- MATT SCHUMANN
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Meknes / Morocco Board News -------- Many Western commentators have written how the revolution in Tunisia sent a "shockwave" through the "Arab" world. It was the first time an Arab dictator has been removed from power through popular revolt. One article which explained that the ouster of Ben Ali, unlike that of Saddam Hussein in 2003, was something Arabs could "be proud of." Recent protests in Algeria, Jordan and especially Egypt speak to the influence of Tunisia's uprising. And while some are comparing Tunisia to Poland in 1989, and this moment to the beginning of the fall of the Soviet Union, it's a stretch to think we will see the collapse of every authoritarian regime in the Arab world.
It's been strange to be in Morocco during all of this. There's no lack of information. When you walk into a cafe, people are watching coverage of Egyptian protesters burning police vehicles or tearing down posters of Hosni Mubarak. But these images and ideas don't seem to be penetrating. A glance through two of the biggest newspapers, As-Sabah and Al-Masa', lead you to believe that the protests are only tangentially relevant to Moroccans. There are no attempts to apply Tunisians' and Egyptians' grievances to a Moroccan context. On Facebook, my students have posted pictures of the Egyptian protesters along with words of support and solidarity, and then proclaim their love for Morocco's King Muhammad VI. How can you identify with the protesters of two revolutions against authoritarian governments and still do that?
Why have the events in Tunisia and Egypt failed to generate the same reaction in Morocco as they have elsewhere in the Arab world?
Reading reports from the past weeks has made it clear to me that life for the average Moroccan is very different than that of a Tunisian or an Egyptian. Yes, Morocco is a poor country with high unemployment. The GDP per capita is significantly lower than Egypt's and nearly half that of Tunisia. Yet, the poverty is not oppressive. Life necessities are cheap in Morocco. People are poor but do not starve. The Moroccan government also tolerates"underground economic activities" which provide money and support for many young, uneducated Moroccans. The most notable of these is the drug trade, which according to WikiLeaks, generates more money than Tourism, the largest sector of the Moroccan economy.
A second, key difference, concerns education. As one commentator pointed out, Tunisia is an exception in the Arab world in that it has a large, educated middle class. The middle class' dissatisfaction with the country's economic prospects fueled the protests that eventually led to Ben Ali's downfall. Egyptians, while not nearly as wealthy as Tunisians, are similarly educated. Both countries post literacy rates in the 70s and both protests movements have utilized social (especially Tunisia) and print media (especially Egypt) for organizational purposes. Morocco is a completely different story.
At best, 50% of Moroccans are literate and many well-educated Moroccans are ex-pats living in Europe or North America. While this may seem insignificant, I think it's a huge factor. Moroccans' illiteracy hampers the spread of information in general, and would definitely impede the organization of any type of protest movement. Additionally, the Moroccans who identify the most with Tunisia and Egypt don't live in Morocco. They've already exercised their discontent by leaving the country. This last point deserves some elaboration.
There is a class of Moroccans who are wealthy and educated and unhappy with the current political system, but their influence on average Moroccan life is unclear. Many comments at web sites catering to Moroccan expats are critical of the political status quo, and since the Tunisian protests, they have been vocal about the need for some sort of change in Morocco. Whether these views are valid or not, they only represent a tiny, and, honestly, insignificant portion of the Moroccan citizenry. These people are both literate and English speakers, which alienates them from about 98% of Moroccans. Additionally, they're expats. As one Egyptian commentator wrote, "people remember those who abandoned them in their quest for democracy." In other words, I don't think being centered in North America or Europe helps thier credibility with the Moroccan people.
And this brings me to my last point: there is no credible opposition to the King.
Morocco is a parliamentary monarchy that has a prime minister, political parties and elections. But in reality, it's something else. Parliament and the lesser bodies of government are where corrupt officials take bribes and appoint their sons- and daughters-in-law to influential posts. This corruption is obvious and derided by the Moroccan people. It's not uncommon for a Moroccan to say that the best way to make money in the country is to get into politics, but that you can only do that if you know the right people.
The King is seen as the only credible member of government despite his overwhelming and unquestionable political powers. And there's good reason for this. Royal initiatives, like infrastructure development and some social reforms, are completed on time and relatively efficiently. In other words, he gets things done when other Moroccan politicians don't. Combine that with the legacy of the Alaouite Dynasty, which has ruled Morocco for nearly four hundred years, and Muhammad VI is seen less as a despot and more as a benevolent and beloved monarch.
Now it's true that the King has the power to end the corruption that plagues parliament, the police and the military. Allowing his political opponents to profit in their subordinate positions decreases their desire for change. Additionally, their corruption draws the ire and attention of the people. So while his policies may leave something to be desired in the eyes of some Moroccans, the alternatives are much much worse.
The commentator who describe Tunisia as an exception in the Middle East may be eating his words in the next few days depending on Egypt's outcome. This doesn't mean Moroccans are happy with the state of affairs in their country. Poverty, unemployment, education, and political freedom are just a few issues that Moroccans feel must be addressed. But for now, the situation does not seem dire.
More than anything, Moroccans love stability. This is why they love the King. They tolerate the political and social status quo because it still meets their needs and because they don't have to worry about what tomorrow will bring. Because of this mindset, I don't think radical change is anything many Moroccans feel is necessary. Speaking to a Moroccan friend he said that while things here are not good, they are getting better. "Maybe five or ten years from now, but not now," he added. As long as this attitude persists, Morocco will stay stable.