Morocco: Democracy still a dream?

Teaser Image Caption
A performance by the “Theater of the Oppressed, Casablanca"

Five years after the democratic upheaval Morocco is closing down spaces for civic and human rights.

“My big dreams in 2011, as for all the youth that went to streets with the 20th February Movement, was to concretize the big slogans of the movement: having a country respecting its population, having dignity, having equality between all citizens, and above all, start living in a true democracy”.

Living in a true democracy – five years after the mass demonstrations in Morocco culminated on the 20th of February 2011: Has the dream that Hosni Almoukhlis, artistic director of the “Theater of the Oppressed, Casablanca”, shared with so many Moroccans, become true?

Morocco was one of the countries affected by the regional cataclysms of the “spring” 2011. After the escape of Tunisian President Ben Ali on January 14th and the occupation of Tahrir Square by protesters in Cairo, within weeks the dissatisfaction expressed earlier in the social media matured to public protests in Morocco as well. In more than 50 towns and villages, hundreds of thousands of citizens took to the streets to demand individual freedoms, as well as socio-economic justice, and true political participation:

“They [dreams and vision as by 2011, the authors] were very basic. I mean, also we should not exaggerate. At the time we were thinking just better healthcare, better education for everyone, and also a better political system”,  Kenza Yousfi, one of the witnesses of the so-called 20th February Movement, remembers.

Ambivalent change

In early 2011, the constitutional monarchy Morocco is a country marked by societal change and full of ambivalences. The economic challenges such as the stagnation of the export oriented economy, the negative balance of trade, and the relatively high unemployment among young parts of the population as well as several urgently pending reforms such as pensions and subsidies, leave the governing bodies with very little space for maneuver. Within only two generations a formerly mainly rural population has changed to a population with more than 60% of its citizens living in urban spaces; a fast urbanization process that created new social conflicts and challenges, deep cultural and ideological clashes, and urgent economic needs and demands, in both the abandoned villages and the growing centers.

The opening space for press freedom and civic rights that marked the transition period since 1999 from the former King Hassan II (after 38 years of an authoritarian, brutal, and oppressive regime) to his son, King Mohammed VI had created a vivid layer of societal actors, demanding relatively openly their rights. However, this space is slowly but progressively closing down with an increasing pressure towards critical media, which is exemplified in the closure of “Le Journal hebdomadaire” in January 2010.

While since its independence (1956) the country witnesses various revolutionary attempts and popular uprisings, what is unique in 2011 is the multi-partisan alliance between left wing human rights activists and Islamic movements, such as Al Adl Wal Ihsan (Justice and Benevolence). According to the political activist, historian and former director of the Centre Ibn Rochd, Professor Maati Monjib, this broad alliance is the 20th February Movement’s capital strength, and the main reason for the quick response of King Mohammed VI: On March 9th, the king announces the elaboration of a new Constitution, promising more political and civil rights.

A criticized new constitution

Within a speedy process of not even four months this new Constitution is elaborated and adopted by referendum with - according to official Moroccan statistics - a participation of 75 percent and 98 percent of “yes” votes. It is however criticized as non-democratic: The technical committee elaborating the Constitution was appointed by the king, the draft was not circulated transparently, and changes to the text were made after adoption by referendum.

The 2011 Constitution of Morocco has incorporated strong provisions on human rights such as the equality between women and men, the upgrading of the Amazigh language as one of the official Moroccan languages, the creation of a Constitutional Court and the division of power securing the independence of justice. It also made provisions for cutting the powers of the king, which was revolutionary, and answering the claims of many protestors. Kenza states:

“I mean I think part of the youth that I belong to is the one that asks for (…)….. a political reform [that, the authors] also touches the powers of the king. Not only the parliament. Not only the government. Also the king constitutes a big problem for us, in person and also as a moral person, the symbolic power that he has, that thing we were really contesting.”

The Constitution seemed – even though the process was criticized – to be one intelligent reaction to the claims; by the end of 2011 the protests abated, due on the one hand to those reforms undertaken by the state -  such as the adoption of the new constitution, the increase of subsidies or the creation of jobs in the administration -  and on the other hand due to internal contradictions within the movement.

So how do those promises of reform stand up to a reality check five years later?

When asking the art director and activist Hosni this question, he said the democratic dream of the movement means:

“that we govern us ourselves, and that also means that we can ask account from those that govern us. (…) Furthermore, we the progressive faction, we wanted a progressive country, progressive politics and not conservative politics. So, we had two aims, the democratic dream, (…) and the dream of living in a progressive country that is respecting individual freedoms and differences. It was a simple dream. But for us, in 2011, and, sadly even today, it is still a dream”.

The reforms undertaken by the Islamist moderate government voted into office on the basis of the new Constitution in November’s 2011 early parliamentary elections have not led to a significant improvement of repressive or corrupted practices, the adoption of ground-breaking policies, or the review of discriminatory laws. Thus, Hosni’s assessment of the democratic performance of the government is rather negative:

“On a political level we have a government that is not governing, who is solely managing the country administratively. And decision-making is still done behind the doors of the palace. So, on a democratic level we don’t have change.”

As a persistence of authoritarian logics the implementation of the Constitution is delayed: since 2011 only 14 organic laws from a total of 19 have passed the parliament. Additionally, while some economic reforms have been undertaken, unemployment, especially among youth, has been increasing, from 17.8 percent in 2011 to 20.2 percent in 2014. Furthermore, according to the latest Corruption Perception Index, issued by Transparency International, in Morocco in 2015, corruption has deteriorated with the country dropping from place 80 to place 88.

