Feb20’s rise and fall : a Moroccan Story Jul17


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Feb20’s rise and fall : a Moroccan Story

Seen from afar, Morocco’s 2011 events are the pitch-perfect tale of street protests with a happy ending: after huge pro-democracy demonstrations broke out, the government complied without firing a bullet and a reformed Constitution was approved by popular referendum. Then the street movement gracefully faded, giving way to change in the polls: a few months later, free elections resulted in a severe defeat of the incumbent government and the spectacular rise of a fresh political party—one that was never associated to government before.

Yet this rosy narrative, though built on real facts, doesn’t quite reflect the reality. In truth, what happened in Morocco in 2011 was a war of position and speed involving underground activists, maverick political groups, and a subtly resilient royal administration. It was also a conflict of generations, pitting twenty-something wholehearted newcomers against old school, wily politicians. Finally, it was a case study of political tactics and stratagems—ones that made the national balance of powers shift twice in a year.

From the palace to the outskirts

Flashback to January 2011. The central player in Morocco’s political game is, of course, the king. Mohammed VI, 23rd ruler of the over 350 years-old Alaouite dynasty, enjoys absolute power by dint of the Constitution. He appoints the prime minister and cabinet members at will, has the power to dissolve parliament for any reason, controls judiciary personnel and justice is rendered in his name. Even though he keeps a tight leash on the 3 branches of government (executive, legislative, and judiciary), he still has the power to bypass them by taking personal executive steps, issuing laws, and pardoning convicts. He is also the military commander-in-chief and the religious commander-of-the-faithful.

The royal authority is relayed by a power structure known to Moroccans as the Makhzen (1), an unofficial network of patronage and allegiance-based relationships built around the king. It includes the royal court (Mohammed’s family, friends and former schoolmates, advisers and secretariat), the ministry of Interior, the armed branches (from the nation’s “royal” army to intelligence agencies, police forces and “royal” gendarmerie), and high ranking civil servants, appointed by the king and/or sponsored by his cronies.

Thirty-four political parties operate legally in Morocco. While a handful have historic roots stemming from the fight for independence, the majority were created under former king Hassan to act as political minions of the Makhzen. Yet, whether they are plain puppets or not, 30 parties (including the Islamist formation known as Party for Justice and Development, or PJD) abide by the Makhzen’s rules and do not challenge—or even dare question—the king’s absolute supremacy.

The remaining four parties constitute what is known as the radical left. They do oppose the Makhzen (2), and three of them demand what they call a “parliamentary monarchy”: a system where an elected government would be fully in charge, leaving all but symbolic powers to the king. In 2007, these three parties joined forces and created a common group called “Democratic Alliance of the Left” or DAL. The same year, they offered joint lists of candidates for parliamentary elections, yet ended up winning just 1% of the parliament’s seats altogether. The most prominent of these three parties—in terms of historical roots and territorial extension—is the PSU (3).

The fourth and last legal party opposing the Makhzen, Annahj Addimocrati (4), is the most radical one. Its hardliner Marxist-Leninist members want the end of the monarchy, but consider themselves unable to speak out about their republican views under the current balance of powers. Until “working masses rise up”, they say, their strategy is to boycott everything related to the Makhzen—including elections.

On the social side, Morocco’s civil society has long impressed foreign observers. It is a very large network made of thousands of NGOs scattered around the territory, achieving often-outstanding grassroots work:  microcredit, community organization, social development projects, etc. But when it comes to politics, the circle narrows down to a handful of human right groups, the most influential of which is AMDH (5). Anti-globalization groups who denounce price rises also enjoy some popularity. The most active is ATTAC (6).

The last—but certainly not least—group of political significance is Al Adl wal Ihsan (7). A semi-clandestine Islamist organization (8) focused on social work and religious education, it is concentrated in the outskirts of major cities, and its members do not recognize the king’s legitimacy as a religious leader. One of their mottos, “la malika fi-l islam” (no king in Islam), even suggests they reject the monarchy altogether—yet their leaders are unclear about what should replace it. (9) Even though a “political circle” (a replica of the legal parties’ political bureaus) was created in 1998 to bring out its brightest leaders, what really holds Al Adl’s members together is the cult of personality devoted to “general guide” Abdessalam Yassin, 84, a man widely believed to have psychic powers. In 2006, Yassin’s “vision” of an impending mass uprising set the agenda for his supporters and for other actors in the kingdom—not the least of which, the security services and the press. Ultimately, nothing happened and the ageing leader lost credibility. That probably explains why he has been increasingly less visible in the media since then, yielding to younger cadres of Al Adl. Still, the organization is believed to have around 100,000 listed members (10)—which makes it, although not formally legal, the biggest political group in Morocco.

