Facebook groups are calling the country’s youth on to the streets of Morocco tomorrow to demand constitutional reforms and proper democracy.
by Giles Tremlett
On 1 February, Issan Nadir tipped petrol on his clothes and set fire to himself outside the education ministry in the Moroccan capital of Rabat. It was yet another desperate act of self-immolation in a region where the example set by Muhammad Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit seller who sparked a wave of revolution, has been imitated from Mauritania to Saudi Arabia.
The flames were doused before Nadir, a 27-year-old volunteer teacher demanding a paid job, could do as much damage to himself as Bouazizi. Video footage seen by the Guardian shows firefighters frantically putting out flames in front of the ministry.
After a week in Rabat’s Ibn Sina hospital, Nadir is recovering in his home town of Safi. “He doesn’t want to see anyone,” says his friend and fellow protester Hafid Libi.”If they don’t do anything, there may be more of the same.” Nadir is not the only protester to have set fire to himself. Last week 26-year-old Mourad Raho died in Benguerir, 36 miles north of Marrakech. Five similar attempts have been reported in recent weeks.
Popular demonstrations called for this Sunday will be a test of both public upset with the regime led by King Mohammed VI and how far Morocco – which claims to be more liberal than its north African neighbours – is prepared to tolerate protest.
Nadir’s fellow protesters were outside the ministry again last week, together with a thousand employed teachers demanding better pay. A fire engine stood by, just in case. Police looked on, but allowed the ritualistic protests by those seeking government jobs – which are a regular part of Rabat life – to continue.
Protests, however, are nothing new. A small but wealthy ruling elite claims the 20 or more legal demonstrations held every day make Morocco immune to the regime-ousting rage of Tunisia or Egypt. Moroccans can let off steam, they argue, so they will not overthrow an executive monarchy that claims religious legitimacy and four centuries of dynastic continuity.
They also claim King Mohammed carried out Morocco’s revolution himself by bringing in reforms and greater freedoms when he came to the throne 12 years ago, including improved women’s rights and an investigation into repression carried out under his father, Hassan II.
“Our monarchy is one of the oldest in the world and the king is the Commander of the Believers; there is a large consensus around this system, as well as around the personality of the king,” says Braham Fassi Fihri, president of Rabat’s Amadeus thinktank.
But where some see a Moroccan “exception”, others see complacency, arrogance and shrinking freedoms. “You still have safety valves, but the regime is trying to shut them down,” says Abubakr Jamai, former editor of the defunct Le Journal newspaper. “Tunisian society was relatively egalitarian. In Morocco the difference in wealth is obscene. You can imagine what would happen if people took to the streets.”
A more radical kind of protest fire is burning on Facebook. Three separate groups have sprouted up, calling the country’s youth out on to the streets of 20 major cities, including Casablanca, Marrakech, Rabat and Tangier on Sunday to demand constitutional reform and proper democracy.
“We are mostly between 23 and 25 years old,” explained Osama el-Khlifi, one of the originators.In his baseball cap and short, straggly beard, the 23-year-old police officer’s son explained that the main things that united campaigners were their youth and determination. “We include Islamists, liberals and leftwingers,” he said.
“After Tunisia we began to debate on Facebook whether we should follow other peoples and call a youth demonstration,” explained Khlifi, an unemployed computer technician from Salé, near Rabat. The group wants the constitution changed so they can have “real government, a real parliament and real justice”.Khlifi insists their target is not the untouchable monarch, but the makhzen – the powerful, wealthy, and often hated power structure surrounding him. The demonstrator’s manifesto includes a carefully worded demand for the king’s role in a future constitution to be of a “natural size”.
“The impact of this is huge. People are now debating the monarchy and its powers,” said one campaigner who will be marching in Marrakech. But with illiteracy rates at 44%, he fears most Moroccans do not even know what a constitution is. “They want to keep people in ignorance,” he said.
Officially, the powers that be are not worried,though they doubled subsidies on basic foodstuffs this week. “Morocco is a country that has engaged, for a long time now, in an irreversible process of democracy and openness on liberties,” government spokesman Khalid Naciri told journalists. “It does not bother us that citizens express themselves freely, as long as this happens in full respect of our country’s immutable values and supreme and vital interests.” Moroccans all know that those “immutable values” are meant to include the monarchy.
Morocco has a parliament, but the king and his councillors maintain vast powers. His wealth, estimated at $2.5bn (£1.5bn), puts him seventh on the Forbes list of richest royals. And some of the freedoms he brought at his accession in 1999 are waning.
“There are no independent newspapers left now,” said Ali Anouzla, former editor of al-Jarida al-Oula, who was taken to court for reporting on the king’s health before his newspaper closed. Morocco has expelled the Arab-language news channel al-Jazeera.– a vital witness to trouble in Egypt and Tunisia. Civil society is, by the region’s standards, active.