Regarding spaces for freedom of expression and political critique, recent developments are alarming: the number and form of restrictions experienced by activists and journalists are growing. What is more, attempts of silencing critical voices have not only increased in number, but they are becoming more radical and violent. For instance multiple associations experience a non-prolongation of their legal authorization, such as several regional branches of the Moroccan Human Rights Association (AMDH), the most respected independent human rights actor in the country. Even newly founded associations – such as Freedom Now - assembling leading political thinkers and human rights activists - or the Numerical Rights Association (ADN) – working on privacy rights in the internet – struggle to get officially recognized and are waiting for the authorization since 2014.

Beyond the legal deregulation of associative actors, the intimidation of individual activists is an often chosen authoritarian strategy to warn and tranquilize others. One recent example is the case of Hicham Mansouri, an influential investigative journalist, who, in March 2015, was sentenced to ten months in prison for alleged procuration and adultery. Moreover, various foreign human rights activists and journalists, who were working on homosexual rights, migrants’ issues or are out-spoken vis-à-vis the so-called red lines – the monarchy, religion, and the question of the Western Sahara - have been expelled from Morocco or were recalled by their sending organization, one of them Andrea Nüsse, the former director of Friedrich Naumann Stiftung in Rabat.

What perspective for democratic change does Morocco face today?

Comparing Morocco with the other countries in the region, that have lived the mass uprisings of 2011, the kingdom is often classified as not democratic, but as an authoritarian regime permitting a restricted democracy. Indeed not much change compared to before 2011!

In the light of global terrorist threats, however, the country is mostly regarded as one of the few stable countries in the region, and thus marked as a positive exception.

This leads to an ambivalent situation: on the one hand, there really exists a relatively high level of security, gained through partly freedom-restrictive measures, such as the extensive surveillance of citizens’ activities in public space, their private lives, and digital spaces. On the other hand, those limitations of freedoms are rarely acknowledged and criticized by other governments. France for example revived and intensified its security cooperation with Morocco after the 2015’s terrorist attacks. For Germany, Morocco remains, undisturbed by the shrinking spaces for human and civil rights, the largest recipient of development cooperation in the whole MENA region with a total funding of 360.6 million Euro for 2014 and 2015.

Thus, impulse for change will probably not come from outside, as no foreign government is willing to forego the stability that Morocco provides to the region, nor from the streets, as there is currently no historical momentum such as it were in spring 2011. It seems that the way forward for democratic change in Morocco lies in the citizens’ solitary activities, bringing a change from within the society. This is a more mid- and long-term trajectory, recalling the societal changes that happened in Germany in the eighties and nineties following the protests of 1968.

The Theatre of the Oppressed

For the Heinrich Böll Foundation Rabat this means, in line with its belief in the power and importance of societal movements, to strengthen and deepen its engagement with democratic citizens’ movements. One example is the cooperation with Hosni’s theatre initiative, the “Theatre of the Oppressed, Casablanca”. Hosni and his team try to engage with the “ordinary” citizen during and after theatre performances, by picking up pertinent societal topics, such as climate change, corruption during elections, or the integration of sub-Saharan migrants in society. His work is a direct outcome and continuation of the 20th February protests:

“We decided to create the “Theater of the Oppressed” one year after the 20th February movement, at the first birthday of the movement, in a non-official reflection workshop about the experiences. We looked for other solutions to act. The movement weakened, the citizens dispersed, thus we searched other methods to act (…). So, the change we did, during the 20th February movement we addressed ourselves, our voices to the people above, to the politicians (…), now we are working with the base”.

The way the group acts is innovative in Morocco and truly democratic.

“During the last manifestations of the 20th February movement we felt like being a theatre performance. We marched and the public watched us (…). There was no communication with the public, we had our megaphones, we shouted, we were the show. This vision helped us to change the optic and to think about the forum theatre, which is like giving the megaphones to the public. They should talk, they should interact, and they should find the solutions. It is not to us to give our truth to the public”.

Gained political consciousness

Even though political reforms are slow and the democratization of institutions is not really happening, Hosni feels that on a societal level,  citizens have gained political consciousness:

“Despite everything, one cannot say that nothing has changed, but you can neither say that the changes are too positive. The changes that one can observe today are that there are more visions, or that there are more people regarding and observing the political situation in Morocco. Above all regarding the situations of liberties in Morocco; even the citizens are more conscious about what’s happening. I think this is the most interesting change.”

In the same line of reasoning, Kenza believes that the solidarity among citizens has grown since, leading to more civil engagement:

“… some of the members of the 20th February Movement … probably were depressed for a while and then, like me,… preferred that they work on the ground. Forget about the political institutions, forget about state, forget about whatever makes you depressed, because you know, these are the superstructure…, and face your daily life… And the rest thought that it is time to work from within political institutions, like a party, or ministries, or anything that retains to state apparatuses. So I don’t know if there is in between, but I think this juxtaposition is very interesting, because if a social movement can produce these two wings …, I think when something next happens… there will also be a confrontation between members of the same movement…”

Today, five years after the movement, Kenza does not believe that the key ideas of the 20th February Movement are dead. While in the formal political field change may have failed, the movements’ democratic dreams, as well as its vision of a more inclusive society, are surviving in multiple other ways.

They merged – to give but a few examples - in initiatives like Hosni’s theater group, or amalgamated in knowledge-production undertaken by the new think-tank Rabat Social Studies Institute (RSSI) working on questions of societal exclusion and marginalization; they resulted in the creation of a leadership program by Institut des Hautes Etudes de Management (HEM), aiming at forming young, visionary democratic leaders; they also continue living in the workshops for political education in rural areas organized by the association Racines, as well as in the creative artistic engagement for equality of young men in Media Culture.

Those and other actors concretize the democratic spirit, they are defending spaces for creativity, transformation, and free expression, they somehow live, anchor and steady in the Moroccan society – at least partly – the democratic dream of the many hopeful citizens such as Kenza and Hosni.