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No party can 'make change by itself': Lessons from the Arab Spring in Morocco

Ahram Online speaks to Mohamed El-Mesawi, a political activist from Tangier, on the origin of protests in Morocco in 2011, and their fate and possible future

Karem Yehia in Morocco, Sunday 22 Feb 2015
Moroccan activist Mohamed El-Mesawi (Photo: Karem Yehia)

Mohamed El-Mesawi, a 36-year-old Moroccan political activist from the northern city of Tangier, is facing hard times in making a living.

El-Mesawi, nevertheless, is currently finalising his doctoral thesis in discourse analysis. He is also the founder and editor-in-chief of Anoual news website.  

In interview with Ahram Online in Morocco's capital Rabat, El-Mesawi describes how the Arab Spring-inspired protests in the North African kingdom — commencing 20 February 2011 — started, developed and then receded.

AO: How did the protest movement start in Morocco?

ME: Different Moroccan cities saw protests at the beginning of the millennium against the failure of Abdel Rahman El-Youssefi's (a former opposition figure of the leftist Socialist Union Party) government in solving price hikes and unemployment. Such anti-government demonstrations took place in the cities of Sidi Ifni, Sefrou and Al-Hoceima. By 2007, protests against the same problems were organised in more cities in Morocco. Rallies and campaigns emerged to promote boycotting of some goods and refraining from paying water and electricity bills, especially after public companies providing such services were sold to European enterprises as part of a privatisation plan. In fact, the boycotting campaigns, which lasted six months, succeeded in some cities, but failed in others.    

AO: Regarding the 20 February protests, how did it begin?

ME: The Arab Spring underlined the role of youth, with their connection to social networks, in public affairs. Everyone asked this question: Why isn't Morocco's youth taking the same path as those in Egypt and Tunisia? Through social networks, our youth gained experience and knowledge not provided in traditional media outlets dominated by the state. Moroccan youth across the spectrum, including independents, communicated with each other and created a common paper that included constitutional, political, social and cultural demands. It became a founding statement of the 20 February movement.

AO: The statement did not call for regime change, nor a constitutional monarchy. Why?

ME: We had a discussion about that matter. Some people backed calling for a constitutional monarchy, but the majority preferred restricting the demand to calling for a popular, democratic constitution, stipulating that the people are the true source of power.

AO: Beyond political discourse, how did action to move to the street?

ME: We took the streets with youth in 107 cities and villages on Sunday, a day off, 20 February, and the numbers of protesters were huge in Al-Hoceima, Casablanca, Tangier and Safi. In Tangier, my home, protesters roughly ranged from 20,000 to 50,000 out of the half-a-million people living in the city. We agreed to resume the next Sunday.

AO: Can you tell us about the slogans?

ME: People chanted in Tangier and other cities, "Down with corruption and tyranny." But it developed later to, "Who rules cannot make business."

AO: What about the organisational aspect of the protests?

ME: We had two suggestions at our disposal. The first suggestion concerned the coordination committees of the 20 February movement spreading across the country. Yet, there was no centralised committee to manage the work of the smaller bodies. The second suggestion involved the establishment of a national council that encompassed members of political parties and civil society organisations, to represent the demands of the 20 February protests. The initiative of King Mohamed VI on amending the constitution resulted in a state of polarisation between the political parties. Parties that rejected the initiative remained side-by-side with the 20 February youth. Such blocs were the heavyweight Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH) with its 96 branches across the country; the Islamist Justice and Charity Group; and leftist groups such as the Socialist Democratic Vanguard Party.

AO: What happened the following Sunday in the street?

ME: Sunday, 27 February 2011 marked the anniversary of the separatist Polisario movement's foundation. Therefore, police forces used force and arrested many youth, but they were released a few hours later. The next Sunday, 6 March, mass demonstrations spread in different cities, even as large as the protests were on 20 February. Police intervention and oppression varied from one city to the other. In Tangier, the police attempted forcefully to stop public gatherings, but the youth insisted on continuing and mobilised around 50,000 in a square besieged by security forces. Three days later, the king gave his famous speech, offering to amend the constitution.

AO: How did the king's initiative influence the protests?

ME: Put in mind that the king avoided mentioning the events in the streets, and offered monarchial amendments coming personally from him. The king appointed Abdel Latif Al-Manoni, one of his advisers, as the head of the committee that oversaw the process of constitutional amendments. The youth were angry as the committee was not chosen through elections, considering it a means of circumventing popular demands. Accordingly, they continued to protest along the following Sundays and every 12th day of every month. For example, Sunday, 24 April saw protests in roughly 124 cities and village. Tangier alone had about 120,000 protesters.

AO: Has this political mobility diminished after July's constitutional amendments?

ME: Protests spanned two years in Moroccan cities, though definitely with weaker momentum after July 2011. The coordination committees, however, stayed politically active, calling for a boycott of the referendum on the constitutional amendments, as well as parliamentary polls in November 2011. They believed such amendments were void and questioned the transparency of the elections.

AO: To what extent was the withdrawal of the Islamist Justice and Charity group from the scene influenced events?

ME: I think, according to my personal experience in Tangier, that field leaders did not have prior knowledge about the decision of the organisation's leadership to withdraw from the protests in December 2011. On that day, they took part in the protests until midnight when they were surprised by the decision, which undoubtedly affected the popularity of the protests. The Islamist group is regarded as the largest political organisation in Morocco, despite lacking legal standing. Some European statistics suggest that the organisation has half a million members. It has become clear that the group provided the protests with organisational and logistical support. Indeed, the number of demonstrators declined to almost half of the original figure following its withdrawal.

AO: In your view, what has the 20 February movement achieved so far in Morocco?

ME: Perhaps few benefits, such as constituting Tamazight as an official language. But other gains of the constitutional amendments were not embraced in laws and practices. The right to protest without a permit and breaking the fear barrier signify the utmost, unprecedented accomplishments in Morocco. It was hard to imagine some sects joining protests, such as peasants and poor women. Moreover, for the first time, the king's legitimacy's became a subject of inquiry. Political events in Egypt and other Arab Spring states have encouraged Moroccan authorities to reverse the gains of the 20 February demonstrations, claiming to restore the "state's lost prestige." The AMDH suffered some strictures, and the state's authoritarian, retaliatory mentality led to putting many youth figures in jail on fabricated charges.

AO: Do you expect a new political mobiilisation in the future?

ME: It is impossible for the story to end at such stage. The causes of tension, such as price hikes and unemployment, are still there, and the situation is prone to deterioration at any point of time. Now there is a kind of false calm, and we as youth have to learn from our mistakes, and the absence of a nationwide leadership comes on top of that list. We can add other wrongs, such as the absence of clear positions by political parties and social movements towards the youth mobilisation. Sometimes they seek to dominate the situation, while only taking the position of a backer at other instances. Perhaps the biggest lesson to learn is that no party can make comprehensive change by itself, whether Islamists or leftists.

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