The Middle East Channel

Morocco’s resilient protest movement

On February 20, 2011, Moroccan youth activists, inspired by protesters in Tunisia and Egypt, staged major demonstrations for democratic reform and "freedom and dignity for all Moroccans." Avoiding the indecision and dramatic scenes of repression seen in other Arab capitals, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI responded rapidly with a televised address that acknowledged the protesters’ grievances ...


On February 20, 2011, Moroccan youth activists, inspired by protesters in Tunisia and Egypt, staged major demonstrations for democratic reform and "freedom and dignity for all Moroccans." Avoiding the indecision and dramatic scenes of repression seen in other Arab capitals, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI responded rapidly with a televised address that acknowledged the protesters’ grievances and promised major constitutional reforms, including a stronger parliament, free and fair elections, and the protection of human rights. Following a national referendum on the king’s constitutional amendments and watershed elections that brought new leadership to power, what has the February 20th movement accomplished? Who has benefited from the protest movement? One year on, who are the winners and losers?

For the past six months, I have conducted interviews with the activists, supporters, and opponents of Rabat’s February 20th movement, who have continued to stage peaceful marches, but not with the same numbers they had in the first half of 2011. Movement activists state frankly that they are not currently winning the political battle. They note that the new constitution, passed by referendum on July 1, 2011, did little to curtail the king’s powers or enshrine a genuine parliamentary monarchy. "We have not achieved any of our objectives," said one young woman. "In fact, things have gotten worse, not better." Although several thousand took to the streets across Morocco this past weekend to commemorate the movement’s anniversary, the movement appears to be foundering.

In our discussions, activists have critically evaluated their own tactics and pointed out mistakes. While such soul-searching can be beneficial to an organization, the main obstacles to the February 20th’s success are, in fact, largely external. The constitutional reforms and parliamentary elections that followed undercut the movement, as many Moroccans decided to give the reforms a chance and see what the new government would do. "To be honest, only the core militants are left," said one activist in Rabat. "The masses are no longer engaged." 

Two factors made a wait-and-see approach preferable to continuing protest. First, a strategy of targeted repression raised the costs of protests and reduced the number of willing participants. The Moroccan regime has not responded to protests with the kind of brutal repression used in Bahrain, Syria, or Libya. It has avoided the direct confrontation between riot police and protesters that can produce an action-reaction cycle of mobilization. But the regime has followed and harassed movement participants, arrested activists who have criticized the monarchy on Facebook and YouTube, and forcibly prevented protesters from gathering in public spaces.

Second, as 2011 went on, the lessons Moroccans drew from the Arab Spring changed. The overthrow of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia played a crucial role in inspiring the February 20th movement. But war in Libya, instability in Syria, and continued military rule in Egypt altered the calculus. One youth, a former participant in the movement, said, "Who is to say that Morocco would be like Tunisia, a country that is wealthier and better educated? In all likelihood, we’d end up like Syria…I no longer hope for revolution in Morocco." Instead of encouraging protest, regional events pointed to the dangers of mass action. Moroccans increasingly began to fear instability as they looked across the Arab world in late 2011.

With the February 20th movement struggling and unhappy with the pace and depth of reforms, many see the Party of Justice and Development (PJD) as the principal beneficiary of Morocco’s Arab Spring. The nominally Islamist party won an unprecedented number of seats in November’s parliamentary elections, running on an anti-corruption and good governance platform it copied wholesale from the agenda of the February 20th movement. The PJD’s electoral victory, widely taken as further evidence of the success of political Islam across the region, was largely a vote for change. In an environment in which politicians are typically reviled as opportunistic and co-opted, perhaps the PJD, who had never governed before, would succeed where other parties had failed.

Yet we’ve been here before. In 1998, the Socialist Movement of Popular Forces (USFP) won parliamentary elections in what was considered a historic departure from the past. For the first time, there was alternation in power in Morocco. The 1998 election was heralded as an important first step toward democracy and hopes were high. But within a few years, the USFP was widely viewed as co-opted by the regime and voters had sunk back into apathy, indifference, and cynicism.

There are good reasons to expect that the PJD may meet a similar fate. It faces enormous pressure: to crackdown on corruption, to create new jobs, and to reduce the cost of living. The unemployed continue to march in large numbers, and riots over electricity and water prices have recently erupted. Though people hope the PJD will be able to address Morocco’s problems, they lack the institutional power of a true parliamentary government. As one activist put it, "Even if they have the best intentions, they have to operate within the existing system, and that system limits their ability to act." Morocco’s party system is highly fragmented, with over 30 parties running in the most recent election. The PJD rules in a coalition that spans the ideological spectrum. In addition, the palace retains its prerogatives, which include approving the prime minister’s choice for key ministerial posts. In past years, the king has adroitly taken the credit for any positive developments in Morocco, while the parliament’s role has been to shoulder the blame for ongoing problems.

Expectations of the PJD are, nevertheless, high. Its victory is again being termed an important first step toward democracy. One February 20th activists bemoaned, "We are always taking the first step. We have been taking the first step toward democracy since 1962 [when the first constitution was issued]. The problem is that we never take the second step." The PJD is unlikely to take that second step; it is avowedly pro-monarchist and nationalist, and has yet to show that it is any different from its predecessors.

The PJD may have accepted a short-term victory at the cost of a long-term gain. Indeed, rather than seeing the PJD as the victor of the past year of contestation, time may show that they failed to seize an important opportunity. Members of the PJD marched with the protesters on February 20, 2011, but dropped out after the king announced reform. If the PJD had instead made common cause with the February 20th movement, they might have achieved a more secure victory. With the PJD’s support for reform, the monarchy might have been forced to cede more power in the new constitution. This would have given the PJD more institutional power. A genuine parliamentary monarchy stood to benefit the PJD. Instead, the PJD opted to govern under institutional rules that differ little from the rules under which their predecessors failed.

It is the monarchy and associated elites who appear to have come out on top, not the PJD or the February 20th movement. In June, when the king announced the referendum on the new constitution, he not only asked Moroccans to turn out to vote, he also told them how to vote. Invoking his own role as a sacred leader, he asked Moroccans to vote "yes." In so doing, the referendum became a plebiscite on the king himself, not an evaluation of the amendments to the constitution. Ninety-eight percent voted yes, in an outward show of loyalty and support for the person of the king. While most Moroccans distrust politicians and are skeptical about what mass action can achieve, they continue to believe that the king is the only figure who can truly be trusted to steer the county and ward off instability.

Yet even the monarchy may not prove to be the real victor of 2011. The February 20th movement opened the door to genuine contentious action. Though activists admit they have not achieved their larger objectives, they note that their demonstrations have shown young Moroccans the power of protest. That the king jumped so quickly to respond to the initial protests demonstrated that the movement was able "to make the throne tremble," as one activist put it. And while the monarchy has a firm grip on the country now, the underlying conditions that prompted the demonstrations of the past year remain: a growing youth population, high unemployment, endemic corruption, and one of the largest gaps between rich and poor in the Arab world. If the monarchy and the government fail to address these problems, another spark could set off renewed protests that might not be so favorable to the monarchy. This Sunday, protesters in Rabat began to tentatively suggest that if the king cannot help to fix the problems, he may be part of the problem. That message is not one that most Moroccans will currently embrace. But in a future protest cycle, it may yet become resonant.

Adria Lawrence is an assistant professor of political science at Yale University.