Back in January 2011, none of the above-mentioned groups was strong or willing enough to confront the Makhzen head-on. DAL parties were going through an internal crisis, many of their members depressively questioning their own “political utility”; Annahj underground republicans were as secretive as always; AMDH and ATTAC were involved in routine human rights and social activities; and Al Adl leaders were quietly focusing on social work and educational activities, as if the goal was to re-consolidate the group’s cohesion after Yassin’s failed prophecies…

Two months forward, a coalition of the very same groups would corner the Makhzen so implacably that king Mohammed would hastily take to the airwaves, promising “comprehensive constitutional change”! What enabled such a dramatic turn of events is of course the Arab Spring’s contagion, but also—and more importantly—the sudden burst of a new player in the game, one that no one was expecting: young, secular Internet activists. In fact, their emergence had been playing out for years. Yet strangely, very few identified them as a meaningful trend, even though their “founding act” had drawn enormous attention.

Meanwhile, on the web…

In September 2009, a group page named “Alternative Movement for Individual Freedoms”, or MALI (11), was launched on Facebook. In order to “open a debate on freedom of conscience”, its two female administrators—a journalist and a psychology intern—called a daylight picnic during the month of Ramadan, when Muslims can eat only before dawn and after dusk. (12) On D-day, only 6 persons, all in their twenties, showed up at the scheduled time and meeting point with sandwiches in their backpacks. They found themselves surrounded by a hundred policemen, also warned by Facebook and determined to stop the MALI action for the sake of “preserving public order”. The failed picnic made page-one news for days, resulting in a national scandal.

The conservative uproar against MALI’s initiative was so vociferous that the rare supportive voices went almost unheard. Human rights organizations (notably AMDH), a handful of weekly magazines and some leftist activists publicly backed the young secularists. On the web, hundreds of youngsters signed in MALI’s Facebook group to continue the debate. According to many leaders of what later became the February 20th movement (13), the MALI affair was “a catalyst event”—the “pretext” hundreds of young Moroccans were waiting for to engage in political activism.

Though their backgrounds and life experiences differ, Morocco’s web activists are mostly middle-class students or recently graduated (14), in their early twenties, born to politically-engaged families, living in a big city such as Casablanca or Rabat. Many of them already experienced political advocacy in leftist parties’ youth sections or civil society organizations. But while doing so, they also experienced frustration over those structures’ limits: bureaucratic rigidity, lack of inventiveness and, to various extents, leaders’ blasé attitudes.  Yet what brought them together was not their sense of belonging to the same socio-political circles, but, they say, the supple, hierarchy-free organizing tool: Facebook.

Starting early 2010, successive small events contributed to firming up this elusive virtual community. Mounting talk about the nepotistic El Fassi family (15) spurred the creation of a Facebook group titled “All against bequeathing public positions”. A protest march was discussed but never held. Another group titled “All for justice: the minister’s son should stand trial” was created after a minister appeared on a YouTube video, ordering a policeman to discharge his handcuffed son who had assaulted a man in public. More than 800 supporters joined the Facebook group. This time, a real sit-in ensued, allowing 40 virtual activists to meet “in real life”, for the first time.

Months later, a young mason, Fodil Aberkan, was reportedly tortured to death in a police station over a routine interrogation. Confronted by press coverage, police officials denied mistreatment. A Facebook group named “All for disclosing the truth on the Fodil Aberkan affair” attracted thousands of members and led to a structured action: while some net-activists designed leaflets explaining what happened and announcing a forthcoming sit-in, others raised money from AMDH and DAL parties to have the leaflets printed. Then a third group distributed the leaflets in the victim’s neighborhood and campaigned for the sit-in, which ended up attracting 400 participants. Serious press coverage ensued, and the policemen were finally charged with mistreatment.

The Aberkan action was a tangible success to the credit of the virtual activists—plus it was widely advertised through mainstream media. It gave a boost to the rising virtual movement. Discussion groups mushroomed on social media platforms and tens of thousands of Internet users joined in. From individual freedoms and the defense of human rights, the debate broadened to liberal ideas, and then to democracy at large. In January 2011, tens of thousands of Moroccans were passionately discussing various topics on abundant politically engaged Facebook groups. The Aberkan affair had given the virtual activists a sense that they could have significant impact if they were to export their activism to real-life. In other words, the mobilization tool was ready; it just needed a catalyst event. That would be the Tunisian revolution.

