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Morocco Feature: The Rise and Fall of the February 20 Movement (Benchemsi)

Mass protest over unemployment, 20 January 2012

Ahmed Benchemsi writes on his blog:

Seen from afar, Morocco’s 2011 events are the pitch-perfect tale of popular 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.

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