Morocco: Heading For A Make Or Break Moment

11.05.2011 |  Hisham Almiraat  |  Amiraat Blog

Sunday, February 20, 2011 was a rainy and cold day. Not the kind of days you would think one would choose to start a revolution. Yet Moroccan pro-democracy activists chose to make that day the start of what now has become a nationwide movement for change.

I’m not going to tell you a lot about the politics of Feb. 20 Movement (or #FEB20 as the movement is now widely recognized on Twitter), but I will rather be talking to you about the momentous moment that lies ahead in the road for reform in Morocco.

Later this year (probably in September) Moroccans will be asked to vote Yes or Noto a revised, already controversial, version of the Moroccan Constitution. How important will this moment be for the future of the country? What is really at stake? And what can we learn from other countries’ experience in using freely accessible technology to help people make informed and critical decisions on the day of the vote?

I’m working on a translation of this post which will be soon available in both Arabic and French.

I will be moving my blog soon to another platform. You can view this post in my new page here.

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Context

On March 9, 2011, in response to the public outcry and calls for an urgent evolution toward a democratic system, the king of Morocco addressed the nation with a carefully crafted speech. He pledged to relinquish parts of his executive prerogatives and to revise a Constitution that is providing him with extensive powers.

The terms of the reform as outlined by the king raised many eyebrows within the pro-democracy camp. The main concerns related to:

  • First, the fact that the commission set to revise the Constitution was appointed rather than elected. Its members were selected by the monarch despite popular demands for the election of a Constituent Assembly which would have the mandate to draft a new Constitution. What the king is proposing instead, is the revision of a text considered by many in the pro-democracy camp, to be irredeemably anti-democratic
  • Second, the very composition of the appointed commission (the lineup includes some notorious supporters of the status quo) raises serious questions about its political representativity
  • Third, the blurry outline sketched by the king during his speech left many suspicious about the sincerity of the regime in its claims for reforms, and how far it is willing to go in conducting a genuine change, one that would include separation of powers and a rethinking of the king’s role and status
  • Forth, the time schedule set forth by the king is considered too short for the commission to consult the political parties, sift through the Constitution and complete a thorough revision, let alone allow voters to peruse the new text and make informed decisions over it

The king’s speech and promise of reform was hailed internationally as a step in the right direction, but recent history suggests that the government may well be trying to stop the pro-democracy movement dead in its tracks. There are reasons to believe this royal commission is mere window dressing –more of a public relations move directed at the international community’s consumption. The regime is often more obsessed with its international constituency than it is with it’s domestic obligations.

A Revolution, unlikely

Despite all that, it is unlikely –at least at this point– to see in Morocco any of the kind of sweeping revolutions we witnessed in Egypt and Tunisia. Reasons for that are a matter for debate.

A significant amount of the regime’s legitimacy in the eyes of Moroccans, comes from the dynastic rule of a 12 century-old monarchical system which claims descendance from the prophet of Islam. But, in my opinion, this is an argument that won’t stand the test if tomorrow the majority of Moroccans realize that the crisis is leading to a stalemate, or if, god forbid, the confrontation between the street and the regime takes a violent turn.

When the very existence of the monarchy was at stake, during two successive military coup attempts in the early 70s, no significant display of allegiance to the monarchy was evident in the streets. People just waited for things to settle down. And then when the king (late Hassan II) came out unscathed, people started showing their allegiance again. Human beings are survivors, I have no problem with that. What I mean to say, is that loyalty to the regime alone can not explain the fact Morocco has escaped the kind of upheaval that other Arab countries have experienced.

Of course most people, if you ask them, would explain how much love they have for the king and how much the regime is good for the country. Most of that is sincere and there are reasons to believe that the monarchy is playing a role in the stability and unity of a country that is, let us not forget, a patchwork of ethnic groups and powerful tribes.

