Morocco’s assault on democracy

June 19, 2014

Nadir Bouhmouch reports on a crackdown on dissent in Morocco, two years after a movement for democracy was touched off during the Arab Spring.

IN THE past few weeks, Moroccan activists have reacted to a string of political arrests and other abuses with increased efforts in the #FreeKoulchi (meaning "Free every one") campaign.

In Casablanca, 11 young activists were arrested after an April anti-austerity rally where they chanted anti-monarchy slogans. On May 18, Moroccan hip-hop artist Mouad Belghouat (also known by his stage name "El-Haqed") was arrested not long after he released his third album Walou ("Nothing"), whose songs heavily criticized the regime.

Recently, a journalist in Kenitra was hospitalized and is in a coma after several weeks on hunger strike, while in Al-Hoceima an activist was tortured to death. Moroccan prisons now hold more than 300 political prisoners, including activists, journalists and artists.

Now, Moroccan activists have launched a call for solidarity in the United States. But why should Americans stand in solidarity?

THE MAINSTREAM American media has depicted Morocco in a positive light as a "post-Arab Spring" success story. But the reality on the ground tells a different story.

Mouad Belghouat
Mouad Belghouat

Morocco is far from being the regional exception it is portrayed to be. In fact, the North African kingdom exhibits the same trends we now increasingly find globally: unemployment, corruption, lack of democracy, lack of human rights, marginalization of minorities, extreme inequality, lack of social services and increasing policies of austerity.

It is these issues which led to the February 20 Movement (Feb20) uprising which, inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, mobilized hundreds of thousands and shook the Moroccan regime to its core in 2011.

Critics of Feb20, both local and international, have asserted that the Moroccan regime is moderate, stable, relatively democratic and less abusive of human rights. They argue that the regime just needs more time and changes will happen slowly, in a way that assures stability. Yet the trends we are currently witnessing in Morocco indicate that the opposite is happening: human rights violations are increasing.

Morocco may not currently be the worst perpetrator of human rights violations, but international activists still need to give it attention and stand in solidarity with Moroccan social movements who seek justice. It is essential not to replicate the irresponsibility of the media by focusing uniquely on the "explosion" of human rights violations. Instead, Moroccans ask that the world stand in solidarity with our local social movements that are working to alleviate the social conditions and the so-called "small" human rights violations that build up and lead to those bigger explosions of abuse.

Our concern and need for solidarity is rooted in very real and worrying trends. Over the past couple years, the Makhzen (the Moroccan regime) has taken advantage of times of crises elsewhere in the world to become more repressive than it was before the Feb20 movement.

When the movement began in 2011, hundreds of thousands took to the streets on a regular basis. Having built a convincing façade of democracy for almost a decade, Moroccan businessmen in and around the palace were afraid to lose foreign investors by reacting too violently and making Morocco's stability questionable. Hence, the palace was forced to concede: On March 9, 2011 the King made a historic speech in which he promised a new constitution that would secure human rights.

But as soon as the world turned its eyes towards Libya and Syria, the Makhzen took the opportunity to go back on its concessions: The King went against the protestors' demand for a constituent assembly to draft the constitution, police violence re-emerged, a protester was tortured to death, and activists were arrested. To top it off, the new constitution (which still only mentioned the word "people" once and the word "king" 61 times) was passed by a 98 percent vote in a national referendum where international observers weren't invited.

Commenting on the referendum, Hillary Clinton congratulated the King and hailed Morocco as a role model for the entire region. Several months later, Clinton cancelled her meeting with the February 20 Movement and was received in Morocco by the palace (instead of the elected rubber-stamp government).

Having received the green light from both the United States and Morocco's former (and in many ways, current) colonial master France, the Makhzen felt even more confident in suppressing the protests. It began to engage in revenge politics against the youth who organized Feb20. Considering Washington's role in helping reinforce the Makhzen's power, it is no wonder that only 21 percent of Moroccans believe that the United States is committed to advancing democracy in North Africa and the Middle East--down from 55 percent in 2010.

MOROCCO SHOULD matter to Americans because they vote and pay for the officials who play a direct role in maintaining authoritarianism in Morocco for the sake of U.S. imperialist interests. The United States sees Morocco as a key ally in the region. This "strategic partnership" became especially valuable with the beginning of the so-called "war on terror," in addition to the increasing threat of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb.

Morocco is home to one of the many CIA "black sites," which is located less than 10 minutes away from my home in Rabat. It is important to note that this black site was specifically targeted by the February 20 Movement activists as a symbol of the widespread use of torture. The demonstration was severely repressed by the Moroccan authorities, who are keen to defend American imperialist interests.

In exchange, the U.S. exercises its leverage over the United Nations Security Council to help Morocco maintain its occupation of the Western Sahara (a situation which is keeping hundreds of thousands of Sahrawi refugees in limbo in the Algerian desert).

The perceived value of the Moroccan regime to the American one is no coincidence. With about $4 million a year, Morocco is sixth in the list of countries who spend the most on lobbying in Washington.

The Moroccan lobby (nominally the Moroccan American Center for Policy) in Washington tends to include former U.S. ambassadors to Morocco, and receives guidance from the Israeli lobby. Like the Zionist lobby, it not only seeks to build an image of democracy for Morocco and to promote the Western Sahara as being an integral part of its territory, but also to reinforce the idea that the Makhzenist regime is the last truly stable one in the region, and the only one that can prevent the proliferation of terrorist groups just 11 miles away from Europe.

The deterioration of human rights in Morocco over the years can be directly linked to this partnership to "combat terrorism" as members of the opposition from both the secular left and the Islamist movements are imprisoned and accused of terrorism or aiding terrorism. Most recently, Ali Anouzla, a journalist and editor of Lakome, an oppositional newspaper that was forced online a few years ago, was jailed and fined for "aiding terrorism." Lakome has now been completely shut down.

Under these conditions of increasing repression, American solidarity with Moroccan social movements means uniting against American imperialism and its attack on liberties and rights everywhere in the world. American unions, human rights organizations and civil society in general must act in solidarity with Moroccans who are no longer fighting an offensive battle for justice, but a defensive one where we are simply attempting to prevent our voices from being taken away.

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