Two years ago, new and significant socio-economic and identity protests broke out in the northern Moroccan Rif region. Now, Algerian protests have thrust this crisis into the spotlight once again, as well as the other forgotten “trouble spots” that dot the Kingdom and continue to be periodically activated. A symptom of a widespread and simmering popular discontent, these protests are a sounding board for persistent and deep social and regional inequalities.
In February 2019, Algerians took to the streets against a fifth mandate for president Abdelaziz Bouteflika and have continued gathering weekly after his removal to demand fundamental changes to the political system. Since then, neighboring Morocco has been warily watching the situation while carefully standing by the principle of non-interference and avoiding making any comments. The troubled relations between the two countries as well as Rabat’s fear of emulation at home largely explains this posture.
Yet a trickle-down effect is not self-evident, primarily because of the religious legitimacy on which the Moroccan monarchy relies. Power relationships and political authority — and how these are seen in the society at large — differ considerably in the two countries. Popular protests, in 2011 and beyond, have never targeted the monarchical institution, but rather the political class and the nebulous makhzen (the country’s elites and kingmakers), which has proven highly resilient. Although freedom and democracy are still part and parcel of people’s demands, the possibilities for upheaval threatening the established political order lie in the convergence of enduring poverty, misrecognition, unemployment, and a scarcity of resources.
From Algeria to Morocco: the peril of protests
When long-time president Bouteflika at last resigned in April, Algerians continued to demonstrate, protesting against le pouvoir or “the powers that be”— the clique of businessmen, military elites and ruling party politicians around the presidency. Recently, following a five-month-long political vacuum, the interim president, Abdelkader Bensalah, announced that the people will go to the polls in December, despite ongoing anti-government protests demanding the creation of new institutions ahead of elections.
Every critical juncture in Algeria before long sees impacts in Morocco. In the wake of the Algerian “Berber Spring” in 1980, the very same minority identity started to awaken in Morocco, shaking the Kingdom and breaking a linguistic and cultural taboo. In the early 1990s, the electoral rise of the Islamic Salvation Front (with its French acronym, FIS) in Morocco fueled the perception of a rising “Islamist threat” in the region to be contained. Indeed, this was a prelude to the “black decade” of the bloody Algerian civil war (1991–2002), which left more than 150,000 dead. Faced with the growth of political Islam, King Hassan II, the current king’s father, first rejected the Islamists’ quest for recognition as a formal political party — what would later become the Justice and Development Party (PJD) which is currently in the governing coalition. Finally, he decided to integrate them into the national political arena to avoid an Algerian-style spiral of violence but making sure it did not become too powerful. Then, in 2011, Morocco saw a sudden political change in its neighborhood. Street protests toppled long-time presidents and regimes in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, and more recently in Sudan.
Despite the absence of official statements and an apparent detachment from the turbulence in neighboring Algeria, there is no doubt that Rabat regards what is going on regarding Bouteflika’s replacement with trepidation. Due to the diplomatic stalemate between the two countries over the land border and the Saharan issue, Morocco’s wait-and-see approach comes as no surprise. Even less surprising still is it that the Geneva talks held under the aegis of the UN are currently on hold, after the last roundtable in March 2019 with Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria, and the Polisario Front.
For the time being, Rabat’s primary concern is twofold. On the one hand, it seeks not to exacerbate the balanced tautness with Algeria, in the hope that the divisions within the military hierarchy —the real kingmaker of Algerian politics — will not further undermine bilateral relations. From the standpoint of Rabat, to be optimistic, a less hostile Algeria could have a positive impact on the Western Sahara dossier and lead to the reopening of the land border. By contrast, a new presidency in continuity with — or even more intransigent than — the previous one would make this opportunity less likely. On the other hand, Rabat seeks to prevent the formation of cross-cutting and post-ideological protest movements that might call into question the Moroccan system as well.
Contentious politics in Morocco after the Arab Spring
Since 2011, the Moroccan domestic political landscape has also changed. The monarchy managed to keep the revolution at bay, opting for a carrot and stick approach. The former included a series of pre-emptive actions at the institutional and socio-economic level designed to stem the rise of further mobilizations. A new constitution was introduced, expanding the role of parliament and government but leaving substantive powers to the monarchy. Notwithstanding the formal expedient of a constitutional referendum for its approval, it was essentially a top-down process led by an ad hoc, appointed royal advisory committee in line with the country’s tradition of constitutions released from above (constitutions octroyées). To address the people’s discontent with the political establishment, early legislative elections initially scheduled for late 2012 were brought forward to November 2011. That year, the PJD won and headed up, for the first time, a coalition government. In addition, the monarchy adopted several socio-economic measures to prevent further popular discontents, such as increased subsidization of basic food products and fuel, wage increases for civil servants, subsidies for the unemployed, compulsory medical insurance and an expansion of free health care provision.
Yet contentious politics in the streets did not end. With different modalities and intensity — sporadically or on a day-to-day basis — it continued in the shape of sit-ins and periodic demonstrations by the unemployed graduates (diplomés chômeurs), or in the form of more complex and articulated social movements. Among these, the People’s Movement (Hirak for short) in the northern Rif region, whose inhabitants, mostly ethnic Berbers, have long defied the monarchy, as well as the colonial powers before it. Demonstrations were sparked at the end of October 2016 in the town of Al-Hoceima over the death of Mouchine Fikri, a 31-year-old fishmonger who was crushed to death in the trash compactor he jumped into to retrieve merchandise the police had previously confiscated. The event immediately resembled what had happened to Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit-vendor who set himself on fire in December 2010 and whose death would become the catalyst for the Arab Uprisings.