Of hundreds of Facebook groups, one in particular would make history: “Moroccans converse with the king”, as it was called, invited the public to address Mohammed VI with questions, concerns, and comments. On January 14th, just days after the group was created, president Ben Ali fled Tunisia. The news electrified Facebook users, who filled the group’s page with daring claims addressed to Morocco’s king. As days passed and revolutionary fervor spread like wildfire in the Arab world—thanks, notably, to the 24/7 Al Jazeera coverage—the demands grew bolder. The group’s members were now asking the king to change the Constitution, fire the cabinet, dissolve the parliament, put “those who steal public money” on trial, etc.

On January 25, as Egyptian people started gathering in Tahrir square, the Facebook page administrators (16) took new steps to benefit from the growing momentum: they changed the page name to “Freedom and democracy now”, and sorted the commentators’ demands by recurrence, keeping only the 7 most popular ones. (17) Then one of the admins posted a video of himself online, wearing a beret and a Palestinian scarf and reading the demands, his clenched fist raised. The video would turn viral, the young man would be dubbed the “Che Guevara of Salé” (18), and the claims would become the protesters’ official platform. Also, in order to “take the action to real-life” (19), the group members decided to publish a call for nationwide protests on February 20th. (20) As it turned out, the short Facebook post would trigger the biggest national protests since the country’s independence.

Bubbling up to D-day

The following days, multiple Facebook groups were created to urge the citizens of tens of Moroccan towns and villages to take to the streets on February 20th. No real coordination happened between the groups, save for sharing the “Freedom and Democracy” platform and agreeing on a common time—10am—for the protests to start on D-day. On February 8th, a second video was released: with a classic piano background sound, 13 young web-activists appeared in turn, each declaiming one line starting with “I am Moroccan, and I will go out on February 20th because….” (followed by reasons stemming from the platform). That video far overshadowed the first one: within ten days, it got half a million hits on YouTube. Public media smear campaigns to discredit the movement’s 13 new “faces” only resulted in generating more publicity for the upcoming protest. Whether to support or discredit the protest, the press was talking about nothing else.

Meanwhile, Tunisia’s and Egypt’s revolutions were boosting the morale of civil society and leftist groups. The Moroccan Committee to Support the Masses, a group initiated by AMDH and including DAL parties, Annahj and ATTAC, organized a sit-in on February 12th to salute the ouster of President Mubarak. Sitting on the Parliament’s sidewalk, 500 people chanted slogans in support of fellow Arabs… and quickly diverted their focus to the February 20th manifestations. Before the sit-in was called off, all the present organizations decided to issue a joint communiqué supporting the “Feb20 youth movement” (that was the first time the expression was ever used), to host its spokespersons in AMDH’s headquarters for a press conference, and to join together to print promotion leaflets for the upcoming protest. There started the convergence between web-activists and traditional anti-Makhzen political groups. (21)

The above discussion describes the dynamics that played out in Rabat, the kingdom’s capital city. But the platform claims impersonated by the local “Che Guevara” and, more decisively, the 13-actors video clip, did inspire people throughout Morocco, prompting tens of thousands to “go out” on February 20th. For that reason, the Rabat group would always be credited with a certain “moral leadership” over other local Feb20 groups. Yet this prevalence would never translate in concrete, hierarchical terms. Depending on the city, things would bubble up in different ways, involving different kinds of activists, political and civil society groups, and featuring varying forms and levels of interaction.

In Casablanca, it all started on February 6th with a casual meeting in a bar between two twenty-something web-activists and four senior left party members. The agenda was to discuss the “Freedom and democracy now” Facebook page activities, including the call for a protest on February 20th. A decision was taken to extend the discussion to a larger audience by organizing a public meeting. On February 12th, around 50 persons, representing two generations of activists from various leftist groups, convened in the Casablanca headquarters of the PSU for a conference titled “The meeting of hope: the youth and the protest movements”. After a couple of senior politicians explained the basics of popular protests—“in quite a pontificating way”, one of them later admitted (22)— younger activists were invited to take the stage. Within minutes, they swept the audience away with passionate arguments in favor of the February 20th protest and platform. When the meeting ended, impressed PSU leaders placed their offices at the young activists’ disposal, vowing to “help but not interfere” with their future action. That was the starting point of the Casablanca Feb20 coordination.

Six days later, a “Founding General Assembly” held in PSU offices attracted more than 150 young activists. About half of them were members of left parties’ youth sections and civil society organizations, while the other half was made of independent bloggers and Facebook activists. Some of the latter took an audacious step and invited Al Adl Wal Ihsan youth leaders to attend. A behind-the-scene discussion ensued between the Islamist cadres and the General Assembly organizers. At the latter’s request, the former accepted to instruct their followers to avoid gender segregation and religious slogans during the protest. Every group—that would soon become a national rule—would have to put its specific agenda to one side and align behind a unique collective banner: that of the Feb20 movement.

