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Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Will Morocco Be The Next Domino To Fall? Or The One After That?

This morning many eyes turned nervously towards Jordan, where King Abdullah, reacting to demonstrations blaming government corruption for high food prices and a horrifying standard of living disparity between the rich and poor, fired one tool (Prime Minister Samir Rifai) and replaced him with another (Marouf Bakhit, a military guy). But it is more likely that the next explosion, in the wake of Mubarak's regime collapsing, will be further west along the Mediterranean, Morocco.

I hope I'm not boring everybody with all the talk about Morocco, which, I realize, most Americans haven't been terribly aware of after it became the very first country in the world-- yes, even before France-- to recognize our revolution and our independence from the tyranical British superpower (December, 1777). I first went there is 1969 when I was just a kid and I've been writing about it ever since. I lost count of how many times I've been there after a dozen and I've yet to meet a Moroccan who's been to as many places in Morocco as I have. (I can always pull Sidi Ifni or the Erg Chigaga dunes south of M'hamid out of my hat.) I just spent most of December in Marrakech, where I rented a riad next to King Mohammed VI's palace in the medina. Most of the traffic that comes to thisl blog comes from people on search engines who find the post Is Morocco A Safe Place To Visit?. The short answer to the question about Morocco being safe is YES. But in light of the revolutionary spirit coursing through the Arab world, especially in North Africa, we need to take a look again. Can tranquil, scenic, touristic, ever more cosmopolitan Morocco go the way of Tunisia and Egypt? Short answer is the same: YES!

I didn't want to be rude to the neighbor but, like I wrote, Mohammed VI, when you strip away the 21st Century p.r. veneer, is an authoritarian despot, not all that much different from any king or Emperor or sultan or tsar. In fact, one thing I noticed a lot-- and eventually started questioning people about-- is that many Moroccans sounded exactly like pre-Revolutionary Russians believing in only their Little Tsar knew what evil the terrible men around him were perpetrating against his people! Mohammed calls all the shots in the family business, a business that owns at least a piece of almost everything, from the big hotels to the drug trafficking bonanza that a Wikileaks cable from a U.S. diplomat asserts is the only bigger source of income in the kingdom than the tourist industry. And remember, it was the release of wikileaks cables that opened the flood gates against the dictators in Tunisia and Egypt as well.

Even members of the royal family believe Morocco's monarchy can't go unscathed by what is sweeping the rest of North Africa right now. The King's cousin, Prince Moulay Hicham, 3rd in line to the throne and popularly known as the "Red Prince," because of his criticisms of the monarchy, said "the political liberalisation launched in the 1990s after Mohammed succeeded his authoritarian father Hassan II had virtually come to an end, and reviving it while still avoiding radical pressures would be 'a major challenge'." Everyone is counting on the spiritual bond between THE KING and the people, a bond, they hope, makes him different from a grubby usurper like Ben Ali or Mubarak or Algeria's Abdelaziz Bouteflika. On the other hand, dissident journalist Aboubakr Jamai wrote in France's Nouvel Observateur that "If Morocco goes up, the disparities in wealth are such that the rebellion will be much bloodier than in Tunisia."

Afrol News appears to be as anti-monarchial and "down with tyranny" as we are here. This week, with Egypt exploding, they seemed to try stirring things up a little for Mohammed who, they reported, was off in one of his fabulous palaces... in France, plotting, no double, contingencies in case any radicals decided it was time to follow the example of Tunisia and Egypt and throw off the chains of oppression and kleptocracy.
Discontent is ample in Morocco, the poorest, least developed North African nation, and many are inspired by developments in Egypt. Meanwhile, Morocco's King Mohammed VI rests in his French luxury chalet.

Morocco so far has been spared from larger protesting groups as those in Tunisia and Egypt, much thanks to the King's quick reversal of boosting prices for basic foods. The same move proved a good assurance for authorities in neighboring Algeria.