For many people, Fikri’s death — like Bouazizi’s before him — came to epitomize arbitrary and humiliating treatment by state authorities, their corruption and the persecution of the most underserved communities. Early on, the new wave of mobilization explicitly called for accountability of state officials, demanding that those responsible for Fikri’s death stand up for trial. Justice was also demanded for a crime that remained unpunished, dating back to the 2011 unrest, when five bodies were found incinerated in a bank in Al-Hoceima. Later on, taking the lead from the mobilization against official abuses, the Hirak articulated demands concerning social service provision and economic issues. More specifically, they demanded infrastructure works, such as better roads, a railway, a university and a specialized hospital for cancer, as the region still suffers from the consequences of harmful gas used to suppress past rebellions during the Spanish occupation. It also called for the end to the region’s militarization in place since a 1958 dahir (royal decree) and the recognition of ‘disaster zone’ status, also given the seismic activity that is prevalent there.
Protests have also erupted in other parts of Morocco. For instance, ‘thirst revolts’ erupted in the autumn of 2017 in Zagora, a city close to the desert, over water shortages. Here, the lack of water became a structural problem because of the systematic exploitation of sparse resources for agriculture by big farmers to the detriment of the inhabitants, especially the cultivation of watermelons and other water-intensive productions destined for export. Next, in the eastern mining town of Jerada local population rose up against marginalization and the lack of decent employment after two young brothers, Houcine and Jedouane Dioui, died in a clandestine coal mine in December that year. In the absence of viable economic alternatives, the ‘mines of death’ —infamous for their unsafe and risky conditions — are the only opportunity for many people to make ends meet.
Often triggered by dramatic contingent events imbued with a shared narrative of social exclusion and marginalization, such as Fikri’s or the two brothers’ death, local protests swelled in scale. These regional and even national waves of protest also reverberated among the Moroccan diaspora in Europe, as happened for the Hirak. Notions of karama (dignity) and hogra (a mixed feeling of humiliation and abandonment) have represented a common thread across the countries’ marginal areas and communities sharing a feeling of misrecognition and neglect by state authorities.
In November 2017, 15 people were crushed to death, and 40 others were injured in a stampede during a food aid distribution by a local charity in Sidi Boulaalam, a village located 60 kilometers from the coastal touristic city of Essaouira. This episode has further exposed Morocco’s hidden poverty.
Challenging the political status quo
Despite some positive metrics, the core of the problem lies with income and territorial inequalities. Over the last two decades, Morocco has significantly reduced the official poverty rate, which dropped from 15.3 % in 2011 to 4.8 % in 2014. According to the World Bank, the unemployment rate declined to 9 % in 2018. Yet, its contraction comes along with a concentration of informal and vulnerable employment opportunities. From 2000–2017, the country witnessed an average annual GDP growth of 4.4 %. However, the gap between richest and poorest widened. Indeed, a recent Oxfam report (April 2019) confirms that income inequality in Morocco is the highest in North Africa. Likewise, a sharp urban-rural divide persists, with remote regions far from the modern imagine touted by Rabat and the country’s popular touristic hubs. In big cities as well, sharp disparities are evident with the existence of shantytowns.
In such a situation, social tensions are easy to exacerbate. Against the backdrop of contentious outbursts that have not ceased to punctuate the country’s post-2011 trajectory, recent demonstrations in Algeria and Sudan risk reigniting major waves of protests more vocally demanding deeper and more substantive political changes.
That said, it must not be forgotten that, even in 2011, the monarchical institution was never — with a few exceptions — questioned. Unlike other North-African countries, King Mohammed VI’s legitimacy is rooted in religion and tradition, as the royal family claims direct descent from the Prophet. Although a complex mixture of patronage and clientelistic networks shaping politics and economy surely drives the resilience of Moroccan Alawite dynasty in the wake of regional pressures for change, lineage is a crucial element as well. It clearly distinguishes Mohammed VI from other leaders like Mubarak, Qaddafi, Ben Ali, al-Bashir or Bouteflika, whose legitimacy rested upon completely different bases. Yet, precaution is a must. Key challenges to political authority and the status quo mostly lie in unmet socio-economic grievances, further exacerbated by misrecognition and systematic disregard of people’s expectations.
Indeed, compared to the deafening silence of the state and the caution of most Moroccan media in reporting the news, the demonstrations in Algeria have sparked contradictory reactions in public opinion. The public has made its voice heard especially through social networks, with views splitting into two main currents. On the one hand, there are those who have criticized the hostile attitude of the Algerian people, expressing outrage at some slogans in the protests that sneered at Bouteflika’s Moroccan origins. This heightened after some demonstrators staged a funeral procession with the president’s coffin wrapped in the Moroccan flag during a street protest. On the other hand, expressions of solidarity with the Algerian cause have multiplied, the cry of rebellion sounding for an effective liberalization of the political arena. Among these voices has been Nasser Zefzafi, who has been in prison for two years as one of the main promoters of the Hirak in the Rif. Overall, however, even Moroccan public opinion remains cautious, like in Tunisia, the pupil of a democratic takeover, where a few dozen people actively mobilized in solidarity with Algerian activists last spring.
Rather than a democratic disillusionment tout court, this reluctance testifies not least to a widespread fear of the unforeseeable and the likely undesirable outcomes that another transition process could bring along in an area still in turmoil from the last round of crises and street protests.
Photo: RYAD KRAMDI / AFP
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