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Social Protests in Morocco and the So-Called “Arab” “Spring”

Despite the importance of bloggers and social media in the recent uprisings in the Arab world, the media coverage of this series of events presented a narrative generally guided by the idea of a spontaneous social movement generated solely by bloggers and netizens on Twitter and Facebook. As noted by Hèla Yousfi (2013) regarding the situation in Tunisia, “[i]n using this lens, the causes and consequences of the revolt itself are glossed over. Moreover, the historical context is abandoned in favor of a depoliticized narrative that revolves around young bloggers triggering a spontaneous movement, managing to succeed in dragging a whole population out into the streets to revolt against a shameful dictator.” Yousfi also notes that the fact that the majority of analysts focused mainly “on analyzing the continued persistence of the authoritarian structures of power within the Arab world, or the evolution of the Islamist movements […] had the effect of making the diverse forces of change that emerged in the past two decades invisible.” The recent wave of social protests may not therefore be historically detached from the reality of the various social movements and other collective protests, large or small, during the post-colonial era, which show a continuous presence of opposition to the regimes consolidated during this period.

The student riots of the 60s and 70s in the Maghreb, the various general strikes organized by the labor movement throughout the post-colonial period or the bread revolts (in Egypt in 1977, in Morocco in 1981, with replicas in 1984, and in Tunisia in 1984) are episodes that deserve to be studied from the point of view of a history of social movements of the MENA countries (Middle East and North Africa), as previously carried out by many researchers long before the outbreak of the so-called “Arab spring” phenomenon (for example Monastiri 1973, Liauzu et al. 1985, Brown 1989, Le Saout & Rollinde 1999, Kadiri 2005). Likewise, we should not ignore the emergence of human rights associations in several countries, starting in the late 70s, which despite being officially recognized have continuously attempted to fight inequalities caused by regimes within a legal framework (their founders often came from left movements not aligned with the regime, whose political associations have generally been deemed illegal). The Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) and the Moroccan Human Rights Association (AMDH) are precisely two such cases, given the active role they played during the riots and protests in both countries. Furthermore, the demonstrations in almost all of the Maghreb and Arab countries during the Gulf War in 1991, as well as the rallies of solidarity with the second Palestinian intifada starting in 2000 and the protests against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, are significant in this context, especially because they have served as a pretext for open criticism of the existing regimes and because they can be analyzed as structural phenomena in gaining experience concerning the organization of social movements.

Between 2005 and 2009, the “Coordinators against rising prices and the deterioration of public services”, also simply referred as “Coordinators” or “Tansiqyat”, had become prominent in the Moroccan social movement context. These Coordinators were a decentralized movement that first appeared in several small towns and villages before reaching the major cities. They emerged in some cases from a spontaneous protest movement that was only later organized as a Coordinator or, conversely, they were formed after several meetings between political organizations, trade unions, as well as associations and NGO’s. The various organizations that were involved in the movement of the Coordinators included left parties not aligned with the regime (PSU, CNI, PADS and VD1), unions (CDT, UMT, FDT2) and associations like AMDH, ANDCM and Attac-Maroc3. The accumulated political experience of several of the most senior members of some of these organizations dates back to the 70s, 80s and 90s.

The countries of the MENA region were not immersed in some kind of lethargy, suddenly wiped out as if by magic, after which people took to the streets to demand the “fall of the regime” following a long dark age that preceded the “Spring”. Civil society initiatives or workers’ strikes had already forced, in some cases, some of these regimes to make some sort of concessions. In the case of Morocco, there were multiple protests, including the “union’s strikes and demonstrations, the protests against the rising cost of living, the women’s movements claiming land access and specific rights, the protests against public transportation companies” (Hibou 2012), as well as demonstrations, in several cities, against the privatization of sanitation services, as this privatization process resulted in an increase in the price of water and electricity. We should also remember the constant protests organized by unemployed graduates that had already begun in the early 90s, as well as the small protests in the eastern city of Bouarfa demanding free water (which would be granted, though only for a few months). We should also take note of the protests in the coastal town of Ifni in 2005, 2007 and 2008, against social and economic exclusion, as well as the Gdim Izik protest camp near the town of El Aiune in October/November 2010 (which, interestingly, took place immediately before the outbreak of protests against Ben Ali in Tunisia), expressing the revolt of the Sahrawi people regarding their social and economic exclusion by the Moroccan government, which de facto administers this territory, despite its illegality from the point of view of international law.

