Argument

The Young and the Restless

Morocco's young masses are frustrated with the monarchy's grip over the economy. And new promises of reform haven't been enough to quell a rising current of dissent.

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.

It doesn't take much to scratch below the surface and understand just where the economic grievances lie. While the majority struggle to eke out a living, government leaders, particularly those closest to the king, enjoy close and lucrative ties with businesses. For example, the king's private secretary, Mohamed Mounir Al Majidi, manages SNI, the government's $2 billion investment firm, and has stakes in multiple industries, including the billboard industry for the entire country. SNI itself owns majority shares of the country's largest insurance company, as well as dairy, cooking oil, and sugar manufacturers. A 2009 WikiLeaks cable accuses the king's inner circle of making all significant investment decisions and describes Moroccan corruption as being "much more institutionalized" than under the rule of Hassan II from 1961 to 1999. Although Morocco has made efforts at tackling corruption on a small scale, when accusations have reached the highest echelons of business and government, cases have been quietly dismissed

On March 20, all of this culminated in large protests, which took place in 53 cities and towns across Morocco. Protesters carried signs directly calling out SNI and demanding that Al Majidi be dismissed. The most impressive videos on YouTube highlight the scope of the protests as well as the protesters' chants: "living in the toilets, dying on the boats," conjuring the image of a young man whose national ID card lists his residence as a public toilet and who perishes trying to migrate to Europe by sea. Other banners called for the cancellation of the expensive Mawazine, a popular music festival created by Al Majidi that has brought concerts by Sting and Elton John to the country's capital. 

The March 20 demonstrations were largely peaceful, though smaller protests have occurred throughout the week, but on March 24 striking teachers claimed to have been beaten by police. Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa director, Sarah Leah Whitson, said in a news release that as long as protesters' "efforts sometimes meet with a green light, sometimes with police truncheons, the right of peaceful assembly in Morocco will remain a gift that authorities bestow or revoke as they please, rather than the fundamental right it remains."

Protesters on the streets have made it clear that they are not yet ready to trust the monarchy's promises of reform. And it is not yet clear whether the king recognizes the extent to which economic grievances are part of protesters' demands. If Morocco hopes to avoid being swept up in the fervor of the region, the king would do well to start cleaning up his regime -- and sharing the spoils.

ABDELHAK SENNA/AFP/Getty Images

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