February 20, 2010 was the day for the protests to start in Morocco. One day later, there is little sign of the thousands that marched in the streets of Rabat. People walk calmly along the main boulevard, men and women sip coffee at the café across from Parliament and the streets are clear of pamphlets. The only thing amiss is that metal barriers cordon off the main boulevard and police vans hover along the sides of the squares.
The day before, this had been the site of a protest of an uncommon but not overwhelming magnitude. The entire Mohammad V boulevard, the main drag in town, was been filled with protest groups, their chants resounding off the high rises, their mass snaking down from in from of Parliament and around the corner past the walls of the old medina. I defer to my academic director for an estimate of the attendance: about 1,500 in the morning. This is also in accordance with Facebook mathematics: 3,000 people said they’d attend the event on Facebook, putting real-life attendance expectations between 1,000 and 1,500. The day was a warm, sunny Sunday, so more people came out as the day went on (the protest inexplicably began at the ungodly hour of 10 am).
I was there around noon, and the atmosphere was intoxicating though the protest was orderly. I am always struck by how calm protests are. People were milling around, going about their Sunday business as the chants of a thousand people filled the air. As one girl in my program pointed out, it seemed like a parade. I mean, they were selling candy for gods sake. Still, there were all the trappings of a protest: the bullhorns, the chants, the flag-waving, signs calling for freedom, equality and democracy, written in an impressive array of languages (speaking to both the multilingualism of the Moroccan people as well as the importance of the international community’s attention) and the camera men high above the crowd.
There were some remarkably poignant moments: as a small fistfight broke out between either government sympathizers or plain-clothes policemen, people surrounded them and stopped the violence by praying on the lawn.
I’ve included some photos to give you an idea of the atmosphere.
As I watched with some friends from the sidelines, I noticed how the march truly did seem like a parade—there were noticeable separate groups, distinguishable by their slogan, chant and demographic. There was the group waving Palestinian and Egyptian flags—perhaps a Middle Eastern revolutionary pride group? Then there was a group lead by a man with a Che Guevara cape—Latin American-inspired radical socialist group? The most powerful though, was the veiled women holding photos of their presumably disappeared husbands, brothers, sisters, daughters and sons. To Western eyes, it was incredible seeing women with only their eyes showing demonstrating against human rights abuses. This movement of mothers organizing to demand the return of their disappeared family members dates back to the years of oppression during the previous king Hassan II. Just as the Madres de Plaza de Mayo of Argentina do, they use the sympathies and social immunity afforded to them as mothers to call for justice. One of my friends speculated that the conservative veiling was not in deference to modesty but instead to protect their identity. There also was a puzzlingly well organized group of men who walked in perfectly parallel lines. The different factions occasionally united to chant together, lead by veteran protesters who were recognizable by their standard issue revolutionary attire: army green coats, that checkered scarf (you know the one, what’s it called?) and defiantly held-up peace signs. However, these groupings speak to one of the weaknesses of the Moroccan protest movement.
Moroccans, like many around the world, like to protest. Protesters are a regular fixture outside Parliament. However, these protesters are rarely united by a single issue, making Sunday’s protest cohesive demand of reforming the structure of the government and possibly the constitution all the more unique and credible.
Still, there remains such a plethora of special-interest groups that there is no cohesive opposition party with clear demands. The result is that within the political sphere there is little possibility for real change. And this reality is why there should be any concern for unrest in Morocco. On the radio, my academic director heard a caller ask say that the protesters simply should create a party, call it the February 20th Party. Another caller responded and said the problem is that that party would not get any votes, there simply are too many competing parties out there. Perhaps because of the stratification of the parties, voter turn out is low, the last election only 37% of the eligible voting population participated. Obviously, political discourse in Morocco is lacking.
There are a few explanations for this—the electoral system, the diverse nature of Moroccan society, simply that there are a lot of things to complain about and the conspiracy theory—fractured opposition is easier for the king and his supporters to control.
The most well-known faction are the university protesters—unemployed graduates of public universities with degrees in “useless” majors like Philosophy, Biology and Islamic Studies (Computer Science and Communications are the surefire tracts to success here). These graduates are demanding the government provide them with employment. Their existence is a sign of how Morocco lacks a diversified economy to provide sufficient professional jobs, but their demands would lead, critics say, to an increase in inefficient, corrupt bureaucracy. According to my academic director (a Political Science professor among other things), in the lead up to these protests, this particular group was placated by a minister who promised them if they disbanded they would be employed by March. Abdelhay contends that if they had been present the protests would have been more “rowdy.”
In the Western media I have read so far, the protests I saw were represented in the most dramatic fashion possible while still clinging to some truth. There were some who in the North burned down a bank but they are probably people taking advantage of the situation rather than part of the organized revolution. For the time being, it seems all is calm on the Magharib front.
(that’s a really clever pun if you didn’t know. You see, Maghrib is the Moroccan word for Morocco. It also means West. Get it, huh?)