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Democracy and Its Obstacles

Taamarbuuta, an American living in Meknes who describes herself as “squandering away my mid-20s freelance writing and teaching,” wonders why young Moroccans don’t believe in the power of political action to bring change. She says that Moroccans love to sit around and brainstorm about their problems, but they hit the wall when it comes to moving into action, because they remember that power is not in their hands. She quotes some statistics—95% of young people don’t belong to any political party, 68% don’t trust politics—and asks why that is. She quotes, the news source sponsored by the U.S. Defense Department, to the effect that “The majority of Moroccans continue to criticise political parties…. This same majority thinks democracy does not exist in Morocco and subsequently refuse to ‘politicise themselves.'” She follows this with the question, “Why not start their own grassroots organizations to fix these simple problems they complain about?”

The fact is, there are grassroots organizations in Morocco, working on everything from cleaning up garbage to fighting sexual predators to helping women set up small, independent businesses. Some are sponsored by the Socialists, some by the Islamists, some directly by the king. It’s true that Morocco lacks the self-starter, do-it-yourself mentality we take for granted in the U.S., but the obstacles go deeper than that. Among the biggest are the size of the problems to be solved, the limited resources available, and the lack of cooperation by government officials, who often do what they can to block citizen action. I could tell the story of my own attempt to organize a group of volunteers to build a cultural website for the city of Larache, and some of the reasons it failed, but let me instead offer you the comment I left on Taamarbuuta’s post.

    Has it occurred to you that maybe the people cited in are right? Most people feel that despite appearances, the last legislative elections were rigged. Outright vote-buying is common, and in rural areas people vote for the local boss, who is often a drug dealer or some such thing. There are members of parliament who are there either for the legal immunity it gives them, or for convenient placement next to the flow of money, or both. A lot of people hoped that putting the Socialists in power last time would change things, since some of them were former political prisoners, but it hasn’t. Things are the same as always, if not worse. The only untested force now is the Islamist PJD. A lot of progressive young people look at the choices—more of the same, or bringing the Islamists to power—and they cringe. Wouldn’t you? Besides, they aren’t persuaded the elections will be any more transparent than last time.
    It will take a lot more than voting to make change happen. Either the king will do it in a top-down way, or it will take massive political mobilization at the grassroots, following a Gandhi-like consciousness-raising movement, and that isn’t ready to happen yet. Barring that, corruption and cronyism are likely to continue as before. And I’m speaking as an American, an optimist who believes in the power of the people.

The question of democracy and reform must be in the air, because on the same night I read a post by Ayoub, who blogs as Kingstoune, called Democratic Transition? Note the question mark. It reads as a confirmation of Taamarbuuta’s worst fears. Ayoub starts by talking about the “big disappointments” of the last few years, “political censorship, the signing of unequal trade agreements, diplomatic silence,” and goes on to complain about a political class that is both lazy and powerless. “Minimal weight in important decisions…absence of debate on important issues…in the last legislative session, less than half a new bill per member of parliament!” He shows exactly the same attitude that criticizes. “I am disappointed and pessimistic concerning the possiblity of real political change in Morocco…. Left wing, right wing, it’s all the same.” Yet his disgust with Moroccan politics doesn’t make him unpolitical. He is acutely aware of the need for change.

    We need immediate changes…in order to get started on the tranformation of a patrichal and feudal society into a democratic society, where the people express themselves freely through voting, newspapers, NGOs, and have an effect on our common destiny.

For Ayoub, the fact that a date has not yet been fixed for this year’s legislative elections is a bad sign. The political parties will have only a few months to prepare their platforms, choose their candidates, and start to educate the public. This shows that the political elite isn’t serious about giving people a voice.

    Seriously, a glimmer of interest in these elections would have filled me, and no doubt numerous other politically apathetic Moroccans, with excitement for politics and hope for influencing our future. Now the question I’m asking myself is, should we simply accept this state of affairs, and leave government to the “pure untouchables” because they know what’s best? Or…?

