As the din of revolution overwhelmed the Arab streets and thousands of defiant young Arabs, whose visceral anger like scalding lava has been bubbling just below the surface for years and now suddenly bursts into violent demonstrations over their governments’ inability to provide the basic necessities of life forcing Tunisia’s Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali to abscond, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak into an isolated corner, and other Arab autocrats to concede political and economic reforms in a preemptive maneuver to placate popular wrath, shout with steely voices their demands, the Moroccan people seem to be living in a nirvana.
The trigger for the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions was at first a primitive response to hunger and poverty; it’s only later that they morphed into high-minded aspirations. Last February, I wrote in “A Schizophrenic Morocco” that:
when a country is fraying under the strain of economic overstretch and political uncertainty, a ruler will guaranty the compliance of his constituents if his administrative governance provides them with security from criminal activity that threatens their physical and emotional well-being, utility services – water, electricity, and sanitation, and subsistence means – employment, food rations, medical. Nothing more is needed.
The Moroccan government, much like the rest of the Arab despotic regimes, subtly announced that, despite the prices of world food soaring to the highest level since record-keeping began in 1990, it will boost salaries and increase subsidies to shield a population blighted by poverty and unemployment from the global food production crisis, the second in the past three years. Considering the drought Russia has experienced, the devastating floods that have befallen Australia, the dry weather that has settled in Brazil, the demand increase from China, and the ruthlessness of commodities speculators, economists expect the situation to worsen for countries whose import of grains is substantial. The price of wheat has doubled since summer. Morocco is its tenth largest importer in the world. According to the High Planning Commission, cereal harvest fell by 27 percent last year and is expected to fall by an additional 6.2 percent this year taxing subsidies further. The Moroccan economy is not strong enough to sustain subsidies for an extended period of time. Even if it undertakes serious reforms now, it will be years before improvements could be palpable at street level. Ultimately, the moment of reckoning will arrive; panacea and fervent patriotism will not suffice to divert people’s attention and people will take to the streets like they did in 1981 and 1984.
In June of 1981, Hassan II, abiding by the diktat of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, spiked the prices of flour, sugar, and oil. The Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USPF), an opposition party then, and the Workers’ Democratic Confederation (CDT) called for a massive strike. Demonstrations paralyzed the country. The government of Driss Basri deployed the army to suppress the uprising. The military intervention was fierce and hundreds of Moroccans were killed and buried in communal graves. Basri referred to those as the “martyrs of the loaf.” Thousands were disappeared and tortured. In January, 1984, another popular uprising erupted in the Rifain city of Nador, a city where the economic situation was gravely depressed. The city’s students protested the Ministry of Education’s newly implemented fees of 50 dirhams (approximately $5) to take the Baccalaureate and 100 dirhams (approximately $10) to accede to college. Initially, the demonstrators restricted themselves to high schools and universities. The government, faithful to its peremptory SOP, sent in the military and security forces promptly pushed the students out to the streets. Dissent spread like brush fire throughout the city. Soon, the students were joined by lower and middle class citizens. Soldiers used live fire to control the crowd.
There is much to applaud since Mohammed VI took over. The mere formulation of his intention to enact an assortment of governmental reforms and social programs and strengthen the rule of law and freedom of the press was enough to, at least partially, dissolve the paralyzing hold decades of political austerity had on the Moroccan psyche. The independent media, human rights advocacy groups, civic action groups, and private citizens acquired a growing appetite for freedom. The hope the ascending young king generated spawned a young Moroccan generation that aspired to a prosperous future. Today, a large segment of the population sees the king, who is not affiliated with any political party, as a tribune to the downtrodden. Some social reforms were executed and yielded moderate success.
It has been eleven years now. People are starting to feel that Hassan II’s oppressive methods were not eradicated; they took on a new form. The vision marketed to the layman is constantly stymied by an entrenched oligarchy and fails to translate into reality. There are a handful of men who, through patrilineal succession, sit on tremendous wealth and political authority. They monopolize Morocco’s economic sectors – banking, real-estate, tourism, agriculture and fisheries, mining, telecommunication – and the political parties. They control foreign investment in the country. They co-opt opposition figures who can mobilize the masses by giving those positions of political power. Their authority is above judicial authority; they are immune to accountability; they live in exurbs far removed from the reality of the common Moroccans. They gear up their progeny to take over and carry on the subjugation of the Moroccan people; Morocco’s future ministers and business magnates are in Institut Amadeus.
Some observers contend that the king, a sacrosanct and unifying foundation of the country, and Morocco’s rich families formed an hobbesian political alliance and a business conglomerate. Bona fide political and economic reforms would be erosive to their authority and prohibitive to their business dealings. They try to convince the society and possibly the international community that without them, Morocco would succumb to chaos, bellum omnium contra omnes. That’s why Moroccans now have a partisan, elitist, and nepotistic government, a stage-managed democracy, and risible parliamentary debates.
Aside from the occasional ministerial reshuffle, few reforms announcements were followed by action. The refashioning of the expedient Moroccan political mindset, so inauspicious to a credible democracy, into a meritocratic and progrssionist disposition that would advance the nation toward a viable government – society synthesis has bogged down. The absence of a clear strategy has discombobulated the nation and thrown the government into a disconcerting advance and then regress trend. While the government endorses free speech, it subverts the independent media with crippling fines and retaliates against outspoken journalists, editors, and activists by dragging them through an onerous legal process officiated by doctrinaire judges on trumped up penal charges; While politicians crow about the supreme application of the rule of law, they routinely conspire to sabotage investigations and court proceedings involving them and their families; somehow, witnesses, plaintiffs, legal files are conjured away. They engage in enrichment schemes in a supposedly open marked opportune only to crony capitalism. No one with authority investigates, but people know.
There is enough here for the Palace to pause and ponder the deleterious effects the people’s lack of trust in the government could have on a nation willing to be led by example. Either the example of supine government officials or that of Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, and Yemen. The question now is: how much longer will the elites of Morocco keep the safety latch on the hunger trigger?
A. T. B. © 2011