Morocco Consolidates Its Authoritarianism

Al-hogra, a North African colloquial term meaning humiliation, degradation, and abasement, drove another vulnerable Moroccan to self-immolate out of utter powerlessness and despair in the face of the authorities’ oppressive treatment. Twenty-five-year-old street vendor Yassine Lekhmidi was beaten and his cart, the only source of his livelihood, was confiscated by police officers. Angered by their humiliating act, he set himself on fire on July 28, 2021, and died 10 days later. This incident parallels the self-immolation of Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, whose act spurred the Arab uprisings of 2011 in response to similar dire realities he had to endure. Immediately after Lekhmidi’s death, protests erupted in his impoverished town of Sidi Bennour.

Persistence of Poor Socioeconomic Conditions

Over the last decade, suicides for some Moroccans and street protests for others have become the means of last resort to protest the hogra and bring attention to their cause, in an attempt to effect change. Despite the state’s containment policies and the violent suppression of the 2011-2012 demonstrations led by the popular February 20 Movement for political democratic reform, socioeconomic protests continued in Morocco, reaching a crescendo in late 2016 and 2017 with the Hirak movement in the marginalized northern Rif region. The Hirak was triggered by the death of Mouhcine Fikri, a fish seller who was crushed to death by a trash compactor as he was trying to retrieve his confiscated fish. The Hirak of the Rif drew national and transnational solidarity among Moroccans inside and outside the country who were united against the hogra. The movement experienced heavy-handed repression by the state; its prominent leaders, including Nasser Zefzafi, were given excessive sentences reaching up to 20 years in prison.

Notwithstanding minor improvements, persistent marginalization of the northern Rif region—and of vulnerable groups in Morocco in general—will most probably trigger more popular unrest.

Notwithstanding minor improvements, persistent marginalization of the northern Rif region—and of vulnerable groups in Morocco in general—will most probably trigger more popular unrest against the central government. From December 2017 until March 2018, Moroccans in Jerada, a marginalized mining town on the border with Algeria, protested the accidental death of two informal miners and demanded job creation and the improvement of their socioeconomic conditions. Similar to other protests, the authorities resorted to violent suppression. Indeed, the streets of the country have been a fertile ground for perpetual social unrest and protest. It is clear that Morocco sits on a powder keg of social, economic, and political grievances.

Failure of the Political Process

The continuous popular frustration and discontent reflect a fact that the political class is not being responsive to the people’s legitimate demands, which has resulted in growing disillusionment and distrust of the political system. In a democracy, citizens can exercise their electoral rights to express a temporary withholding of trust from their government. However, in Morocco, the electoral route reproduces the same system of governance whose representatives are not accountable to the electorate but subservient to the interests of the royal court, the Makhzen. This explains the perpetual social unrest and the increasingly low turnout from one election cycle to another. The Arab Opinion Index of 2019-2020 found that 57 percent of Moroccans considered political conditions in their country to be bad or very bad. Forty-nine percent had no confidence in their parliament to oversee the government. The irony is that the lack of trust, the continuing protests against the hogra, and the state’s use of brutal force against peaceful protests are growing in a country that is allegedly in a process of political, economic, and social reform. The reality on the ground belies the democratization and reform process that the regime claims to have been incrementally implementing since the ascension of King Mohammed VI to power in 1999 and the constitutional reforms of 2011.

The reality on the ground belies the democratization and reform process that the regime claims to have been incrementally implementing since the ascension of King Mohammed VI to power in 1999 and the constitutional reforms of 2011. 

Back in 2011, the king promised serious constitutional reforms, only to backtrack in 2012 and later by suppressing the February 20 Movement when popular uprisings in the Arab world were beginning to be suppressed by coercion. The second major setback was in 2017 when the king initially maneuvered to neutralize the charismatic reelected incumbent, Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane, and replaced him with the more subdued and compliant Justice and Development Party figure, Saadeddine Othmani. Afterward, the Makhzen responded with brutal violence against the popular Hirak of the Rif. By mid-2017, the royal court retreated from the brief political opening and restored the pre-2011 status quo, ushering in an “entrenched neo-authoritarian system.” This authoritarian core of the Makhzen continues to stifle any meaningful transition to democracy in Morocco.

