When Tunisia and Libya began exhibiting what appeared to be the early stages of a popular uprising, some analysts and commentators turned to Morocco, the only remaining kingdom in North Africa, and tried to make sense of what Morocco is (or is not) experiencing:
“Morocco is a regional model.”
“Morocco is not like [insert your choice of country].”
“This King is not like his father.”
“Moroccans are not ready for democracy.”
“Morocco is the most democratic country in the region.”
“The monarchy is needed to preserve national unity.”
Contradictions and inconsistencies set up the predictable arguments of those who tout Moroccan exceptionalism. The logic of the “Moroccan exception” theory treats Morocco as so unique that standard methodological tools used to analyze the rest of the region are mostly dismissed. The “beloved” neotraditionalist monarchy, which rules unchecked despite the existence of a constitution and parliament, presents itself as an easy defense of Moroccan exceptionalism. Political and economic factors, and the entrenched authoritarian regime driven by decades of post-colonial policies, are replaced with a vague and inconsistent reference to Morocco’s situation in relative terms—sometimes drawing comparisons with either its recent history or the conditions of its regional neighbors. The diverse ethnic makeup of Moroccan society is seen as an obstacle to democracy and a threat to national unity, rather than a vehicle for pluralism. Eventually, the rhetoric of Moroccan exceptionalism slips into apologetic support of absolutism.
The theory’s supporters (or whoever is doing the counting) measure popular dissent, or the lack thereof, through the number of bodies present at a certain protest, the types of slogans chanted, and the diversity of the participation cited as an example of the protesters’ incoherent and obscure goals. Based on these measures, the “fall and rise” of the February 20th Movement, as Ahmed Benchemsi puts it, conforms to the perception of Morocco’s ongoing political experience as argued by defenders of Moroccan exceptionalism. While the February 20th Movement is a major component of opposition in Morocco, describing dissent as a matter limited to just the February 20th Movement not only serves those who cite “Moroccan exceptionalism,” but also belittles the presence of dissent in other spheres of Moroccan society. Like popular dissent elsewhere, the Moroccan brand has political, economic, and social roots, is present in both rural and urban areas, and has diverse followers. Dissent in Morocco cannot be captured by simply confining it under a nominal and monolithic umbrella. Doing so limits this otherwise diverse and colorful discourse to the rules of the status quo framed by the regime.
When the February 20th Movement first took to the streets on 20 February 2011, the regime responded directly to the general population and not to the movement itself. Former minister of communications and government spokesperson, Khalid Naciri, stated, “The Moroccan government has nothing against the February 20 Movement, but we suspect its members are being manipulated by the Islamists and the movements of the left.” Yes, the movement was partially comprised of members of the banned al-Adl wal Ihsan (AWI) Islamist movement as well as members of the leftist Unified Socialist Party (PSU). However, this statement was not directed to members of the February 20th movement. Instead, it was intended to trigger hostility towards the movement and turn the general population against it.
Naciri’s diction manipulated the very fears the regime had produced and played on for decades, at the start of the Cold War era. “Islamists” and “leftist movements” are two groups that the regime has marginalized and vilified through decades of policies and propaganda. Other Middle Eastern and North African countries that aligned themselves with the United States during this period shared a similar experience. Morocco’s position as a US ally during the Cold War heavily shaped its domestic policies. King Hassan II often played on Cold War rhetoric to garner economic and military support from the US to clamp down on the Western Saharan Polisario Front (at the time, the Polisario was allied with Cuba and receiving arms from the Soviet Union via Libya and Algeria). Mehdi Ben Barka, a prominent leftist politician, disappeared in 1965 while in France; his remains were never found. More recently, in October 2010, Ilham Hasnouni, a Moroccan student and self-identified communist, was kidnapped and detained for ten months without charges and released in August 2011, just a month after the 2011 constitutional referendum took place.
