A Slow Death for Morocco’s Reformers

By Daniel N

The exit of an influential Islamist movement coupled with general acceptance of recent elections expedites what has been a slow and painful death for the February 20 reform movement.

On December 19, the Justice and Spirituality Movement (JSM), Morocco’s most influential (outlawed) Islamist group announced it was recinding its support from the February 20 reform movement. Named after the date in which mass protests erupted in Morocco, February 20 has suffered blow after blow to its momentum, limiting its efforts to pressure North Africa’s oldest Monarchy from real reforms.

February 20 activists demonstrate. (Maghrebia) The government has waged a campaign to isolate and de-legitimize the opposition.

In its outset, Morocco’s protest movement succeeded in drawing large numbers of citizens to the streets in cities across the country in what was perceived at the time to be an unstoppable wave of revolution across North Africa. Unlike the dictators in Tunisia and Egypt however, Morocco’s monarchy is a highly respected institution, meaning pressure for reforms was to be limited to a change within the system, not its overthrow.  In response to the protests, the King announced a series of reforms to be decided by referendum, while simultaneously embarking on a campaign to isolate and delegitimize the reform movement.  Using the state-run media, the government sought to portray the February 20 movement as a radical group of communists who had been infiltrated by Islamic extremists who aimed to destabilize the kingdom.

After a July 2011 referendum resulted in approval for the King’s suggested reforms, he slyly moved up the date for parliamentary elections by one year. In doing so, he prevented a number of newly authorized opposition parties from organizing themselves and garnering influence to garner seats in a newly empowered parliament. All the while, the February 20 Movement remained unconvinced, condemning the reforms and continuing to stage protests in on a weekly basis. As the parliamentary elections approached, the protests grew smaller and smaller in size, with their calls for boycotting polling falling on deaf ears. Meanwhile, the government continued to arrest prominent activists, while the media paid little attention to the protests themselves, which rarely attracted more than a few thousand people.

As expected, the parliamentary elections proceeded with little excitement, with apathetic Moroccans showing a predictably low turnout to elect the Party for Justice and Development (PJD), a moderate Islamist party. Following elections, the PJD has succeeded in working with the Monarchy to establish a working government, avoiding the prospects of renewed unrest by the party’s supporters.

In the aftermath of the widely accepted elections, the February 20 struggled further to condemn the slow pace of reforms. The reasoning behind the JSM pullout is a telling indicator of the government’s success in marginalizing Morocco’s main protest movement. A member of the group’s guidance council admitted that participation in the movement had resulted in their isolation from society and that a new deal with other groups was needed to restore their influence.  Despite their traditional ideological divides, the empowerment of the moderate PJD provides the JSM with an acceptable alternative and gateway back into the public sphere.

The remaining elements of the February 20 must now undertake a massive overhaul of their ideology and methodology if they are to survive. Morocco’s economic situation may provide the answer, pending that the King’s efforts at liberalization end in the widening of the gap between rich and poor.  With all said and done, the odds for a rebounding of Morocco’s protest movement are not in their favor. However, if the Arab Spring has taught the world one lesson, it is that a single act of police brutality or self-immolation can quickly spiral into a government-toppling revolution. In today’s Middle East, always expect the unexpected.

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