Protests in Morocco: Just Don't Call It a Revolution

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Abdeljalil Bounhar / AP

Protesters march in Rabat, Morocco, on Feb. 20, 2011

Convened via Facebook and Twitter, thousands of demonstrators gathered in the square outside Rabat's El Had gate on Sunday. Shouting the now familiar slogans — "Down with dictatorship!" "End the corruption!" "We want change!" — they slowly marched down the city's central artery before coming to a halt at Morocco's Parliament building. There, as security forces maintained a watchful distance, young men brandishing megaphones and middle-aged women in djellabas drove the protest to a fever pitch, calling for Parliament to step down and vowing not to desist in their efforts until their demands were met. "This is our Tahrir Square," said protester Zineb el Rhazoui, her fist pumping the air. Then, about six hours after they had begun, she and the other demonstrators went home.

In the drama playing out across North Africa and the Middle East, Morocco, it seems, is going off script. The country suffers from deeply entrenched corruption, an official unemployment rate close to 10% (unofficial rates are suspected to be much higher), some of the greatest discrepancies of wealth in the Arab world and a notably restricted press. But although protests convulsed dozens of Moroccan cities on Sunday, collapsing into looting and vandalism in a few places like Tangier and Marrakech and turning violent in Al Houceima, where five people were killed, no one was calling for outright revolution. Revolution, after all, would mean overturning the country's supreme ruler. And no one, at least publicly, wants to depose King Mohammed VI.

"Why should they? He seems so benevolent in comparison," says Stuart Schaar, who is emeritus professor of Middle Eastern history at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and is currently teaching in Rabat. Schaar is talking about Mohammed VI's father, the tyrant Hassan II, whose 38 years in power are referred to as the "years of lead" for the former King's harsh crackdown on trade unionists, intellectuals, Marxists, rebellious soldiers and other political enemies. "This is a guy who had people disappeared, who threw people out of helicopters," adds Schaar. "So Moroccans now are relieved with what they have."

But it's not only the specter of Hassan II that makes Mohammed VI look good to many Moroccans. In the 12 years since he assumed power, the King has instituted a number of reforms, including adapting the Family Law to improve women's rights, appointing a commission to investigate the state's crimes during the years of lead, and allowing limited forms of political protest — as long as no one criticizes the monarch or his family.

Critics dismiss the changes as window dressing, charging that the monarchy has done only enough to keep conditions tolerable. "The King had the possibility of creating a real model of democratic reform," says Driss Ksikes, editor of Economia Review and former editor of Tel Quel, a weekly magazine that was shut down by Mohammed VI's government on several occasions for breaking press taboos, including investigating the royal family's finances. "He didn't do it. There is not enough justice, not enough transparency. But there is enough appearance of reform to keep the lid on things."

Many Moroccans, however, appreciate the King's activities. "He's always inaugurating a new business or a new road," Rabat student Ibrahim Zelinkouz said on Sunday. "You feel like he's working for Morocco, like he cares about us." But that didn't stop Zelinkouz from joining the protest, which was directed at Morocco's government, not its leader. "The problem is those guys," he said, gesturing toward Parliament. "They don't come here to work. They come here to sleep."

Despite his near absolute power, many Moroccans view the King separately from the rest of government — not just Parliament, but also the notorious Makzhen, or palace elite, who control vast amounts of the nation's wealth and pull the political strings behind the scenes. Parliament, which is not truly representative since some parties have their seats restricted or are banned outright, exists primarily to rubber-stamp the palace's initiatives. "There are two kinds of regime in the Arab world," says Youssef Raissooni, president of the Rabat branch of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights. "Dictatorial, and dictatorial wearing a democratic mask. In Morocco, we're the latter, thanks to the Makzhen."

But at Sunday's protest, which brought an estimated 37,000 people into the streets nationwide, according to government estimates, there were already tentative signs of change. In a country in which the King is not only "executive monarch" but also the supreme religious leader, it can be dangerous to criticize almost anything associated with him. Which is why journalist Ali Amar was encouraged by the chants in favor of constitutional reform, a banner that declared "We refuse a regime that loots the nation's wealth" and another that called for the government to step down. "That's a first," he said. "Before, no one would have dared say that. Egypt has created a new context for us."

Although the demonstrations across the country were largely peaceful, there was no shortage of signs that Morocco has a long way to go on the road to democracy. In the days leading up to the protests, many activists had their Facebook accounts hacked. "I went on and my whole page was empty," says protest organizer Mohammed Elaoudi. "And my Gmail account was blocked." The night before the marches, three activists appeared on state television to declare — erroneously, and possibly under pressure — that the protests had been canceled. (A hasty Facebook campaign corrected the false information.) Trains between Casablanca and Rabat were shut down for several hours. And foreign journalists covering the protests were tailed, with rather pitiful obviousness, by intelligence agents — at a rally of young people, a suit and a tendency to loiter around the edges of conversations are not the best camouflage.

On Sunday, rumors swirled on Twitter that the King would use an investiture speech the next day to acknowledge the protesters' demands. That didn't happen: his only reference to events was to note that he "would not cede to demagoguery and improvisation." But late on Morocco's "day of dignity," as demonstrators began to peel off into the warm Rabat afternoon, no one seemed disappointed that the protests there lacked the dramatic outcome of those elsewhere in the Arab world. "Just as it did in Egypt and Tunisia, something has been broken open in people's minds here," said activist Mohamed Hafid. "This is just the beginning."