The Struggle for Democracy in Morocco
Morocco saw only modest change during the Arab Spring. But a series of pro-democracy movements has shaken its repressive regime.
- Interview by
- Cole Stangler
In spite of its liberal image abroad, Morocco tolerates little dissent at home. On June 27, fifty-two activists tied to recent protests in the state’s northern Rif region were sentenced to prison terms. Those convicted included the leader of the so-called Al-Hirak movement — Nasser Zefzafi, handed a twenty-year sentence for “plotting to attack national security.” From October 2016 to summer 2017, the Rif — especially the Mediterranean coastal city of Al-Hoceima — saw unprecedented protests centered around regional identity and economic justice. The movement was the country’s largest since 2011, when Morocco’s version of the Arab Spring ushered in modest constitutional reforms. The nation remains a hereditary monarchy ruled by King Mohammed VI.
For more analysis on the recent movement in the Rif, state repression, and the future of democracy in Morocco, Jacobin’s Cole Stangler spoke with Maati Monjib. Monjib is a journalist, historian and longtime left-wing activist. Since returning to Morocco from exile in 2000, he has faced persecution of his own. In 2015, the government accused him of “threatening national security,” shortly after he helped organize a training session for amateur journalists. Decried by international observers, Monjib’s trial is ongoing and part of the state’s larger clampdown on critics and independent journalists. This interview has been edited and translated from French to English.
To start, what do you make of the sentences handed out to activists recently?
It’s the result of the protest movement kicked off nearly two years ago by the death of a young fishmonger crushed to death in a garbage truck. There was a very strong movement in the Rif, which is a region that has problems with centralized power, has a strong Berber identity, and is very proud of its historical memory.
It was a very strong movement. In fact, it’s the strongest peaceful local movement against the regime that independent Morocco has known. And there was no violence — the majority of participants were truly pacifists. The protestors even had special guards to ensure that police and official buildings weren’t affected, even if there were provocations from the police.
In any case, in May 2017, about eight months after the protests began, the regime decided to put an end to the movement, because it was inspiring other regions that [might want] to start a struggle for their interests and for social and economic rights. Especially because the regime started to promise reforms and to punish corrupt local officials [in the Rif]. The regime was scared this would spread. Even more so since there were other movements — in Zagora, in the South, and in other regions in peripheral Morocco. So, there were hundreds of arrests.
The first group is fifty-three leaders who were taken to Casablanca and interrogated in Casablanca — even though it’s prohibited by law. [Suspects] must be interrogated in their town of residence.
These young people — in general, they’re between twenty and forty years old — they were judged very severely. The majority were sentenced to harsh sentences, from five to twenty years. Their leaders were defamed for months and months. In particular, Nasser Zefzafi, who was attacked by media linked to state intelligence services. He was sentenced to twenty years in prison, and he’s decided not to appeal because he knows it’s political. Also, this way, he can show to the public that he’s able to resist and that he’s ready to spend twenty years in prison for his ideas.
It’s clear the regime wants to scare the local population and to discourage other movements that were triggered in other regions. Like in Jerada, in the east of Morocco. It’s a city that has about the same population as Al-Hoceima. And it’s a city that suffers a lot of from deindustrialization, because it’s in a region once notable for coal mining. The coal mines closed at the end of the 1990s, and there’s much less work today.
In any case, the regime wants to scare people by unjustly sentencing people, in an entirely political fashion. The majority of activists were sentenced to more than five years in prison. A good amount of them were also tortured.
We’ve often heard in the foreign press that the movement in the Rif was focused on regional questions and on local questions. Is there a more national character to this movement?
I can say there were three causes. So, one, immediate one — the horrible death of the young fishmonger.
Then, there’s a more intermediate cause. These are socioeconomic reasons. The fact that this region has been neglected by the regime and has been symbolically marginalized. It’s the land of Abd el-Krim, who founded a republic in the 1920s, who also took on the sultan at the time, the great grandfather of Mohammed VI, Moulay Youssef.
And there are deeper causes — so the third set of causes, if you will — really meaning the local identity, the hostility to the central regime, and the cultural pride of the Rifains. They have a memory of suffering vis-à-vis the central government and find themselves a bit on the margins of the cultural identity of central Morocco, and of the culture of the governing elite, which is Arab-speaking. While the Rif’s second language was, for a long time, Spanish, the rest of Morocco spoke French.
For a long time few Rifains were integrated into the heart of the regime, and few Rifains were part of the governing elite. The Rif has also seen much repression. Following Moroccan independence, in 1959, there was a rebellion in the Rif that was bloodily crushed. There were at least hundreds of deaths and thousands of injured. This repression was led by the crown prince at the time, Prince Hassan, who became king two years later, in February 1961. There was also very strong repression in 1984, with dozens killed and dozens arrested and tortured. Then there was the al-Hirak movement starting in October 2016. All of this makes a very heavy past, both culturally and politically.
The regime despises the memory of Abd el-Krim because he challenged the sultan and played a liberating role for part of Morocco, whereas the sultan collaborated with the colonizers. This doesn’t mean I’m putting all the sultans of Morocco in the same boat. There was Muhammed V who governed Morocco between 1955 and 1961 and who was a nationalist sultan who sought reconciliation with Abd el-Krim and the Rifains.
Is there a future for the movement?
The movement began to weaken by the end of June 2017. There was a big protest against the arrests on July 20, 2017. Many people were picked up by police, including the journalist Hamid El-Mahdaoui.
The movement kicked off again after the harsh prison sentences [in late June]. There were several protest marches, both in Al Hoceima and in Imzouren. But there was strong repression too, with between twelve and thirty arrests. But nobody knows the true numbers, since human rights activists are under pressure and [sources] aren’t giving accurate information.