If I were to finish the phrase, it would be, “Or should we take things into our own hands?” Taamarbuuta finishes the phrase that way when she asks, “Why not start their own grassroots organizations to fix these simple problems…?” For that matter, why not get involved in political parties as activists and force change from within? Why not hold rallies, or organize concerts to encourage young people to vote? Why not mobilize bloggers in a Moroccan version of What about independent media, the power of citizens with a video camera or even a cell phone? What are you waiting for, Morocco?

I think that hovering as a cloud over all this is the feeling that the authorities won’t allow it—that change will happen their way, on their schedule, or it will be shut down. The constitution of Morocco is not like the constitution of France or the U.S. Authority is concentrated in the person of the king, and in the forces that answer directly to him, such as the police, the military, the courts and the mosques. He and a few loyal families apparently control about half the nation’s wealth. Any serious attempts at change will have to include revisions to the constitution designed to create a true separation of powers. This princlple has proven essential to liberty in the West.

Another obstacle is lack of agreement that democracy is even a good thing. There is certainly disagreement on the timing. BO18 is an example of the go slow approach. He is convinced that Morocco isn’t ready for control by the people, because they might hand over power to the Islamists of the PJD and Al Adl Wal Ihsane.

    I see the rise of Islamism as something terrible, since it clashes with the secular elite/middle class, the folk/native culture and the merchant classes of a society. Eventually leading to instability and maybe all out chaos. Thats why I hesitate promoting democracy in North Africa. […]
    I wonder if free elections are of any use for an uneducated society without a stable middle class. What is the use of free elections if the outcome results in instability, harsh reactions and stagnation? […] I wonder if Morocco really needs these elections. Do we need more instability caused by the fear of the ruling elite that the Islamists might take over? Is it really worth it…if this might endanger Morocco as a whole?

Instead he proposes calling off the elections, and concentrating more power in the king. As he puts it, “We have to make some temporarily sacrifices. Sacrifices that would tighten the king’s control on political activities. Yes I know that the king already has a lot of control….” He calls this “enlightened dictatorship” and says it is needed to get economic reforms on track. He sees economic reform as a precondition for political reform, because it will result in the emergence of a strong middle class.

    I definitely believe that Morocco isn’t ready to be a “normal” functioning democratic state. If we look at the country as a whole we see that it is too unstable. The middle class is just emerging, the educational level of the country is still shamefully low and economic reforms are not fully implemented yet. Of course, I would like to see Morocco as a fully functioning democracy. But…it would be more beneficial if economic reforms would be implemented first.

BO18 isn’t alone. During my travels throughout Morocco, I found people who hated the current system and wanted it overturned, but I found many more who defended the king as a symbol of national unity, saying that he is the only thing holding the country together. Their fear is that without the monarchy, Morocco would splinter into tribal or regional groupings, resulting in civil war as happened in Algeria. It is safe to say that no political figure inspires the same confidence as the king. In terms of vision and confidence, he comes off better than all the ministers and party leaders put together. No doubt some of this is the result of careful grooming of his image. Some is the result of his unique position, which lets him remain above the fray while others pursue their petty ambitions. And some of it is doubtless true.

One thing is clear. For many like BO18, the monarchy is the one thing standing in the way of a flood of Islamic conservatism they feel would be a disaster for the country. They see no alternative but to put off political reform for a few years. “Of course, I would like to see Morocco as a fully functioning democracy,” BO18 says. Just not today.

Ayoub and BO18 are almost the same age, and they have many other things in common. Both are self-confessed members of the elite, living in Europe, aware of history, comfortable with technology, and contributing to the debate. Both want freedom for Morocco in the long run. What leads them to such opposite conclusions as to what should happen next?

