public space. The February 20 Movement inspired the social movements born after 2011.”

Five years after the constitution came into force, a popular demonstration — called the Hirak protest (Arabic for Rural Mobilization) — took place at the end of October 2016 in the city of al-Hoceima in northern Morocco, after a fishmonger was killed by a garbage truck on Oct. 28, 2016. Under the leadership of prominent activist Nasser Zefzafi, residents of the city and neighboring villages rallied raising social slogans and demanding that the authorities build a hospital and a college so the Rif region would no longer be marginalized. On May 29, 2017, Zefzafi was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison along with dozens of his comrades.

According to Mounib, condemning the symbols of this mobilization exposed the power’s weaknesses. “The security approach is the actual policy that the state adopts when dealing with popular movements,” she noted.

Bakari concluded, “The Moroccan people have a lack of trust in the central regime, in addition to the lack of representation of a broad strata of society within the state apparatus, so it would not be strange if we later see more radical popular movements than before.”

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