Rabat, February 19, 2012 (The Associated Press)
Rabat, February 19, 2012 (The Associated Press)
Morocco’s pro-democracy February 20 movement spearheaded the country’s version of the Arab Spring and sent the centuries-old monarchy scrambling to reform. Now, a year after its birth, the youth-led group appears to have lost its way.
And while the movement struggles for relevance, Morocco’s problems are far from solved: Social discontent and clashes between police and unemployed graduates are on the rise as the economy suffers from the effects of Europe’s financial crisis.
Like the Occupy movements in the United States, Morocco’s pro-democracy groups now need to find out if they can keep the fight going.
On Sunday, the movement will try with countrywide anniversary demonstrations to rekindle some of the fire that at its peak in March put 800,000 people from all walks of life on the streets calling for an end to corruption, greater democracy and social justice.
The protesters shook the cities of Morocco and achieved some of the things they wanted, bringing their country a new constitution and free elections.
Since that time, however, the numbers at the weekly demonstrations have plummeted to a few thousand in the larger cities as ordinary people abandoned the movement, apparently satisfied with King Mohammed VI’s reforms, including granting more powers to elected officials — or scared away by a tougher response to the protests.
Elections on Nov. 25 were won by a moderate Islamist opposition party promising many of the things once shouted at demonstrations.
Moroccan authorities have trumpeted their “third way” of dealing with the Arab Spring, steering between revolution and repression in favor of reforms with stability. Social unrest has continued though, including violent clashes between police and unemployed graduates calling for government sector jobs.
The youth-led movement has had a hard time harnessing that simmering anger.
“The problem with February 20 is that it is elitist and doesn’t have a rapport with the people,” said Mouad Belghouat, a 25-year-old rapper with February 20 whose songs excoriating the palace and social inequalities in the country became the soundtrack for the movement. The movement’s demands weren’t all realized, he said, “so we continue to go into the streets.”
Belghouat, who goes by the named El-Haqed, or the Enraged, was jailed for four months for getting into a fight with a regime supporter in the gritty, low income suburb of Casablanca where he lives. His supporters say the charges were trumped up.
“You can’t talk to people about parliamentary monarchy, they think the king is sacred, so you have to talk to them about unemployment and those stealing the wealth of the country,” he said, explaining that he and his friends in the movement now go to neighborhoods and have discussions to raise people’s consciousness.
It also helps that his rap songs appeal to the young, unemployed and disenfranchised youth that swell the crumbling slums surrounding Casablanca, Tangiers and other large cities.
The movement’s protests always had an artistic side to them, with street theater often accompanying the colorful marches through the streets.
In one Casablanca protest, a man with the mask of a hated adviser of the king dangled a baguette on a fishing rod above the grasping hands of three ragged figures representing the people.
There is no denying that in the initial months of the protests, February 20 achieved more than generations of party politics had accomplished in opening up Morocco.
“It succeeded in breaking a taboo, it brought out into the open calls against corruption and the domination of certain figures on the economy,” said Omar Bendoro, a political analyst at Rabat University. Close associates of the king from wealthy families are perceived to dominate the economy.
After years of repression, people are no longer afraid to make their discontent known, whether about lack of water, electricity or civil rights, he added.
“Social problems have always existed, but now the people explode because there is a chance that the powers-that-be will take them seriously,” Bendoro said.
The king, due either to the street rallies or fears of Egyptian- or Tunisian-style revolutions, agreed in March to amend the constitution, bowing to longtime demands from political parties.
Under the new constitution the prime minister has more powers and comes from the party that won the most votes, rather than whomever the king felt like choosing under the old system. Ultimate power, however, still rests with the monarch and his court of close advisers.
Even as the concessions, including raising public sector wages, blunted popular anger, activists say there was a second, darker, prong to the official response — one that targeted the movement itself.
Starting in May, demonstrations began to be attacked by riot police and hired thugs, and some activists started receiving late night visits from security officers.
“There were two levels at work, the institutional and the non-institutional, which was the intimidation, beatings and propaganda — particularly propaganda about the Islamists,” said activist Abadila Maaelaynine.
State media said the demonstrators were being infiltrated by radical communists and hardline Islamists from the banned Adl wal Ihsane (Justice and Charity) movement, which did have a big presence in the demonstrations.
The accusations stuck, further cooling public ardor for the movement, and soon the demonstrations became more of a weekly — later monthly — traffic nuisance than a real vehicle of political change.
“We failed to become more innovative in what we were doing and it’s time to admit that,” said Zeinab Belmkaddem, a young activist with the movement, which is now looking to start a political party and build up a lasting network tied to the people.
“We don’t want to just stay in the streets, we tried that for a year — been there done that — that’s it, but at the end of the day what happened is that others took advantage and that’s what happened with the PJD,” she said bitterly, referring to the Islamist party that won elections.
The party has been a clear beneficiary of the movement.
“The process of democratization in the country is moving in a good direction,” said Mustapha Khalfi, once the editor of the PJD’s newspaper and now the minister of communication and government spokesman. “Moroccan society has the feeling that what is happening in politics has an impact on daily life and most importantly when they participate it can make a difference.”
Khalfi is quick to praise the February 20 movement for its early efforts, but noted that it has since lost momentum and popularity and it is the new government that is now looking to satisfy people’s demands for jobs.
Activists, however, question whether the limited powers given to the new government will be enough to enact the deep reforms that the people crave — especially as daily frustrations mount.
“Now the people are waiting to see what they can do,” said the rapper Belghouat. “They will be disappointed.”