Ten years after the onset of the February 20 Movement, its variant of the “Arab Spring”, Morocco is still perceived as a bedrock of stability in the region. However, while the king successfully contained the 2011 uprising, under the surface the rift between state and society is still widening. As public trust continues to erode, Moroccans increasingly turn their attention to the streets in order to air their grievances. Drawing parallels to Algeria, which saw its dictator unexpectedly fall in 2019, this article questions the paradigm of Moroccan stability. The next wave of protests may not be so distant after all.
Looking back at 2011: islands of stability?
Unlike their North African neighbors, the Moroccan and Algerian governments survived the Arab uprisings relatively unscathed, as popular protests quickly dissipated before ever catching momentum. Clearly, oppositional movements in both countries suffered from structural flaws. For instance, Algeria’s reluctant coalition of secular-progressive, mostly Amazigh (Berber) parties and moderate Islamists failed to generate popular enthusiasm, suffering from its general lack of credibility. While Morocco’s February 20 Movement was more successful, it too was unable to overcome internal strife and rally the disparate opposition behind a common agenda, also failing to mobilize a substantial backing in the periphery.
The ruling elites’ quick reaction also played a critical role in demobilizing the protests. Relying on a tried-and-tested playbook, the Algerian regime and the Moroccan monarchy turned to formal and informal co-optation mechanisms to stabilize the situation. While Algeria resorted to its hydrocarbon revenues to finance a substantial welfare state expansion, Morocco engineered a limited constitutional reform, whose symbolic identity-based provisions sought to appeal particularly to an elite of cultural activists among the Amazigh community, while also exploiting underlying tensions within the broader opposition. However, while material or symbolic concessions may buy temporary popular acquiescence, they do not necessarily mute calls for change in the long run.
Socioeconomic discontent and low political trust
Ultimately, both the Algerian and the Moroccan regime failed to address the widespread socioeconomic grievances that fueled unrest in 2011. The adverse impact of underlying economic issues on regime legitimacy and political participation became apparent in Algeria, when only 9% of young Algerians (20-29) voted in the 2017 parliamentary elections, while youth unemployment hit almost 30%. Morocco, too, continues to struggle with considerable horizontal and vertical inequalities in spite of stronger economic growth. Particularly, uneven regional development has exacerbated discontent among youth in peripheral areas, often populated by Amazigh groups. Against the backdrop of a rapidly expanding population, youth unemployment has risen to 22% in 2019, likely being much higher among rural Amazigh communities. Moreover, 58% of Moroccans appear to consider either the economy, the quality of public services, or corruption the most important challenges for the country.
Hence, it does not come as a surprise that over the last decade public trust in political institutions and actors has continued to decrease, especially among the younger generation. For instance, according to Arab Barometer V, among Moroccans between the ages of 18 to 29, 81% stated they placed little to no trust in parliament. Even more starkly, 86.5% extended this limited trust to political parties, while 46.3% claimed they had little to no faith in civil society organizations. Thus, the erosion of public trust clearly extends to opposition parties and established non-state actors as well, suggesting a deepening crisis of representative politics. This trend is particularly pronounced among peripheral communities, such as in the Rif in Northern Morocco. Lacking perspectives, young Riffians increasingly detach themselves from the old activist guard and political elite that continues to dominate local and regional politics. These local leaders and powerbrokers with deep community ties are now often associated with the endemic corruption and clientelism of the Moroccan regime elite.
Co-opted elites, socioeconomic protests and cross-cleavage cooperation
The co-optation of local elites and tribal leaders has long played a critical role in the regime’s efforts to exert control over the periphery. While integration into the monarchy’s patronage network provided regional actors, such as Riffian activist associations, with a lobby in Rabat, it also gave the king access to their considerable social capital and mobilization networks. However, in light of the ongoing erosion of public trust, the ability of local and regional elites to leverage their clientele networks to mediate relations between the center and the periphery, and to ensure support for the monarchy appears to have starkly deteriorated since 2011. As the credibility of established powerbrokers continues to suffer, mirroring the fate of activist groups and parties at the national level, younger generations fail to be drawn into their associative networks. Similar developments could be traced in Algeria, where longstanding opposition parties, such as the Rally for Culture of Democracy, struggled to gain recognition within the 2019 protest movement, even within their regional stronghold Kabylia. A similarly explosive development may pose a significant challenge to the Moroccan regime as it loses a critical tool to ensure social stability and shore up support for its rule.
