Morocco’s new high speed train, the fastest in Africa, is set to begin running this summer. It will connect the two major economic hubs of Casablanca and Tangier with the objective of facilitating business travel and interests in a country that boasts high levels of foreign direct investment and participates in several free trade agreements.
The cost of the project is set at $2.4 billion, with France providing loans for half the budget. Several Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait, are also investing in the scheme. With tickets that will cost at least thirty percent more than regular trains, this expensive high-speed transportation system, which is geared towards the country’s business elites and foreign visitors, is emblematic of the government’s push for economic reform in recent years. Against the backdrop of this neoliberal drive, however, several protests that shook the country in 2017 stand out.
The new train represents only one example of macroeconomic policies in Morocco targeting foreign direct investment and free market reforms. In 2016, the country opened an enormous solar power plant, set to be the largest in the world, as well as a major port and free trade zone around the northern city of Tangier. Like the train, these projects were largely financed by outside actors. According to the World Bank, foreign direct investment has steadily increased in Morocco’s energy, banking, tourism, and industrial sectors, with the highest levels occurring in real estate investment. The country’s GDP has more than doubled in the last twenty years, while the poverty level has declined in the past fifteen.
In line with this progress, the IMF agreed to a $3.47 billion loan (under a Precautionary and Liquidity Line arrangement) for Morocco in 2016. A year later, in an August 2017 statement discussing the arrangement, the financial institution praised the country’s “sound economic fundamentals and overall strong track record of policy implementation.” The IMF statement noted that its loan would be “useful insurance against external risks and supports the authorities’ economic policies.”
These institutional policies and statistics convey a very limited understanding of Morocco’s economic fitness. Indeed, according to the UN Human Development Index, Morocco is ranked as one of the weakest countries in the Middle East and North Africa, just ahead of war-torn Yemen and Syria. Many citizens still lack basic resources and education, especially in rural areas. Certain regions still have terrible roads and no accessible public transportation. Unemployment remains high, especially among youth, and the informal sector still employs a significant portion of the population. A major drought has greatly limited food production in the last two years, hurting the more than thirty percent of Moroccans employed in the agricultural sector and causing hikes in food prices, while also provoking serious concerns about water scarcity.
Protests Challenge Morocco’s Claims to Economic Development
These stagnant conditions and socioeconomic challenges contributed to a series of protests that shook the country’s political landscape in 2017. Some scholars have also attributed the new wave of demonstrations to heightened political consciousness in the years following the 2011 uprisings. Since then, attacks on press freedom and harsh crackdowns against protestors have further escalated tensions and highlighted the stark economic inequality that has long crippled Morocco.
The largest demonstrations to hit Morocco since 2011, protests began in October 2016, after the fish seller Mohcine Fikri was tragically killed in a garbage compactor. Police had confiscated his catch of swordfish, caught illegally out of season, and thrown it into the compactor. The death of the young fishmonger struck a chord with Moroccans tired of police abuse and corruption, and generally experiencing a sense of hogra, defined as the rage or humiliation people experience as a result of institutional injustice.
The initial protests mobilized people from all over the Rif region, who called for authorities to be held accountable for Fikri’s death. The movement became known as “Hirak Chaabi,” or “Popular Movement.” On social media, it was designated simply as “Hirak.” Hirak’s calls for accountability quickly expanded into demands for better health care and improved socioeconomic development, while also targeting corruption and police abuse. The movement’s largest mobilizations took place in Al Hoceima and surrounding towns in the Rif region, though solidarity protests also occurred in major cities around the country, such as Rabat and Casablanca, over the summer.
Throughout 2017, protests in the northern Rif region steadily developed after hundreds of leaders, activists, and journalists were arrested. Many of these individuals still remain in prison.
A series of smaller protests also began over the summer in the southern desert town of Zagora. These “thirsty protests” erupted in response to water shortages affecting entire neighborhoods in the southern region, each one lasting for significant periods of time. As the peaceful gatherings continued, authorities eventually stepped in and arrested seven people on charges of “unauthorized demonstrations.” Another protest, on October 8, turned violent, leading to the arrest of twenty-one people.
Tensions only worsened in November when fifteen women were killed and five others wounded in a food stampede in Sidi Boulaalam, a small town not far from the southern city of Essaouria. The town had been hosting a food distribution center where hundreds of people were attempting to obtain baskets of food. The event attracted several hundred people, much more than in past years, precipitating the chaos that led to the trampling.
Most recently in December, residents of the northeastern mining town of Jerada mobilized after two brothers, aged twenty-three and thirty, were killed when a tunnel collapsed in one of the town’s abandoned coal mines. According to France24, miners face incredibly dangerous conditions and health concerns, like the lung disease silicosis, and make only around 100 dirhams ($11) a day. There are few other employment opportunities in the town, besides this hazardous métier.
The resulting protests grew to the thousands, with residents echoing Hirak’s calls for more economic development and support from the government. The government promised to meet these demands, and in January 2018 Aziz Rebbah, Minister of Energy, Mines, and Sustainable Development, claimed he was “optimistic” about a “new model of development” for the region after a series of meetings with elected officials, civil society groups, labor unions, and representatives of the protest movement in Jerada. Unfortunately, however, the protests in Jerada have continued into 2018 as citizens of the town continue to wait for substantive change.
The government has made various promises for socioeconomic investment in the region, but little is happening. King Mohammed VI sent Aziz Akhannouch, the Minister of Agriculture and one of the richest businessmen in the country, to Jerada in January where he promised around 28 million dirhams (around $8 million) of agricultural investment. Protests continued after he left, however. After years of neglect and broken promises, government announcements about job creation, tourism and agricultural investments, and socioeconomic development are met with more skepticism than faith. Some demonstrators are now calling for the king himself to become more directly involved in the situation.
In Morocco, tangible reforms rarely ever come to fruition. Instead, short-term strategies designed to mitigate tensions while maintaining the political and economic status-quo are the norm. This was the case with political changes offered by the Palace in the aftermath of the 2011 protests.
The image of people dying to get access to food baskets in the small town of Sidi Boulalaam stands in stark contrast with Morocco’s favorable international image—which is rooted in good relations with Western countries and financial institutions, such as the IMF, a burgeoning tourism sector, high levels of foreign investment, and an ostensibly more tolerant and open society compared to other Middle Eastern and North African countries.
While certain regions of Morocco do benefit from better access to resources than others, the socioeconomic and political demands of the Hirak movements in the Rif are resonating throughout the country. As mega projects and foreign investment continue, the protests and tragic events of 2017 demonstrate the extent to which Morocco’s economic growth has failed to reach many of its citizens. Yet the media coverage, of the food stampede in particular, has been characterized by disbelief, both inside and outside the country. As many domestic activists have noted, however, Morocco’s poverty should be a shock to no one.