Though still struggling for survival more than two years after its inception, Morocco’s pro-democratic February 20 Movement (also known by its French acronym M20F) has lost much of its luster.
The performance of M20F declined significantly mainly because of the government’s savvy political response, as well as the movement’s inability to convert its initial momentum into a rooted social movement.
Morocco’s economic and social indicators are still weak. Youth unemployment remains high (especially among college graduates). Poverty is widespread with corruption levels similar to other regional countries that have witnessed revolution.
Although the ruling Justice and Development Party (PJD) campaigned on a commitment to fight corruption and tyranny, political and economic reforms have been slow in coming since its parliamentary victory in November 2011. Partners in the PJD’s coalition government have been resistant to the party’s leading role and, along with other members of the Moroccan elite, have continuously blocked its efforts to manage state affairs.
Despite its shortcomings, M20F should be credited for breaking a number of political taboos in Morocco, as well as helping to diffuse a new political culture over the course of the past two years.
Given this reality as well as the current state of affairs in Morocco, M20F’s failures and future prospects—inextricably linked to the country’s democratization prospects—are worthy of consideration.
In Brief: Causes for Decline
M20F’s declining influence can largely be attributed to two factors: 1) initiatives taken by the royal palace and government to destabilize the movement and undermine its legitimacy; and 2) the movement’s own internal divisions.
Unlike other Arab countries that responded to peaceful protest movements with repression and accusations of treason, Morocco chose to adopt a proactive and anticipatory approach.
Fearing the escalating demands of political protests in early 2011, the palace took action to absorb popular anger. King Mohammed VI delivered a speech on March 9, 2011 in which he identified parameters for reforming the constitution, proposed specific amendments, and outlined a timeline for a royally appointed constitutional committee to complete its work.
The government also instituted a variety of measures, including increasing the wages of public employees (by approximately $60/month) and raising the minimum wage for private sector workers to approximately $280/month in order to pacify the unions.
The November 25, 2011 legislative elections also served to reduce the popular momentum of M20F after the PJD, formerly in the parliamentary opposition, came out ahead in the electoral ranks, as was predicted during the pre-election period.
The influence of M20F was also undermined when most mainstream political parties and trade unions decided early on not to participate formally in the protests.
Though initiatives from the palace and government were effective in neutralizing political parties and trade unions, and while the PJD’s victory must be considered a political turning point, the key factors contributing to the weakening of M20F were largely internal.
Internal Division within M20F
The February 20 movement proved unable to effectively manage ideological differences between its Islamist and leftist members. These divisions consequently weakened its performance and caused it to lose the sympathy of supporters.
M20F was not institutionalized within a civil or political framework in which youth activists were formally elected to official leadership positions within the organization. Instead, a support committee was established to run the movement. Elder members of the old left-wing opposition parties dominated the committee, with only limited representation from youth members of political parties and from the unrecognized Islamist opposition Justice and Charity Organization (JCO). The committee took to meeting behind closed doors, and chose a course of action that gradually led to the marginalization of many youth activists.
In other Arab countries, revolutionary forces united under slogans such as “The people want to overthrow the regime.” From its inception, however, M20F lacked a clear rallying cry and concrete set of unifying political demands that could bring together its ideologically disparate components.
A fundamental disagreement within M20F emerged regarding the monarchy’s appropriate role in politics. Two weeks before February 20, 2011, the agreed upon date for protests to begin, M20F announced on Facebook its basic demands for a constitutional monarchy.
On February 16, 2011, this demand changed. After a new youth group joined the movement, M20F representatives announced at a press conference at the headquarters of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH) that the group was now demanding “the adoption of a democratic constitution representative of the true will of the people.” Significantly, they did not reference the previous call for a constitutional monarchy.
Even though they managed to cooperate for over ten months, divergence between the Islamist JCO and the left-wing elements of M20F regarding the movement’s future trajectory emerged.
Interestingly, this withdrawal took place immediately after the appointment of the new PJD Prime Minister, Abdelilah Benkirane. There were various theories about why the JCO exited from the M20F when it did. United by their shared Islamic roots, some believed the JCO decided to align with the PJD in order to give the party an opportunity to go about its work. Others believed the JCO’s decision reflected an attempt to force the makhzen (a network of political and economic elite close to the monarchy) to deal with the PJD directly rather than focus on the external challenge presented by popular mobilization.