But discontent is very widespread in Morocco. Despite an economic boom over the last years and some careful reforms ordered by King Mohammed VI-- most prominently regarding gender equality and education-- Morocco remains the poorest country in North Africa, with least employment opportunities and the lowest literacy rate.

The King, claiming to descend from the Prophet Mohammed, has an almost divine role in Morocco. Very few dare to criticise him, even in the mildest form.

Among the Arab majority, loyalty to the King is great, while the government-- appointed by the King-- and age-old ruling "Makhzen" class-- controlling the administration, police, army and much of business-- are the popular focus of hatred. In the streets of Casablanca, it is often said that the King is honest and wants to rule the country well, but the Makhzen is corrupting everything.

Minorities, however, to a wider degree dare to blame the King for their mischief. This includes large parts of the indigenous and disadvantaged Berber people. Estimates of the Berber population wary from 20 to 60 percent of the Moroccan total, with official estimates being the lowest. Unemployment is highest among Berber youths, of which many view the Arab King as a foreign imposer.

...As the tourist market in all North Africa now is crumbling-- many travellers fear Morocco could be next-- the kingdom's greatest growth and employment sector could soon be strongly impacted. A sudden growth in unemployment due to falling tourist arrivals could spark revolt.

Blogging from Fes, Matt Schumann is a Fulbright Scholar and English teacher at the S.M. Ben-Abdellah University, a graduate of Rice University and an incredibly well-informed and very perceptive observer of the Moroccan street, far more so than anyone you're going to ever hear on the utterly clueless CNN or the ideologically sociopathic Fox News. Last week he wrote about being in Morocco and watching the Moroccans watch the developments unfolding in Egypt. His conclusion, though, is that Morocco is immune to the upheavals sweeping the Arab world. I disagree but I want to offer his arguments, since they make a great deal of sense and include important information we'll need to look at when the revolution does, inevitably, come to Morocco.
It's been strange to be in Morocco during all of this. There's no lack of information. When you walk into a cafe, people are watching coverage of Egyptian protesters burning police vehicles or tearing down posters of Hosni Mubarak. But these images and ideas don't seem to be penetrating. A glance through two of the biggest newspapers, As-Sabah and Al-Masa', lead you to believe that the protests are only tangentially relevant to Moroccans. There are no attempts to apply Tunisians' and Egyptians' grievances to a Moroccan context. On Facebook, my students have posted pictures of the Egyptian protesters along with words of support and solidarity, and then proclaim their love for Morocco's King Muhammad VI. How can you identify with the protesters of two revolutions against authoritarian governments and still do that?

Why have the events in Tunisia and Egypt failed to generate the same reaction in Morocco as they have elsewhere in the Arab world?

Reading reports from the past weeks has made it clear to me that life for the average Moroccan is very different than that of a Tunisian or an Egyptian. Yes, Morocco is a poor country with high unemployment. The GDP per capita is significantly lower than Egypt's and nearly half that of Tunisia. Yet, the poverty is not oppressive. Life necessities are cheap in Morocco. People are poor but do not starve. The Moroccan government also tolerates "underground economic activities" which provide money and support for many young, uneducated Moroccans. The most notable of these is the drug trade, which according to WikiLeaks, generates more money than tourism, the largest sector of the Moroccan economy.

A second, key difference, concerns education. As one commentator pointed out, Tunisia is an exception in the Arab world in that it has a large, educated middle class. The middle class' dissatisfaction with the country's economic prospects fueled the protests that eventually led to Ben Ali's downfall. Egyptians, while not nearly as wealthy as Tunisians, are similarly educated. Both countries post literacy rates in the 70s and both protests movements have utilized social (especially Tunisia) and print media (especially Egypt) for organizational purposes. Morocco is a completely different story.