Concerning this so-called “Arab spring”, it is worth recalling that the term “Arab” carries the danger of reifying social contexts which are much more diversified and that are not always Arab. In Morocco, as in other neighboring countries referred as “Arab”, a significant part of the population does not claim an Arab identity, but rather identifies itself as Amazigh. From a historical point of view, the presence of Amazigh populations — formerly called “Berbers” — predates the Arab conquest of North Africa that began in the seventh century. Nowadays, several groups claim the Amazigh identity as a political and cultural flag. For many Amazigh activists, the Maghrebian population consists mostly of Amazighs, Arabized or not. The historian Ibn Khaldūn already indicated in the fifteenth century — in his famous Muqaddimah, in reference to his object of study — that “[…] our main concern is with the Maghrib, the home of the Berbers, and the Arab home countries in the East” (Ibn Khaldun 1967: Chapter I: Second Prefatory Discussion)4. Recently in Morocco, with the new Constitution in force since 2011, Amazigh became an official language, together with Arabic, and in Libya, after the fall of Moammar Qadhdhafi and following several decades of forced Arabization, the Amazigh language regained expression and began to be taught in some schools.

Moreover, with regard to the “Islamic” category, often used in the analysis of the various social movements, one cannot ignore that this results mainly in reducing all forms of protest to a discourse that would have religion as its main component, setting aside “a wide variety of movements — ethnic, feminist and young people’s — that might or might not, be mobilized by religion” (Cardeira da Silva 2006). Therefore, when referring to social movements in “Arab and Islamic” contexts, it must be taken into account that they are not always necessarily Arab or Islamic and that so-called Islamist movements are not the only ones capable of mobilizing social protests.

On the other hand, authors such as Asef Bayat have showed a more pertinent understanding of the phenomena of unorganized rebellion and informal networks, which do not necessarily result in social movements but may assume that form under certain conditions, and have played an important role in the recent protests mentioned herein (Butler 2011).

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The emergence of the February 20 Movement (M20F) in Morocco — which presents itself as devoid of leaders and formal vertical structures — was in part influenced by the uprising dynamic that was announced by the media as the “Arab spring.” The M20F, like other social movements, was not developed exclusively thanks to the Internet, but by combining the two inseparable forms of contemporary networking: offline and online (Brouwer 2012). Obviously, many of the so-called online activists already knew each other offline. In late January and early February 2011, some independent youth activists and AMDH militants organized small demonstrations in Rabat in solidarity with the protests in Tunisia and Egypt. At the same time, Facebook groups sprouted, such as the Mouvement pour la liberté et la démocratie maintenant (MLEDM-Movement for Freedom and Democracy Now), with the purpose of organizing a national protest with simultaneous demonstrations in several cities on February 20, 2011. The M20F had the support of several political organizations, such as the ones that had supported the movement of the “Coordinators”. The Justice and Spirituality Group (Jamāʿat al-ʿadl wa al-iḥsān), a banned but tolerated Islamist group with a high degree of public support, was also invited to participate, and the various political groups celebrated various agreements. Slogans demanding secularization would not be used, but neither would religious slogans. This group would break away from the M20F in the last quarter of 2011, a period during which the popular support for M20F sharply declined.

In Morocco, unlike other countries, despite the enormous popular support for the protests, which took place simultaneously in several cities on February 20, 2011, and that re-occurred sometimes on a weekly basis during that year, there were no calls (with some timid exceptions) based on the famous slogan “the people want the fall of the regime.” This would become a somewhat taboo slogan, either for fear of jeopardizing the monarchical regime, whose legitimacy is presented as being unquestionable, or by an apparently sincere devotion of a significant portion of the population towards the Moroccan monarchy. This does not preclude that some of the actors behind the recent protest dynamic are not necessarily great enthusiasts of the monarchy. The famous slogan ended up keeping only the motto “the people want”, with the second part taking several forms5 such as “the fall of the makhzan6”, “the downfall of despotism”, “the fall of the government, the parliament and regional councils”, “the fall of the government”, “the fall of Lydec/Amandis/etc.”7, “the fall of the [current] Constitution”, “the fall of corruption”, “the fall of the Mamouni commission”. The latter refers to the president of the commission in charge of drafting a new Constitution, supposedly more democratic, which was announced by King Mohammed VI on March 9, 2011, just days after the beginning of the wave of protests by the M20F and was an initial response of the monarchy to the popular protests. Other variations included: “the change of the Constitution”, “a new Constitution”, “the dissolution of parliament”, “wage increases”, “the downfall of the corrupt”. Other variants were also introduced such as “the people do not want a Constitution for slaves”, or “the slogan that you fear, you soon will hear” — in reference to the famous taboo slogan. During a demonstration in Rabat celebrating the first anniversary of the M20F, one protester carried a sign that read ironically, “the regime wants the fall of the people”.

