Morocco Votes: A Postponed Revolution?

 
A man walks by a wall marked by the numbers of districts where civilians should go to vote, in Marrakech 23 November 2011. (Photo: REUTERS – Jean Blondin)

By: Joe Dyke

Published Friday, November 25, 2011

Moroccans will vote Friday for a new parliament after King Mohammed VI swiftly introduced minor reforms to avert radical change. But economic woes and a fragmented political landscape suggest that a mass democratic movement may be delayed but not fully suppressed.
A recent report by the Council of Europe said there was little enthusiasm for the elections and, with tens of thousands of activists taking to the streets in recent weeks to urge Moroccans not to vote, turnout is expected to be as low as 50 percent.
Zineb Belmkaddem, an activist with the February 20 opposition, sums up the attitude of many when she explains that she is boycotting the elections because “they stem from an undemocratic constitution and include the same corrupt mafia running Morocco.”
Yet why has the February 20 Movement, which showed such promise in the early part of the year, failed to force more widespread change in the country?
The Moroccan regime’s reaction to protests has been swifter than the reaction by Ben Ali and Mubarak. Mohammed VI announced reforms and increased the minimum wage on March 9, only days after the protests began. This placated many and the King himself remains a popular figure in the country, even among many protesters.
According to some activists, Morocco was also partly protected from mass protests because its regime was never as oppressive or dictatorial as its North African neighbors.
“There hasn’t been a revolution in Morocco because Morocco has been what I would call a semi-dictatorship. In comparison to Ben Ali’s Tunisia there has always been some kind of freedom in Morocco,” said Hicham Almiraat, a prominent Moroccan activist and blogger. “You have a very active civil society and you have a regime that allows the freedom for those organizations to operate. Those organisations have played the role of an airbag, if you like. They have prevented the public anger from exploding into something which would sweep the country and destroy the regime.”

The King’s clever tactics have been coupled with an increasingly fragmented opposition. The February 20 movement is a loose association united only by their hatred of Morocco’s political and economic elites – the Makhzen. In their ranks are groups with irreconcilable differences, ranging from radical leftists to radical Islamists, and this has become increasingly clear as the year has worn on.

“If you watch the February 20 Movement it functions democratically but there is so much infighting. It has to mature. That is why they have not succeeded in the streets, they have not defined exactly what they want. It is like Occupy Wall Street – there is no leadership on behalf of the movement,” said Anouar Boukhars, an expert on Moroccan politics.

Over the months this has become increasingly clear as the movement has gradually lost momentum in the face of the return of politics as usual, leaving some inside feeling frustrated.

“The difference right now, the problem if you will, is that February 20th hasn’t shifted from the model that has been there from the start,” says Almiraat. “It is a leaderless organisation, it does not have any strategy and it is very difficult in this situation to come up with a plan for the future – to strategize for the mid to long term. The only thing the movement is capable of doing is to mobilize people so that they take to the streets.”

REVOLUTION 2012?

Despite the sense of frustration, mass mobilization may still be in the offing for next year. The economic future for Morocco looks increasingly gloomy. Whatever government emerges from the election will face a budget deficit of around 6 percent of GDP, one of the most unequal rates of distribution of wealth in the Maghreb, and continued high unemployment.

“Tourism is holding its own but barely, while the new housing market is slightly down and youth unemployment is still too high. They have not suffered quite as much as others but they are affected by it,” said Ed Gabriel, former US ambassador to Morocco.

Unlike the resource-rich states of the Gulf, Morocco’s regime will have a hard time assuaging the economic hardship of the population – the subsidies and minimum wage hike offered as a concession earlier this year are often cited as prime causes of the government’s shortage of cash. For Almiraat this is reason to be optimistic, as he believes that it prevents the state from being able to buy the people’s loyalties.

“Morocco is not a country that has many resources. We don’t have oil and the only income that the government has is a volatile type of income, we rely on tourism, we rely on agriculture, we rely on phosphates – which are the only mineral resource we have. That is not enough for the regime to buy its way out of this revolution wave that is sweeping across the region.”

Economic woes will be coupled with political divisions. While there are few reliable polls in Morocco it is expected that the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) will emerge as the largest party from the elections, thereby naming the prime minister.

However the electoral bias in favor of rural regions where the PJD are weak ensures they will not win an absolute majority and will be forced to go into coalition with parties closer to the royal family, who they have little in common with. Some believe that if these coalition negotiations fail it will force the PJD into the arms of the opposition, i.e. the February 20 movement.

“There was some kind of unwritten contract between the PJD and the regime. After the February 20th Movement appeared, the PJD did not support it and I believe in exchange they are demanding that the elections will be fair and transparent as they seriously believe that they are the biggest party in Morocco and that they will end up heading the government,” says Aboubakr Jamai, an award-winning Moroccan journalist who was charged on numerous occasions for publishing articles that criticised the government. “If someone else wins or they can’t form a government it would be a good thing for democratization, it would push the PJD to take a harder stance and even join the February 20th Movement.”

The continued presence of thousands of people on the streets of major cities in recent weeks suggests that there is at least a large minority who continue to believe that no change can come within the present system. For those close to the establishment the challenge is to engage with those who choose to remain outside.

“They [the regime] have got the challenge of bringing the youth movement into the system. The parties have a great need and obligation to reach out to the youth and engage them in the movement. The February 20th Movement is opposing this election and the constitutional changes because they don’t believe they are authentic. So the government has to show this movement they are. The only way to do that is to really start to carry out the reforms,” says Gabriel.

Yet if they are unable to achieve this, with the economic quagmire and political differences preventing meaningful reform, then Moroccans are unlikely to be so forgiving a second time around. “The February 20 movement was an opportunity for the regime and they didn’t seize it. Those young men and women who took to the streets were saying ‘we want the monarchy to stay, but we don’t want it to rule anymore,’” Almiraat said.

“That was a very historic opportunity for the monarchy to save itself from the bickering which may well, in the months to come, transform into anger against the establishment. They [the people] will become very frustrated when they realise that the referendum, the new constitution, the elections – all this will lead nowhere. Politics will be politics as usual, business will be business as usual, their lives will not change and we may well end up with a movement that is very radical and very similar to what was going on in Tunisia or Egypt where people have lost any respect for the establishment. In this case in Morocco the establishment will mean the King and the monarchy.”

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