The Middle East Channel

Morocco's bottom-up movement for reform

Morocco's recent parliamentary elections marked the end of King Mohammed VI's royal reforms plan, a response to Tunisia and Egypt-inspired protests in his country. The reforms, which began in March 2011, included a monarchy-appointed constitutional rewrite committee, a nationwide constitutional referendum, and a re-scheduled and rushed parliamentary election at the end of November.

The winners of the parliamentary election were the watered-down Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) and its leader and newly-appointed Prime Minister, Abdelillah Benkirane. Most Moroccans and critics understand though that the PJD and Benkirane are "de-clawed"; that is, they are truly unable to challenge the monarchy or tackle Morocco's corrupt political system, as their existence hinges on King Mohammed VI's approval.

In reality, each step of the King's reforms was shrouded in doubt. The hollowness and insincerity of a constitutional committee filled with monarchy insiders and a national referendum that passed with Saddam Hussein-esque numbers proved that the royal reforms were meaningless at worst and short-term at best, political band aids disguised as long-term solutions to deeply-rooted problems such as unemployment, poverty, illiteracy, and injustice.

The King's series of reforms came to be known as the Moroccan exception, the exception being that in Morocco, unlike Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt, political upheaval was prevented. However, Morocco is not an exception, as political activism similar to that of the rest of the region has emerged. Clearly, the creation of the Feb. 20 Movement, a popular, nationwide protest group, has proven to be the most significant political change to occur in Morocco over the past year.

The Feb 20. Movement, founded by Moroccan youth activists in early January 2011 after the fall of President Ben Ali in Tunisia, has brought together Moroccans from all political persuasions to put pressure on the government and monarchy to make moves against corruption and towards democracy. Purposely designed as a "leaderless" movement to promote inclusion and prevent it from being co-opted, the Feb 20. Movement includes secularists, atheists, socialists, conservatives, and Islamists. Together, the group's members have held large-scale protests across the country. Most importantly, the movement has brought three previously disengaged demographics to the forefront of Moroccan political participation: namely, youth, women, and lower socio-economic classes, who have all become heavily involved in the Feb. 20 Movement and Moroccan politics in general.

Historically, Moroccan youth have been apathetic and disillusioned with politics due to lack of representation and the expectation that bribes and influence, not the people, dictate the actions of government. Despite a 2002 reform which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, young Moroccans, particularly those ages 17- to 25, did not heavily involve themselves in politics until the birth of the Feb. 20 Movement. 

In contrast, the Feb. 20 Movement was founded and is propelled by young Moroccans in this age bracket, giving birth to a new driving force in Moroccan politics. What has emerged is a new culture of political activism in which the youth are not only a part of the political scene, but leading it. This shift from historical youth apathy to historic youth activism, if maintained, will require the government and monarchy to pay attention to the problems facing young Moroccans, specifically joblessness and weak educational systems, among others.

In addition to a rise in general youth activism, the participation and prominence of young women in the Feb. 20 Movement has signaleld a significant change in the gender dynamics of Moroccan society. Since national independence in 1956, women have played a role in political activism through local organizations, focusing specifically on issues affecting women. In 2004, several women's associations successfully lobbied for the Mudawana, a collection of family legal codes which provided women advanced rights in marriage, divorce, and inheritance.

In the establishment of the Feb. 20 Movement, however, young women activists pursued politics not solely with the purpose of advancing women's rights, but instead, rights and liberties of all Moroccans. Four of the 14 activists featured in the Feb. 20 Movement's YouTube video announcing its creation are young women, asking not for gender equality, but for a representative democracy. Since Feb. 2011, these young women activists have continued to serve as the face of the Feb. 20 Movement, profoundly challenging the gender barriers that have dominated Moroccan society and politics for decades.

Perhaps the most meaningful change sparked by the Feb. 20 Movement, however, is the shift from a leadership of middle-class, educated activists to a popular movement which has been more inclusive and representative of Morocco's lower classes. The founders of the Feb. 20 Movement were, for the most part, recent graduates or current students at Mohammed V University in Rabat, and they came from middle-class families. Over the last year, however, the movement has gained traction in poorer areas, signaling a shift in the movement's demographics. Initially, Rabat served as the Feb. 20 Movement's stronghold and nucleus.  Starting in February, Rabat consistently held the largest protests in the country, and most of the movement's spokespeople were Rabatis. 

However, during the past few months, the cities of Tangier and Casablanca -- areas with densely populated impoverished neighborhoods -- have hosted the movement's largest protests. Evidently, in addition to a geographic shift in dissidence, the movement is spreading from a middle-class, educated movement to a popular movement supported and propelled not by elites but by the greater population. Looking forward, if this demographic shift continues, the Feb. 20 movement will successfully break class biases and spread into more areas where there was no previous presence.

Though some observers have established the November election as a benchmark in assessing Morocco's political future, true change in Morocco lies with the Feb. 20 Movement. Indeed, the Moroccan exception has run its course, and while King Mohammed VI has slowed down the popular movement in his country, his weak reform process has illustrated to protesters that he was never sincere about moving Morocco closer towards democracy.

The King had his chance, and the next move belongs to the Feb. 20 Movement. If the movement continues to grow and is able to gather the support of the country, King Mohammed VI will be forced to either forfeit significant power to independent, non-corrupt elected bodies or face a similar fate of Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. Either way, this process will not occur overnight, but the Feb. 20 Movement is prepared and has expected since its inception that changes in Morocco will come slowly.

In coming months, the Feb. 20 Movement's greatest challenge will be to maintain the growth and development which has taken place over the last year. Although the monarchy has restrained from any large-scale violence against the movement, the last ten months have been rife with unjust arrests and excessive beatings of civilians, occurrences which indicate that if necessary, the King will not shy from the use of force. In addition to fears of violence, movement organizers must battle the complacency of Moroccans who are satisfied with the recent election results and who fear dramatic political upheaval in Morocco. Yet despite these challenges, in the words of a young female activist of the Feb. 20 Movement, Zineb Belmkadden, "Protests were here, and protests will remain here, until democracy." Clearly, change in Morocco has not and will not come from King Mohammed VI, the PJD, or through the ballot box. It comes from the streets. 

Zahir Rahman recently completed a Fulbright research grant in Morocco where he studied youth and online activism. You can follow him on Twitter @thezroc

AFP/Getty images

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