There are cautionary tales in the Arab uprisings, as Syria has shown: not every revolution can be as successful as Tunisia’s, not every aftermath is rosy. And then there are also questions raised about those places where revolution did not take place. Was it averted because there is wise and popular government, or has some kind of social shock merely been postponed?
Last year Morocco seemed for a while to be following the path of its eastern neighbours. Protests were proliferating, with public participation unseen since the 1970s. King Mohammed VI, whose legitimacy was never targeted by the protests – even if that of his regime was – deftly retook the initiative by proposing, and hurriedly passing, a new constitution. Elections that followed led, for the first time, to victory for the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD by its French acronym), which is now in office. Surely, some observers marvelled, here was a model to follow for countries faced with demands for change, one that offered fewer dangers than revolution?
Many Moroccans were divided on this issue. Libya’s civil war and, later, Syria’s, frightened many into believing that escalation would be too costly for a country that has neither petroleum riches nor great strategic assets. They knew from experience that the makhzen – the political-economic-security nexus that rules the country behind the scenes – would not yield power easily, and is capable of great repression. It was probably why many hoped that promises of reform were genuine, and were willing to give a new government and chastened makhzen the benefit of the doubt. Such a debate on whether such gradualism is preferable to more risky radical rupture is at the heart of the Arab uprisings, which were an indictment of reform initiatives that never went anywhere.
Some recent events suggest that Moroccans will not be infinite in their patience as they await concrete signs that the reformist path has paid off. The protests led by the 20 February movement in 2011 may have tapered off, but they are being replaced by a growing number of strikes and demonstrations over quality-of-life questions. The political crisis may for now have been averted, but this has not stopped growing indignation fuelled by socio-economic grievances. Such protests predate the Arab uprisings and have most often taken place in the country’s backwaters, away from tourist hotspots and the hubs of economic activity on the Atlantic coast. In recent months, for example, protests have broken out repeatedly in Taza, a northeastern town typical of this chronically poor, backwater Morocco. They have often been met with violent repression.
Their gathering pace is a cause for concern, because the global macro-economic context does not bode well. Morocco imports much of its wheat and almost all its energy, and then subsidises both bread and fuel. With a steady rise in commodity and oil prices predicted, the Moroccan government will have tough time reining in spending, never mind attaining the fantastically optimistic growth rates promised by the new Islamist prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, when taking office.
And it will be particularly difficult at a time when the country’s main trading partner, the European Union, is itself dealing with an economic crisis that has depressed export-oriented industries such as textiles and is reducing remittances sent back by migrant workers, the country’s lifeblood. And it might be well-nigh impossible to have growth at all if, as many worry, this year will see a drought that could bring Morocco’s still largely agrarian economy to its knees.
If fundamental political questions – most notably the need for truly constitutional monarchy – were at the centre of debate in 2011, in 2012 it is economic governance that will dominate. On such terms there might be much less room for negotiation and clever manoeuvre for the regime, particularly as the wealth of the royal family and its entourage – the king’s personal fortune is said to have at least doubled since he came to power, making him one of the richest monarchs in the world – has become a symbolic issue for what’s wrong with the way the country is governed.
It is largely understood that the new government is probably less powerful than the shadow one that rules from the royal palace. What is less palatable is that royal advisers and the royal family use their informal clout to derive very tangible benefits. When the king’s companies include Morocco’s biggest insurer, its biggest bank and its biggest agro-business firm, it is dangerous to criticise him or the regime (as the case of the rapper El Haqed, arrested for the second time in a year for writing songs criticising the police, shows). Nor does it make for a fair economic playing field. Just ask the textile workers who are being told they cannot go on strike, or the activists who recently revealed corruption at a makhzen-controlled trade union, or the group of recently imprisoned protestors from Taza and other rebellious towns who are now on hunger strike in protest at inhumane detention conditions.
Disappointingly, the new government has been a lot less critical of such things in power than when it was in opposition. Some fear that it has already been tamed by the makhzen, as once were opposition leftist and nationalist parties. There may have been no revolution in Morocco last year, but the thirst for change and accountability is real. As other Arab regimes discovered, promising reform can only get you so far before it becomes a matter of re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Perhaps Morocco still has more lessons to learn than to teach after the Arab uprisings.
Issandr El Amrani is a writer and analyst on Middle Eastern affairs.