February 20 Movement support rally on the occasion of the movement's first anniversary, February 21st, 2012. The poster reads 'the regime wants the fall of the people'. Photo by Hugo Maia.February 20 Movement support rally on the occasion of the movement’s first anniversary, February 21st, 2012. The poster reads ‘the regime wants the fall of the people’. Photo by Hugo Maia.

As macro slogans, we consider not only the most permanent and prominent slogans, but also the more or less fixed mottos that comprise one of its components, while the second component can result in a multitude of variants. The first category includes two slogans that appeared permanently in the M20F initiatives and promotional materials, either in oral or written form: “freedom, dignity, social justice” (ḥurriyyah, karāmah, ʿadālah ijtimāʿiyyah) and mamfakinch, a Moroccan Arabic expression commonly translated as “we do not make concessions” or “we do not give up”8. For the second type of macro slogans, besides the already mentioned “the people want”, the motto “go away” was widely used in several countries and in several language variants9, such as the M20F slogans: “Oh Government: go away! Oh Parliament: Go away!”, “Makhzan go away, Morocco is a free land”, “[Political] detention go away, Morocco is a free land” and also “Listen to the voice of the people, we want Morocco to be a free land and corruption to go away”. The first part of the latter, “Listen to the voice of the people…”, is by itself another example of a macro slogan. Sometimes the slogans being chanted at public demonstrations become entwined in each other so as to result in long sequences that can last for up to fifteen minutes. For example, “the masses say/ the only solution/ of all solutions/ is the fall of the government/ the dissolution of parliament/ the emancipation of the media/ the independence of the justice system/ and the change of the Constitution/ oh makhzan go away/ Morocco is my free land/ hear the voice of the people/ of the daughters of the people/ of the children of the people, etc…”. Compared to other recent Moroccan social movements, the M20F slogans are the ones using the most politicized language, thus revealing a certain dissipation of the fear of using political language. Table 1 contains a selection of words extracted from slogans, classified according to their positive or negative connotation within the context of the people using them.

Positive connotation

Negative connotation

Parliamentary monarchy, youth, Morocco, king [e.g. «a young king likes youth»], people, [democratic] Constitution, change, destitutions, trials [of the corrupt], elections, promises, dignity, freedom, justice, schools, education, government, parliament, transparency, democracy, Amazigh, health, housing, higher salaries, God, free and independent press, fair distribution of wealth, Facebook, Aljazeera, citizenship, bread and flour, rights, worker, student, farmer, struggle, combat, resistance, revolt, peaceful demonstration, martyr…

Makhzan, patronage, sacralization [of the king], hand kissing [the king], [current] Constitution, corruption, oppression, humiliation, increase [in prices], fraud, bribery, despotism, wealth, authority, police, families [of the governing elite], loot [public resources], thieves [of public money], political detentions, detention centers, Deuxième [state TV channel], public television, parties and festivals, Shakira, shacks, illiteracy, fear, repression, exploitation, tyrants, oppressors, rods, stabbings, batons, slaves, slavery, members of Parliament…

Table 1: Selection of words extracted from slogans and classified according to their positive or negative connotations

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Three years after the birth of the M20F it is very difficult to say whether these protests produced any results and if so, what the results were or may yet be. For many activists, the new Constitution is slightly better than the previous one, but it fell short of their expectations. In fact, the new Constitution has contributed primarily to increasing the legitimacy of the current regime. On the other hand, in several countries, “Islamist” political parties, which were not present in the triggering of the protests of the so-called “Spring”, were the ones that obtained more political gains. In Morocco, the parliamentary elections in late 2011, following the adoption of the new Constitution, resulted in an overwhelming but not absolute victory of the Islamists of the PJD (Parti de la justice et du développement), who had officially broken away from the M20F actions since the beginning. Other major winners were the Internet companies. In several of the countries of the MENA region, multinationals from the media and telecommunications sector hold majority or minority shares in these local Internet companies. The so-called «Arab spring» can also be seen as a huge advertising campaign for the benefit of these multinationals. Interestingly, this was not the first time that online social networks played a significant role — it is the case of the Egyptian April 6 Youth Movement (Ḥarakat Shabbāb 6 Abrīl), which was created in 2008 to support strikes and protests in the industrial city of Al-Maḥallah al-Kubrā and brought some four million people to the streets.