In Marrakech, no political group sponsored the Feb20 dynamics. Only Internet contacts led to a meeting in a café on February 14th, in order to discuss the platform shared on Facebook. Out of the 22 persons who attended, three fourths were either independent activists or members of the Amazigh movement (23)—the last fourth being leftist university students. Inspired by the Rabat 13-actors YouTube video, they decided to make one of their own, raising more local concerns (forced re-housing of 4000 families because of a real estate project, sexual tourism, ill-equipped local hospitals, etc.) This resulted in a violent reaction of local police; some Amazigh activists were beaten during brief arrests. This, more than the video, became the talk of the town and prompted Marrakchis to take to the streets on February 20th.

The way things played out in Tangiers is very different from what happened anywhere else in Morocco. There were indeed local young web-activists, who created at least one “Feb20 Tangiers” group on Facebook. Yet their influence could not compare to that of the city’s senior political activists, generally in their forties, who had a history of efficient inter-partisan collaboration. Left parties, Islamist organizations, and labor unions had started to coordinate in 2003, in order to mount protests against the US invasion of Iraq. They later went on to organize common protests in support of Palestine and, alongside alter-globalist groups like ATTAC, common sit-ins against rising prices. Smooth collaboration on specific issues is very unusual in Morocco among otherwise-ideologically opposed activists. Yet in Tangiers, they found a common ground in labor organizations, whose local leaders rule through careful consensus. Another—quite peculiar—facilitating factor was the Laasri brothers: while Khalid is a top local leader of Al Adl, his sibling Jamal is a top local leader of PSU. Both are respected, and trusted to act in the best interest of their respective organizations. Thus, many inter-partisan conflicts in Tangiers were settled with the resolution “let the brothers sort it out”.

By mid-February, talk of a tentative protest had spread in Tangiers like everywhere else in the country. Yet the inter-partisan coordination did not take Facebook too seriously. Moreover, it was busy supporting ATTAC, whose activists were at the time mobilizing big crowds for daily demonstrations against the city’s water and electricity supplying company, accused of unjustified price raises. On Feb 17th, after an ATTAC sit-in was called off, a group of hooligans set a bank agency on fire. Worried that an unsupervised Feb20 demonstration would turn to chaos, local leaders of ten different groups decided to hold an urgent meeting on February 18th. Within two days, a start-to-end itinerary was commonly decided, banners, megaphones, stewards and other logistic needs were addressed, and a joint communiqué was written, signed and published. In terms of organization, no other local Feb20 group would ever rival Tangiers’.

As seen, every branch of Feb20 grew organically, drawing on local specificities. Yet a general lesson can be learnt: the deeper the coordination between the two generations of activists (on the one hand) and the various political groups in the city (on the other hand), the stronger and better organized the Feb20 group. In other words, this is a concrete illustration of the conventional wisdom “Unity is strength”. Yet, if present to varying degrees inside Feb20’s local branches, unity was still totally inexistent on a national level. A few days before February 20th, the only common feature of all local groups was the seven-demand platform shared on Facebook. On February 18th, Al Adl wal Ihsan published a communiqué stating that its youth section members would join the protest throughout the country. That gave the nascent Feb20 movement an ultimate boost before D-Day.

People fear no more

In a press conference given February 21st, the Interior minister said a total of 37 thousand Moroccans had taken to the streets the day before. Adding numbers provided by Feb20 local groups, Mamfakinch website (24) said the “February 20th youth” claimed a total turnout of 300,000. The website went on to provide its own “reasonable” estimation of 122,000. (25) Yet what all parties agreed on was the number of cities—53—where protests were held. Never since the country’s independence had so many demonstrations been held simultaneously. That the government readily admitted the number tells a lot about its state of dismay back then.

As the police backed off everywhere in fear of sparking a violent snowball effect, the triumph of the protesters spurred a wave of exaltation throughout the Kingdom. Thousands of fired-up comments on the Makhzen’s corruption suddenly popped up on the Internet. Café customers started discussing the king out loud overnight. A Moroccan immigrant in the US created a sensation by filming himself addressing Mohammed VI with a crude and populist tone—within a few days, his video received more than half a million hits on YouTube. Astonishingly, the wall of fear that had paralyzed large segments of the population for decades had fallen apart in one day.