The monarchy still monopolizes the religious, political, and economic powers that secure and consolidate King Mohammed VI’s ultimate and supreme authority in the country. This is why the alleged political pluralism is primarily a façade, especially that political parties must accept the primacy of the king and continuously show their submission and loyalty to the palace to guarantee their political survival. The declared “2011 constitutional reform” did not ultimately establish the proclaimed political change that the king promised; rather, it maintained and consolidated the power of the centralized executive monarchy, the Makhzen. The king presides over the Council of Ministers where major policy decisions are made, ensuring that he has complete control over the government’s actions. This reality denies Morocco any status of a democratizing country.

There is also a major discrepancy between the claims of the royal court regarding democratic freedoms and respect for human rights and rule of law, and the actual conduct and practice of the monarchy toward its citizens. An equitable and just rule of law is conditioned on the existence of an independent judiciary; however, the Moroccan judicial and legal system is under the control of the monarch. Although the 2011 constitution strengthened the independence of the judiciary as separate from the legislative and executive powers, as enshrined in article 107, the king nevertheless presides over the Superior Council of the Judiciary (article 56) and, by decree (dahir), makes appointments to the Superior Council of the Judicial Power (article 57). The king also designates six of the 12 members of the Constitutional Court and appoints one of them as the president of the court (article 130). Ironically, and in a glaring contradiction, the constitution stipulates in article 107 that the monarch guarantees the judiciary’s independence. In 2014, the interior ministry banned a sit-in by the independent Judges’ Club, which was demanding greater independence of the judiciary from executive and legislative powers, and from social and political lobbies, as the president of the club, Yassine Mkhelli, proclaimed.

Limits on Journalists and Activists

The Makhzen has been increasingly seeking a compliant press by muzzling the dissenting voices of journalists, even though the constitution, in its articles 25 and 28, guarantees the freedoms of thought, opinion, expression, and press without any restrictions. However, these constitutional rights are not defended and protected by the judiciary: the judicial system is being manipulated by the Makhzen to silence press activists, human rights defenders, civilians, bloggers, and others when it deems necessary.

Journalists and activists are tried and punished by the penal code instead of under the new Press and Publications Code of 2016, which protects them from imprisonment for expressing critical opinions. 

Journalists and activists are tried and punished by the penal code instead of under the new Press and Publications Code of 2016, which protects them from imprisonment for expressing critical opinions. Morocco ranks 136 out of 180 in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, regressing three positions as compared to 2020. This reflects an increasing crackdown on freedom of opinion and expression. Moroccan authorities have been targeting opposition press and jailing journalists on dubious charges. In March 2021, Akhbar Al-Youm, one of Morocco’s last critical daily media outlets, shut down after 14 years of service. State-sector advertisers boycotted the newspaper and the government withdrew aid to it (the assistance had been provided to the media in response to the COVID-19 pandemic). To be sure, this tactic is often used against independent and opposition newspapers. Taoufik Bouachrine, the publisher of Akhbar Al-Youm, is serving a heavy prison sentence of 15 years for multiple charges, including human trafficking, sexual assault, rape, prostitution, and harassment. Local journalists and press freedom advocates say they believe these trumped-up charges are a retaliatory measure against his critical reporting. The UN report that was issued by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention stated that these charges have been “unfounded” and there were levied as “retaliation for his journalistic work.”

Journalist Soulaimane Raissouni, the former editor in chief of Akhbar Al-Youm, was also persecuted by the regime for being an outspoken critic of government corruption and human rights violations and an advocate of political reform. Critically ill as a result of a hunger strike, Raissouni is serving five years in prison on questionable sexual assault charges. The US State Department criticized Rabat on these charges and urged Morocco to protect press freedoms. State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters: “We believe the judicial process that led to his verdict contradicts the Moroccan system’s fundamental promise of fair trials for individuals accused of crimes, and is inconsistent with the promise of the 2011 constitution and His Majesty King Mohammed VI’s reform agenda.” Raissouni’s niece, independent journalist Hajar Raissouni, also worked for the same newspaper and was sentenced to a year in jail for alleged premarital sex and having an abortion. She was later pardoned by King Mohammed VI. Omar Radi, an investigative journalist whose work is mainly focused on corruption and human rights violations and who was a former activist in the February 20 Movement and the Hirak of the Rif, was recently sentenced to six years on charges of espionage and sexual misconduct.

