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Economic Monopoly, Political Stalemate in Morocco

Some excerpts from How Morocco Dodged the Arab Spring, by Nicolas Pelham, which appeared on the New York Review of Books blog:

    “It is hard to ignore the royal court’s smugness at how they co-opted the Islamists to revive the monarchy’s legitimacy at its weakest hour. On the one-year anniversary of the King’s ‘historic’ March 9 speech ceding powers to a prime minister, the Moroccan state press, which usually commemorates royal anniversaries with religious attention, carefully avoided covering the event. ‘M6 [as the King is commonly known] was shaken to the core, and gave the biggest speech of his career pledging to open a new page,’ says Karim Tazi, a politically-active businessman who initially backed the protestors. ‘The way he changed his mind when the February 20 movement began to lose its way is shocking.’ …
    “But the King has not been able to resolve Morocco’s economic troubles. In his thirteen years on the throne, he has removed many of the shackles his father placed on modernization. Child mortality has fallen 30 percent in five years, and literacy is sharply up from previous appalling lows. Yet development projects seem mostly aimed at the country’s upper crust and at foreigners, who are feted by hoteliers in Marrakesh. Moroccan trains run on time, the streets are spotless, and motorways are being built across the country, while everyday life for many is staggeringly squalid. …
    “On the edge of nearby Jorf Lasfar, a fenced industrial zone containing a petrochemical and phosphates hub and a port which has pretensions to be the most modernized on Africa’s Atlantic coast, sheep pick through the detritus of nine cinder-block shacks scavenging for edibles smashed by police. The air is acrid with the exhaust of chimney stacks making money for German and American firms and Managem, the mining consortium which forms part of the royal portfolio. ‘The authorities told us we were squatting in an industrial zone,’ says Shakaroun, a jobless thirty-five-year-old, whose family lived in one of the nine. ‘They erected factories on our land without compensation, and then destroyed our homes.’
    “The primary school in Shakaroun’s village, meanwhile, is a picture of Dickensian neglect. Its doors hang from their hinges, chairs are missing their seats, flattened cardboard boxes cover holes in the roof, and the playground is a scrap of scrub. And it is just one of more than 15,000 primary schools the local press say lack drinking water and toilets. ‘Knowledge is the peak of happiness,’ reads the Orwellian slogan on the wall beneath the vacant windows of Classroom 3. And it is mockingly called Ibn Battuta, after Morocco’s fabled medieval traveler and man of letters. …
    “Ali Anouzla launched a popular news service, Lakome.com, on the Internet in the hope of bypassing state the censors, but the authorities simply frightened off his advertisers. Sitting almost alone in his office in Rabat, surrounded by banks of black computer monitors, even the coffee he sips makes him angry. Every time he adds a spoonful of sugar or drop of milk to his coffee, he says, he is boosting the profits of Société Nationale d’Investissement (SNI), the investment holding firm controlled by the king and his family. State subsidies on fuel, wheat and sugar all help the royal business. So too does a state road-building program, which uses royal cement. ‘King Hassan, his father, liked the symbolism of calling himself the first peasant, the first sportsmen, and the first artist,’ he says. ‘But with this king it’s real. He really is the country’s biggest banker, biggest farmer, biggest insurer and hotelier.’”

This article does a better job than most of showing how economic and social inequality are at the root of Morocco’s problems. Morocco shows a modernizing face to the world, with its high-speed trains and five-star hotels, but urban shantytowns and rural poverty are a stubborn reality behind the façade. It’s a bit like the legend of the “Potemkin villages” in which the Russian czar Catherine the Great toured the countryside to see how happy and prosperous the peasants were, but the colorfully decorated homes she saw were just an empty shell, and the peasants she saw dancing from a distance were actually being whipped.

Besides making the point that Morocco’s system benefits the wealthy elite far more than the people, Pelham’s article is also a report card on the first few months in power of Prime Minister Abdellah Benkirane, who has promised reform. The jist of it is that Benkirane is running up against the limits of his role, since real power, both policial and economic, remains with the king. Indeed, my friends in Morocco have felt all along that giving the PJD, Benkirane’s Islamist party, the chance to govern was largely for show.

The Arab Spring accomplished this much in Morocco, the arrival in power of a political party that had previously been outside the cozy circle of governance — but will anything really change? Or will the PJD in its turn, as the Socialist and Istiqlal parties before them, be blamed in the end for their lack of progress? In this view, politics in Morocco is a kind of theatre, designed to deflect blame onto elected leaders, while profit-taking and self-dealing among the elite continues its merry way. One thing I can say is that none of my friends knows what to do about this, because real change would require a chaotic upheaval none of them want to see.

The real problem seems to be the imbalance of prices and wages, along with unemployment which is alarmingly high. A restaurant worker or cashier might earn $150 a month, while a computer technician or language teacher might earn $300. Jobs in the public sector pay a bit more, but not everyone can work for the state, and more than half of young people have no job at all. Meanwhile, the price of clothing or electronics is about the same as in the U.S., while the price of staples like sugar or bread is maybe half. In Morocco as everywhere else, you get what you pay for. Obviously this works like a charm for the business class — among whom the king, through his holding company SNI, is the leading member — but far less for the workers or the unemployed. Can liberal reforms fix the problem, or are they just a salve on an open wound? And when will the elephant in the room, economic monopoly, become a matter for public debate?

My friend doga raised this very issue in his first post here back in 2006, which he titled Young Moroccans, A Neglected Future:

    “Confronted with [their desperate economic situation], young people start to wonder, ‘Why do I find myself in a house that is too small when there is someone living in a huge villa, or even a palace? Why are there people with Jaguars, when I struggle with what to eat each day? Why are Europeans better off than us? Is it because their officials and business owners love them, and our officials and business owners hate us?’ Despite the simplicity of these questions, they push us to wonder, ‘What methods and criteria are being used to distribute our nation’s wealth and its revenues?’ …
    “How can we speak of fighting poverty without discussing the way wealth and revenues are distributed? Keep in mind that a lack of justice in the distribution of wealth, revenues and resources is a basic factor contributing to poverty in Morocco.”

What’s sad is that after all these years, and even the Arab Spring, Morocco’s political system is still not up to the task of responding to my friend’s “simple” questions.

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