February 20 movement: reflections of a young activist

The 20th February movement was seen by some as elitist and too focused on political demands, while the people were more concerned with daily economic hardship. The main challenge for young activists now is to re-establish a social dialogue within Moroccan society, says Sarra El Idrissi

With the removal of Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, the Arab world erupted in popular protests in favour of democracy and dignity. This was the genesis of the Arab spring. Morocco, long considered one of the most stable Arab countries, has not been immune to this regional shift.  Activists connected with the February 20 Movement have begged to differ with the concept of the Moroccan exception.

Inspired by the Tunisian & Egyptian uprisings, a group of young Moroccan activists, myself included, used social media to spread calls for a protest on February 20, 2011. Several calls to endorse the protests could be found across the digital world. “I am Moroccan and I will take part in the protest on February 20th,” activists said, going on line to explain their reasons for marching: freedom, gender equality, better living standards and education, labor rights, a lift on the restrictions on the media  and minority rights.

As a democrat and a feminist, I responded to the call for the 20 February demonstration. I believed, and still do, that contrary to all the talk about “the Moroccan exception”, Morocco is not that distinct from the other Arab countries. It is full of corruption, a vast black economy and deep social inequality. Nevertheless, the state still refers to the country as democratic. This paradoxical position pushed the February 20 Movement to denounce the “unseen part of the iceberg”, through agreement on a wide platform of demands which included a call for parliamentary monarchy, the election of a constituent assembly, an end to corruption and the imprisonment of political dissidents, language rights for Berber speakers, and a government committed to social justice.

After a year of demonstrations, sit-ins, and political ‘reform’ initiated by the Palace, what has the movement accomplished ? What has changed since the early calls to action, and what remains the same?

Despite all the talk about reform, political repression remains a problem in Morocco. El Makhzen, as Moroccans refer to the political apparatus, is still very much in place. As early as March of last year, the regime was responding with force to peaceful demonstrators. When activists attempted a sit-in outside the headquarters of the “DST”, La direction Générale de la surveillance du territoire, the counter-intelligence unit in Temara, near Rabat, where a secret underground prison is widely believed to be located, the level of force used against the protestors helped to make Temara a symbol of repression and torture, similar to what the hidden prison Tazmamart represented to the older generation during King Hassan II's regime.

The ban on demonstrations scheduled for later in May, the frequent detention of activists, and the arrest of the journalist Rachid Nini, editor-in chief of Al Massae, Morocco’s best-selling newspaper, were not only alarming in themselves, but were complemented by a defence of the DST by the state, which sees the unit as an essential organ for the protection of the Moroccan territory, highlighting its role in arresting the group accused of committing a terrorist attack in Marrakech earlier in the year.  May also saw a revolt by Salafi prisoners in Salé against detention conditions and “the anti-terror law”, an incident which only added to the state’s sense of being threatened. The result of this general atmosphere was the imposition of further restrictions, incarcerations, and aggressive tactics in dispersing protesters, with references to the growing influence in the movement of “Adlistes” (members of the banned Islamist group Justice & Charity ) and Salafis, and the need to stop demonstrations from affecting the image of the country.

As media observers rightly pointed out, the violent repression of the demonstrations signalled "the end of recess”.  “The concessions have so far been more than enough,” claimed Moncef Belkhayat, ex-minister of youth and sports to a national TV, “there is an institutional process in progress and they have to comply.”

The new draft Constitution drawn up was the work of an appointed committee instead of an elected constituent assembly, and like its predecessors, concentrated power in the hands of the monarch.  As the Economist noted, the constitution left the King in complete control as the “supreme arbiter” of political and institutional life. This gave many of us the feeling that nothing had changed. By calling for a massive “YES” for the referendum, the King was far maintaining  his "arbiter role”. Very little time was allocated to democratic discussion. Political parties -  a majority of whom backed the “yes” vote -  only saw a draft of the Constitution at the last minute. "On referendum day, I will not vote because the Constitution does not concern me,” said a student supporter of the February 20 Movement in a video calling for boycott. “It only protects their interests. The constitutional commission does not represent the people.... The Constitution was drafted undemocratically. Now they want us to vote 'yes' without even understanding it”. 

The referendum was held on the 1st of July, and the Ministry of Interior announced that the constitution had been approved by 98.50% of voters. Despite protest movements calling for a boycott, government officials claimed turnout was approximately 73%, a figure that was contested by election observation bodies such as the Collectif Associatif pour l'Observation des Elections.

The new Constitution was ratified in September and parliamentary elections held on the 25th of November. The relatively low turnout and the big win for the Justice and Development Party (PJD) was extensively discussed in the international press, including the appointment of Abdelilah Benkirane, the PJD’s head, as prime minister, and the elections were largely seen as a positive step by the international community.