'No to repression … june 5 … Support committee of the M20F.'‘No to repression … june 5 … Support committee of the M20F.’During a session of the Moroccan parliament in late 2012, it was announced that, from January to November 2012, there were 17,186 protests, averaging 52 per day, totaling 921,000 protesters taking to the streets that year, resulting in an average of 2,790 protesters every day.10 Not all of these protests were initiatives of the M20F. While the example of M20F encouraged a new dynamic of protests, some of these protests declared their distance from the movement and didn’t openly present any political positions. These demonstrations nevertheless had a political angle, as they reached the point that makes the “economic” no less “political” than the openly political protest discourse. A good example of this would be the protests that began in Khouribga, the main phosphate-mining center in Morocco, on February 21, 2011, which demanded jobs in the local mining industry. The Office Chérifien des Phosphates (OCP), which manages the mines, was forced to create the OCP Skills program, through which 90,000 job applications were received (35,000 from Khouribga alone, a small town of about 175,000 inhabitants), 5,800 new recruits were accepted and 15,000 internships were created.11 It is pertinent to ask if the rapid response of the authorities to meet some of these claims was due not only to the dynamics of widespread protests in the “Arab” world, but also to the fear of a hypothetical internationalist influence dynamic between the populations of the phosphate mining towns in Morocco and Tunisia. It is noteworthy to point out that the mining town of Redeyf, in southern Tunisia, was the stage, throughout the first half of 2008, of an important and expressive movement of strikes and demonstrations. It should also be noted that in this country the revolts of the so-called “Arab spring” began in the rural south, notably in the small town of Sidi Bouzid, before they reached the capital after less than a month.

There was also the Daniel Galván Viña episode during the summer of 2013, which brought the population to the streets unafraid to challenge directly and frontally a decision of the King in which he was compelled, through the circumstances and the media coverage of the case at the national and international levels, to go back on his decision and to apologize for his mistake. This was an event without precedent since the declaration of Morocco’s independence.12

The M20F offers something substantially different from other social movements that are too focused on economic and social issues. In contrast to them, it popularized political topics. But it’s still too early to accurately assess its impact. Surely the regime did not fall — perhaps it got even stronger — and we cannot know whether the Moroccan population would really be interested in its downfall. Perhaps what did fall away was the fear, especially the fear of politics, although the repercussions of that change are yet to be fully understood.

 

Published in the magazine Jeux Sans Frontières, #2, Lisbon, 2015. The current version suffered a few minor orthographic amendments. The original version in Portuguese was written in 2013. 

References

BAYAT, Asef (1997). “Un-civil society: The politics of the ‘informal people’”, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 1, pp. 53-72.

BROUWER, Lenie (2012). “Social media and the 20th February Movement in Morocco”, presented May 3, 2012, at the Nederlands Instituut Marokko (NIMAR), Rabat.

BUTLER, Judith (2011). “Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street”, presented September 7, 2011, available at www.eipcp.net/transversal/1011/butler/en, accessed March 7, 2012.

CARDEIRA DA SILVA, Maria (2006). “Social Movements in Islamic Contexts: Anthropological Approaches”, Etnográfica, Vol. X, pp. 73-83.

GANTIN, Karine & Omeyya Seddik (2008). “La révolte du « peuple des mines » en Tunisie — Un bastion ouvrier dans le bassin de Gafsa” in Le Monde Diplomatique (French edition), July, 2008.

HIBOU, Béatrice (2012). “Le mouvement du 20 février, le Makhzen et l’antipolitique. L’impensé des reformes au Maroc”, Les dossiers du CERI, Centre d’études et de recherches internationales (CERI), Paris, May 2011. Available at www.sciencespo.fr/ceri/en/content/le-mouvement-du-20-fevrier-le-makhzen-et-lantipolitique-limpense-des-reformes-au-maroc, accessed June 1, 2012.

KADIRI, Abdeslam (2005). “Histoire. Casablanca, le 23 mars 1965”, Telquel, No. 169, March 26-April 1. Available at https://5.153.23.13/archives/169/sujet1.shtml, accessed August 12, 2012.

Ibn KHALDUN, Abd ar-Rahman bin Muhammed (1967). The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, translation from the Arabic by Franz Rosenthal, Bollingen Series, Princeton.

LIAUZU, Claude, Gilbert Meynier, Maria Sgroï-Dufresne & Pierre Signoles (1985). Enjeux urbains au Magreb — Crises, pouvoirs et mouvements sociaux, L’Harmattan, Paris.

