The movement that rocked Morocco, but couldn't change it

The movement that rocked Morocco, but couldn't change it
Comment: Political activists in Morocco were boosted four years ago during the 20 February Movement protests. Four years on there are mixed results from the movement's work, says Mohamed Ahmed Bennis.
6 min read
20 Feb, 2015
In 2011, Morocco was swept by mass protests across the country [AFP]

Four years ago, a popular protest movement erupted in Morocco, announcing the birth of the Moroccan edition of the Arab Spring. In the midst of the revolutionary momentum brought about by what was taking place in Tunisia and Egypt, a group of young Moroccan activists launched the 20 February Movement as a new paradigm in the protests against government policies in the country.

The authorities in Morocco, along with the political elite and its various components, found themselves face to face with an organised protest movement that conveyed the demands of broad social segments on to the street. Streets and squares across the country were turned into arenas for political discourse.

The movement brought together groups from disparate backgrounds, whether in terms of their professions or cultural, political and ideological affiliations. Islamists, liberals, leftists and secularists joined the movement, which also had support from human rights groups, Amazigh associations, trade unions and women's groups.

The strength and weakness of diversity

While this diversity was one of the most important boosts to the movement's ability to mobilise people, it did however hinder its organisational coherence, especially with the emergence of differences between its leftist components and the fundamentalist Justice and Charity group.

What is interesting here about the group is that it relied on social media, whether at the level of expanding its base, or at the level of putting the protests in a different context from the bloody episodes of unrest in Morocco in 1965, 1981, 1984 and 1990.

It is possible to see this as a qualitative shift in the pattern of protest movements in Morocco. In addition, the 20 February Movement exposed the weakness of other Moroccan political parties, and their failure to keep up with the profound transformations in society over the past two decades.

These transformations have produced a different Morocco, one far removed from the traditional parties' offices and branches, which turned into spaces for producing and reproducing the same self-serving pattern of politics.

The movement advocated a constitutional monarchy and a new charter that would ensure the full separation of powers. The movement called for the dissolution of the existing government and parliament and the formation of a transitional government that would submit to the will of the people.

     They demanded more freedoms and respect for human rights.

It also demanded an independent and impartial judiciary, a crack-down on corruption, nepotism and abuse of the country's resources. It called for the recognition of Amazigh as an official language and demanded the release of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience.

The protesters demanded more freedoms and respect for human rights, as well as more jobs, better wages and broader social welfare coverage.

The winds of change

These demands were not just an expression of general discontent with various public policies implemented in Morocco over many long years, they were also an expression of the desire for full modernisation of the Moroccan polity, or at an infusion of new and modern ideas into its traditional frames of reference.

For this reason, its demand for the overthrow of tyranny was significant in that it entailed accepting the existing political structure but as part of a new paradigm, one where the monarchy is no longer quasi absolute.

Such a setup would see the king reign but not rule. Or more precisely, the movement wanted a new contract between the state and society that would take the political legitimacy of the system in a different direction.

As significant as all this was, the 20 February Movement remained moderate in its demands in general, compared to what happened in other countries during the Arab Spring. The movement demanded not a change of an end to authoritarianism.

What this meant was an effort to indigenise the winds of change that blew across the region, bringing them into a traditionally pragmatic and adaptable Moroccan cultural context.

     The authorities bent with the storm until it blew over and so were able to cut their losses dramatically.

In other words, the movement had a good sense of political knowhow which allowed it to read the situation on the ground in a way that helped it avoid taking risks and going too far in advocating radical demands that could have possibly led to dire consequences.

Moreover, the hesitance shown by broad segments of the middle class in supporting the movement, and their division regarding its demands, contributed in one way or the other in weakening its momentum later. This was especially the case after the tragic shifts in revolutionary Arab politics which began at the end of 2011.

The king's response

From the outset, the authorities dealt with the movement wisely, whether in terms of security measures accompanying the protests across Morocco, or in how they responded to its various demands. The protests were not confronted with violence, as happened in other Arab countries. Instead, the authorities bent with the storm until it blew over and so were able to cut their losses dramatically.

Two weeks after the start of the protests, King Mohammed VI made a speech in which he expressed understanding of the demands of the protesters and willingness to deal positively with them. He announced constitutional amendments and appointed for the purpose a committee that initiated broad consultations with parties, trade unions and civil society.

In the same context, the government increased the wages of civil servants, with a view to placating broad segments of the middle class and prompting them to withdraw their support for the movement's demands.

The authorities further succeeded in circumventing the demands of the protesters by holding a constitutional referendum and early parliamentary elections, and pushing many Islamists into the camp of the Justice and Development Party, which heads the current government.

Nonetheless, 20 February was one of the most important political movements in Morocco's modern history. It can be credited with launching constitutional and institutional reforms that had stagnated in the first decade of Mohammed VI's reign, not least because of the opportunism of the majority of political parties and trade unions.

True, 20 February was unable to fully develop its political and social platform, but it contributed effectively in stimulating protest in Morocco both symbolically and practically.

It is possible to say that the disparity of its ideological and political components, its lack of political experience, its organisational weakness, and the fact that the majority of the political elite were hostile to it, not to mention the reluctance of intellectuals to join its ranks and enrich its literature, were factors in the movement's decline a few months after its inception.

     20 February was unable to fully develop its political and social platform, but it stimulated protest in Morocco both symbolically and practically.

Nor can one overlook what happened elsewhere in the Arab Spring: the militarisation in Syria and the impasse it rapidly reached; the polarisation in Egypt; the failure of the elites in other countries to draft solid social and political accords; the sectarian conflicts that devastated the social and cultural fabric of many Arab countries.

These developments all accelerated the disintegration of the movement, especially after Justice and Charity withdrew from its ranks in December 2011.

Now that many events have transpired since the Arab Spring began, it is possible to say that 20 February was the legitimate offspring of a Moroccan and Arab context that could not have produced paths and outcomes far removed from its cultural and social background.

The stalemate suffered by protest movements, and their failure to precipitate social and political change, is not only a result of the enduring hegemony of the ruling class and authoritarianism, and the nature of existing social balances, but also to the nature of the societal culture that the old and existing power structure have produced.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.