But in a society soaked into religious conservatism and illiteracy and in a system that doesn’t allow for free speech (or just a little), and where fawning to powerful men and the display of exaggerated flattery and affection for the monarch is what everyone is expected to do, it’s difficult to address the issue of allegiance objectively.

Sheer illiteracy across the country is one major factor, in my opinion, that has spared the country (or postponed) the kind of sweeping change we’re witnessing elsewhere in the region. It leaves just under half of the population, especially in rural areas, unaware of the political subtleties that are underlying the struggle for change in their own country.

What’s at stake?

But whatever the outcome of the constitutional revision, the stake is not so much the content of the new/old Constitution as it is the way voters will behave. And there, I think, is where the regime is putting its political capital on the line.

The country is polarized around a fundamental issue. It goes beyond the mere argument over what part of the Constitution should be amended and what part should not. It questions the very patronage of the monarch over the constitutional amendment. In that respect, the upcoming vote may well prove to be a referendum on the executive role of the monarch itself.

The regime most certainly understands the issues at play and, if we look at its recent record, will certainly try to push the vote in a way that makes it look like a successful plebiscite in favor of the Yes vote.

If this happens, then the country will enter a dangerous phase of tension.

What eventually is at stake is the regime’s credibility (not much its legitimacy). A sizable No vote, even if it doesn’t win the poll, will be kept on record. It can be interpreted by the regime and the international community as a fundamental shift; something of profound consequences in a country accustomed to unwavering obedience to the king-ruler.

But for that No vote to be heard, democrats will need to inform, mobilize and propose alternatives. And there comes the role of citizen media, a matter that I’m addressing later on in this post: drawing from similar examples from other countries, I will be exploring how technology and social media can help monitor the electoral process and avoid letting the referendum being engineered to suit the establishment (or the Makhzen as the Moroccans say).

Is the regime likely to let the No vote option transpire?

Last time people were asked about their opinion on something proposed by the king the result was something like 99.6% in favor of the king’s proposal, in a backdrop of fraud and gerrymandering. That was during late Hassan II’s rule. But the regime still shows extreme sensitivity at dissent, especially when it is directed at the head of state.

In 2009, a Moroccan magazine (TelQuel, in association with French daily Le Monde) conducted a poll asking people for their assessment of the 10-year rule of King Mohammed VI. The result was resoundingly in favor of the monarch: 91% said they were satisfied with the king’s performance while only 9% expressed reservations.

A 91% approval rate is certainly something democratic leaders would dream of, but in Morocco the government sees things differently. Issues of the magazine were seized and destroyed even before they reached the stands.

When asked about the clampdown, the government spokesperson famously explained that the monarchy “can not be put into equation.”

Indeed, the king is considered sacred in Morocco. An obsessive care is dedicated to tailoring an image of a strong and flawless head of state. Anything that could cause that meticulously shaped portrait to crackle, is certain to face rejection and censorship.

While most of the democrats in Morocco can live with the idea of a sacred king, they can not accept the fact that the head of state escapes public scrutiny and democratic accountability.

The revolution has happened in the mind of the people it seems, but it still has to happen in the mind of those in power. “We want a king that reigns but does not govern” say the slogans chanted by protesters as they keep taking to the streets, orderly and peacefully every week end.

Everyone hopes that Morocco can set an example for the region and that the regime will eventually hand over the power peacefully. But there are still many reasons for concern.

Is a confrontation inevitable?

If the king, however, doesn’t answer the call of the democrats in his country and if the regime doesn’t budge from a situation where the very legitimacy of the constitutional reform process is put to question, then we’re irremediably heading for a confrontation, the first stage of which will be the next referendum.

If we can’t avoid that confrontation then one hopes the crisis will not be protracted, that it will be civil and non violent. The outcome depends almost entirely, at least at this point, on the king’s willingness or preparedness to yield to popular demands.

There are two factors however, that make me wary about the regime’s willingness and ability to avoid a degenerative showdown. The first is psychological, the second, more practical.

