The unrealised demands of Morocco's 20 February movement

8 min read
23 February, 2022

In more than 50 Moroccan cities, thousands of activists rallied on Sunday against the rising cost of living and the censure on freedom of expression, marking the 11th anniversary of the 20 February movement, which was inspired by the wave of Arab uprisings taking place across the region.

Over one hundred activists gathered in front of the Moroccan parliament in Rabat, waving the movement’s infamous black flag and chanting “long live the people,” mimicking the long-standing slogan of the Kingdom, “long live the King”. 

Women, men, and children demanded the release of detained journalists and activists, the resignation of current Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch, and social justice reforms, among other demands.

Despite the relatively limited number of protesters, dozens of armed authorities surrounded the demonstrators, with water cannons ready to attack and an ambulance on standby. 

“I can only record with great sadness that none of the legitimate demands raised by the people in 2011 were fulfilled. On the contrary, the past years have witnessed severe and brutal censorship on the freedom of opinion and expression, the latest of which was the arrest of the activist in his twenties, Noureddine Al-Awaj,” Alali Aitaoui, a prominent activist in the 20 February movement, told The New Arab.

"On 20 February 2011, 'the people want to overthrow corruption' echoed in the heart of the capital Rabat, signalling the start of Morocco's Arab spring"

Noureddine Al-Awaj, a human rights activist, was convicted last year with a two-year sentence for “insulting constitutional institutions” after saying in an interview that Morocco became a “disaster” due to the “failed policies” of the Moroccan regime.

Aitaoui recalled with great pride the protests of 2011, when he, Noureddine, and tens of thousands of Moroccans had “the audacity of hope” of bringing change through peaceful demonstrations.

The Moroccan Spring

On 20 February 2011, “the people want to overthrow corruption” echoed in the heart of the capital Rabat, signalling the start of Morocco's Arab spring.

For more than five months, tens of thousands of activists stormed major cities across the country calling for social justice, freedom, and dignity.

The protests brought together a myriad of political factions, including the secular left, independents and youth from Morocco’s largest Islamist association, the Justice and Charity Group, which is officially banned by the Moroccan monarchy and which left the movement after only a few months.

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The central demand of the movement was to implement a constitutional monarchy, where the King remains a figurehead but does not rule. 

Even without calling for the complete overthrow of the regime, the 20 February movement piled enough pressure on the palace to free 190 political detainees, to establish a human rights committee, and to announce a new constitution that limited the King’s authority and acknowledged the Amazigh language as an official language in the country.

The aspiring demands divided the movement between those who stressed that no real change is possible without removing “the King’s sanctity” and those who believed that the movement had reached its goals after the palace’s reforms.

“I was convinced that this protest dynamic of the youth expresses the country's need for real reform and is a historic opportunity for the Moroccan people. But we were clear that the ceiling of demands should be within the framework of the Moroccan monarchy, and we disagreed with all slogans rejecting a rational ceiling for demands,” said Abdellali Hamidine, one of the few members of Justice and Development (PJD) who participated in the protests.

Hamidine signed, along with other political figures, the statement titled “The Change We Want,” in 2011, in support of the palace’s reforms.

Moroccans protest in front of parliament in the capital Rabat against rising prices on the 11th anniversary of the popular uprising of the 20 February movement on February 20, 2022. [Getty]
Moroccans protest in front of parliament in the capital Rabat against rising prices on the 11th anniversary of the popular uprising of the 20 February movement on 20 February 2022. [Getty]

The victory of the Islamist Justice and Development (PJD) party in the elections of November 2011 diffused tensions in the streets and the country was swept up in the euphoria of taking a step towards freedom and democracy.

Despite not officially joining the protests, the PJD charmed working-class voters with its religious principles and its sharp criticism of classism in the country.

Under the 2011 constitution, King Mohamed appointed the PJD’s leader, Abdellillah Benkirane, a palace outsider known for his humour, tie-less wardrobe, and promise to end corruption, as the prime minister.

'Political blockage'

The new Moroccan PM quickly became a controversial leader. With vague posturing, Benkirane blamed what he called “the crocodiles” and “the demons” for his cabinet’s shortcomings.

Although Benkirane’s reform record was mixed - particularly related to anti-corruption, the judiciary, and the structural economy - he managed to convince citizens of his ability to govern, sweeping local, regional, and national elections in 2016 for the second time in a row.

"I can only record with great sadness that none of the legitimate demands raised by the people in 2011 were fulfilled"

“The party [PJD] has succeeded, through the powers and competencies available to it and within the framework of possible alliances, which was not easy, and played a historical role in calming the Moroccan street,” said Abdellali Hamidine, a prominent member of PJD.

