Across the Middle East and North Africa, every regime that has come under pressure has offered one explanation or another for why the protesters' demands are illegitimate. Egypt's and Libya's governments blamed the chaos on foreigners with malevolent agendas. Tunisia's blamed Islamists. In Morocco, the government has added the health of the economy to the list of reasons the protesters are out of line. "In the space of a few weeks, [protests could] cost us what we have achieved over the last 10 years," the country's finance minister, Salaheddine Mezouar, warned last month. The implication, it seems, is that Morocco's economy has achieved quite a lot.
If you just looked at the raw data, Mezouar has a point. Since the 1980s, Morocco has become a poster child for economic reforms advocated by the West. Morocco successfully implemented IMF-led structural adjustment programs, intended to privatize bloated state enterprises, boost competitiveness, and attract an influx of foreign investment and economic growth. In a speech broadcast the day after the first demonstrations, King Mohammed VI argued that now was, once again, the time for "revamping the economy, boosting competitiveness, promoting productive investment, and encouraging public involvement." This -- coupled with a package of reforms announced on March 9 that includes constitutional change, a separate judiciary, and the right of the winning party in Parliament to select the prime minister -- is the king's plan to quell protests. Yet the protests didn't stop, and in fact, the most recent demonstrations on March 20 were, by many accounts, the largest yet.
Poster child of economic reform Morocco may be, but there's a growing sense on the streets that that years of neoliberal reforms are precisely the problem. Although those measures have helped the government earn international respect and the trust of investors, the masses may well be worse for it. Morocco can boast that 1.7 million citizens have made it out of poverty over the last decade while economic growth rates have hovered at 3.5 percent annually. But unemployment remains stubbornly high. Official statistics place unemployment close to 10 percent, but some estimates find this closer to 30 percent among youth in urban areas. Figures are almost as high for college graduates. It is these young, economically frustrated youths who have led the protests in Morocco so far -- children of a neoliberal era from which they did not profit.
So perhaps it is no coincidence that, along with organized and largely nonviolent demonstrations, recent weeks have witnessed violent confrontations that threaten the heart of Morocco's economic interests. On Feb. 19 in Tangier, demonstrators attacked the headquarters of a French utilities company, Amendis (a subsidiary of Veolia), which opponents accuse of price gouging and obtaining its contracts with the Moroccan government through corrupt deal-making. Privatized utility costs under Veolia have resulted in significantly higher prices in Tangier than in other cities where water is in the public trust. But this week, Mezouar took the side of the company, announcing that "the responsibility of the Moroccan government is to protect investors."
Other protests have also had economic components. In Marrakech on Feb. 20, rioters attacked a McDonald's. And on March 15, a sit-in by unemployed demonstrators in the phosphate-rich city of Khouribga turned violent, leading to the ransacking of the state-run phosphate corporation. Official accounts of these protests differ widely from those of activists. In Khouribga, for example, the government claimed the demonstrators attacked policemen, while the Moroccan Association for Human Rights argued that protesters were sleeping in their tents early in the morning when police assaulted them with tear gas and beatings.
These demonstrations express a deep and latent frustration against a government and an economic system that is still largely exclusionary, particularly of the poorest in Moroccan society. Six Moroccans have set themselves on fire over the past two months, including a single mother, Fadwa Laroui, who was unable to participate in a development project in which the well-connected had taken land intended for the poor. Despite economic progress, human development issues remain a problem. Morocco's inequality is higher than Egypt's, and at close to 50 percent, its illiteracy rate is among the worst in the region.