On February 23rd, the National Council for Support of the Feb 20 movement, aka “Support Council”, was created in Rabat by 40 political and civil society groups including DAL parties, AMDH, ATTAC, Annahj and Al Adl. All committed to the rule that the Casablanca Feb20 branch had spontaneously set days before: no distinctive features, slogans or banners would be tolerated for any political group. Everyone would line up behind the Feb20 banner and accept the youth’s slogans and overall guidance. Said the Support Council’s Secretary general: “Aside from instructing our members to join the protests and helping with providing logistical means, we political groups were taking great pains in not looking directive or intrusive. Otherwise, the kids would have been wary of us. We had to win their trust before anything else.” (26)

During the euphoric weeks that followed February 20th, the youth movement’s General Assemblies became the place-to-be in every city of the kingdom. Word was quickly out for the next national day of protest, set to happen on March 20th. Neither the government’s hastily granted economic perks (the minimum salary and civil servant wages were raised by 15 to 35%, the budget of the equalization fund—which holds down the prices of consumer staples—was almost tripled) nor the public media’s change of tone toward the protest leaders (some of them were even invited on live TV shows) was able to sooth the excitement of the youth.

Nothing seemed able to stop the growing momentum when, on March 9th… the king took to the airwaves unexpectedly. In a very dramatic speech, Mohammed VI promised a spectacular constitutional reform featuring the “rule of law”, an “independent judiciary” and an “elected government that reflects the will of the people, through the ballot box”. The media and the public opinion were flabbergasted. Forcing the head of state to make such bold concessions, moreover in such a short time, was unprecedented in Morocco’s modern history. Undoubtedly, many observers said, the Feb20 movement had scored a major victory against the monarchy. In fact, the game was just starting…

As it quickly turned out, the king’s promises were more a clever preemptive move than a genuine intent to implement change. To be convinced of that, one only needs to examine the constitutional reform committee that Mohammed VI appointed the day after his speech. Made of 18 loyal civil servants and presided over by a scholar with a history of condoning autocracy (27), it was unlikely to produce meaningful change. Still, the monarchy had successfully reversed the momentum by seizing back the initiative—a perfect “offensive action” as defined in Clausewitz’s “Principles of war”. By launching new reform dynamics, however spuriously, the king was forcing Feb20 leaders to position themselves according to his agenda, not the other way around. In other words, he was taking the helm out of their hands.

The Makhzen strikes back

In a seemingly democratic move, Mohammed VI ordered the reform committee to “undertake vast consultations with all political groups and the nation’s lifeblood.” The royal strategy, as it quickly appeared, was a typical Makhzen move, the template of which was crafted and applied many times under Mohammed’s father, Hassan II. It consisted of generating countless versions of the needed reform in order to cloud the issue under the cover of a democratic debate. Then, under the royal palace’s guidance, the reform committee would produce a draft of its choice, claiming that it is a “synthesis of the propositions received.” Of course, no mechanism would ever be set to guarantee that the final draft reflects the multiple propositions in a fair and proportionate way. Any group who would complain that its own propositions were not taken into consideration would be answered that they indeed had been, but given the number of other propositions, compromises and arbitrations were necessary—is this not the spirit of a democratic process? In other words, any group who would engage in the royal committee’s “consultations” would in fact participate in an outflanking maneuver from which it could not emerge as a winner—unless it sided with the Makhzen. Boycotting the royal committee would not be an option, either: the Makhzen and its media would easily dismiss those who would make that choice as “talkers, not doers” and, worse yet, as people who do not believe in the virtues of debate—and thus in democracy.

Indeed, the trap was well set for Feb20. After “consulting” every political party, association, trade union, or notable group in the country (including a great majority of Makhzen supporters), the press reported, the royal committee contacted “100 young Moroccans, 45 of whom are members of different Feb20 local coordinating committees” to engage in constitutional talks. The strategy here was the same: the more participants, the blurrier the discussion and the unlikelier the outcome. Feb20 local groups declined the invitation one after the other, arguing that the commission was “appointed and not elected” and demanding a “democratically elected constitutional assembly.” That was the right thing to say to escape the royal trap, but it came too late. Had the demand for an elected assembly been raised prior to the king’s speech, it would have been more credible. But as a political riposte, it sounded “unconstructive,” as pro-Makhzen media outlets immediately pointed out, questioning the youth’s “true commitment to democracy.”

Maybe the noble democratic excuse for not producing a constitutional draft of its own was hiding something more pragmatic: the protest movement’s intrinsic difficulty to produce a common position on anything. This brings us to Feb20’s coordination techniques, and how they quickly became the movement’s major weakness. Except in Tangiers, all Feb20 local groups relied on weekly, open and pretty chaotic “General Assemblies”, during which everyone spoke in turn without a time limit. After hours of talk—sometimes, it would take all night—decisions would be taken according to the “general trend”—a method the activists favored over voting because, they said, “alienating minorities with majority votes could result in a split of the movement” (28). Consequently, decisions taken would almost never go beyond “let’s demonstrate”.

