Morocco – Some development promises look inadequate to calm protests

PUBLISHED: Fri, 28 Jul 2017 13:18:49 GMT

François Conradie | NKC African Economics

The government has announced new development plans in the region of Al-Hoceima, where protest energy has been high for some month, in an effort to defuse the protest movement.

One of the main demands of the hirak al-chaabi, the people’s movement, has been an improvement in healthcare infrastructure; on Monday, July 24, health Minister Houcine Louardi duly announced that six new health centres would be built in the region and 28 others re-equipped, for a total budget of Dh65m. He was speaking in Al-Hoceima itself.

The health minister’s promise was the latest in a number of efforts made by the government over the summer to defuse the Hirak, which was born out of a spontaneous movement of dissent that followed the gruesome death of a fishmonger in Al-Hoceima in October, in an incident that involved the police.

Protests have been taking place at a higher level since late May, when an informal leader of the movement, Nasser Zafzafi, and a number of other protesters were arrested.

There was an especially notable protest on Thursday, July 20, which was repressed with some force by the police. One protester is reportedly brain-dead after a blow to the head.

We heard from Moroccan sources while on a recent country visit that there were differences between the army and police about how to deal with protesters, with the army urging restraint and the police keen for a more forceful response.

Morocco’s interior ministry retains some institutional memory of its brutal character in the ‘years of lead’ under the late King Hassan II and the notorious Driss Basri, and the persistence of these instincts is a big part of the problem.

More than 200 people are reportedly in detention for their roles in protest, not only in the Rif region around Al-Hoceima but also in other towns and cities in Morocco, where sympathetic expressions of dissent have been taking place.

Ministers have been banned from going on summer holiday, and King Mohammed VI has reportedly been paying closer attention to projects that have been neglected in the Rif.

Justice Minister Mustapha Ramid – from the Islamist Party for Justice and Development (PJD), whose relationship with the palace and the Moroccan old guard is worsening – has explicitly mentioned “the dysfunction of development programmes in the region” as a catalyst for the protest movement.

The official narrative – that the king was unaware of delays in the implementation of programmes in the Rif, and that politicians must take the blame – is not entirely honest, but if accepted is probably best for stability.

It is likely that there will be some sackings in the coming days and weeks, and some analysts have started talking about the possibility that the king might use his wide-ranging royal prerogatives to pardon some detainees on Throne Day, on Sunday, July 30; such public holidays are usually the occasion for some pardons of prisoners or detainees.

Promises made by government have not succeeded in calming protesters, whose main demand at the moment is the liberation of their comrades.

The tightly controlled media environment in Morocco further complicates analysis and has led Moroccans on social media and in conversation to draw parallels (exaggerated, in our opinion) with events in 2011 in Libya, Syria and Egypt.

The events are only referred to obliquely in mainstream dailies and usually not at all on television news. When there is coverage, it is apparent that editors are seeking to paint the protesters in the worst possible light, to the extent of being prepared to falsify reporting.

So two television channels – SNRT and Medi1TV – received warnings from the Higher Council on Audiovisual Communication (CSCA) for using footage of rioting related to a football match in March and telling viewers the scenes were of more recent hirak-related unrest.

Mobile internet services have been sporadically shut down in Al-Hoceima, and on Thursday Hamid Al-Mahdaoui, news editor for Al-Badil, was arrested for encouraging people to protest.

We think Moroccans’ fears of actual armed conflict are exaggerated – the Muslim Brotherhood, which was instrumental in boosting protest energy in other countries in 2011, is internationally weakened and has never been very strong in Morocco, while international actors like Saudi Arabia and the US which have backed anti-regime forces elsewhere are friendly with Rabat.

But the problems that sparked the Hirak run deep, and addressing them in a sustainable way will require more than a few Dh65m cheques.

Healthy economic development in the kingdom can only come at the expense of elite interests, including those of the billionaire king himself, and all recent signs indicate that the elite has only become more ambitious.

These moves have also sidelined the PJD, even though it came first in the 2016 general election, and many Islamists will accordingly tend to be more partial to street action or worse, to look into joining jihadist networks.

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