The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Benchemsi: the history of Morocco's #feb20

Ahmed Benchemsi, the former editor of the popular French-language weekly Tel Quel, has written a valuable essay retelling the story of the emergence of the February 20 movement in Morocco and its subsequent fading as the monarchy regained the initiative. He concludes:

At the time of writing (March 2012), the freshly appointed Benkirane cabinet still enjoys a honeymoon with the people. This may last a few more months, maybe a year. But then what? The sources of the 2011 revolt are still in place. Corruption, a major factor for discontent, is at peak level. Morocco’s position on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index has been worsening for years, going from 52nd in 2002 to 80th in 2011. Unemployment is also higher than ever, especially among university graduates (the official rate is 19% in 2011). Given the depth of these problems and the profound structural reforms that they require, the odds are small that Mr. Benkirane and his government assuage popular anger quickly enough.

With months passing and the economy degrading, in the absence of democratic freedoms developed enough to act like a safety valve, serious street protesting is likely to resume. The question is by whom the next round of popular anger will be channeled; and if so, whether or not this will be done properly to seize the momentum and maintain it while exerting efficient—and this time, focused—pressure on the Makhzen. The PJD cannot play that mobilizing role anymore, now that it has been closely associated to the Makhzen. The remaining activists movements that can do the channeling are Al Adl Wal Ihsan or, maybe, a reformed Feb20-like coalition—provided Morocco’s democratic and secular activists learn lessons from the 2011 fiasco and manage to build a real grassroots movement with an identified and appealing agenda.

I'm not sure I agree with his take that the emergency of a coherent liberal movement will be enough to change things (it will need to be broader than strictly liberal). Benchemsi is a figurehead of secularism in Morocco, a cause he advocated with his magazine with some success but that remains fairly alien to most Moroccans, whether among the educated middle class or the rural poor. The question in Morocco may be how to articulate an idea of reformist secularism that is not, as Tel Quel sometimes was, hostile to traditional values. He has written here a good first draft of the history of the radicals' role in the emergency of this movement (and more broadly the movement for democratic change in Morocco), but a chapter on its mainstreaming still awaits.