Egypt and Tunisia have been grabbing the headlines during the “Arab Spring.” Morocco, meanwhile, gets little attention in Western media. It may because due to reforms implemented by King Mohamed VI and the fact that the protest movement did not call for the overthrow of Morocco’s king or its political system unlike in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. The protesters instead demanded more respect for human rights, and more jobs for the youth.
However, high unemployment, economic reforms and increased repression and police brutality, could still impact the country’s politics. Drought combined with the economic crisis in Europe, has already negatively affected Morocco’s GDP and exports and will continue to do so. Tackling the depressed economy and creating jobs will be one of the main tasks for the new parliament, now dominated by the Islamist Justice and Development.
King Mohamed VI took power in 1999 at the age of 35 after the death of his father, Hassan II. Unlike his authoritarian father who ruled Morocco with an iron fist, Mohamed VI is less repressive and more liberal. His government and security forces’ reaction to protests led by groups like the February 20 Movement was for the most part non-violent. Many agree that if Hassan II were still alive, it is likely that he would have tried to brutally suppress the demonstrations, and we could have witnessed similar scenes happening on Moroccan streets, as did in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
In a televised speech on March 9, 2011, Mohamed VI acknowledged public grievances, announced a reform of the constitution and to give more power to an elected parliament. At the same time, the country increased its public spending with subsidies for food and fuel. The referendum was passed with a 98.2% majority (per the interior ministry). The opposition, however, boycotted the referendum.
Laws that protect free speech and free press are included in the new constitution, but critics say the language is vague and contradictory. Despite these new guarantees, journalists and artists still face imprisonment or harassment if they criticize the king, or if they expose corruption. At the same time police use brutal tactics to break up protests, something relatively absent since the start of the demonstrations in 2011.
The rapper Mouad Belghouat is serving a one year sentence because one of his songs, ”Baraka Min Elskate” or “Stop the Silence,” calls out police corruption.
In its 2013 World Report, Human Rights Watch claims that those who campaign on behalf the Saharawi cause, that is demanding an end to discrimination or calling for autonomy of Western Sahara, currently part of Morocco, also face repression and imprisonment.
In sum, the new updated constitution and an Islamist majority in parliament are signs of political improvements, but many think that these changes are only cosmetic, and that the king still holds too much executive authority. With a combination of an underperforming economy, high unemployment, upcoming subsidies reforms that will mostly affect the middle class, and a rise in police brutality, things could still take a turn south for the otherwise stable country.