By Mohammed Maarouf and Paul Willis
By Mohammed Maarouf and Paul Willis
El Jadida, Morocco – The popular insurrections that have taken place in the Arab World ever since the overthrow of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 emerged as a response to the ‘unsettled times’ of massive demographic shifts and multiple failures in the economic sphere. They started as political revolutions that sought to establish new political systems, without giving an explicit role for cultural meanings, traditional or emergent.
The danger is that contemporary political developments may be switched into old cultural meanings, removing the ‘con’ from contemporary, making them only temporary and producing discontent all over again.
If cultural awareness, and, at best, innovation, do not lead the process from now on, there is a danger that unbridgeable gaps will remain between the new political institutions and the old cultural norms that are unable to be politically adaptive, especially among the silent majorities untrained in new social and cultural practices.
The new possibilities may simply run down the old tracks of a cultural mindset based on tribalism and division, both of which are ideological legacies of a rentier-state culture embodied in the practice of “empire-building.”
What existing and new cultural resources can be used for genuine transitions to democracy while still being accepted by the populations? Is there a mechanism that can allow for slight cultural changes that could be activated through cultural self-awareness? Could these changes be used for political purposes?
In Morocco, dominant groups struggle to make over clumsy cultural changes while trying to ensure the continuing popular acceptance of authoritarian rule and the successful exercise of power through the structures of charity and security.
During the fieldwork we conducted when we researched the 20th Feb movement protests, our respondents said that they were not ready to sacrifice death or injury to bring about political change. When interviewed, most said that they did not protest for bread or chicken like the Egyptians. A recurrent statement we heard was “in Morocco, thanks to God, there is prosperity (hamdu Allah al-khair mujud).” Even the unemployed can tinker and get a day’s income of 100 Moroccan dirhams to get by. For them, the examples of Libya, Syria, and Yemen are rather frightening.
The civil wars in countries overwhelmed by the Arab Spring deter people from being recruited into a violent protest against the government. In Morocco, there is also always hope for a charitable gesture from the monarchy to give economic compensation and relieve poverty.
Up until now, there are no clear ethnographic signs that indicate that Moroccans are likely to risk going for a real, perhaps bloody, confrontation with the monarchy, especially given that the this institution is now ‘inside the equation’ and insists on leading political change.
The king enjoys tremendous religious, social, economic, and symbolic capital.. Symbolic rituals that he parades also legitimize his political status of leadership.
The constant broadcast of his activities and development projects on television also boost his status. To the great masses of the poor, if not to all Moroccans, the monarch is the unifying symbol of the nation. Despite his traditional trappings, the young king emerges as a modern reformist. He remained calm and responded to the popular demand for redress of grievances by offering a peaceful vision of change.
To deescalate the anger of young protestors in Moroccan streets, the king announced major political reforms, including a new constitution with ‘less powers’ for royalty, and showed a willingness to allow moderate Islamists, the PJD political party, to be in power during the subsequent elections in November 2011. His government did not resort to slander or harsh repression, like other despots in Arab countries.
Though the police from time to time quietly and selectively cracked down on some demonstrations and meetings, there was no significant state violence,. The king pardoned a large number of jailed Islamists following their renunciation of violence and pledge to participate in society peacefully.
Despite Morocco’s apparently smooth progress and step-by-step reform, there is still much doubt that Morocco is on the path to a legitimate democracy with strong institutions in which the masses can trust rather than incessantly address their grievances to the King.
So far, the average Moroccan holds the King responsible for building a small road, school, or hospital in his city or village, believing that the King is the only reliable and working institution in the country. Morocco’s future progress and stability heavily depends on the construction of transparent, representative, and effective institutions, allied to cultural development and the creation of real job opportunities for its teeming millions. The historical records hold some lessons.
Moroccan history— the Kumira (loaf of bread) Revolution in the 1980’s is a good case in point— shows that riots on the rebound of an economic crisis may get out of control and may even, under special circumstances, turn into popular revolutions. We are under special circumstances now, and we should be alert to cultural change and micro changes that may be critical to the outcome of unfolding events. Without an investment in the national cultural capital and concrete economic reforms, domestic upheavals may turn into despair, raising the specter of future violent unrest.
For the moment, the de facto Makhzanian strategy of containment and the policy of daily patching and assuagement may win time, but with potentially disastrous consequences in the long run, especially if the process of awakening—no matter how it is communicated—reaches deep to the bottom of social space.
Political regimes founded on security forces alone are bound to be overthrown. Those founded on ideologies internalized by the masses may last till overthrown by counter-hegemonic ideologies. The uncertain building of the latter may now be in progress in Morocco.
The demands are clear: political inclusion; building democracy and civil society on the ground; building transparent accountable security and justice systems; securing fast, steady production-based economic growth; establishing public confidence by creating strong, legitimate institutions that guarantee real freedom of speech, meaningful participation in institutional process and decision making, real moves towards social protection and social security, and respect for the rule of law.
No one denies that the monarch and the Islamist government have recently undertaken economic reforms, but these appear to be limited, and with risk-averse incrementalism that has not yet reached to the core issues.
Moroccans are still demanding deep reforms, but no major structural reform will succeed without the collective will to build the bricks of a culturally sensitive mode of politics and mobilization foregrounding the importance of culture for citizenship and building on cultural traditions for depth and meaning.
To maintain and strengthen currents of change, discourses on citizenship, democracy, and human rights must be formed in, and linked to, sensuous cultural practices and local cultural meaning—making so that citizenship learned in the informal context of everyday life becomes lucid in the peoples’ minds as a familiar thing, as a recognizable cultural citizenship, which empowers bottom-up cultural forms and draws subalterns into self-critique and self-development of their own cultural models. Understanding the cultural switch, and developing switches and switchmen for a micro cultural switch gear is an essential ingredient for the counter-hegemonic struggle in Morocco today.
Dr. Mohammed Maarouf is a Professor at Chouaib Doukkali University, Morocco
Dr. Paul Willis is a Professor at Beijing Normal University, China
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial policy
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