It’s going to be difficult for the movement to start up again. At least 60 percent of the male activists have been arrested — in May, June, July 2017. About 10 percent left Morocco. And about 10 percent went to other regions. These are very rough numbers of mine, as someone following the movement. But we can say about 80 percent of activists have been pushed out of the way by the regime.
Women played a very important role too. But because society is very conservative, the regime didn’t want to attack young women, who participated in large numbers.
What’s the state of the Left in Morocco?
The state of the Left is deplorable. But there is hope.
There is, first of all, a major nationalist center-left party, the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP), which participated in what we can call a sort of “democratic transition” — that’s what it was called — between 1998 and 2002. But it was really more of a “dynastic transition” than a “democratic transition.” (Mohamed VI took over the throne from Hassan II who died in 1999). In 2002, we found ourselves with an authoritarian regime without a mask.
The USFP participated in this government, which failed, because it didn’t result in democracy. But the party was very popular — there were trade unions close to it, it organized demonstrations for Palestine with hundreds of thousands of people — it was a party that was popular enough to take on the regime. But since then, they’ve participated in all the governments, up until the Arab Spring, and including governments that don’t respect democratic methods. And they’ve lost their popularity because they were unable to apply their program.
People saw them as having abandoned their principles and the application of their program. They’ve clearly became collaborators with the authoritarian regime. So the USFP, which was really the historic party of the Left, and the most important one, has taken a beating. They now have just 20 of the 395 deputies in the House of Representatives, and they’re participating in the government led by the Islamists, but in the position of defenders of the regime. Even compared to the Islamists, they’re much closer to the regime.
As far as hope goes, there is a small left-wing party, the Unified Socialist Party (PSU). It is in the process of taking the place of historic left-wing parties — the Party of Progress and Socialism (PPS), which comes from the Communist Party, and the USFP, which comes from the nationalist movement against colonialism. For example, in eleven of the biggest cities in Morocco, this party, the PSU, which remains very small in parliamentary terms — it has only two deputies — had more votes than the PPS and USFP combined. It’s led by Nabila Mounib, who is the only woman to head a political party in Morocco.
This party has strong pro-democracy positions, and is against the authoritarianism of the regime. It wants a pluralist and secular democracy. As an example, after the harsh sentencing of Zefzafi and others, the head of this party, Nabila Mounib, called for the population to direct itself toward the prison to liberate the Rif activists facing prison time. She wasn’t stopped, because she’s become fairly popular over the last few years. The regime is afraid her arrest will spark even more significant tensions than the ones provoked by the sentencing of Rif activists.
The PSU has also sought to form an alliance with other leftist groups such as the Socialist Democratic Vanguard Party (PADS). This gives hope to left-wing, pro-democratic and secular parts of society.
Let’s talk about your own court case. You’ve mentioned a number of other activists and journalists who are on trial or facing prison time. You’re part of this group, right?
There’s about fifteen journalists who are in prison or facing charges, including myself. I’m being accused of threatening “national security.” Since 2015, I’ve undergone twelve hearings before the judge.
The real reason, according to friends close to the regime, is that I’ve written and appeared in articles criticizing the regime in English. Apparently, articles in English bother the regime much more than articles in French and Arabic. And then I participated, as a civilian activist, in the bringing together of both the secular and Islamist opposition. The government considers this to be a red line. The government does everything to pit one camp against the other – the idea is to divide and conquer.
Officially, they say, the case owes to me supposedly participating in the spreading of Storymaker, an app that helps citizen journalists to file quick, small reports. This is the official reason.
Mediators with the regime also told me that they wanted me to stop writing articles for the foreign press, or giving interviews to the foreign press, in English and French, but especially in English. They told me to stop my involvement in bringing together secularists and Islamists. So I took the middle ground. I went easy on the rapprochement between secularists and Islamists. But I continue to keep speaking and writing, almost freely. I still risk taking on the king too much, but I say more or less what I think.
You mentioned the idea of the “red line.” The Left in Morocco, does it have the ability to openly criticize the king?
There’s a Marxist group called the Democratic Path. They criticize the regime, but, in general, they use the word “regime.” They rarely criticize the king himself. Because they know it’s dangerous. At the same time, it’s very clear they’re against the authoritarian royal regime. The party is playing a subtle but growing role in trade unions, social movements, and civil society groups.
The PSU says it’s for parliamentary monarchy. The Democratic Path is pro-republican but it can’t say it. The party doesn’t say it’s for parliamentary monarchy, but it doesn’t openly say it’s for a republic.
There’s a sort of discursive modus vivendi. They get pressure all the time, but the regime needs them too for political stability. Because if they outlaw them, they’ll go underground, and it could provoke political instability.
Do you have any final remarks for people following the situation in Morocco?
I say to humanists and human rights activists in the free countries, as in certain European countries and the Americas, to support the left-wing opposition and human rights activists by sharing information about repression.
I want to pay homage too. Those who saved my life are Noam Chomsky, Richard Falk, and Abdellah Hammoudi. They wrote to the king, during my twenty-four-day hunger strike. I think this kind of humanist support helps the left wing live in Morocco and gives us hope through international solidarity.
Thanks to this support, we can hope to one day establish a democratic system in Morocco that takes into account the socioeconomic interests of peoples and puts Morocco on the path of real human development that respects ecology, human rights, popular culture, but also economic rights and economic equality. Because we have a regime of economic rentiers — not even all the super-rich are well treated. There is a clique in the regime that doesn’t respect economic equality even among businessmen and that has shamelessly enriched itself because of corruption and because of the rentier economy.