Narrowing down the decision circle by electing structures and leaders was the obvious solution. But the activists took pride in Feb20 being an unstructured, leaderless movement. Because, they said,  “structures are a target for the government, and leaders eventually get arrested, or corrupted”, and also because “electing leaders would mean allowing an ideological current to prevail over the other ones, which would mean the beginning of the end of the movement” (29). The problem was, not electing representatives also consisted in condemning the movement to strategic paralysis, since no one could make decisions in the movement’s name, and no clear group decision could be taken by too-large-to-manage general assemblies. Indeed, this system was unable to produce any agenda—let alone constitutional reform propositions— beyond “Down with absolutism!” slogans.

Yet until late April, sloganeering seemed enough. Even in the absence of reliable statistics, it is widely believed that the second and third day of national protests attracted a turnout that was at least twice as large as that on February 20th. What is confirmed is that more cities were involved—63 on March 20th, 110 on April 24th. (30) The first reason behind this mass enthusiasm was the Arab Spring ripple effect. With breaking news on Al Jazeera several times a day, January-May was the most eventful period of 2011 in the Arab World. That certainly helped to maintain the protests’ momentum in Morocco. Another explanation is that, devious as it was, the royal promise of a constitutional reform first appeared as a bold concession, thus as a recognition of the people’s power. That boosted the protesters’ morale and encouraged them to turn out in important numbers.

Yet the overall ambiance eventually switched. By mid-May, the Arab Spring fervor was tempered by civil war in Libya and ruthless crackdowns in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain—repression had even resumed in Egypt despite President Mubarak’s ouster. All of that certainly contributed to decreasing the general revolutionary fever. Besides, Moroccans were somehow getting used to protests—and maybe bored by their apparent pointlessness. (After all, the Constitution was being reformed, wasn’t it?) By mid-May, protesters started turning out in fewer numbers. That is when the government grew tougher.

May 22nd was the date of the first nationwide crackdown on protesters. Truncheon beating and police roundups happened across the country. Dozens of activists were wounded and one of them died, which spurred unfavorable reports in European media outlets. That might have been a core reason behind the authorities’ sudden change of strategy: violence against the protesters would continue, but it would be outsourced to unofficial police auxiliaries. To that effect, the ministry of the Interior began mobilizing pro-regime thugs, Morocco’s version of the famed Egyptian baltagiya (31). Unlike the Feb20 activists who vowed to remain non-violent, their opponents were armed with stones and clubs, openly looking for fights while the police looked elsewhere. Each time a Feb20 local group would announce a protest venue, “resident associations” would suddenly mushroom there, pledging to “defend” their neighborhood against “extremists” and “troublemakers”.

The draft Constitution was released at the peak of this tense atmosphere. As expected, it featured all but cosmetic changes. Behind an elaborate rhetorical smokescreen (32), the monarchy was still tightly controlling the three branches of government and had firmed up its grip over security forces and the religious sphere. In a televised speech on June 17th, the king disclosed the constitutional draft and urged Moroccans to approve it through a referendum scheduled for July 1st—that is, no more than 2 weeks later. The rushed course of events was obviously intended to take full advantage of the new pro-Makhzen momentum, leaving insufficient time for the opposition to organize.

Feb20 local groups and the Support Council immediately called for a boycott, complete with nationwide protests against the “imposed constitution”. This triggered violent clashes with hordes of pro-regime thugs who thronged the streets, bawling that Mohammed VI was their “only king”. Meanwhile, State-controlled mosques and mass media were mobilized to preach nothing but the constitution’s virtues—which was evidently unfair. On Election Day, fraud reports flooded the Internet. A video posted on YouTube showed officials rummaging in an open ballot box. Another featured a polling station staffer revealing that his manager had ordered him to manipulate voter listings. Scores of voters testified that their identity had not been checked—which enabled wide ballot stuffing… Finally, the ministry of Interior claimed Ben Ali-esque scores: a turnout of 73% and an approval rate of 98.5% for the new Constitution.

Despite the blatant fraud, the general perception was that the Makhzen had severely defeated Feb20. Not only was the plebiscite a stinging disavowal of the protest movement, but it also appeared as a renewed, massive tribute to the monarchy—or at least, for those who did not trust the results, a spectacular demonstration of how much the Makhzen remained in control. Either interpretation might explain why Western governments rushed to congratulate the king, saluting the constitutional referendum as “an important step toward democratic reform” (US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton), “an exemplary process” (French president Nicolas Sarkozy) or a “demonstration of political maturity” (Spanish Foreign Minister Trinidad Gimenez). As for global media, they broadly applauded the kingdom’s “peaceful” reforms. Whatever the objections of Moroccan oppositionists, their situation wasn’t as bad as Libyans’ or Syrians’, was it?