The Moroccan regime, however, did not limit its crackdown just to the leftists. Ever since the events of 11 September 2001, Morocco has opened its borders to the United States and its allies for the detention of suspected terrorists in secret facilities. The Moroccan regime also became actively complicit in the torture of detainees. Additionally, after several explosions carried out by what the government described as radical Islamists claimed the lives of dozens, Moroccan officials began pursuing suspected terrorists and subjecting them to indefinite periods of detention, along with physical and psychological torture. The marginalization leftists and Islamists have endured under the hands of the Moroccan regime made way for their brief partnership within the February 20th movement. When it became clear that these groups had different goals and each saw itself as limited by the other in their pursuit, the Islamist faction (namely the AWI) broke away from the movement just after the November 2011 elections.
While the Islamists played a minor role in the current popular opposition movement, the regime succeeded in alienating the February 20th Movement with its fear-mongering rhetoric. It further alienated the movement when it increased public sector wages at a time when the February 20th movement began expressing solidarity with unions that were already on strike. Alienation and isolation were the regime’s tactics. They were paired with occasional arrests and sporadic use of violence against protesters—none of which ever made it to the widely-viewed daily state media news. The regime’s rhetoric was adopted by mainstream sentiment. Coupled with other factors, such as the regime’s swift announcement of liberalization measures and rushed parliamentary elections that resulted in the current Abdelilah Benkirane-led government, the movement hit a wall.
In a way, the movement was forced to conform to the discourse framed by the regime. In a country where a majority of the population supports the monarchy and believes it is an institution that is entitled to the vast amount of wealth it has accrued at the expense of the people, the movement had to succeed in expressing their grievances without alienating themselves by targeting the monarchy. The movement was very quick to adjust the sha’ab yurid isqat nitham slogan to one that was more appropriate for the political climate in Morocco. Instead, fasad and istibdad replaced nitham. In every media appearance, members reiterated the fact that they were not calling for the downfall of the regime, but extensive reforms that would institute a constitutional monarchy. The movement’s antagonizing rhetoric never went beyond targeting members of parliament, the Istiqlali Fassi-led government, and the occasional palace crony. The movement, instead, hovered around the monarchy in its grievances, despite the fact that the monarchy holds all the power in the country, as dictated by every constitution since 1962. The monarchy is the only institution capable of instituting any reforms. If and when the monarchy does institute reforms, they are largely policies that indicate liberalization—not to be confused with democratization.
When we step away from the February 20th Movement protests and consider the isolated protests in the northern Rif region, its neighboring city of Taza, and the rural area of Chilihate, the nature of the dissent and the way it was expressed transformed, as did the regime’s response. The northern Rif region has long been a hotbed of anti-government dissent, even decades before the reign of the current King Mohammad VI. The short-lived Rif Republic in the early 1920s resisted both Spanish rule and the centralization of Moroccan power. It was only a matter of about five years before the Spanish would massacre the Rif region using German-made chemical weapons, reinforced by the French army, and without a word of defiance from the Moroccan sultanate.
After 1956, when Morocco declared independence from France and Hassan II came to power, he vigorously enforced the authoritarian policies of post-colonial centralization that would strip the Rif of its autonomy and eventually divide the region into several prefectures. In one of Hassan II’s most infamous speeches in response to the 1980s bread riots, he notoriously referred to the Rifian people as “savages and thieves.” He also suggested there was a communist and Shi’a conspiracy behind the bread riots (another reference to far leftist and religiously political organizations). The reality was that the cost of living in the Rif was soaring, while it remained the region with the least amount of public and private investment. The lucrative drug trade would come to dominate the local economy, making Morocco the world’s number one producer of kif.
