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Morocco’s Early Adopters

A few years ago, I wrote in my private journal about how social mutants can become heroes in times of stress.

    “When a society remains stable for a long time, the majority who obey its rules are its anchor and its strength — hence the term ‘solid citizens.’ But when a society is in flux and its conditions are changing, the old adaptations no longer work, and it is likely that those at the fringes, the outcasts and eccentrics, will discover qualities that had previously been shunned but are now eminently useful for the survival of the community — precisely because they are eccentric by the common definition, and thus in closer proximity to the new, emerging reality. In this way, those who had been despised become the new heroes, due to their possession of qualities which had never before been put to the test.”

I couldn’t help but be reminded of this when I read an article in Time by Ahmed Benchemsi, the celebrated editor of Nichane and Tel Quel who has gone on to greener pastures in the U.S.

    “For several years, groups of Moroccans have been using the power of social media — as well as the ability to attract the conventional media — to clamor for the freedom of belief, sexual liberty (notably for gays) and other individual freedoms that had until then been unthinkable.
    “The country’s conservative majority was suitably horrified, but the young activists were able to rally growing constituencies among human-rights advocates, leftist groups and the middle-class youth. Even so, the core group of renegades continued to be perceived as little more than a bunch of crazy kids — until they and their sympathizers spearheaded the most powerful wave of change since the kingdom’s independence, half a century ago.”

The activists of the February 20 movement are pioneers of something new in Morocco, a breach in the silence. Now things are debated in public that were spoken of only within one’s intimate circle just a few months ago. If the movement has one central demand (and it does), it is a reexamination of the state from the ground up, since the people can only be governed with their consent. The challenge to the existing order is fundamental, and now that it has come out in the open, it can never be wished away.

Naturally this causes discomfort to tradition-minded folks, who worry that it will open the Pandora’s box of fitna, or division. “Don’t go there,” they say. “It will only bring trouble.” No matter what humiliations they may have endured in their lives, they imagine a society in chaos and fear it could be worse. Can the Moroccan people truly govern themselves? Can donkeys become men? No one has tried it before, so it is a leap into the unknown. Better the misery they know than to risk the impossible.

On February 20, the day of the first protests, I was shocked when I left my apartment to discover that a nearby square, usually a bustling hub of fruit stands, pastry shops, and sandwich restaurants, was shut up tight. Even the next day, our neighborhood grocer wouldn’t open his shop all the way, but stood outside with the gate down until clients passed by. I laughed at this, because it was such an overreaction. Far better to benefit from the extra business the protests would bring! It’s true that there was a night of mayhem in some of the outlying districts of the city — car windows broken, a bank branch burned — but this had nothing to do with the protests themselves. It was opportunistic hooligans who came in after the marchers had gone. In any case, all the marches since then have gone off without a hitch, unless it was the forces of order themselves who broke the calm.

It’s true that the shopkeeper class must believe that daily life would be better off without such troubles. These hardworking folks barely make enough as it is, and the loss of a day’s business is nothing to shrug off. My friend Zakaria wrote a report from the scene of the April 29 march in Casablanca, which took place (by design) in a popular neighborhood rather than in the city center. This was the march that produced the startling video, now famous, of police clubbing a mother who was just a bystander, as her little boy runs away in panic. Zakaria reports that even before the march began, the attitude of some local shopkeepers was hostile, and the authorities did their best to stoke these fears.

    “[A few hours before the protest, a friend told me] ‘Zakaria, I was out for a walk and I noticed there are many secret police and the worst is that some inhabitants are going to submit complaints at the police station against the Feb 20 movement.’ Later, when we arrived to the neighborhood we realized that local authorities represented by ‘mukadem’ and ‘sheikh’ (very low officials) were asking shop keepers and cafés owners to do that claiming that their commercial interests were damaged because of the previous protest. Local authorities as I know from my friends who live in the neighborhood were also asking those people to display signboard on their shops on which they wrote, addressing the Feb 20 movement: ‘get out of our neighborhood,’ ‘who asked you to speak on our behalf,’ ‘don’t get into our affairs’ and such.”

Obviously, no one wants to see a running street battle in their neighborhood. In this case the battle was one-sided, as the video shows — police on foot or on motorcycles, wielding batons, thrash out almost at random, as their prey do their best to run away or evade the blows. There are two possible reactions from local residents who were caught up in events. The first is to blame the protesters for bringing these troubles to their streets. If there had been no march, there would have been no confrontation, and that mother and her child would have gone unmolested. The other response, perhaps more logical, is to blame the source of the violence, the baton-wielding policemen. If the state keeps acting like this, it will expose a brutal and thuggish side which is already well-known to Moroccans from years of unhappy experience. Those who thought the tiger had changed its stripes in recent years will be disabused of their fantasies. But whether you blame the protesters or the authorities, the choice is a painful one. Either you admit that you live in a country where those charged to protect you are capable of turning their batons against women and children, or you bear the burden in silence because you fear social division. This choice already existed before February 20, but the marches are bringing it into the open. Many will blame the protesters at first, but that could change.

I put it to Zakaria in this way:

    “Those who are agitating for change must accept that many people, even the majority, will in the beginning see what they are doing as disruptive, as an unnecessary attack on the social order. But the social order isn’t good in itself, but only insofar as it delivers other, greater goods — like justice and prosperity, for example. So a social order that isn’t providing these goods must be challenged, even torn, before it can be remade in a better way. The test for the people is to weigh the price of change against the price of things staying as they are. Either one is painful, and the activist offers them this painful choice. So he is seen as disruptive, and is blamed for the problem — but the problem was already there, he just exposed it. Eventually, if the activist is right, people will calculate that the pain is greater in staying the same than in changing, and they will decide to change. But in the early stages, the activist must endure being seen as the cause of the pain.”

Does this sound like the quote from the top of this piece, about those who are seen as “outcasts and eccentrics” turning out to be heroes? I think this is the root of any struggle, not just political ones. We could be talking about jazz music, or the invention of the PC. Extraordinary conditions require extraordinary responses, and those who go where others will not, learn those responses before the rest. As I said in my last piece, by shedding the constraints of political parties and recognized leaders, February 20 activists are exposing themselves to more risk, including the risk of being hated, for now, by the shopkeeper class. But they are also learning techniques of networking, collective planning, and communication that will be invaluable in a new, democratic Morocco. They are a democratic mutation, which must seem strange to many Moroccans who have never seen such a rare bird — but they would be completely normal in the streets of New York, Barcelona, or Paris. They are an essential part of what democracy means, and Morocco will never be democratic without them.


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