Morocco was not immune to the popular movement witnessed in the Arab region following the outbreak of the Tunisian revolution in December 2010. At this time three years ago, the February 20 Movement was leading mass demonstrations in various cities in Morocco. During these demonstrations, they raised slogans that varied between constitutional, political, social and economic priorities.
In an attempt to protect his throne from the winds of what has become known as the "Arab Spring," King Mohammed VI pre-empted any attempt at a revolution. Thus, he gave a now famous speech on March 9, 2011, a month after the start of the popular movement, in which he put in place an agenda for reform, including the adoption of constitutional amendments.
Yet, three years after the start of the popular movement, it seems that the idea of "gradual reform" has fallen, and perhaps this is why the February 20 movement has intensified its work to restore its spirit.
The issue of reform was not something new to Moroccan society, and it was not the product of the popular movement in February 2011. The wave of change was present between late 2009 and early 2010, which constituted a period of resentment at the popular level. This was not because of rampant corruption and the supremacy of the "Makhzen" (the ruling elite) alone, but also because 2009 was the year of the 10-year evaluation of the king coming to power. This evaluation was shocking, given the hopes that were pinned on the political will of the new king in the process of building democracy.
Thus, the discussions that followed the Feb. 20 protests in 2011, and the previous changes in other Arab countries, had strongly pushed the issue of reform to the forefront and contributed to raising the ceiling of demands and accelerating the pace of the popular movement.
The "famous" speech
The constitutional amendments of 2011, which were put to a popular referendum, would not have been done at the same speed or with the same formula had it not been for regional conditions and the popular movement that began with the emergence of the February 20 movement.
Mohammed VI was able to absorb the anger of the street through the "proactive reform model," in which he announced significant reforms and gave people hope through the use of resonating words such as change, democracy, reform, institutions and accountability. The approved constitutional amendments led to early legislative elections on Nov. 25, 2011. These elections resulted in a big win for the Islamic Justice and Development Party, which presided over a new coalition government.
Despite the above, the regime later demonstrated that it would not stop its traditional authoritarian practices in terms of dealing with both the press and the demonstrations, which continued strongly in almost all major cities of Morocco. The peak of these demonstrations occurred on the "National Day of Protest" in April 2011, when more than 800,000 Moroccans demonstrated in 106 cities and villages. This was in addition to demonstrations in 10 European and US cities, according to statistics from the National Council to Support the February 20 movement.
Do the new constitutional reforms in Morocco represent a real change, or are they just "hovering" in the same place?
The former director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Institute, British researcher Marina Ottaway, confirms that the constitution that was drafted "falls into the category of constitutions granted to the nation by the king, rather than those crafted by a representative organization embodying popular sovereignty." This is because it was drafted by a commission of experts appointed by the king, rather than an elected constituent assembly or another representative body.
Ottaway, however, stressed that the constitution "undoubtedly broadens the power of parliament, allowing it to pass laws on most issues; it takes steps toward protecting the independence of the judiciary; and it increases the role of a number of independent commissions."
Yet she also noted, "What it fails to do clearly and unequivocally is reduce the power of the king." On the contrary, "the new constitution reserves for the king three areas as his exclusive domain: religion, security issues and strategic major policy choices. In addition, the king will remain the supreme arbiter among political forces. Under those rubrics, the king could very well control all important decisions, if he so chooses."
The royal palace regains its iron fist
On July 1, 2011, a referendum was held on the new Moroccan constitution, amid calls by the February 20 movement for a boycott, claiming that it enhances the absolute rule [of the king] and would not eliminate corruption. Nevertheless, the constitution passed with 98% of the vote.
Moroccan researcher Said Salmi said that the referendum "was disappointing. The state did not stand on the sidelines, and the king called on the people to vote 'yes.' He also gave orders to imams of mosques to dedicate a sermon to calling on the people to vote in favor of the constitution. Chapters of the constitution were changed the night before the referendum, and the king committed violations multiple times."
Shortly after the referendum, on Nov. 25, 2011, legislative elections were held in Morocco. The Justice and Development Party, which gives priority to Islamic reference in its work, won a large number of seats, enabling it to lead the government — headed by Abdelilah Benkirane — and receive 12 ministerial portfolios.
