Political instability in Morocco: Are the Days of Monarchy Numbered?

Current protests in Morocco pose yet another threat to King Muhammad VI. Death of fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri has sparked wide protests in the neglected region of Rif and beyond. Can the monarch survive the turmoil?

In October 2016 the northern region of Rif in Morocco experienced event reminiscent of the self immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, which sparked the Arab spring protests across the MENA region in 2011. Young fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri was caught by the Moroccan state authorities with several boxes of swordfish he had bought earlier at the port. Taking into account that the fishing of swordfish was prohibited at that time of year, authorities, according to several witnesses, demanded to pay a bribe, which Fikri refused. They then tossed the highly valuable merchandise in the garbage truck, which Fikri tried to retrieve. However he was crushed after, according to local witnesses, police officers urged the trash compactor to be activated.

Fikri’s death sent shockwaves over the city of Al-Hoceima, where he was living his whole life, and over other cities in the region of Rif. Protests soon sprang up, which demanded the end of “Hogra” (the Maghreb term referring to official abuse and injustice) and the punishment for the officials responsible. More importantly, protests also spread outside the Rif and reached such important Moroccan centres as Casablanca and Rabat, where hundreds gathered chanting “Mouhcine was murdered, Makhzen (term used to describe Moroccan “deep state”) is to blame”.

The situation became even worse on May 29 2017, when authorities arrested the leader of the “Hirak” movement – Nasser Zefzafi. The blow to “Hirak”, which basically is a grasroots movement developed to coordinate protests in Rif, was met with a hostility by the Moroccan people. The protests of solidarity were launched not only in Al-Hoceima, Casablanca and Rabat, but also in Marrakesh, Tangiers, Fes, Khouribga, Nador and Beni.

Why are Moroccans protesting?

The latest chapter in the history of uprisings in Morocco can be termed as a challenge to the post-Arab spring social contract, which was established amidst the protests of 2011. Fearing the loss of his power and the collapse of the established political order, King Muhammad VI agreed to cosmetic reforms – delegation of more powers to parliament and inclusion of basic human rights in the newly drafted constitution. However, the pressing economic problems of Morocco – lack of employment (especially for youth), massive corruption and the deficit of freedom largely remained unadressed and continued to plague the lives of ordinary Moroccans. People were dissatisfied and angry, but nobody dared to protest so soon after the initial turmoil in 2011. The October events in Rif, however, proved to be an important turning point.

The militarised and extremely economically neglected region has always been the place of significant grudge against the central government in Rabat and from 1921 to 1926 existed as an independent political entity – The Republic of Rif. Very bad infrastructure and connections to the rest of Morocco, lack of vital healthcare and education opportunities and stagerring levels of unemployment caused Rif and especially the city of Al-Hoceima to become the first place to challenge the existing status – quo and then become a beacon of inspiration for the people of Morocco to rally around. The calls of the Hirak movement for the government to adress existing social injustices, rampant corruption, poor governance and outright appropriation of  the nation’s resources has proved to have a strong resounding in the society of Morocco. It has allowed “Hirak” to play the role similar to the February 20 movement in 2011, despite its Berber origins and coming from the region, which is historically famous for its desire to secede from Morocco.

The protests which in the October 2016 were still ignored by the government have now grown into a force to be reckoned with. What does the future hold for King Muhammad VI?

Can the Moroccan monarchy survive?

Although the current protests in Morocco are the largest since the Arab spring ones in 2011, it should be taken into account that the activity is significantly lower than it used to be six years ago. The centre of the uprising still remains the region of Rif and the rest of Morocco has failed to deliver the amount of protesters on the same level. This is the main reason why the positions of King Muhammad for now remains relatively stable.

In addition, there are several factors which greatly enhance his chances of political survival. Firstly, the majority of Moroccans are afraid of the so called “Fitna”  or civil war. They have strong examples in the form of Libya, Syria, Yemen and Sudan as to what happens to countries wishing to overthrow the ruling regimes. The possibility of chaos and violence is a strong deterent against any desire to get rid of the king.

Secondly, the king is still very popular among the majority of people and, as was evidenced in the political campaign of February 20 movement, Moroccans are more easily mobilised behind the idea of a constitutional monarchy, rather than parliamentary or presidential democracy. Additionally, the existence of the elected government provides Muhammad VI with an excellent scapegoat to weather yet another storm. He has masterfully managed to distance himself from the ongoing protests and has allowed the government to take the greatest share of blame when addressing the unrest in Rif and other Moroccan cities. For example, the government was the one which initially executed the plan most likely made by the king of labelling protesters in Rif as seperatists and recepients of foreign aid. When the accusations were later retracted, the government was made to look bad without any damage to the king himself.

Muhammad VI has even managed to show himself in a rather positive image. For example, he was the first to call for thorough investigation in the murder of Mouhcine Fikri and sent the interior minister to offer condolences to the family. He also publicly sent a delegation of ministers to Al-Hoceima to review the slow pace of development projects in the city and promised billions of Moroccan dirhams to boost the local economy and build infrastructure. It is important to note that the rather localised nature of protests means that they are still relatively easy to contain and if the king plays his cards right and manages to implement the necessary social and economic reforms in the region of Rif, the uprising might lose its core and eventually wind down.

Finally, if despite everything, protests continue to grow and people start demanding the fall of monarchy, it is always possible to resort to violence and crack down. Analyst Sarah Yerkes rightly notes that Morocco has always tolerated regular protests as a pressure–release mechanism and thus been reluctant to use force. This is also evident within the current situation, as the police have mostly allowed people to gather and clashes have not been frequent. However, it doesn’t mean that this approach could not be reversed should the need arise. This is especially so because the king has built a wide range of patronage networks with the economic elite of the country (particularly within the phosphate industry), which would be supportive of the usage of stronger measures should their privileges be directly threatened.

Only time will tell how the current chapter in the history of uprisings in Morocco will play out. However, it is already clear that the post-Arab spring social contract has run its course. In order to keep power in the long term, Muhammad VI will have to address deeper socio-economic problems plaguing the whole country, which can’t be solved by the somewhat cosmetic reforms currently in place. The solution to the problems of Morocco might require the change to the very foundations of the existing patronage networks – the bullet which might be very hard to bite.


Toms Rātfelders

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