At best, 50% of Moroccans are literate and many well-educated Moroccans are ex-pats living in Europe or North America. While this may seem insignificant, I think it's a huge factor. Moroccans' illiteracy hampers the spread of information in general, and would definitely impede the organization of any type of protest movement. Additionally, the Moroccans who identify the most with Tunisia and Egypt don't live in Morocco. They've already exercised their discontent by leaving the country... [T]here is no credible opposition to the King [inside Morocco].

Morocco is a parliamentary monarchy that has a prime minister, political parties and elections. But in reality, it's something else. Parliament and the lesser bodies of government are where corrupt officials take bribes and appoint their sons- and daughters-in-law to influential posts. This corruption is obvious and derided by the Moroccan people. It's not uncommon for a Moroccan to say that the best way to make money in the country is to get into politics, but that you can only do that if you know the right people.

The King is seen as the only credible member of government despite his overwhelming and unquestionable political powers. And there's good reason for this. Royal initiatives, like infrastructure development and some social reforms, are completed on time and relatively efficiently. In other words, he gets things done when other Moroccan politicians don't. Combine that with the legacy of the Alaouite Dynasty, which has ruled Morocco for nearly four hundred years, and Muhammad VI is seen less as a despot and more as a benevolent and beloved monarch.

Now it's true that the King has the power to end the corruption that plagues parliament, the police and the military. Allowing his political opponents to profit in their subordinate positions decreases their desire for change. Additionally, their corruption draws the ire and attention of the people. So while his policies may leave something to be desired in the eyes of some Moroccans, the alternatives are much much worse.

The commentator who describes Tunisia as an exception in the Middle East may be eating his words in the next few days depending on Egypt's outcome. This doesn't mean Moroccans are happy with the state of affairs in their country. Poverty, unemployment, education, and political freedom are just a few issues that Moroccans feel must be addressed. But for now, the situation does not seem dire.

More than anything, Moroccans love stability. This is why they love the King. They tolerate the political and social status quo because it still meets their needs and because they don't have to worry about what tomorrow will bring. Because of this mindset, I don't think radical change is anything many Moroccans feel is necessary. Speaking to a Moroccan friend he said that while things here are not good, they are getting better. "Maybe five or ten years from now, but not now," he added. As long as this attitude persists, Morocco will stay stable.

Everybody loves stability. But it costs Morocco and awful lot to keep the king-- much more than he's worth, not just in my estimation but in the estimation of more and more people. When Egypt falls and things get ramped up in another country, Mohammed VI is going to be very happy his family's corporation has all the billions of dollars they've stolen from the people of Morocco separate from the state's funds. Like the rest of the kleptocrats, they and their spawn will be living on it for generations-- in other countries.


Ben Meddeb said...

I think Morocco will move IF Algeria moves and is successful installing a democracy.
Egypt has little effect

Brahim Abarkha said...

First let me give a quick backgroud on myself. I grew in Morooco,obtained a bachelor degree in Political Science in 1986, then I moved to the US. I just finished a thesis titled "THe US initiative to spread democracy in the Arab and Muslim world in the post 9/11: A case study of Morocco"
I agree with you on the reasons why the change is not affecting Morocco: a society attached to tradition and stability,high level of litteracy and an oppressive Makhzen. I will add the Sunni version of Islam (like Saudi Arabia) which is reactionnary, treat individual and their life as merely the result of a divine will and the authority as the messenger of God on earth.
I will also add the outside interferences. The Europeans (especially France) have huge economic investments in Morocco, and the royal family has always been their best partner in abusing the natural ressources of the country , including the labor forces.
The US is no exception. The king is a source of stability, in addition he is consided an ally in the "war on the terror".
In my thesis I came to the conclusion that democracy and change is not an export commodity as the former war criminal George W. Bush want us to believe when he invaded Irak, but rather an internal process in which differents layers and components of historical, culural, economical and political nature interfer.

van kaas said...

It is very remarkable to see all those thoughts on the political situation in Morocco without a word about the ceasefire and military oppression in the illegal occupied Western Sahara. How come?