However, according to Salmi, the Benkirane government "quickly succumbed to corrupt lobbies and, instead of confrontation, preferred to take the easier route, adopting a demagogic populist rhetoric." He noted, "Under these circumstances, the royal palace regained its iron fist over all institutions."
Given that the Benkirane government had adopted a policy of "a deaf ear toward suggestions, solutions and alternatives," the Istiqlal Party withdrew from the government and moved to the ranks of the opposition. They considered the government to be "the worst in the history of modern Morocco," especially given that Morocco dropped three places in the rankings released by Transparency International in the field of fighting bribery.
"Pleasure marriage" between "Islamists" and "liberals"
The Benkirane government was appointed to a second term in 2013, following an alliance that observers described as a "pleasure marriage" between the Islamic Justice and Development Party and the National Rally of Independents, which is close to the authorities. During the Benkirane government's monthly accountability meeting on Jan. 4, there was a storm of accusations and counteraccusations between the government and opposition parties. Benkirane accused members of the Istiqlal Party, which had resigned from the government, of smuggling large sums of money out of Morocco.
In a precedent, the secretary-general of the Istiqlal Party, Hamid Chabat, announced that his party had decided to file a lawsuit against the head of the government, with the aim of [making the judiciary] reconsider the [Justice and Development] Party and its leaders. Chabat stressed that the goal of the lawsuit was to push Benkirane to act as a "real" head of state in the future.
Chabat stressed that the leaderships of the Istiqlal and Socialist Union parties are thinking about filing a lawsuit against anyone who mixes politics with Islamic preaching. He called on the Justice and Development Party to abandon its links to the Unity and Reform movement, and said that if it does not do this the state must dissolve the party, given its links to one of the Muslim Brotherhood's international associations.
Heavy criticism … and Benkirane acknowledges inability
In late 2013, King Mohammed VI strongly criticized the Benkirane government's management, holding it responsible for the decline in the reform of the education sector. The leader of the opposition Socialist Union of Popular Forces Party, Driss Lachgar, criticized the performance of the Moroccan government nearly two years after its formation, calling on it to open an investigation into the money smuggling and corruption cases.
On Jan. 12, activists from the Amazigh Youda movement organized the largest march in the movement's history, condemning the policy of procrastination that the state has been using in dealing with Amazigh demands. The movement also called for trying those involved in cases of corruption, abuse of power and looting of public money, as well as for enabling all citizens to have access to social services and improving these services. Moreover, activists said that [the government] should ensure a decent life for citizens by reducing the cost of living and increasing the minimum wage.
This is only the tip of the iceberg of the movements, which pushed Benkirane to acknowledge — albeit belatedly — the [government's] inability to address rampant bribery and corruption, blaming unnamed parties "that defend some corrupt people affiliated with them."
The dynamism of Feb. 20
In the midst of these developments and transformations, the February 20 movement had lost its vitality and entered into a phase of "intensive care," waiting for the announcement of its final death, as some researchers noted. But that did not prevent observers from stressing that the reform process initiated by Morocco was thanks to this bold protest movement.
Hamza Mahfouz, a February 20 activist, told As-Safir that what Morocco witnessed was a "popular uprising" and it will continue as long as the demands raised by the movement have not been achieved. He added the movement will continue to protest "despite the violent attacks it has been subjected to from official authorities, and despite the fall of 11 martyrs and the arrest of 58 members."
"Some Moroccans have hesitated in supporting the movement — affected by the bloody events that occurred in Libya, Yemen and Syria — and some supported the reforms that were offered, for fear of slipping toward a democratic transition through violence. But, if we look at the dynamism of the movement, there is no doubt that the February 20 movement is still strongly active in the various events happening in Morocco, both on the political and cultural levels. And the movement is still capable of being prepared in certain moments," he added.
Mahfouz concludes by saying, "On February 20, the third anniversary of the establishment of the movement, every city will take action in a way it deems appropriate. Many cities have decided to hold marches to revive demands and remind [the people] that the solution to most of Morocco's problems is a true democracy and the re-adoption of the constituent movement."
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