Morocco four years after 20 February

Karem Yehia, Tunis , Saturday 21 Feb 2015

Four years on from Arab Spring protests in Morocco, authorities continue to clampdown on rights groups, with almost no demands of 2011 met

File photo of police officers in Rabat (Photo:Reuters)

Five days before the fourth anniversary of the 20 February movement in Morocco, the Moroccan police raided the Moroccan Association for Human Rights' (AMDH) headquarters in Rabat and arrested two French journalists and immediately deported them to their country.

The Moroccan authorities claimed that the journalists didn't have a license to operate. The AMDH said that the journalists didn't feel safe while reporting in the street so they resorted to the headquarters. Reports insisted the police had to break in to the premises without a court order.

The AMDH is one of the oldest human rights associations in the Arab world and Africa. It was established in 1979 and has 96 branches inside Morocco and four others outside the country. The AMDH has symbolic meaning for the youth because it was the space from where the 20 February movement launched on 17 February 2011.

Ahmed Al-Hayeg, the head of the AMDH, told Ahram Online that the association is being targeted lately by the authorities, and that many of its branches nationwide are being harassed. He added that since 2013, the state of rights and freedoms in Morocco deteriorated after gains following the 20 February movement.

"Following the 20 February movement in 2011, the Moroccan people wrested their rights in demonstrating and expressing their thoughts," Hayeg said. "But with the crisis of the Arab Spring, the Moroccan regime found its way back to pounce on these rights," he added.

By mid-2014, the association monitored a number of arrests and trials against young activists as well as a narrowing of the freedom of the press and on the association's activities in an unprecedented manner, Hayeg said.

He added that the state's policies and ministries, like the interior, defence, justice and foreign affairs ministries, are in the royal palace's hand, and that constitutional amendments stayed just demands, with no laws issued to apply these demands. "Most of the draft laws that were presented to parliament were quickly withdrawn," Hayeg said.

Hayeg's assessment is echoed by Moroccans in general, as well as by a significant number of the political elite.

With the third anniversary of the first Islamist government in Morocco's history, people were accusing authorities of having a shadow government in the royal palace.

Ahram Online met Hassan Tarek, one of 42 MPs of the opposition Socialist Union in the 295-seat parliament. The meeting coincided with an internal clash inside the party over the selection of a new editor-in-chief for its newspaper. Most printed newspapers in Morocco reported the issue. 

The party struggled for decades against the rule of former Moroccan King Hassan II, leading it to join the cabinet with Abderrahmane Youssoufi, the party secretary at the time, as prime minister.

Afterwards, the party’s newspaper lost momentum and rifts took hold between party members. Further on, Youssoufi resigned and announced that he had failed, highlighting that all powers were with the palace, not with him.

Tarek believes that history is repeating itself with the Benkirane cabinet. He argues that the status quo is similar to what happened with Youssoufi and the Socialist Union, only now the current cabinet bears more responsibility as it came in better circumstances.

"This government came after a massive, popular movement calling for change and constitutional reform, but it did not meet people's expectations in fighting corruption and tyranny," Tarek said.

"Prime Minister Abdellah Benkirane did not implement the constitution, in order to gain the blessing of the palace." Tarek also believes the new constitution's content can be interpreted in different ways.

Tarek criticised the Benkirane "rightist government" for some of its "unpopular decisions," such as lifting subsidies for basic goods, including gasoline and fuel oil, in response to pressures from international financial institutions.

At the beginning of the interview, Tarek said that joining three successive coalition governments in the past had harmed his leftist party's reputation. Many Moroccans who spoke to Ahram Online shared unpleasant memories they had with these governments after they raised leftist slogans while privatising vital state sectors such as water and electricity.

Morocco is perhaps the only Arab country with so ironic a combination: communists joined a government led by an Islamist party. At the same time, there is an another political Islamist group, the opposition Justice and Charity Group, enjoying wide popularity, that is still part of the opposition, in addition to other active, leftist parties and groups.

These groups participated in the 20 February protests since its beginning until Justice and Charity members withdrew from rallies in early December 2011. Benkirane's party, for its part, adopted a rejectionist position towards the demonstrations.

The Justice and Charity Group, an illegal entity in the view of the law, refuses to run for parliamentary elections, recognise the king as the "Commander of the Faithful" or provide him with the bay'ah (Islamic allegiance) on an annual basis. Nevertheless, its members have an extensive reach in the leaderships of student, professional and workers' syndicates.

Hassan Nageh, a member of the Justice and Charity's General Secretariat, said that Morocco is "living a severe crisis" because "nothing changed" four years after the demonstrations.

"Breaking the wall of fear is the only benefit," said Nageh, who manages youth issues in the group. He added that other benefits, such as joint cooperation between Islamists and secularists from leftist and rightist camps, and independents, as well as building trust between all parties that was missing previously, were short-lived.

"Governments didn't rule in Morocco, and Benkirane's cabinet is contributing to longer eras of authoritarianism," Nageh warned. "Islamists came to office in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco in a bid to reduce the anger of the people, and not in belief in democracy."

Abdel El-Aaali Haami, member of the Justice and Development Party's General Secretariat, which has 105 seats in parliament, spoke to Ahram Online in Rabat on the political situation in the country.

"We are now living in stable conditions. We should take tough and painful choices for the people, such as lifting subsidies, for the sake of the budget. Anyway, unemployment rates stopped at 22 percent," said Haami.

He said that Benkirane managed to avoid clashing with the king, claiming that the premier has to apply the articles of the constitution in compatibility with the king's vision.

Benkirane thinks that he should cooperate with the country's monarch, a factor that guarantees the government's stability, Haami emphasised. "That is better than [government] collapse, especially amid the absence of alternatives from the opposition."

For Mohamed Hafez, an academic scholar and coordinator of the Socialist Union Party, perceives all political parties as responsible for "wasting the opportunity of change" after the 20 February protests.

"The 2011 constitution is different than the preceding versions, but regarded as backward at the age of mobility and its aspirations," Hafez noted.

"Ironically, who refused to join the protests is the bloc leading the government nowadays. The regional environment had undoubtedly aborted the Moroccan Spring and its goals."

Studying patterns of political uprisings for long decades, Mostafa Bin Aziza, a historian, believes that the anti-government 20 February protests signified an important chapter of Moroccan history, though the outcome has been limited.

"Moroccan youth committed the same mistakes of earlier uprisings, failing to take advantage of the momentum to make the regime weaker," Bin Aziza argued, expecting that another uprising will not take place during the next five years, though harsh socio-economic conditions might push towards turmoil.

Moati Mongeb, head of Al-Horiya Al-Aaan (Freedom Now) movement, shares the view of Bin Aziza. Yet, he expects political mobility in different cities in the medium term. "The causes of demonstration are still there, and people will not sacrifice their dreams," said the leader of the movement that remains unrecognised by state authorities.

Freedom Now recently launched its first report on violations against free speech and press in the kingdom. Days later, police forces raided the headquarters of the NGO that hosted the launch in an unprecedented act.

Many youth of the 20 February protests interviewed by Ahram Online expressed frustration at general conditions in Morocco, but appeared optimistic about "returning soon to the streets."

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