On the psychological side, the regime is built on archaic mental structures that are difficult to recondition. In a predominantly conservative society, the idea that the king might no longer have actual power but still keeps his job, is a concept difficult to fathom for many people, not least within the regime. Many, also, still sincerely think that Moroccans are not ready to take matters into their own hands and that only a strong ruler –a father figure, can have the ability to rule. These things take time to change but eventually, the reality takes over and the mindsets evolve.

The practical, down-to-earth side of the problem is arguably the most perennial and most challenging. The regime is ancient and its roots deeply enshrined in Morocco’s society and economy.  The Makhzen, a network of clients and spheres of power and privilege built around the regime, is less likely to welcome calls for change. It will resist it.

These are the kind of people with power enough to screw things up. Old habits die hard. There will certainly be dirty tricks. Traditional media, predominantly in the hands of the Makhzen, will push for the Yes vote. Rural areas in particular, will be targeted and the population massively misinformed.

This time things might be different

During the last legislative elections in Morocco, in 2007, only 37% of voters turned out to cast their vote. People’s disaffection with politics and mistrust in the political system is widespread.

This time around the stakes are higher and the participation in the polls has a completely different meaning. A strong No vote, as exposed earlier, could signal to the regime, as well as to the international community, that change is requested by a sizable segment of the population.

The regime on the other hand will try to silence the pro-democracy camp and gain international legitimacy by trying to turn the referendum into something that resembles a sweeping approval for a process initiated by the king.

Democrats, therefore, need to mobilize around this issue and convince people to go out to vote against a Constitution the people had no say in drafting.

I believe that in this day and age Moroccan citizens have more than ever before, the power and the tools to hold their government, and the Makhzen in particular, accountable.

That brings me to the final part of my essay in which I will suggest a strategy in using freely accessible technology and social media to affect change.

Augmented citizenship

We’re living in a world of, what I like to call, Augmented Citizenship. Citizens are no longer at the mercy of traditional media, whether state-run of privately owned. They make their own media. New media allows the citizen to independently report on, curate and disseminate news. The augmented citizen ends up feeding traditional media with news that, in turn, is broadcast on a large scale and eventually filtered back into the country where it is read, watched and listened to by a large audience.

That information loop or cascade (as my friend Sami Ben Gharbia likes to call it) has had a tremendous impact in mobilizing people around a common cause. #Sidibouzid in Tunisia and #Jan25 in Egypt stand as a case in point.

Drawing from those recent examples, the upcoming referendum is the unmissable opportunity for for those who want change in Morocco–journalists, activists and ordinary citizens. They can come together, affect change and have an enduring impact.

New media can be used to mobilize for change. I see this as a 3-level approach:

  • INFORM
  • WATCH
  • ACT

Inform and Reform

In a country plagued with illiteracy, informing takes a lot of imagination and effort. Social media has made it ridiculously easy to reach out to a wide audience, even among those who can’t read nor write.

Basically there are different tools and platforms for different audiences. And they ought to be used all at once. Some of those tools are already in full use, some others need to be explored.

– Animation

A project is underway to produce animated videos aimed at educating the public on some fundamental principles of democracy.

We’ve made some experimental steps so far But we wish to push the project further and use animations where characters speak the language of the people. We are primarily inspired by the Egyptian group Qabila, which produces awesome videos in vernacular Egyptian like this one:

Animation has an immediate impact but it requires skills. The best softwares available, like Adobe After Effects, are not inexpensive, and therefore can’t be used on a wide scale. Free alternatives do exist however (Go Animate for example is a good one we started experimenting) and there should be wide use of them.

– Visualization:

In the course of the debate over the reform of the Constitution, there is a lot of confusion about what the content of the current Constitution really is and why it is important the scrap it. The Constitution is written in an elaborate language which is not accessible to every citizen. Visualization allows activists to make extremely intricate information easy to understand.

