On 13 January, people took to the streets en masse demanding bread, freedom and social justice. An unprecedented number of police blocked all roads to the “Square of Change” in Tangiers (officially called Tifelt Square – activists have renamed it.).
Some leading figures from the 20 February Movement were arrested at their front doors with the police claiming that “the order came from high up”. Nevertheless, activists still managed to stage sit-ins and playful protests at several locations around the city.
Abdelilah Alilbit is one of the leading left activists in the February 20 Movement: “Morocco has a long history of struggle. Since the anti-colonial struggle for independence in the early fifties there have been waves of revolt,” he explains. “The 20 February Movement builds on this experience.”
The massive protests in the region, in particular those in Tunisia and Egypt, play an important role for the movement in Morocco. “We mustn’t underestimate the influence that these regional protests have had on awareness at street level, but the socio-economic and political conditions in Morocco itself also play a major role. The regime has repeatedly tried to manipulate and channel this rage.”
According to Alilbit this was already to be seen in the speech King Mohamed VI gave on 9 March 2011, in which he made a number of promises to the people, and also in the constitutional referendum that followed in July of the same year.
“The new constitution – or ‘theatre piece’ as we call it here – was a response to the growing anger that prevailed in the street. But this change is just cosmetic. In reality the corrupt ways of doing things haven’t changed.”
The Moroccan monarchy has long had an iron grip on the population. Last year the people would not dare to use the slogan “The people demand the fall of the regime” during demonstrations. Today the slogan is heard often. The image of the king as “amir al mou’iminin” (“prince of the faithful”) is crumbling.
The growing experience with protest creates the space for this sort of criticism. People realise that the king has 12 castles and 33 royal residences which the taxpayer has to pay for, while the king himself does not pay any tax. King Mohamed VI also owns all natural resources such as phosphate and gold – an estimated net worth of 1.5 billion pounds.
While ordinary people become more aware of the political and economic relations in their society, the regime has recently begun employing a much tougher approach to activists. “After a period in which the regime tried to control the growing anger with the referendum, we see them fuelling fear” says Alilbit.
He cites the example of an activist whose personal emails and Facebook pages were hacked. “Also there are arbitrary arrests. Courts impart heavier prison sentences and physical repression is increasing in cities like Al Hoceima, Sefrou, Safi and Rabat.
“Nevertheless we in the 20 February Movement have managed to broaden the protests at national level and given people the confidence to protest.”
Recently the largest Islamist party, the banned Adl wa al-ihsan, dropped out of the movement. Alilbit explains that from a political perspective this has had no detrimental effect on the movement: “The involvement of these parties – like all other political Islamic movements that were part of the protests against the government – was ultimately a trump card of the regime.
“The regime could have used the Islamists to weaken February 20 Movement. And the Islamists have for their part systematically thwarted the movement. The difference between us and them is that they see government participation or takeover as the ultimate solution, not the power of the people.”
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