Three months after the first Arab Spring protests in Morocco, things are only getting hotter. Police violence against protesters has been escalating, and that is exactly how the protesters can win.
Back in January, I kept saying, “It won’t come here,” to worried friends and family as Tunisia and Egypt made history. Moroccans and expatriates traded theories about why Morocco was different, why the protests would never reach us. We were the “Morocco Exception;” we were not like the rest of the Middle East and North Africa. Meanwhile, protests began in other countries: Jordan, Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, Libya, and Syria. On February 20, when protests began in Morocco, I swallowed my pride and got a Twitter account.
February 20 came and went without much activity. I had stocked up on food and water ahead of time, just in case, and my local shopkeepers told me to stay home, warning that the “strikes” would be dangerous (people rarely called them “protests”). Tens of thousands marched around the country while some looters took advantage of the situation to rob and steal, but the king made no recognition of the protests. I thought it would end there; some young idealists had tried, and failed.
But another major round of protests came on March 20. Teachers joined in. More protests on April 24, then again on May 1 with the labor unions, and again every single weekend in May, with another major round of protests planned for June 5. Rather than fading away, these protests are continuing and growing in numbers, as more and more Moroccans take to the streets. The protesters have shown that they won’t give up until they see increased democracy, decreased corruption, the release of political prisoners, and an independent judiciary.
It doesn’t look like the king will be meeting those demands. Though he announced a constitutional reform plan on March 9, creating a committee that will give recommendations this month, critics contend that he chose the committee members himself, thereby tainting the group’s legitimacy. At the same time, Morocco was recently invited to join the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a Saudi-initiated organization currently composed of six Gulf monarchies. Saudi Arabia has already crushed protests within its own borders and did the same in Bahrain with support from other GCC member countries; the Saudis are clearly willing to support fellow monarchies. Moreover, it seems highly unlikely that the king, with his 8 palaces, a daily operating budget of almost $1 million dollars, over 50% in shares in the country’s major industries, and the authority to appoint the prime minister and dissolve parliament would readily give up such privileges.
Only the large number of Moroccans, who have watched from the sidelines, can break this impasse. When I left in April, most locals sided with the king and security forces, seeing the protesters as rabble-rousers or opportunists. And yet, frustration exists. I saw frustration about corruption at the top, and I heard it from intelligent, university-educated Moroccans who could only find work as cooks and taxi drivers. I saw it in the many who wanted to get out — or wanted me to get their children out — and I noticed it spray-painted on a post in a public square in Fez: “F*ck MVI” (referring to Mohammad VI).
However, frustration alone will do nothing. To succeed, protesters must continue to mobilize the latent frustration into action. Police violence against protesters could do just that, motivating more Moroccans to stand up for change.
Acts of violence have occurred throughout Morocco’s protests. On the first day, a police car tried to run over a protester in Tangier, and I’ve previously mentioned other beatings and arrests on PolicyMic. Until now, many Moroccans have not been bothered by this state brutality, some even supported it. Over and over in conversations about the protesters, Moroccans said, “Give them the stick.” But at protests on May 22, police were more publicly violent than they had been, and analysts predicted it would continue escalating. They were right; police beat protesting doctors on May 25, and used violence again this past weekend. A friend in Rabat said that riot police presence is greatly increased throughout the city; they are ready for the next round.
Tweets and blog posts exist only in the digital realm and most frustrations manifest merely as complaints, but police violence could push them both into concrete action. In a country where press is limited — not to mention inaccessible to 40% of the population due to illiteracy — human suffering still speaks, via words between friends and neighbors or a photo of a uniformed man beating a plainclothes citizen. We have already seen how effective police brutality was in Tunisia and Egypt. It hasn’t stopped protesters in Libya, and in Syria, it only encouraged the opposition. Will it really stop Moroccans?
That’s the problem with authoritarian regimes: They are their own ticking time bomb. Violence and intimidation allow them to frighten people into submission for a time, but only until citizens become angry enough to say no, angry enough to reclaim their human dignity. Fear can keep people down, but anger is motivating, and positive emotions like inspiration and hope are even more powerful. You can beat down a body, but never an idea. And sometimes, the more you beat the body, the more the idea grows.
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