The moves toward democratic transition are insufficient and ineffective. Not only is the regime still not dealing with people's main grievances over the failing public health and education systems, rampant corruption, unemployment and wealth inequality, but the appointment of the king's former classmate and close friend Fouad Ali El Himma, the founder of the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM) - a so-called “administrative party”- as advisor to the king, was criticised by the opposition as signalling the establishment of a shadow government, which literally speaking, will compete with Benkirane's elected Islamist government and prevent any real reform initiated by the Islamists. This decision, more than anything, was perceived as an offence  against the democratic transition, and an insult to any truly reform-minded Moroccan.

As activists, we must now take stock of where we might have gone wrong. We have had to admit that the massive “yes” expressed by the Moroccan people during the referendum revealed a different reality from the one we desired, and pushed us to acknowledge that we had failed, as a movement, to mobilise the people. The 20th February movement was seen by some, including those within it , as elitist  and too focused on political demands, while the people were more concerned with the economic hardship which affects their daily life. I believe that this divergence explains to a large extent why the movement lost its power. 

Pro-monarchy factions, El Makhzen included, were much more successful in generating a feeling amongst Moroccans that they were participating in a referendum not so much on the constitution, but on the king himself.  For many people, the emotional attachment to the monarchy outweighed any constitutional issues. We were, and we still probably are, talking a different language from the one that the vast majority of the Moroccan  people understand.  Morocco still has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the Arab world, with an illiteracy figure of close to 48% for those aged 15 and over, and so we have had to recognise that this population is educated below the threshold for mass civic movement towards democracy. In such a context, brainwashing is easy.

The 'yes' vote for the Constitution also suggests that our movement  underestimated the sophistication of the repressive propaganda of the regime. As Hamza Hachlaf, a young February 20 activist from my town of Fes told the Akhbar el Yawm newspaper on July 5th following the referendum: “20 February had neither the experience nor the logistical resources available to the state and its political connections. Despite this, it stood firm against all odds, and it will stand. We keep our optimism about the future of the movement; something definitely lifted on February 20th and the parody of a referendum cannot stop it.”

As feminist activists, we are concerned about this future, and feel threatened by the emergence of the Islamist factions in the movement, which we saw reflected in some of the demonstrations organized -  particularly in conservative cities like Fes -  where men and women were separated to prevent mixing during the May demonstrations. The growing presence in the movement of the banned “Justice and Charity” group negatively influenced the gender equality agenda, and gradually, gender rights slogans were no longer raised. This is a big transformation for a movement which saw women at its forefront in the early protests, where most spokespersons were young female activists. The astonishing withdrawal of the Justice  & Charity group in December from the movement, citing differences with the “ideas” of some of its youth (despite expressing continued belief in the movement’s demands) has lessened concerns about gender rights. However, the movement is weakened considerably by the loss of that faction, which represents a significant part of the movement. And even with the departure of Justice and Charity, our voice as women within the movement is no longer as influential as it was initially when it comes to taking crucial decisions about the strategy of the movement. This has led many female activists to suggest putting a stop to the weekly sit-ins in order to allow the movement to step back, to self-criticize and to think about the challenges we face. Unfortunately, these suggestions have not been accepted.

However, there is much positive ground on which to build. We, both men and women, must remember how we felt on those early protests: free, proud, and alive again. I believe that this is the main achievement of the movement: the restoration of the freedom of speech and the fall of the wall of fear in Morocco that had silenced public opinion. And this is the best guarantee of success that we can offer of a genuine democratic transition.

The protests and the demands behind them created far more involvement by disparate groups than was initially expected. The February 20 movement has now become a loose coalition of cyber-activists, radical leftists and Islamists, though the latter’s voice has been weakened to a large degree with Justice and Charity’s departure.  Human rights organizations such as The Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH”) and The Democratic Association of Moroccan Women (ADFM) have also taken part.

I believe that the protests brought politics and social issues back to the field of public discourse. Though many demonstrations for minority rights had been organized in the past, - by the Movement for Defence of Individual Liberties (MALI), which attempted to organize public “Fast Breakings” in Ramadan, and the movement of unemployed university graduates protesting for jobs -  they never had the impact they’ve achieved in the past year. In response to the graduates' protests, the government is setting up programs to address the issue and absorb graduates into the public service through the immediate creation of more than 20,000 jobs.

The movement also extended the space for contesting state power geographically. While on the 20 February, 2011, peaceful protests took place in major cities like Casablanca, Tangier, Marrakech, Fes, and Rabat, there were protests all over the country, in smaller towns like Seffrou, Guelmim, Safi, Larache, Tetouan, and Sidi Ifni – places where protests had not been expected.

Despite all that has happened in the past year, we have not stopped advocating for social justice. The main challenges for us now as activists is to heal ideological rifts and to re-establish a social dialogue within Moroccan society. We must also address the perception by many Moroccans that the movement is anti-monarchic and Islamophobic. Our focus has always been on meaningful constitutional reform. If we want the leaders to take account of our demands for meaningful constitutional reform, we will have to make our voice present more vividly, to listen to people, and to work to engage people in community activism. As John Dewey said in 1939, “the democratic road is the hard one to take. It is the road which places the greatest burden of responsibility upon the greatest number of human beings.”

With thanks to Sara Abbas for editorial input