I don’t have any answers to this riddle, but I will say one thing. I have a boundless faith in the wisdom of the people. They make mistakes, but they learn from those mistakes and correct them. There is no other way. A baby learns to walk. A child learns to find her way to school. A young adult learns to go out into the world and live on his own. Moroccans won’t wait for their leaders to say, “You are ready to be free.” They will decide when it’s time, and that is the moment to trust them.

Let me close with a few quotes from the essay Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau. Written in 1849 in response to slavery and the Mexican-American War, it helped to inspire the peaceful revolutions of Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

    Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.
    Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward.
    The authority of government…to be strictly just…must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it. The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual.
    There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.


Comment from Ibn Kafka
Time: February 4, 2007, 13:52

Very interesting post, and I’m also on your side on this subject: I’ve never had any patience with people (invariably Moroccans) saying “Moroccans aren’t mature enough”, “Moroccans aren’t literate enough”, etc in order for the country to be allowed a democracy in any real sens of the word. This line of argument reminds me too much of what the despicable colonialists told our forefathers some decades ago – “the indigenous aren’t mature enough”, etc…

I also agree with your stand on democracy: it was never ever granted any people from above – even peaceful Switzerland had a civil war! Not that I advocate violence in the Moroccan context, very far from it, but democratic struggle, such as evidenced for example by Aboubakr Jamaï, the AMDH and others, is the only way to gain new rights.

Comment from Jill
Time: February 5, 2007, 17:58

Well put.

And I agree too with what Ibn Kafka said – it drives me nuts to hear my husband and plenty other Moroccans say that if Moroccans are handed the power to vote, they’ll just abuse it – that they aren’t mature enough for democracy.

I also want to clarify what I was saying before (although I take no issue with any of your quotes of mine) with a concrete example. Yesterday, I showed some students this article.

Their opinions, I kid you not: “It will never work.”

It’s THAT that I’m tired of hearing. Complete pessimism. And it scares me because this is the youngest generation I’m talking about – those who will have power in the next 15 years. But most would prefer to just leave, or to get a good job and live comfortably. Politics don’t interest Morocco’s youth.

Comment from eatbees
Time: February 5, 2007, 18:51

@Jill — The idea of reintegrating street kids into their families and schools IS amazingly tricky. My mom was a school psychologist before she retired, and even in the best of circumstances (a wealthy society with a theraputic, rather than disciplinary approach to these questions) it is hard to coordinate the authorities, the specialists, the families, and the kids themselves. Many kids may not want to go back, because they are fleeing from real problems and have gotten used to a certain freedom, however miserable it may be….

I know you were just using a specific case. In Larache I knew many people who were active in community groups that picked up litter, offered music and theatre programs to kids, offered solidarity to the families of those who had fled Morocco illegally on “pateras” (tiny, dangerous boats), provided jobs to unemployed college graduates, offered counseling to women fleeing abuse, or gave children a place to sleep who would otherwise be on the street. I got the sense that many of these programs were conducted in the teeth of more or less overt hostility from the corrupt, Mafia-like local authorities, whose interests they sometimes called into question. Many of my friends were well known to the police on account of their activism, although everything they were doing was well within the law.

When your students say “it will never work” they may be talking about the degree to which power is entrenched and able to resist change. They may also be talking about the need for a complete revolution in mentaility among the majority, who have survived years of repression and have adapted by learning to submit. Believe me, I know what you’re talking about, and I share your frustration at this tragedy and waste.

@Ibn Kafka — When you say, “This line of argument reminds me too much of what the despicable colonialists told our forefathers”—I guess you’re aware of the school of thought that says colonialism has never really ended in Morocco, but simply taken an “Arab face” !?

Winning true democracy will not be easy. Sacrifices have been made for some time, and more will be required. I have the sense that the overwhelming majority of Moroccans want it, and just as importantly, want it to happen peacefully. I am not among those who believe “nothing has changed, or ever will change.” Rather, because we ourselves evolve to keep in sync with the changes around us, we often aren’t aware of how far we have already come.

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