Moroccan Protests One Year On

10:40 PM Aida Alami 0 Comments

By Aida Alami

CASABLANCA — Protesters are set to mark the first anniversary of Morocco’s February 20 pro-democracy movement with demonstrations and strikes across the country starting Sunday. But activists say that, rather than a celebration, the protests will be a reminder to the regime that they will not give up before their calls for reform are answered.

“We are advocating for a democratic constitution that will give real power to a government that currently still doesn’t have enough weight to respond to our demands,” said Youness Bensaid, 23, a Casablanca-based activist.
When the unrest that swept the Arab world after the fall of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia on Jan. 14, 2011, reached Morocco, King Mohammed VI responded quickly, introducing a new constitution to grant greater freedoms with a limited redistribution of power. Protesters scoffed, calling the changes “cosmetic.”

A year later and with a new government in office, Morocco still faces huge economic and social challenges. There are frequent cases of self-immolation such as the one that set off the revolution in Tunisia. In the northeastern city of Taza, protesters demanding relief from soaring prices clashed with the authorities in recent days.

Nabila Mounib, secretary general of the Unified Socialist Party — which is not part of the new government after boycotting elections last year but which supports the protest movement — went to Taza to evaluate the situation after about 150 people, including police officers, were hurt. She said there was an urgent need for the government to improve the lives of ordinary citizens and to give the young hope for a better future.

“Morocco’s stability is threatened,” Mrs. Mounib said. “It is absolutely necessary to take emergency measures at all levels. We need a real reform of all institutions. The country does not have any self-respecting economic policy and has a failing education system. The constitution needs to be reformed and meet international democratic standards.”

Analysts say the protest movement failed to galvanize large sectors of society because, after the initial euphoria inspired by the Tunisian revolution, people were deterred by the chaos in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain and by difficulties in Egypt. The Moroccans, they say, are anxious to preserve stability.

Still, while the uprising of Morocco’s youth brought concessions that unions and human rights groups had failed to obtain in the previous decade, observers say that the real victory is a widespread awakening of political awareness.

“For the first time there is clearly a counterbalance to power — the people,” said Abdellah Tourabi, a researcher at the Paris Institute of Political Studies who specializes in Islamic movements in Morocco. “The ‘street’ has become a true political player.”

On Feb. 20, 2011, Mr. Bensaid, a finance student at the Hassan II University in Casablanca, joined the thousands who took to the streets to protest the same problems that cripple many Arab countries: social injustice, corruption and a lack of personal freedoms.

A year later, he feels frustrated, he says. “The communication stunt was successful,” said Mr. Bensaid, referring to the new constitution. “Everything that followed was a farce. The king appointed an undemocratic commission, with members committed to the conservative nature of the absolute monarchy.”

Observers say that the key difference between Morocco’s uprising and those in other Arab Spring countries is that the population, deeply attached to its 1,200-year-old tradition of monarchy, never called for regime change.

Still, Sunday protests have become a weekly ritual. Except for the occasional police crackdown, most are peaceful, well organized and almost celebratory, with cheerful marchers waving placards and chanting the ills of their country.

Last July, a referendum on the new constitution won 98.5 percent of the vote. Elections followed on Nov. 25, allowing the moderate Islamists of the Justice and Development Party to form a new government under Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane.

“The government is taking the necessary measures to implement the new constitution and to consolidate the rule of law in our country,” the government spokesman, Mustapha Khalfi, said recently, insisting that major economic reforms would be pushed through.

“The first question is whether there is going to be a shift in the balance of power between the king and political institutions,” said Marina Ottaway, a senior associate at the Middle East Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

“It is not clear to me yet how forceful the Benkirane government will be,” she said. “The king has taken an exceptional position in the sense that he has decided to respond to unrest with reforms rather than repression, but he is no different from other Arab rulers in the sense that he is determined to keep his power intact. He is just going about it in a smarter way.”

Meanwhile, the new justice minister, Mustapha Ramid, has started cracking down on corruption. But protesters say this is not enough and fear that the government won’t effect radical reforms.

Ms. Ottaway said: “With all the problems of the Arab world, Morocco does not seem to be a particularly worrisome place. I do not expect an upheaval now. The question is whether there will be sufficient gradual reform to prevent an upheaval later on. It depends on the king, but also on the new government.”

You can read the story on the New York Times' website.

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