Morocco’s ‘democracy’ back in the spotlight as Jasmine Spring resurges

21st June 2019 By: Martin Zhuwakinyu - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

As protesters desert Khartoum after Sudanese security forces attack a civilian protest camp, killing several, and as military attitudes in Algeria harden ahead of elections on July 4, a resurgent Arab Spring has put Morocco’s political reforms back in the spotlight.

In Morocco, the original Jasmine Spring demonstrations of 2011 spread from Rabat, Casablanca and Marrakech to a further nine Moroccan cities and were a sufficient catalyst for substantive political reforms. As in Algeria and Sudan, the demonstrators were young and urban, and organised themselves over social media. Unlike Algeria’s and Sudan’s, however, Morocco’s protests focused on unemployment, gender inequality, widespread corruption, incompetent Ministers and royal advisers and police brutality. The monarchy largely escaped – the demonstrators were not calling for the removal of the king from power.

This allowed the monarch, Mohammed VI, to step in to take charge of reform. He promised free and fair elections, an independent judiciary, to increase the Prime Minister’s powers and that the Prime Minister would be appointed from the party that wins the most seats in an election. A new Constitution was duly implemented that moved the country from an absolute monarchy with a Parliament towards a Parliamentary monarchy, where elected officials and the king have a more equal balance of power.

Nevertheless, the king retained extraordinary powers: he controls the armed forces and foreign policy, and presides over the council of the judiciary. At the time, analysts and academics were cautiously positive about the change, and emphasised that change is incremental, not revolutionary. At the same time, the 20 February Movement complaints gave the king an economic, social and political reform programme to implement.

The king and his government embarked on an ambitious programme to boost economic growth to absorb youth unemployment and encourage foreign direct investment (FDI). Progress has been patchy and growth today is slowing from a feeble 3% estimated in 2018 to an anticipated 2.9% in 2019. A newly appointed Finance Minister seems to be determined to reverse a fall in FDI and reduce the fiscal deficit with the privatisation of State-owned enterprises, including the State’s 30% stake in Maroc Telecom and its stake in the luxury La Mamounia Hotel, in Marrakech. Private-sector reforms – making sure government pays its bills on time, a new competition law, gradual exchange rate liberalisation and an anticorruption strategy – have won International Monetary Fund praise. The World Bank’s ‘Doing Business’ ranking of Morocco has improved: it now ranks 60 out of 190 globally and ranks just behind Mauritius and Rwanda. Other projects have not won quite so much praise, with critics lambasting the Liaison à Grande Vitesse, a high-speed train that has halved travel time between Tangier and Casablanca.

Reform to date has been insufficient to dent stubbornly high youth unemployment or reverse the popular crisis of confidence in political life and the loss of faith in government institutions.

There is evidence, too, that the king has started to overreach his new constitutional authority. The new Constitution says the king appoints a Prime Minister from the majority party in Parliament, in this case, the Parti de la Justice et du Développement (PDJ). However, after northern HirakEl-Rif protests of 2017 spread to Rabat and other cities and again shook the establishment, the king sacked charismatic PDJ Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane, replacing him with the more pliant leader of the PDJ’s junior coalition partner, Saad Eddine el Othmani.

Mohammed VI also met protestors and heard their grievances but then used the heavy arm of the security State to arrest and imprison the protest leaders. In April, the Casablanca Court of Appeals upheld a decision to impose 20-year sentences against 43 people involved. The court judgment sparked an immediate response and thousands marched in Rabat on April 28, demanding the release of the activists, including the Hirak El-Rif leader, Nasser Zefzafi, and journalistHamid El Mahdaoui. Amnesty International condemned the Casablanca decision and, on April 29, called on the judiciary to investigate “flaws that have been raised and conduct an independent and impartial review of the allegations of torture and other violations of the right to a fair trial”.

Meanwhile, another case is the ongoing trial of Abdelali Hamieddine, one of the best-known PDJ leaders. Hamieddine is facing a second trial for an offence for which locals say he has already been tried and found guilty – his involvement in the February 1993 homicide of a student. Supporters claim that his legal troubles started again in July 2018, when he publicly declared that “the monarchy is an obstacle to the development of the country”.

Adding to the malaise is the performance of formal political parties: these are weak and fracturing further into ‘clan groups’, raising fears among the political class that they will face a drubbing at the polls in October 2020. Civil society complains that Tous les partis politiques se valent – a euphemism for “political parties are equally bad value”, with little to offer. Public manifestations of discontent this year have been disparate and diffuse. The protests in Rif in the north have resumed sporadically, contract teachers protested for two months against their contracts, and there is an intermittent student-doctor and doctor strike. There is evidence, too, that the protests are becoming more sophisticated and taking different forms. In 2017, an anonymous social media post led to damaging consumer boycotts of a few targeted politically linked or foreign companies, including France’s Danone. Danone reduced its local prices and the Morocco boycott had a reportable impact on its quarterly earnings.

Both ruling and opposition parties have, in recent months, called for a renewed national debate or dialogue to “continue the reform trajectory” started 2011 but also to prevent what one analyst called an “electoral catastrophe” in general elections in 2020. The parties are looking to a revision of the electoral law, including political structures and constituencies and most controversially – to further restrict the king’s powers.