In fact, the emergence and considerable spread of localized rural socioeconomic protests across the country seems symptomatic for this loss. Many of these protests erupt in predominantly Amazigh areas, often developing out of grassroots movements without strong attachments to existing civil society organizations or parties. The frequent lack of centralized representative structures makes the co-optation of leaders all the more difficult. A similar phenomenon occurred 2013, in Southern Algeria, when a protest movement led by unemployed youth emerged. Young activists and participants without prior affiliations mostly sought to distance themselves from established political forces. Although most of these protests do not explicitly address the political order, they do testify to a latent legitimacy crisis and the inability of co-optation mechanisms to provide a quick remedy. Furthermore, we can observe a certain reluctance among rural protest movements to frame demand-based local activism in terms of cultural or ethnolinguistic identity-frameworks. The lasting demonstrations in the Southern Moroccan mining town Imider provide a vivid example. Instead of emphasizing transregional or transnational ethnic identifications, often promoted by urban Amazigh associations, emerging local activist groups draw on localized identities to mobilize support. Thus, the growing dissociation from traditional representatives, be it on the regional or the national level, and the refusal to buy into conventional opposition discourses may create opportunities for new alliances and modes of cross-cleavage cooperation.
The Rif Movement provides an interesting example. The movement erupted in late 2016 and lasted on a large-scale well into late 2017. Building on widespread popular frustration with the laggard development of the Rif, the death of a fishmonger sparked Morocco’s most serious wave of unrest since the “Arab Spring”. The ensuing grassroots movement lacked ties to traditional activist groups and political associations, instead accusing the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM) of corruption and of being co-responsible for the socioeconomic grievances of the regional population. Being a key royal ally, the PAM constitutes the dominant political force in the region. Contrasting the PAM’s moderately progressive-secularist as well as regionalist platform, the Rif Movement not only doubled down on a regional culture of resistance to the center, but also resorted to religiously flavored rhetoric. Hence, defying the traditional rivalry between Islamists and Amazigh associations, this largely Amazigh movement received declarations of solidarity from Al-Adl w-al-Ihsan, a banned-but-tolerated Islamist movement, whose supporters repeatedly joined national support marches across several major Moroccan cities. Alongside the growing acceptance of Amazigh elements within Algeria’s national identity since the Hirak’s 2019 onset, this illustrates how such movements can encourage the transformation of political and cultural identities by questioning dominant elite narratives.
The step into the political realm
Ultimately, the Rif Movement 2016/2017 failed to garner sufficient support to trigger a national protest movement. While it addressed transversal grievances, too little effort was made to tie its demands to a national discourse. Moreover, much of its dynamism relied on notions of Rif specificity and resistance culture. Nonetheless, there are important lessons to be learned. Despite the regime’s attempts to portray the movement as radical and separatist in the eyes of the broader public, Riffians still retained pockets of support across the country. Protesters did not try to frame their activism in ethnic terms and their reliance on a religiously infused rhetoric of resistance may have worked towards bridging the traditional rift between Amazigh and Islamists. While protesters’ demands never lost their clear socioeconomic footing, the step into the political realm was never distant. Since the movement was ultimately addressing a crisis of representation, co-opted elites’ loss of social capital may partly explain why the movement was difficult to demobilize. In the end the regime resorted to heavy-handed repression tactics, after the movement’s informal leader Nasser Zefzafi publicly criticized the monarchy’s influence over religious institutions, a taboo in Moroccan public discourse. By publicly questioning the king’s role as ‘commander of the faithful’ he ventured into dangerous territory, sawing at one important pillar of the monarchy’s legitimacy.
Looking at Algeria, where the buildup of cross-cutting socioeconomic grievances, combined with rampant anti-elite sentiment created fertile grounds for calls for systemic change, recent developments in Morocco sow doubts about the allegedly imperturbable nature of the Moroccan kingdom. Despite its modernizing image, the underlying legitimacy crisis of the regime persists, as horizontal and vertical inequalities loom large. Moreover, the economic aftermath of the global pandemic could well exacerbate destabilizing tendencies. While Moroccans increasingly question political institutions and elites, local grassroots movements continue to spring up across the country, illustrating the limits of co-optation. As these movements mobilize local communities, transform local identities, shape new forms of activism and open up new windows for cooperation, a new national reckoning with the social and political status quo may be closer than we think.