Abdellali Hamidine, a political scientist and member of the PJD, argues that the party’s decline stems from its inability to form the alliances necessary for a majority government, resulting in a “political blockage”.

To end the stalemate, King Mohammed VI removed Benkirane and appointed Saadeddine El Othmani, another PJD member as prime minister. “One of the results of this [crisis] was the formation of a fragile and inconsistent government led by Dr Saad El-Din El Othmani,” Hamidine told The New Arab.

Under the leadership of El Othmani, Morocco experienced a critical period marked by political instability, economic decline, and a crackdown on dissent. 

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Hirak Rif, Pegasus, and normalisation

In 2016, Mouhcine Fikri, a fishmonger in the Rif region, was crushed to death inside a garbage truck after he climbed in to retrieve his shipment of fish that was confiscated by authorities. A new popular protest movement, Hirak Rif, was born.

The video of Fikri’s death, with a male voice in the background saying “crush him,” fuelled outrage online that spiralled into widespread protests across cities in the often neglected mountainous region of northwestern Morocco.

Protesters called for justice, an end to corruption and better treatment for Rifis, who were described by former King Hassan II as “despicables”.

As the protests escalated, in May 2017, the PJD and other governing parties issued a statement condemning the Hirak, accusing it of secession and receiving foreign funding, and recruited religious officials to condemn the movement.

Authorities launched a campaign of mass arrests, including the arrest of the movement’s leader Nasser Zefzafi.

According to activists' estimates, eight detainees from the Hirak remain in Moroccan prisons to this day, most notably Nasser Zefzafi and Nabil Ahamjik, who are both sentenced to 20 years for “serving a separatist agenda and conspiring to harm state security.”

"In 2016, a new popular protest movement, Hirak Rif, was born"

In the aftermath, journalists covering the movement became targets. Claiming the arrests have nothing to do with their professions, Moroccan forces imprisoned three Moroccan journalists - Taufik Bouachrine, Omar Radi and Soulimane Raissouni - accusing them of sexual assault. However, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention says the cases are politically motivated.

In 2021, an investigation by Forbidden Stories, a network of journalists dedicated to defending reporters and fighting censorship, listed Moroccan authorities among the regimes using the infamous Israeli Pegasus spyware to keep tabs on their rivals.

In an official statement, the Moroccan government said it "categorically rejects and condemns these unfounded and false allegations," and sued both Amnesty International and Forbidden Stories, over defamation.

But the final nail in PJD’s coffin was the normalisation accord with Israel at the end of 2020. El Othmani’s smiles and handshakes with the Israeli and American delegations, headed by Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, destroyed the party’s last remaining political legitimacy: its religious background and support for the Palestinian cause.

In the 8 September elections, Moroccan billionaire Aziz Akhannouch’s National Rally of Independents (RNI)  party won more than 102 seats, while PJD barely managed 13, announcing the end of the Islamists rule in the Kingdom.

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A sunrise of freedom in the Maghreb

After less than 200 days in power, the billionaire has already become the target of Moroccans' frustrations

On Sunday, 20 February in the early hours of the movement's anniversary, citizens stormed a market in the village of Wlad Jelloul, seizing produce and meat in a move of rebellion against the rising costs of living. With an inflation rate of 10.7% and a 64% drop in rainfall, the prices of several essential food products, as well as fuel, have skyrocketed.

This has hit vulnerable families the hardest, who are still reeling from two years of the pandemic, in which more than 430,000 Moroccans lost their jobs. Lingering Covid-19-induced supply chain disruptions have made it difficult to find some items while driving up consumer prices internationally.

Moroccan activists are calling on the government to take urgent measures to help the people out of this crisis.

“I am not an activist. I am just a Moroccan citizen who struggles to afford goods for my children. Everything is spiking. It’s the government's responsibility to help us financially to survive this so-called international crisis,” said Fatima, a 40-year-old woman who joined Rabat’s protests on Sunday to voice her worries.

"'We do not need a businessman who benefits personally from our struggles to rule over us,' said Badr, a Moroccan university student who took to the streets"

Some Moroccans are accusing the PM, who owns Afriquia Gaz, one of the biggest fuel distribution companies in the country, of benefiting personally from the fuel price crisis.

“A boss of a big company should not be head of state or head of government. We do not need a businessman who benefits personally from our struggles to rule over us,” said Badr, a Moroccan university student who took to the streets. 

Hamidine argues that the combination of social struggles and the lack of confidence in the political institutions ruling the country may birth a new reform movement.

“In this case, it is better to organise premature free and fair elections based on new legal and political conditions to create institutions that enjoy the greatest degree of support from the street and respond to its demands and expectations,” Hamidine told The New Arab.

Basma El Atti is The New Arab's Morocco correspondent.

Follow her on Twitter: @elattibasma