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When the Arab Spring swept into Morocco in 2011, King Mohammed VI took a different tack than other Arab leaders. Instead of a crackdown, he called for a new constitution, political and social reforms, and even a reduction in his own powers. It was dubbed the Moroccan exception.
Yet eight years on, many of the main concerns that fueled the protests remain, and many have gotten worse. Schools and hospitals are struggling, youth unemployment is high, and inequality is on the rise, leading scores of young Moroccans to emigrate.
“We love our country, and many of us believe that in the long run it will be on the right path,” says Hassine, who plans to move to France. “But the reality right now is, if you want a degree or a job, you got to get out to have a future.”
King Mohammed VI appears to be aware of the unrest, noting in a July speech that reform “has not, unfortunately, been felt by all segments of the Moroccan society.” The monarch has tasked a new committee with an ambitious list of reforms – but those come amid allegations of an erosion in freedom of expression in the kingdom.
Hassine grins as he lists Morocco’s many positives: a tolerant society, diverse ethnicities and religions living together in harmony, state-of-the-art infrastructure, a modern constitution, and a monarchy once hailed as an exception for pushing through political reforms.
So why are so many young Moroccans like Hassine desperate to emigrate abroad?
As many in the kingdom are finding, limited democracy and political openness alone do not guarantee solutions to some long-standing societal problems. And political parties are learning that governing and reaching consensus are not as easy as pushing for reforms.
“We love our country, and many of us believe that in the long run it will be on the right path,” says Hassine, 27, as he sells a phone card from his roadside Casablanca kiosk. “But the reality right now is, if you want a degree or a job, you got to get out to have a future.”
Indeed Hassine, who asked that his full name not be used, says he has accepted a job as an engineer in France and is set to leave soon.
Many Moroccans say political parties have left them behind as they jockey for seats, influence, and ministerial portfolios. Others claim that political appointees and local governments lack experience.
“You talk to these local elected officials about urgent issues facing the community, and they look like they don’t even understand a word,” says a former official turned activist, who declined to use his name. “It feels as if you are speaking to the mailman rather than the mayor.”
But analysts believe that the failures of political parties have exposed the limitations of the much-hailed royal reforms.
“The average Moroccan citizen today has limited expectations of these parties because it is widely understood that they are not in charge, nor do they hold the majority of the power,” says Yasmina Abouzzohour, a Brookings fellow, in an email. “It is widely believed that only the monarchy itself can bring about real change, be it political or economic.”
The Moroccan exception
When the Arab Spring protests that shook the region swept into Morocco in February 2011, King Mohammed VI took a different tack than other Arab leaders.
Rather than launch a security crackdown, the Moroccan king headed off potential unrest by getting out in front of the movement. He called for a new constitution, political and social reforms, an elected government, an independent judiciary, and even a reduction in his own powers.
Passed overwhelmingly in a national referendum, the new Moroccan Constitution was held up as a landmark power-sharing arrangement that recognized the rights of minorities and identities such as the Amazigh (Berbers) – a major demand of protesters.
It led Western analysts and diplomats to dub the model the Moroccan exception.
Yet eight years on, several government coalitions and failed campaign promises later, many of the main concerns that fueled the protests have not gone away; in fact, many have gotten worse.
Schools are struggling, and the buildings are decrepit. Public hospitals are under stress and in short supply – wait times can be an entire day to see a nurse. Inequality is on the rise.
While the unemployment rate dipped to 9.8% in 2018, among youth (those between ages 15 and 24) it stands at 26%, and even 15.5% of university graduates are without jobs.
As of 2017, Morocco had 7.3 doctors per 10,000 inhabitants, half the World Health Organization’s standard of 1 doctor per 650 inhabitants.
“While it is true that abject poverty is no longer an issue, the right to decent health care, schools, and decent housing is becoming out of reach for most Moroccans,” says Youssef Raissouni, secretary-general of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights.
At the heart of frustrations among many Moroccans is the inability of political parties to pass laws to improve schools and hospitals and to create jobs.
The king urged the prime minister, Saadeddine Othmani to bring in “new blood” and ministers “chosen on merit and competence” after a mix of political appointees and technocrats failed to come up with solutions after nearly two decades.
