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Thu January 19, 2012

For Moroccan Activists, The King's Reforms Fall Short

Originally published on Fri January 20, 2012 7:42 am

When a pro-democracy movement took to the streets of Morocco last February, King Mohammed VI, who has been on the throne for more than decade, responded swiftly.

Within weeks, the king had proposed a new constitution and snap elections. The Moroccan example of reforms without violence was hailed by some as a model.

But nearly a year later, protesters are still on the streets, like Abdullah Abaakil, a full–time democracy activist in Casablanca, Morocco's biggest city. Over coffee, the 41-year-old business executive explains that he quit his job because the protests, known as the Feb. 20 movement, changed his life.

"When the movement started, I just felt that there is hope in this country," he says.

Since that first protest a year ago, there has been some change. A new constitution was approved in a referendum, and an open parliamentary election was held in November. An Islamist party now heads the government, but the king remains the most powerful political and economic force in the country, says Abaakil, so he organizes weekly protests to keep up the pressure.

"Because what you get in staying silent is worse than what you get shouting in the street. ... It is new [for Moroccans] because fear is an important pillar of the system," he says.

Regular Protests

At a demonstration in Sidi Mo'men, a slum on the outskirts of Casablanca, about 500 activists gather on the main avenue. Many demonstrators are young and middle class. Speaking to the neighborhood's poor residents, they chant, "Wake up," and " Become aware." Some people watch from apartment windows; others edge closer. The police are out in force but don't interfere. Abaakil arrives with his mother, who is also an activist.

He says the scene is typical. Activists get the protest going, and when they start marching, neighborhood residents join in.

This rally ends in a noisy parade, with more than a thousand residents taking part. These weekly protests have thinned considerably compared to a year ago, says Karim Tazi, a Casablanca businessman who supports the movement. But he says success shouldn't be measured by numbers.

"There is an awaking of Moroccan political conscience," he says, adding that Moroccans are no longer afraid to speak out.

"When you see Moroccan people speak to their king and record their speech on YouTube, and believe me, they don't say only nice things," he says. "On Facebook, every day people criticize the regime, the king himself."

This is new. Three years ago, a magazine editor was jailed and his publication closed over an opinion poll that asked the question: Do you approve of the king? It got a favorable answer of more than 90 percent. But the prosecutor argued that the monarchy cannot be judged, and therefore it was a criminal offense.

King Still Sets The Agenda

A grass-roots democracy movement has won for Moroccans a way to demand a better-functioning political and economic system. And the king broke the pattern of Arab rulers; instead of hunkering down, he moved quickly, appointing a royal commission that wrote the new constitution.

But journalist Ahmed Benchamsi says the king still determines the pace of change.

"The monarchy outfoxed them with this new constitution that basically takes nothing of the king's absolute power, but is just presented in a better way. He played for time, skillfully, actually," he says.

But how much time does he have, asks Benchamsi, when the number of Moroccans living in poverty has risen sharply in the past decade and the youth unemployment rate is 30 percent?

"The reasons why the protest started in this country are still here," he said. "Injustice is still here, impoverishment is still here, economic difficulties are still here, so sooner or later people will take to the street again."

That's the calculation of activist Abdullah Abaakil.

"What we are doing is like teaching each other how to work in democracy," he says. "It's a long process, but it's OK. We adapt. We are a movement that adapts."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Many Arab countries had popular uprisings last year. Morocco seems to be an exception. Last winter, a pro-democracy movement there did demand limits to the power of King Mohammed the Sixth, and within weeks, the king proposed a new constitution and elections. Morocco was hailed as a model. But now, a year later, protesters are still on the streets. NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Abdullah Abaakil is a full-time democracy activist in Casablanca, Morocco's biggest city. Over coffee, the 41-year-old business executive explains that he quit his job because the February 20th movement changed his life.

ABDULLAH ABAAKIL: So when the movement started, I just felt that there is hope in this country.

AMOS: And since that first protest a year ago, there's been some change: a new constitution approved in a referendum, open parliamentary elections in November, an Islamist Party now heads the government. But the king remains the most powerful political and economic force in the country, says Abaakil, so he organizes weekly protests to keep up the pressure.

ABAAKIL: Because what you get in staying silent is worse than what you get shouting in the street.

AMOS: And that is so new for Moroccans to do?

ABAAKIL: It is new, it is new, because the fear is an important pillar of the system.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language)

AMOS: This demonstration is in Sidi Mo'men, a slum on the outskirts of Casablanca. Morocco has one of the largest gaps between rich and poor in the Arab world. About 500 activists gather on the main street. Young and middle class, they chant wake up, become aware to some of the country's poorest. Some watch from apartment windows. Others edge closer. The police are out in force, but don't interfere. Abaakil arrives with his mother, who's also an activist.

Is this what it always looks like?

ABAAKIL: Yeah, at the beginning, yes, because there is just the activists. And when we start marching, the march is growing when the people from the neighborhood join the march.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language)

AMOS: The rally ends in a noisy parade. More than a thousand residents join in. These weekly protests have thinned considerably compared to a year ago, says Karim Tazi, a Casablanca businessman who supports the movement. But there's a better way to measure success, he says.

KARIM TAZI: There is an awaking of Moroccan political conscience.

AMOS: And Moroccans are no longer afraid to speak out.

TAZI: When you see Moroccan people speak to their kings and record their speech on YouTube - believe me, they don't say only nice things. On Facebook, every day, people criticize the regime, the king himself.

AMOS: This is new. Three years ago, a magazine editor was jailed, his publication closed over an opinion poll. The question, do you approve of the king, got a favorable answer of more than 90 percent, but the prosecutor argued that the monarchy cannot be judged. It was a criminal offense.

A grassroots democracy movement has won for Moroccans a way to demand a better functioning political and economic system. And the king broke the pattern of Arab rulers. Instead of hunkering down, he moved quickly, appointing a royal commission that wrote the new constitution. But Journalist Ahmed Benchamsi says the king still determines the pace of change.

AHMED BENCHAMSI: The monarchy outfoxed them with this new constitution that basically takes nothing of the king's absolute power, but just is presented in a better way. He played for time - skillfully, actually.

AMOS: But how much time, asks Benchamsi, when the number of Moroccans living in poverty has risen sharply in the past decade and youth unemployment is at 30 percent.

BENCHAMSI: The reasons why the protests started in this country are still here. Injustice is still here, impoverishment is still here, economic difficulties are still here. So sooner or later, people will take to the street again.

AMOS: That's the calculation of activist Abdullah Abaakil. We can rebuild the February 20th movement, he says, learn new ways to protest.

ABAAKIL: I mean, what we are doing is like teaching each other how to work in democracy. It's a long process, but it's OK. We adapt. We are a movement that adapts.

AMOS: And Moroccans have adapted to a new political power that doesn't come from the palace or the ballot box, but from streets in cities across the country.

Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.