The Middle East Channel

Showdown in Morocco

Showdown in Morocco

The makhzen refers to an ancient institution in Morocco — the extended power apparatus close to the Moroccan monarchy, made up of a network of power and privilege. It allows the King to act as an absolute monarch and the de facto head of the executive. Beneath the give and take of everyday politics, the makhzen has always been the ultimate guarantor of the status quo.   For three months, the pro-democracy youth movement, known as "February 20," has been advocating against that status quo. Protests have not been targeting the monarchy directly, but instead have been urging for reform that would yield a system in which the King reigns but does not rule.

What started as a small group on Facebook earlier this year, has since grown into a nationwide movement made up of a loose coalition of leftists, liberals and members of the conservative Islamist right. Inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings and powered by new media, the movement convinced hundreds of thousands to take to the streets. The demonstrations held week in, week out, were remarkably peaceful. In response, King Mohammed VI promised a package of constitutional reforms to be submitted to a referendum in June. But as protesters, unconvinced by the King’s promise, vow to keep up pressure on the regime, authorities seem increasingly impatient and determined to break up protests violently, paving the way toward escalation and confrontation with the street. The middle class is joining the mass of demonstrators, moving the protests beyond the core of mobilized youth. Their target is the makhzen — which has become a code word for the monarchy’s abuses of power and monopoly over large sectors of the economy.

Protests are not new in Morocco. During the Cold War years, leftists who dared to stand up and denounce the regime’s abuses of power saw the wrath of the makhzen befall them. Those who were lucky enough not to have disappeared suffered the worst abuses, or were thrown into secret prisons in the middle of the desert. But in the age of Internet and new information technologies, the regime knows well that its actions are closely watched and that the indiscriminate repression of the "Years of Lead" (a name commonly used in Morocco to refer to the dark era of repression under late King Hassan II) are virtually impossible to hide from the public eye. This partly explains the inconsistency of its handling of the tension in the street.

From the start, the protest movement indentified key areas where reform is much needed: poverty, corruption, injustice and the control of political and economic life by the monarch’s close entourage and some privileged families accused of misuse of public funds. The regime’s response was tempered and conciliatory at first. In an attempt to quell popular anger, King Mohammed VI gave a speech on March 9 in which he announced the appointment of a committee to revise the Moroccan Constitution, pledging to relinquish parts of his prerogatives, while setting the outlines of permissible change. The status of the monarchy was to remain untouched, while the King was to supervise the reform process.

The proposed reform plan did not convince everyone and many decided to continue their protests. Skeptical youth doubted that the process initiated by the King was compatible with fundamental popular demands, such as the drafting of a whole new constitution by an elected assembly. Protesters have also been calling for the dissolution of the parliament, the dismissal of the current government, the release of all political prisoners, the clear separation of powers and the trial of officials involved in cases of torture and corruption. Amid continuing street protests, the palace offered a series of reforms, including the release of 190 political prisoners, mainly Islamist and human rights activists.

But then on April 28 a terrorist bomb attack hit a popular restaurant in the heart of Marrakech, killing 17 people. The country was plunged into a state of shock. Beyond the unanimous condemnation, the timing of the attack raised many questions. The fear of a security clampdown and a freeze of liberties were the main concerns of pro-democracy advocates. Their fear is justified. The makhzen has traditionally actively sought to nurture an image of stability — an exception to the turmoil in the Arab world. That strategy has worked for a time for the regime: Morocco is routinely praised by western officials as an ally of the West in a rather hostile region. The country holds an advanced status with the European Union; it has signed a free trade agreement with the U.S.; it is actively cooperating with the Americans in their global "War on Terror," and it enjoys the status of a Major Non-NATO Ally. The specter of terrorism has long been a useful card for gaining external support.

Police violence in recent days has escalated. On May 15, peaceful demonstrators who wanted to protest in front of an alleged secret detention center in Temara (dubbed Guan-Temara by protesters) near the capital Rabat faced repression. A week later, anti-riot police systematically and violently disrupted peaceful gatherings in public squares. This may be the sign that the regime is shifting its attitude toward the street and taking a much more hardline stance. As with other Arab regimes, the makhzen faces a dilemma: if it clamps down hard on peaceful protesters, it risks loosing its reputation as a model of democratic reform in a region often perceived in the West as averse to the liberal ideals of democracy. If it loosens up, then it will have to face the challenge to its own existence posed by a determined and organized street.

The "February 20" youth movement is vowing to keep up street pressure, rejecting the King’s offer of token reform. If the regime insists on denying the people their rights of assembly and free expression, then the country will be heading toward the unknown. Against the backdrop of the Arab revolutions, change looks inevitable. It is still in the power of the monarchy to ensure a peaceful transition and at the same time ensure its own survival. The more the makhzen drags its feet, the more it runs the risk of undermining the stability of the country and, at the end of the day, its own existence.

Hisham al-Miraat is the co-founder of Talk Morocco and a contributing author for Global Voices.