Complaints of corruption
Underneath the frustration are quiet, but growing, complaints of corruption.
In Transparency International’s 2019 Global Corruption Barometer, 53% of Moroccans said they believe corruption is on the rise in their country – double the 26% rate in the 2015 survey.
When they were asked to name the most corrupt institutions or officials, the most common response was “members of parliament” at 41%, followed by the prime minister at 39% – the latter an increase from 20% four years ago.
Although few are willing to name names, many Moroccans blame political parties and economic “elites” for benefiting themselves while ignoring their duty to serve the people.
“You have to have connections or pay off the right people to get the license you need,” says Hassine.
Meanwhile the kingdom, heavily reliant on agriculture, has been affected by climate change and drought – and according to a World Bank report released in October, nearly 9 million people, or 24% of the population, are now at risk of poverty.
Amid reports of an increasing income gap, language is also a social divider. While universities are almost exclusively in French, Morocco’s public schools have exclusively been taught in Arabic, making the educational divide stark.
Middle-class families pin their hopes on sending their children to private schools to ensure they reach university. Over one-third of Moroccan schools are private, and tuition can cost $200 per month per child, a burden on families in a country where the average salary is $500 per month.
“You have to choose between rent and your children’s education,” says Mohammed Ben Youssef, a clerk who also drives a taxi to put his two children in private school, but says he will have to pull them out this year. “And the rich keep getting richer.”
The uneasy situation has spurred a youth exodus. Over 22,000 young Moroccans went abroad for work in 2018, according to government statistics; it is believed that the number who have migrated illegally is much higher.
France, Spain, Ukraine, Chile, China – there is no place too far for young Moroccans to go.
“We just want a chance to study and work so we can one day start a family and prepare a better future for our own children,” says Youssef, a recent college graduate.
In the 2019 Arab Barometer survey, a research project that seeks to provide reliable data on Arab world attitudes, 70% of Moroccans ages 18 to 29 expressed a desire to emigrate – the highest of any country in a list that included war-torn Yemen.
“When we go to sleep, we all share one dream: to emigrate and start fresh somewhere else,” says Youssef, who works in a hair salon in Casablanca.
With the king no longer holding a constitutional role in politics yet still largely held responsible for the state of the nation, there is a sense of urgency in the palace.
Aside from shepherding a political opening, the king is credited with many achievements, particularly infrastructure megaprojects such as highways, high-speed rail, ports, renewable energy, and urban development.
Yet in a speech marking his 20-year reign in July, King Mohammed VI noted that the economic development and reforms have “not, unfortunately, been felt by all segments of the Moroccan society.”
The monarch tasked a new committee with an ambitious list of projects: create a new development model to tackle social inequality, overhaul taxation, and improve the kingdom’s education, health, and agriculture sectors.
The fresh push for reforms comes amid allegations by local and international rights groups of an erosion in freedoms of expression and assembly in the kingdom.
When discussing political developments, many citizens refer not to the Arab Spring, but to the 2016-17 Rif protests – a movement where residents of the predominantly Berber northern region pushed for greater autonomy and development. It ended in clashes with security services and 20-year prison sentences for activists.
The memory hangs like a pall over political discussions; many discouraged young Moroccans have given up on activism, saying, “There is no point.”
But as the palace and politicians scramble to push through reforms, public frustrations are finding ways to simmer to the surface.
A viral rap song venting anger over inequality and poverty was released in October, which landed the Moroccan rapper in jail.
In his song “Aacha el Chaab,” or “Long Live the People,” rapper Gnawi takes on poverty, housing, drug use, and political prisoners. Observers say he broke a taboo by making thinly veiled criticisms of the king, while expressing solidarity with Rif protesters.
Police arrested Gnawi – whose real name is Mohamed Mounir – 48 hours after the song hit the internet, ostensibly for a separate YouTube rant in which he allegedly insulted the police.
In November a court sentenced the rapper to one year in jail for “insulting public officials.” Rights activists insist the real reason is his critical lyrics.
Since its release Oct. 29, the song has garnered 16 million views on YouTube.