Morocco also shares some of the key trends that fanned the flames of revolution in Tunisia and Egypt. They include a young, Facebook-savvy population, free to gather information on the internet and confronted by endemic corruption and what some call hogra, or humiliation by the state.
Questions about Tunisia or Egypt make those who routinely protest in Rabat’s streets, including thousands of unemployed graduates, nervous. “This is a social protest, not a political one,” insisted graduate Souad, after she and others marched to the outer gates of King Mohammed’s palace compound, the mechouar, to demand jobs last week.
Police beat protesters when they got this close to the monarch’s seat in January. This time they avoided violence – perhaps wary of provoking scenes that led to revolution elsewhere. But Souad and her friends were still edgy. “Can you prove you are a journalist?” they asked. They were worried they might be talking to a secret police officer.
Osama el-Khlifi is already the subject of a campaign of harassment, with late-night threatening calls to his home. His father has been warned that his son may be arrested and pro-regime media have claimed he is everything from an anarchist to a drunk, gay agent of neighbouring Algeria or an apostate. “I am worried I will be targeted by radical Islamists,” he says. Half a dozen campaigners were interrogated by police, and released, on Thursday for handing out flyers in Marrakech, Kenitra and Casablanca.
The protests are meant to be peaceful and Khlifi hopes the government will not react violently. “We are not afraid, we will go out and we will demonstrate,” he said.
So will the protests be like those in Egypt or Tunisia? “My personal view is that Morocco may stand as an exception,” says political scientist Mohamed Daadaoui, a Morocco specialist at Oklahoma City University. “That doesn’t mean we won’t see demonstrations, just that they will be smaller.”
With protesters themselves calling for peaceful evolution rather than revolution, the regime is being invited to take the initiative. “The king has to act, or the consequences could be dire,” warned one young marcher.
Those campaigning for change save their bile for the makhzen and the elite families from Fes, including that of the prime minister, Abbas El Fassi, whose fingers are in major pies from the government to the big banks.
Corruption is rampant in courts, business and health services, according to Transparency Maroc. But while Mohammed VI proclaims he wants corruption dealt with, WikiLeaks files show cronyism reaches into the heart of his palace. Diplomatic cables feature one former US ambassador to Rabat condemning “the appalling greed of those close to King Mohammed VI”.
“Major institutions and processes of the Moroccan state are used by the palace to coerce and solicit bribes in the real estate sector,” one senior Moroccan businessman complained to US diplomats, adding that the royal family’s own holding company regularly coerced developers. Three people control the major real estate deals in Morocco, he told the Americans. They included the king, his friend Fouad El Himma, who heads the Party of Authenticity and Modernity, and the man in charge of the king’s secretariat, Mohamed Mounir al-Majidi.
The impact of Sunday’s protest will be measured in turnout and police reaction. Around 20,000 of Morocco’s 3 million Facebook users have joined the protest groups– which have names such as Youth For Democracy or Liberty And Democracy Now. A further 250,000 people have viewed a YouTube video backing them. Human rights groups, an Islamist youth group and some trade unions have offered support – as has the king’s cousin, the “red prince”, Moulay Hicham.
An important boost would be the presence of Justice and Spirituality, the non-violent Islamist social movement that is Morocco’s biggest organised group, claiming well over 200,000 well-disciplined members, many of them students or young graduates. The sufi group, potentially the regime’s most powerful opponent, has put out a statement which coincides with many of the 20 February aims.
“We are not the instigators of February 20, but we are with the youth,” said Nadya Yassine, daughter of the group’s founder, in an interview with the Guardian. Yassine likens the style of the movement, which abhors Saudi-style Salafism, to that of the leftwing liberation theology that swept through Catholic Latin America in the 1970s. WikiLeaks documents show that US diplomats who met the group did not see it turning violent.
Yassine holds up the examples of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party and Europe’s Christian Democrats as proof that religion and democracy can mix. Were Morocco to have a genuine democracy, she says, Justice and Spirituality would join the political fray. “We are for multi-partyism and elections,” she said.
In fact, those are principles that Justice and Spirituality was preaching long before other Islamist movements in the region decided that democracy was the way forward. It is also the one group in Morocco that has been prepared to raise questions about the king’s role, with Yassine herself currently involved in a court case that could see her receive a five-year prison term for breaking that taboo.But will their people protest on Sunday?
“If we have the guarantee that the demonstration will be peaceful and that there will be no harm to people or goods then we support Moroccan youth,” Yassine said. “I am talking about the demonstrators, not the police. There can be no guarantee with the makhzen.”