Drowning in the swamp

Despite the summer season, which coincided in 2011 with Ramadan—traditionally a month of religious contemplation and socio-political apathy—Feb20 coordinations local groups kept on calling protests every Sunday to denounce the “Makhzen’s masquerade”. But the turnouts dwindled visibly all over the country. At least at face value, the movement’s most important demands had been met: the Constitution was reformed, the parliament would soon be dissolved and the government dismissed, upon forthcoming legislative elections. “Why protest now?”, many citizens thought.

For its part, the Support Council was paralyzed by internal conflicts. As long as common activism consisted of chanting anti-Makhzen slogans alongside fired-up kids, unity could be preserved among otherwise ideologically opposed groups. But after the constitutional sequence, denouncing absolutism was no longer sufficient. The Makhzen had engaged in a strategy, which required in return a counter-strategy. Following this moment, unity could no longer be found among the members of the Support Council. Whereas DAL parties called for a radical reform of the monarchy (in order to strip it from its powers and make it purely symbolic, à la European style), Annahj and Al Adl quietly wished for its demise (yet with two opposed replacement plans: a proletarian republic for the former, and an Islamic State for the latter). There was no way to reach a compromise between these two options: either the monarchy is maintained (under whatever form) or it is not.

As for the Feb20 local groups, all of them (except Tangiers) got eventually bogged down in swampy ground. As time passed by, the General Assemblies became venues for venting frustrations—which grew even as the Makhzen was successfully reversing the momentum. In the absence of legitimate leaders who could play a moderating role, the loudest and most vociferating activists tended to monopolize the debate. Anyone who proposed taking a step back to look at the big picture, or consider even slight tactical compromise with the Makhzen, would be immediately accused of treason. As a way to showcase their uncompromising spirit, the most radical activists obstinately continued to propose weekly protests, even though such recurrence was visibly alienating the people. But since the most vociferous activists were now dominating general assembly discussions, the “general trend” was always in their favor. Gradually, this method led to a general radicalization of the movement.

In Rabat, the creative web-activists who used to call the shots were gradually shoved aside in favor of radical activists. While a lot of time was once devoted to conceiving original slogans and arty banners, when the autumn came, the protesters went mostly empty handed, chanting outdated mantras—which rang hollow, now that the political atmosphere was altered by imminent legislative elections. The same thing happened in Casablanca, with one twist: the dead-end dispute over the political demands (radical reform of demise of the monarchy?) led to… abandoning political demands! After a heated General Assembly, the “general trend” concluded that the only way to avoid a split was to let politics aside and focus on slogans denouncing poverty, unemployment, etc. This move definitely altered the image of the Feb20 Casablanca group: what used to be a movement claiming change and raising hope became perceived as a group of bitter, angry persons. The protests’ attendance diminished consequently.

In Marrakech, no compromise could be reached to ease the conflict between the two dominant local forces: university students from Al Adl and the “Basists” (qa’idiyin)—an extreme-left group some of whose members define themselves as “Stalinists”. The two groups have a history of violent clashes on university campuses, involving knives and even artisanal swords. (33) After they infused General Assemblies with militant rhetoric, thus creating a vacuum in the Feb20 group, Adlists and Basists faced off and ended up “fighting with chairs”, as a frustrated local activist put it. Pretty small crowds have attended Marrakech’s protests ever since.

At the other end of the spectrum, Tangiers’s demonstrations have long remained the most crowded ones in Morocco—and the local Feb20 group, the country’s best organized and most efficient one. Even though they eventually created a “youth branch”, mainly for communication purposes, the disciplined party cadres (from DAL parties, Annahj, Al Adl, AMDH, etc.) remained firmly in command. The thing is, disciplined party cadres abide by the party’s strategic options—which are set in the party’s central headquarters in Rabat. Thus, as well organized as it was, Tangiers’s Feb20 branch was condemned to the same strategic paralysis as the Support Council’s—because of its members’ ideological discrepancies, notably on the fate of the monarchy.

The quest for revival

It is within this context that the parliamentary elections were held on November 25th, 2011. Feb20 and the Support Council called once again for a boycott, but the participation rate turned out higher than they expected. (34) More importantly, the electoral winner was the Islamist Party for Justice and Development (PJD). The PJD never challenged the Makhzen; on the contrary, it had always sought cooptation. Yet, having an Islamist cabinet was unprecedented in Morocco—a novelty remarkable enough to prolong the impression of change given by the constitutional reform. Even though his powers are technically very limited, the newly appointed premier, PJD’s Abdelilah Benkirane, enjoys a high approval rate (35)—if only because of his and his party’s political virginity. Calling him “another servant of the Makhzen”, as Feb20 did, was probably not the smartest move.

