Posted by on April 23, 2012 in Blog

In the noise of the Arab uprisings last year, the Moroccan regime under King Mohammed VI was able to quietly subdue its own "February 20" youth movement with constitutional reforms and the election of the Islamist Justice and Development Party as a new parliamentary leader. The Moroccan government has even played a leading role in the international push for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down and stop violence against protestors. In 2012, however, a combination of vast economic hardship, human rights abuses and international politics have revived the February 20 movement and ushered in new challenges to the monarchy. Now, Morocco’s protest movement is hoping to finally bring its cause into the international spotlight.

Drought and falling tourism profits have put Morocco at risk of a BBB-rating downgrade according to Moody Investor Services, and has inhibited the government’s ability to address the soaring unemployment levels and poverty that sparked last year’s protests both within the country and abroad. One of the nation’s poorest areas, a mostly rural northern region known as the Rif, saw weeks of protests in March following the arrest of a February 20 youth leader. The demonstrations received little media coverage, despite occasionally violent confrontation with police forces and the arrest of dozens of protestors.

Despite praise from U.S. government officials, Moroccan citizens have become increasingly disenchanted with the regime’s social and political reforms. The constitutional amendments passed in July 2011 included promises to fight corruption in the Moroccan Parliament and make the judicial system a completely independent branch of government, and judges and Moroccan citizens alike have protested in response to the lack of progress on either issue. An audit court verdict citing "graft, corruption and insider trading" within the Moroccan government stirred further outrage. The ruling Islamist party has also received harsh criticism for its new guidelines for public television and radio stations, which mandate certain religious programming and limit airtime for French-language programming and lottery advertisements. The new rules have been viewed as an attempt to gain a firmer grip on the already highly-censored media.

The United Nations recently heightened pressure on the Moroccan government to end human rights abuses in Western Sahara, and renewed the placement of peacekeeping forces in the disputed region. The United States has historically led international powers in turning a blind eye to Morocco’s controversial presence in Western Sahara, as Morocco represents an important trade partner to Europe and a crucial U.S. ally in CIA counterterrorism programs. However, a United States visit to Morocco in late 2011 prompted criticism on the handling of peaceful protestors by security forces. Although mild, these criticisms from an international community that has traditionally been very friendly have dealt a considerable blow to a regime already facing growing turmoil within its borders.

The February 20 protest movement has been more tentative in its demands than protests in many other Arab countries, calling for parliamentary and constitutional reforms rather than attacking the monarchy directly. Recently, however, the calls for change have begun to take on a stronger tone, and the regime has responded with greater intolerance and aggression. The rap artist Mouad Belghouat, known as El Haqed, was arrested in March for "singing a song defamatory to a public authority" in a song critical of King Mohammed VI, according to the state-run MAP agency. Inspired by well-publicized protests in the Middle East, there are currently 27 Moroccan political prisoners on hunger strike in protest of arbitrary detention, including a student who has been on strike for over a hundred days.

On Sunday, April 22, the February 20 movement called for widespread protests, and their call was met by thousands of Moroccans in over a dozen cities. Thus far, the Moroccan regime has relied on international friends, cosmetic reforms, and a tightly-controlled media to quell unrest, and the February 20 movement has been waiting for the world to pay attention in the same way it has to the uprisings of many of its neighors. El Haqed will stand trial on April 25, and many hope that his case will bring much-needed publicity to the injustices of the Moroccan judicial system and plight of other political prisoners. If their wish is granted, perhaps a poor economy and weakened regime coupled with the movement’s resilience can finally lead to the "Arab Spring" Morocco has been waiting for.  

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