A JCO spokesman insisted the decision to withdraw was not a favor for the PJD because “the government of Morocco does not govern.” Rather, he described the move as resulting from the group’s contentious relations with the movement’s leftist elements, who “tried to impose limits on M20F, or impose certain slogans.” These remarks referred primarily to the efforts of the Unified Socialist Party (PSU), which came into conflict with the JCO over the use of religious rhetoric and over limiting the powers of the monarchy.
From the movement’s outset, alliances emerged, dividing into three main groups: 1) the M20F Support Committee, dominated by representatives from leftist parties and the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, with limited representation from the JCO; 2) political party youth representatives, namely from the PJD, which joined M20F under the cover of the Baraka Movement (“Enough” in the Moroccan dialect of Arabic), as well as some leftist youth; and 3) independents, consisting mainly of educated, politically active young people of rural descent who were not members of any particular political party.
These internal divisions fell along three lines: 1) ideological, between Islamists and leftists, as well as pro-Amazigh (ethno-linguistic minority) forces; 2) political, between advocates of parliamentary monarchy and republicanism; and 3) institutional, between members of political parties and independents.
Many of M20F’s positions and decisions were taken at discussion sessions that occurred in cafes and at the headquarters of affiliated parties, rather than at official large group meetings among movement participants. As a result, specific political currents were privileged over others, with official M20F meetings used only to rubber stamp what had already been decided behind closed doors.
M20F and the State
It is also possible that the state’s intelligence agencies penetrate into and directed the path of the movement. Since official M20F mass meetings were open to public participation and debate, it was easy for security forces to identify and arrest radical and untamed elements within the movement.
In general, state policy toward M20F employed both carrots and sticks.
The state moved to contain a number of the movement’s leaders by giving them positions in political parties that were closely aligned to the palace. One key example is Osama Lakhlifi, a founder of M20F, who later became a member of the Authenticity and Modernity Party, which was founded by Fouad Ali El Himma, a friend of the king and his current political advisor.
Other M20F leaders were directly employed in public institutions far away from urban centers, and some received promises of appointment to the Youth Advisory Council and opportunities for public collaboration on youth issues, as stipulated in the new Moroccan constitution. Yet others were awarded scholarships to continue their studies abroad, or were given paid job training courses in country.
Force was used to deal with elements of the movement that could not be easily co-opted. Security forces cracked down on the ranks of M20F, and arrested approximately eighty people on various charges, aiming to weaken the movement by removing its leadership. Among the most prominent detainees was the rapper Mouad Belghouat, also known as El-Haqed (the Enraged).
Conclusion: a Future for M20F?
In Morocco’s seemingly stable political context, it is difficult to provide a clear picture of M20F’s future. The PJD, which is leading the government, remains popular, as reflected in the results of partial elections recently held in Tangier, Marrakesh, and Fez.
While a number of possibilities seem likely, another explosion of political protests is not out of the question, despite recent denials by the Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs about the dangers of revolution.
Given the current political context, three distinct scenarios regarding the future direction of M20F are likely:
M20F will continue to decline in the foreseeable future, leading ultimately to its extinction. The likelihood of this is linked primarily to the magnitude of the PJD-led government’s achievements. This would require significant progress toward political reform—namely, a certain level of economic development accompanied by the consolidation of state institutions and the strengthening of the rule of law. This currently seems like the most likely possibility.
Popular agitation in Morocco has a history that goes beyond the political protests of 2011. Based on this history, the following causes could trigger a revolution: 1) a political crisis such as the resignation or dismissal of the government, which is very likely due to the accumulation of both internal and external pressure on the government, and which would incite political instability and deepen the severity of the political crisis; 2) a severe economic crisis, followed by inflation and increases in prices and the cost of living, which are not addressed by the government; or 3) JCO’s return to the streets, especially if the groups remain in legal limbo without formal political power.
If any of these scenarios came to pass, the marginalized and unemployed would swell the ranks of the political opposition, either through a resurgence of M20F, or through the establishment of another umbrella organization. A revolution would, however, only be possible if the means to achieve a political compromise within the movement are found.
Shift toward a Social Movement and the re-Emergence of Protests
It is also possible that M20F could shift from a protest movement into a more rooted social movement through deliberate institutionalization. In this case, the movement would overcome the obstacles that contributed to its organizational weakening. Institutionalization would involve establishing a more formal association or political party, and finding a suitable formula to accommodate internal divisions.
The biggest challenge to institutionalization is the ability to find new elites ready and able to effectively lead the movement. They must be conscious of the opportunities and constraints, and define the objectives of protests to address certain priorities, with the goal of becoming a pressure group or interest group, rather than a simple political protest movement.
*Mohammed Masbah is a Ph.D. Fellow at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) in Berlin.