In this stifling and threatening atmosphere, several journalists like Hajar Raissouni, Hicham Mansouri, and Afaf Bernani have opted for self-exile. “Today, every journalist in the country—and there aren’t that many left—is scared of being targeted next,” Moroccan freelance journalist Aida Alami told the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The state is targeting independent journalists and activists to discredit and distort their reputation using defamation campaigns, character assassination, and accusations of moral and sexual impropriety.

The state is targeting independent journalists and activists to discredit and distort their reputation using defamation campaigns, character assassination, and accusations of moral and sexual impropriety that clash with the general conservative values of Moroccan society. The Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor listed more than 30 pro-monarchy websites and newspapers involved in these slander and defamation campaigns. This new tactic attempts to deprive the accused journalists and activists of any public sympathy and solidarity. Le Desk reporter Imad Stitou said the following: “In general, when journalists were facing anti-state charges, they were considered heroes, gaining so much popularity. Today, when a journalist is accused of shameful crimes like rape, it is guaranteed that public opinion will perceive them as unethical.”

Journalists were surveilled using the Israeli-developed Pegasus mobile phone spyware to collect personal information and create fabrications around their private lives, and later indict them on dubious charges—as they did with Taoufik Bouachrine, Maati Monjib, Omar Radi, and others. Amnesty International and Forbidden Stories’ investigation, the Pegasus project, said that the Moroccan government targeted at least 35 journalists with the spyware it acquired from the NSO Group. In doing so, the regime is flagrantly violating the right to privacy that is enshrined in the Moroccan constitution: article 24 guarantees the right to the protection of Moroccans’ private life and states that private communications are inviolable.

Moreover, Morocco bought mass surveillance technologies, called Evident, that allow surveillance of emails and mobile phone calls at the level of an entire country. Also, in 2011, Morocco invested €2 million in a surveillance system, named Eagle, which allows censorship and mass monitoring of internet traffic.

It is apparent that the regime aims to muzzle dissent and create a general atmosphere of fear in order to deter criticism of the government and force self-censorship. The increasingly repressive practices of the Makhzen indicate that Morocco is moving toward a monarchical police state. This is reflected in heightened control by the Ministry of the Interior, security apparatus, and intelligence services over the liberty and freedoms of ordinary citizens. Such policies belie the purported transition to a democratic constitutional monarchy, a picture the regime attempts to paint for the international community.

Transition to democratic rule requires Morocco to free the institutions of the state from the dictates and the stranglehold of the Makhzen. Morocco should also improve its human rights record in accordance with its own constitution and laws and the UN declaration of Human Rights, to which Rabat is a signatory. The Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor calls for the Moroccan government to allow the special rapporteur on arbitrary detention and international organizations to visit Moroccan prisons to assess the condition of political  detainees. The Sahrawi activists Mohamed Lamine Haddi, Sidi Abdallah Abbahah, and Bachir Khadda, who are serving sentences in Tiflet 2 in northwestern Morocco, have been subjected to psychological torture, harassment, and ill treatment in their cells of around 5m², where they have been in solitary confinement for at least 23 hours a day. Journalist Omar Radi has also been held in solitary confinement. It is vital that prisoners of conscience get fair treatment while in detention. The monarchy should stop stifling opposition press and journalists. As Human Rights Watch has stated, “A free and independent press is critical to healthy governance and state-society relations, as much as fair judicial proceedings are critical to ensuring justice, particularly for alleged sexual abuses.”

The continuous state of poverty, inequality, corruption, and suffocation of democratic and political freedoms in Morocco is bound to continue triggering popular upheavals against the political class. The regime should be responsive to the protesters’ socioeconomic grievances and demands and put an end to undemocratic and repressive methods against peaceful activists. The regime must also cease violating the privacy of Moroccans. It should rebuild the lost trust with Moroccan citizens by reversing its repressive policies and put Morocco on the path of genuine democratic change.

The views expressed in this paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC or its Board of Directors.