MONASTIRI, Taoufik (1973). “Chronique sociale et culturelle Tunisie”, in Jean-Claude Santucci & Maurice Flory (sous la responsabilité de), Annuaire de l’Afrique du Nord, Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) & Centre de recherches et d’études sur les sociétés méditerrannéenes (CRESM), Paris, Éditions du CNRS, 1973, pp. 429-443, Vol. 11. Available at www.aan.mmsh.univ-aix.fr/Pdf/AAN-1972-11_18.pdf, accessed August 31, 2013.

BROWN, Kenneth et al. (ed.) (1989), État, ville et mouvements sociaux au Maghreb et au Moyen Orient, L’Harmattan, Paris.

Le SAOUT, Didier & Marguerite Rollinde (dir.), Émeutes et mouvements sociaux au Maghreb — Perspective comparé, Karthala — Institut Maghreb-Europe, Paris.

VAIREL, Frédéric (2012). “« Qu’avez-vous fait de vos vingt ans ? » Militantismes marocains du 23-mars (1965) au 20 février (2011)” in L’année du Maghreb, No. VIII, 2012, pp. 219-238, CNRS Éditions. Available at www.anneemaghreb.revues.org/1477, accessed May 20, 2013.

YOUSFI, Hèla (2013). “Social Struggles in Tunisia: A Curse or a Revolutionary Opportunity?”, English translation by Hèla Yousfi, published in Jadaliyya, March 27, 2013. Available at www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/10839/, accessed April 7, 2013.

  • 1. Acronyms from the French designations, respectively Parti Socialiste Unifié, Congrès National Ittihadi, Parti de l’Avant-garde Démocratique et Socialiste, Voie Démocratique.
  • 2. Acronyms from the French designations, respectively Confédération Démocratique du Travail, Union Marocaine du Travail, Fédération Démocratique du Travail.
  • 3. Acronyms from the French designations, respectively Association Marocaine des Droits Humains, Association Nationale des Diplômés Chômeurs du Maroc, Association pour la Taxation des Transactions pour l’Aide aux Citoyens Maroc.
  • 4. It is also worth noting the brief description by the same author in regards to the first Arab conquests and the consequent Islamization of North Africa: “The inhabitants of those lands [in the Maghrib] are Berber tribes and groups. The first victory of Ibn Abi Sarh over them and the European Christians (in the Maghrib) was of no avail. They continued to rebel and apostatized time after time. The Muslims massacred many of them. After the Muslim religion had been established among them, they went on revolting and seceding, and they adopted dissident (Kharijite) religious opinions many times.” (Ibn Khaldun 1967: Chapter III: Part 9).
  • 5. All slogans mentioned herein were collected by me in the context of my M.A. dissertation “Social Protests in Morocco” written in 2012-2013 under the guidance of Prof. Cardeira Maria da Silva (UNL-FCSH). These slogans are among a list of about 180 slogans collected from two different sources: the Arabic language Moroccan newspapers published in the first half of 2011 and two lists of slogans prepared by the Slogans Committee (Tansīqiyyat ash-Shiʿarāt) of the M20F.
  • 6. The makhzan designates the traditional circles of political power in Morocco, as opposed to modern governance forums such as the government and the parliament, which many activists consider to be under the control of the makhzan. To a certain extent, it can be said that the makhzan designates the power of the royal palace that stretches out to the city, village and neighborhood chiefs in a vast structure of hierarchical relations covering the whole Moroccan territory, forming a “parapolitical” organization that controls the political sphere.
  • 7. Private companies managing sanitation, water systems and electrical grids in several Moroccan cities. The privatization of these services led to rising costs.
  • 8. Mamfakkinsh, in a more academic transcript, literally means “[we are] not demobilizable / breakable / collapsible/ defragmentable”, taking into account the meaning of the f-k-k root in both Moroccan Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic.
  • 9. Irḥal in standard Arabic, often used in Egypt as in “go away oh Mubarak” (irḥal ya mubārak), and in Yemen, where protesters painted on their hands in its simplest version: “go away” (irḥal); in Maghrebi Arabic dégage and bərra are used with the same meaning.
  • 10. Cf. article published in the Moroccan newspaper Akhbār al-Yawm on December 24, 2012, by sociologist Tariq Hassan, entitled Mamlakat al-iḥtijāj (“The Kingdom of Protest”).
  • 11. Cf. www.khouribga-online.com/category2_12/4037-article2_2887.html, published May 13, 2012, accessed May 13, 2013. The report replicates an article in the Al-Ittiḥād al-Ishtirākiyy newspaper, a publication of the USFP party (Union socialiste des forces populaires).
  • 12. The details of this important episode can be further examined in the report prepared by the Spanish newspaper El Pais

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