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Five years on, have young Moroccans gained their rights?

The 20 February movement's push for reforms in 2011 gained some fragile successes - and left a desire among activists for more change
Moroccans protest against the high cost of living in June 2013 (AFP)

RABAT Five years after the revolution in Tunisia and Egypt, young Moroccan activists of the 20 February 2011 movement have been assessing the successes and shortcomings of their social campaign.

“Thousands of people had gone out to demonstrate for the first time with strong demands and a feeling of release. It was very moving to see all these different people gathered together around the same slogan: dignity, liberty and social justice,” said Soufyane Fares, 25, a human rights activist who took part in the movement in the Moroccan capital, Rabat.

Amina Terass, 25, who was active in Marrakech in 2011, said: “I was impatient to go out on that Sunday morning. The day before, I had not been able to sleep during the night. The first day out in the streets was the one that marked me the most; it was loaded with hope." 

The 20 February Movement (M20F) took advantage of the uprisings in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Syria to demand democratic change. The mobilisation had essentially been carried out by young people, who organised rapidly, including via social media, but it was borne from the long political struggles of the past, in particular over the high cost of living, during the reign of Hassan II who ruled Morocco from 1961 until his death in 1999. 

M20F, as was pointed out by the researchers Mounia Bennani-Charaibi and Mohamed Jeghllaly, consisted of a diverse cast: independent youth or youth affiliated with political parties, actors of the non-governmental sector, unions, leftist parties and Islamist movements, as well as the al-Adl Wal Ihsane group (which translates to “Justice and Spirituality”, one of the main Islamist organisations in Morocco, born in the 1970s but never recognised by the kingdom).

This diverse cast, which brought together people who held radically different ideologies, all demanded democracy, a separation of powers, constitutional changes and better governance.

“The 20 February was a peaceful and reformist movement which asked for a parliamentary monarchy and not for regime change,” said Hamza Hachlaf, a former activist of the M20F in Fes and now a member of the leftist movement Clarte Ambition Courage (Clarity, Ambition, Courage). 

The context led “the actors to renounce, in a provisory manner, the expression of their divisions in favour of common de-ideologised demands,” Bennani-Charaibi and Jeghllaly wrote in their article.

An unprecedented mobilisation

The movement organised its first successful demonstration on 20 February 2011. Thousands took to the streets in more than 50 localities throughout the country.

While coordination units had already been established in the two metropolitian areas, Rabat and Casablanca, local coordination cells were created in smaller locales which had spontaneously sprouted up during the first call to demonstrate. Estimates vary widely, with the police claiming 37,000 demonstrators took part, while the organisers asserted they were more than 200,000.

Confronted with this movement, King Mohamed responded by acquiescing to some of the protesters' demands. In his speech on 9 March 2011, he promised to accelerate “the process of advanced regionalisation,” to proceed to “a deep constitutional review,” and to reinforce the independence of the judicial system among other things. Later, he appointed a commission in charge of drafting a new constitution.

Despite these concessions, M20F refused to take part in the consultations, arguing that the members of the commission were selected undemocratically. A new constitution was nonetheless adopted by referendum on 1 July 2011, representing for some a move forward in terms of human rights, participatory democracy and separation of powers.

On 25 November 2011, snap legislative elections were also organised, paving victory for the Islamists of the Party of Justice and Development (PJD).

The royal reaction was together “a response to our demands and a political recuperation. But one thing is sure, it legitimised our claims," said Hachlaf.

Eventually, the rather favourable reply of the monarchy, the diminishing mobilisations, as well as internal divisions inside the movement - including the withdrawl of al-Adl Wal Ihsane in December 2011 after the elections - helped to quell the movement.

It was also hard hit by denigration campaigns against the activists orchestrated by the “young royalists” among others, as well as pressure from the Makhzen (the governing insitution), which monitored and infiltrated the M20F. Lastly, the election of the PJD gave many activists the feeling of having been dispossessed by their movement. After one year, the 20 February Movement ceased to exist. 

A change of mentalities

Even if “uniting this historical bloc [the left and the Islamists] was not a new idea,” said Nizar Bennamate, a former member of the M20F coordination in Casablanca, it underlined its singularity.

“It was a young movement, born on the internet, and for the first time the monarchy yielded to pressure coming from the street. The movement changed the country culturally,” he told MEE. The barrier of fear of the ruler broke down.

Even after the dissolution of the M20F, human rights campaigns lived on. In 2013, a political NGO that Bennamate is involved in, Anfass Democratique, which promotes democratic change, was created, while the formation of a student union for education reform, a group that Terass is apart of, also started in 2012.

For Hachlaf, what has changed since 2011 is that public opinion has gained considerable political weight, and that social media is now an important tool of pressure.

As a proof, he mentions #DanielGate, the case of a Spanish paedophile pardoned by the king in July 2013 which roused popular indignation. Thanks to calls on the internet, demonstrations were organised throughout the country against the royal decision – an unprecedented step.

The government responded to the protests by force, injuring several people, but the monarchy later recanted by dropping the pardon of Daniel Galvan, mentioning that the pardon was a terrible mistake.

For Terass, M20F has “revitalised the political debate in Morocco and snatched the right to protest and appropriate the public space”. Bennamate agrees, declaring that “it is now easier to demonstrate, criticise and contest. People are persevering in their mobilisations and get what they want.”

Indeed, even though M20F does not exist anymore, sectorial demands have multiplied. For instance, the beginning of 2016 has been marked by the mobilisation of teacher-interns against decrees that change their conditions of access to the profession in the public sector, and of unemployed nurses who demand new jobs.

The state, however, responded to the demonstration by the teacher-interns on 7 January with the use of force.

Fragile gains

Fares, involved in non-for-profit organisations in his neighbourhood in Sale, near the capital city, in 2009 joined the Alternative Movement for Individual Liberties (MALI), a precursor to the Facebook mobilisations in Morocco.

Five years after the demonstrations of 2011, he is pleased with the progresses created by the movement, although he also admits it has numerous weaknesses, including a lack of organisation or political vision. He remains convinced that civil society must be more prepared, and now works in the field of NGO capacity-building.

“We obtained the officialisation of the Amazigh [or Berber] language [in the new constitution] and the liberation of political prisoners [pardoned by the king in April 2011] that we were asking for. Those were symbolic victories, but we did not get the democracy that we wanted,” said Bennamate.

Hachlaf said: “The 20 February was an elitist movement which failed to get popular support. I later understood that we lacked creativity in our discourse.” He regrets the withdrawal of the Moroccan left, which in his opinion prevented any disruption in the balance of power between the two main parties: the centre-left Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM) and the PJD, which still rules the country.

As for Terass, she insists on the urgency of campaigning for issues that were not present enough in 2011, such as gender equality and climate change.

“I consider that our claims have not all been taken into account. While we were demanding social justice, we see on the contrary privatisations and the deterioration of the public service,” she said.

While the gains of the M20F, in particular a wider political opening and participation, are palpable, they remain fragile in a state where activists’ room for manoeuvre is left to the discretion of the authorities.

Sarah Larik is a freelance journalist. Based in Rabat, she covers Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia for several French and North African media.