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And now, Morocco

The revolutionary ignition of the Arab world initiated by the Tunisian revolution and fueled further by the extraordinary Egyptian revolution is a fact, as much as a sceptic like me would like to tone down the enthusiasm. Forget the diversions around the role of social media or the shameless fear-mongering about the role played – or not – by islamist movements, whether it be Ennahda in Tunisia or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. These are mere side attractions. The main factor at play here is psychological – the sudden recognition among the people that they can actually change their situation. Previous protests in Morocco since 1999 have been marginal, save the popular marches in 2000 for – and against – the reform of family law on March 12, 2000 (I’ll leave aside the very substantial popular protests against the Israeli 2002 offensive in Palestine and the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, which drew millions of protesters across Morocco). The 2000 pro- and anti-Moudawana reform protests were however limited in scope and did not touch the overall political situation or equilibrium.

Since then, Morocco has sometimes experienced very localised popular protests – Sefrou in 2007, Sidi Ifni in 2008 and Laayoune last November spring to mind. These protests, although prompted by universal ills (unemployment, lack of housing, protests against abuse of power), have all been geographically limited – manifestations of solidarity mainly took place on the cyberspace, save for the usual AMDH solidarity protests in front on the Parliament building in Rabat.

What is moving the protesters? Well, it’s not as though Moroccans lack cause for protests against their ruler(s). While the UNDP’s human development index has improved slightly (Morocco ranks a lowly 114th, up though from 124th in 2005) , Morocco’s achievements are still abysmal. On the political front, the initial moves towards deepening liberalisation taken under King Mohammed VI’s first few years on the throne have now long stalled, and the régime is in full reverse gear. The Palace’s smothering control of the political and parliamentarian scene has made partisan politics irrelevant, while the cronyism of close associates to the King (Fouad Ali el Himma, de facto leader of  upwardly mobile Parti authenticité et modernité (PAM) a.k.a. "the King’s shadow", or Mounir Majidi, in charge of the Palace’s ever increasing economic and financial interests) fuels cynicism, disillusion and anger. The absolute fraud that is Morocco’s judiciary merely compounds the twin problems of corruption and repression that have beset Morocco since independence.

Reading the little that’s left of independent media, plus the much freer social networks and blogosphere, disillusion seems to have spread, trickling down into foreign media reports and marring the undeservedly positive image initially created around King Mohammed VI. While this disillusion is definitely a minority taste in Morocco today, the revolutionary wildfire that has spread has put at the forefront an issue most people would have thought reserved to the ravings and musings of bloggers and human rights activists: constitutional reform.

Morocco’s successive constitutions have invariably been granted – "constitution concédée" as they say in French – by the King, with no input from elected representatives of the people. The low legal quality of Morocco’s Constitution, in substantial terms, is worsened by the very little respect paid to it by the executive and the judiciary. Except for article 19, which sets out the King’s special standing as "Amir al muminin" ("Commander of the Faithful"), the rest of this shoddy constitutional text is of no or little import to Morocco’s political or legal life. Among the protesters’ claim is therefore a demand that an assembly be elected to draft a new Constitution, to be then adopted – or not – by referendum. The last time this demand was at the forefront was prior to the widely decried 1962 constitutional referendum – radical constitutional reform, with severe curtailment of executive (and royal) power and strong guarantees for civil liberties and judicial independence.

The stagnation affecting domestic politics is rendered more difficult by the stark slide in Morocco’s international standing: while Morocco is now entirely absent from the Arab and Middle Eastern scene, the Sahara dispute is still ongoing, with no final issue at hand. The official chatter surrounding Morocco’s autonomy plan has remained just talk, with no concrete steps being taken to move decisively on a final settlement allowing for this territory to be internationally recognised as part of Morocco while being granted the widest autonomy – and the Gdim Izik (Laayoune) riots last November should really be seen as a last warning shot.

And I haven’t even mentioned the economic situation, with ever-growing trade unbalance, unemployment, and tepid growth (Egypt has had higher growth the last few years than Morocco)…

But none of this is really new – so why all the fuss over the planned February 20 protests? Simply because it has now dawned on Arab peoples that they no longer have to consider dictatorship as a fact of life. There is no reason why this spreading realisation would not reach Morocco – and the fact that trade-unions, islamists, leftists, facebookers, bloggers and even a royal prince have expressed support for the protests speaks volume, and is a substantial departure from earlier protests, either of a local or a partisan nature. There’s a substantial difference though – contrary to Tunisia and Egypt, and maybe Libya, there is simply no discernable popular traction for a régime change implying an overthrow of the monarchy or of the King – the only public supporters of republicanism in Morocco I have heard of are leftist Abdellah Zaazaa and islamist Nadia Yassine, none of whom have actually tried to act on their ideas. The objectives of the February 20 protestsaren’t timid though: democracy and democratic institutions are the aim, whether the head of state be called king or president, something to which I am personally indifferent (I’ve found last year’s republican trend among Swedish talking and writing classes - contemporaneous with Princess Victoria’s wedding - to be an impressive exercise in collective futility and sterile posturing).

I therefore personally support this day of protest, which I hope will mark a decisive stage in the democratisation of Morocco: this is our country, the rulers only rule because we let them – never ever let them forget that.

For updates on the February 20 protests, look here:

- Issandr el Amrani has clever posts on the protests, here and here;

- The Guardian’s Giles Tremlett: "Morocco protests will test regime’s claims to liberalism";

- The official February 20 Facebook group;

- On Twitter, follow @mamfakinch and @Hisham_G 

- An independent Moroccan newsportal is devoted to the event – Mamfakinch (also on Facebook)

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