Democrats have come up with different reports to explain their position on the constitutional debate for example, but their message, although well packaged, is often not presented in the most effective way to make an impact.

Using information design techniques, with a clear and easy to understand language, can help make that huge amount of information much more accessible, attractive, compelling and able to compete with alternative bits of information coming from the Makhzen’s side.

Open source softwares and applications (like InkScapePDFCreatorScribus orGimp) make visualization of information easy.

A project in underway to produce visualizations that explain the Constitution and present the alternatives to it based on memorandums published by different Moroccan political parties and NGOs.

– Video Making:

Citizen videos have been flooding the blogosphere ever since the pro-democracy protests started in Morocco. Beside the raw shooting of marches and rallies, activists have been creative in producing informative work. Sarcasm and humor often come at play but it is rarely topic-driven. On the run-up to the poll, there needs to be more focus on informing people on what’s at stake, why the turnout is important and why a No vote is crucial at this point.

– Multi-Curating Platforms:

Tunisian celebrated website Nawaat.org has been a pioneer in creating a new breed of citizen-driven media in the Arab world. It has set the example for other initiatives to emerge in the region. In Morocco Mamfakinch.com has been playing the role of the pro-democracy movement’s de facto news agency. It is a platform that aggregates and curates all sorts of citizen media material and disseminates it via different social media platforms. Mainstream media is very fond of these kind of platforms and there are reasons to believe that Mamfakinch will play an important role in covering the upcoming referendum.

– Web Radio

During my recent visit to Tunisia, I met with some brilliant activists who created all king of new media in order to inform the public about the issues at stake in post-revolutionary Tunisia. Many of these initiatives can easily be reproduced in Morocco. One initiative that caught my attention was a web radio project lead by Nozha Ben Mohamed in Tunis. It’s called Radio 6 Tunis.

There are limitations related to the price of the software used for the web stream, as well as the expensive hardware necessary for the broadcast. Not to speak about the legal constraints related to the Moroccan legislation. But according to Nozha, who launched her radio “illegally” under Ben Ali, the project was worth the trouble. The ability of radio broadcast to reach out to the public was beyond expectations she said.

It is unlikely that in the short period before the referendum a Moroccan “pirate” web radio will come to light, but it is certainly a project worth working on for the future.

Watch and Monitor

Monitoring and transparency tools have mushroomed across the developing world in recent years. In the aftermath of Kenya’s 2007 disputed presidential election,Ushahidi created a website that collected eyewitness reports of electoral fraud and violence sent in by citizens via email and text messages, and placed them on a map. “Geo-bombing” or Citizen Mapping has ever since become a tool that social activists use extensively to document reports sent in from the ground.

We’re working on making the technology reproduced in Morocco on the run-up to the referendum, using a free and open source software and relying on a network of “crisis mappers.”

Many other tools for transparency can be used. You’re welcome to add your suggestions in the comment area.

Act

Using new media has certainly proved to be effective in informing and mobilizing people around a common cause. But sometimes these efforts need to be coupled with concrete actions on the ground. Nonviolence is at the core of the pro-democracy movement in Morocco and it needs to stay at the basis of any action on the ground.

The youth movement for change or February 20 Movement, is doing just that. Committees have sprung up in different cities and villages across the country and Facebook is playing a central coordinating and publishing role. There’s a potential to go beyond Facebook and reach out to a wider audience using the different tools listed above.

On the more specific area of Internet freedom, Moroccan netizens are at the forefront of a no less important struggle that can also be categorized under the topic of concrete action: the struggle for free and non discriminatory access to information, and more specifically, to the internet. A pioneering initiative is underway to establish a Moroccan Pirate Party to fight, on the political front, for the respect of free expression, open government and net freedom and neutrality.

I will elaborate on that subject on a separate post very soon.

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In my next post, I will talk about a side effect –an almost unintended consequence of that movement for change, namely the increasing role of the internet in Morocco as a major source for unfiltered information in a country undergoing changes of historic proportions.


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