While February 20th Movement activists and supporters marched in major Moroccan cities, including Rabat, Casablanca, and Marrakech between the window of February 2011 until around mid-fall, when protests began to dwindle, the Rif region and the neighboring city of Taza were on a different beat. Just days into 2012,locals in Taza marched for socio-economic reform and chanted slogans that targeted the personal wealth of the royal family. It did not take long for riot police to move in and violently disperse demonstrations. Those who participated in the protests in Taza reacted by setting police cars and tires on fire. Youtube videos began surfacing showing women who were systematically targeted by regime forces. Forces broke into the homes of locals when only women were present in the household, physically abusing them, stealing and damaging property, as well as threatening women with rape. Mothers of detained protesters who demanded to know the whereabouts of their sons were publicly beaten and insulted by police. Soon, the Rif region joined in solidarity and shared the same demands—and also met with the same violent police repression. Various chapters of the February 20th Movement in major cities organized solidarity protests, while citizen media site, Mamfakinch, was the only source providing regular news, thanks to a well-connected network of activists on the ground and a multi-lingual team of editors.
The eruption of protests in the Rif region and Taza took place several months after the election of the new Party of Justice and Development-led government. The protests arguably shared some of the common goals voiced by the February 20th Movement; however, to consider the Rif and Taza protests as events that can be categorized under the demonstrations of the February 20th Movement would rob them of their agency and dismiss their history. The majority Amazigh population in the Rif has a bitter history with the Moroccan government (a government that came to include Imazighen in the definition of “national identity” only last year, despite being the indigenous inhabitants of the country) that is very much a part of their identity. It is a history that is remembered every time the Rifian flag is waved at a protest, a memory of the Rif Republic that defied both imperialism and authoritarianism. It is a memory that the monarchy surely does not wish to revive, but inadvertently has, through its policies that have sustained the political and economic marginalization of the Rif.
More recently, residents of the northern rural village of Chlihate expressed their outrage at the installation of the Spanish rice company, Rivera del Arroz (with the blessings of the Moroccan government, of course). Rivera del Arroz signed a contract with the Moroccan government that allowed the company to use land near Chlihate for its rice production. Part of the deal included an agreement with locals that outlined what part of the land the company would and would not plough. According to a citizen report from France24, “Locals had asked the company not to plant any crops in the field next to their village because rice fields are an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes, and they also hoped for a chance to use the field to grow their own crops.” It did not take long for the company to begin violating its agreement with locals, when they began preparing land that was restricted for rice growing. When locals began protesting, Moroccan security forces acted swiftly. State media did not make a peep, and citizen media stepped in. According to this video uploaded to Youtube, Moroccan forces were preventing locals from leaving the village and breaking down doors in the middle of the night. “The state needs to take steps to guarantee not only the dignity of its citizens but also their safety,” says one of the locals. “But all the government is concerned about is serving the interests of a company that infringes on our rights.” Crops and cattle were destroyed, rubber bullet cartridges littered the land, women were pursued with water cannons, and the injured were prevented from seeking hospital treatment by forces that prevented them from leaving the village. These protests, again, cannot be categorized under the February 20th Movement. Doing so removes these protests and the protesters from their own context and masks their dissent with general terms, making it easier for the regime to rhetorically reduce opposition to a monolith.
The February 20th Movement was undoubtedly a formidable force in opposition to the regime and its supporters. They successfully brought a much-needed debate to the public sphere, inciting response from all sides of the political spectrum, including the monarchy itself. But aside from the movement, other voices exist in other forms and through other media. In addition to the protests in the Rif, Taza, and Chlihate, many other protests throughout the country, unaffiliated with the movement, expressed their dissent in the public sphere. When Amina Filali committed suicide, the young Moroccan girl who was forced to marry her rapist, Moroccansprotested against the law that allowed for the marriage in front of parliament. Unemployed graduates, who have been regularly demanding jobs well before the February 20th Movement planned its first demonstration, protested on a daily basis and some resorted to self-immolations. Highlighting those voices as distinct and unique should not incite divisions, but rather encourage attention to nuances. Moreover, preserving pluralism in an environment where the regime imposes identities is a necessary step towards democratization.