With a reformed Constitution and a fresh government, the general impression on December 2011 was that the people of Morocco were granted a new political deal. That Feb20 and its last diehards were still unhappy and willing to protest seemed incomprehensible—and quite annoying—to the majority of the public. That explains the very low turnout of some sit-ins, where only tens of protesters showed up compared with former turnouts of thousands. The protest movement’s crisis deepened on December 18th. In a surprising twist, Al Adl wal Ihsan proclaimed through a communiqué that it was “ending its participation” in Feb 20—an announcement immediately put to effect in all local Feb20 groups. Said Fathallah Arsalane, spokesman of the Islamist organization: “Going on protesting in the streets every Sunday with repetitive slogans is pointless and leads nowhere. The movement is a victim of its internal blockages (and ideological discrepancies,) therefore, we don’t see any more margin of progress within it.” (36) In other words, the Islamist organization was OK to coalesce with its secular foes as long as their coalition rocked the Makhzen’s boat. But now that this was not working any more, it saw no point in continuing this unholy alliance.

The Islamists’ secession, however, may turn out a good thing for Feb20. Re-focusing on its original, secular dimension could enable the protest movement to successfully cater to middle-class constituencies (the latter had been neglected when Feb20 had started focusing on working-class neighborhoods, which are either pro-Makhzen or full of Islamists). Secularism and individual freedoms are highly polarizing concepts in Morocco since the independent press started to raise them in the Mid-2000s (37). In other words, both their adversaries and supporters are fervently passionate about these concepts. Yet, while the former—namely, the Islamists—do have political structures of their own, the latter—the secularists—are not politically represented. Filling that gap might turn out a good political redeployment for Feb20: it would enhance the movement’s commitment to democracy in a way that is consistent with its MALI origins, and also affirm its newfound ideological independence vis-à-vis the Islamists. In a public speech delivered on January 6th, 2012, the Support Council’s vice-president (also a top member of AMDH and Annahj), urged Feb20 activists to add “gender equality” to their fundamental demands. An indirect blow to Islamists, this claim fits with the “secularist redeployment” direction explained above.

Still, what Feb20 needs first and foremost is organization. At least among the original nucleus of web-activists, there seems to be a growing awareness that structure, hierarchy and leadership are indispensable to the movement’s revival, if there is to be any. (38) How exactly these things will be implemented remains unclear. There is some talk about transforming the movement into a regular political party, but it seems a daunting challenge given the statuses of Feb20 local groups, and also given the lack of interconnection between them. Another solution would be to join an existing political party. The PSU, who sided the activist movement since its onset, seems the most appropriate choice. During its December 2011 convention, the left party adopted an openly secular platform and offered one-fifth of its congress seats to Feb20 activists. Many of them, notably in Casablanca, seized the opportunity and joined the leftist party. Yet this falls short of soaking up the movement’s lifeblood. More efforts are needed to integrate the maximum members of Feb20.

At the time of writing (March 2012), the freshly appointed Benkirane cabinet still enjoys a honeymoon with the people. This may last a few more months, maybe a year. But then what? The sources of the 2011 revolt are still in place. Corruption, a major factor for discontent, is at peak level. Morocco’s position on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index has been worsening for years, going from 52nd in 2002 to 80th in 2011. Unemployment is also higher than ever, especially among university graduates (the official rate is 19% in 2011 (39)). Given the depth of these problems and the profound structural reforms that they require, the odds are small that Mr. Benkirane and his government assuage popular anger quickly enough.

With months passing and the economy degrading, in the absence of democratic freedoms developed enough to act like a safety valve, serious street protesting is likely to resume. The question is whether the next round of popular anger will be channeled; and if so, by whom and whether or not this will be done properly to seize the momentum and maintain it while exerting efficient—and this time, focused—pressure on the Makhzen. The PJD cannot play that mobilizing role anymore, now that it has been closely associated to the Makhzen. The remaining activist movements that can do the channeling are Al Adl Wal Ihsan or, maybe, a reformed Feb20-like coalition—provided Morocco’s democratic and secular activists learn lessons from the 2011 fiasco and manage to build a real grassroots movement with an identified and appealing agenda.

Will this ever happen?  The answer depends on the ability of Morocco’s liberals to overcome their divisions, build effective unity and rally behind legitimate national leaders—ones who are able to balance charisma and strong convictions with political wit and strategic finesse. That such people exist, however, is yet to be proven.

Ahmed Benchemsi


This article is a short version of a book chapter from “Taking To The Streets: Activism, Arab Uprisings, and Democratization”, a forthcoming collection co-edited by Lina Khatib (Stanford University) and Ellen Lust (Yale University), to be published in 2013 by Johns Hopkins University Press.