Since February 20th of this year, protests calling for democracy, dignity and an end to poverty have gripped Morocco as the so-called «Arab Spring» uprisings have swept North Africa and the Middle East. This «February 20th Movement,» a loose coalition of organizations, trade unions, political parties and individuals throughout the country continues to take to the streets en masse, with protesters insisting their demands have not been met. Recent months have seen an escalation of police violence, as well as royalists’ attacks on protesters, with more than 60,000 people protesting in cities throughout Morocco on June 5 in response to the beating death of protester Kamal Ammari at police hands.
The king is championing the recent constitutional referendum as a victory for the monarchy in Morocco and a death knoll for the February 20th Movement. Yet, just days after the vote on the constitutional changes, thousands took to the streets in cities and towns across Morocco, charging that the reforms are superficial gestures intended to demobilize protesters and leave power firmly in the king’s hands. Critics also insist that the 98 percent voter approval rate does not reflect mass support for the constitutional changes in an election where the government had a virtual monopoly on media discussion of the proposed constitutional changes, and where only 13 million of 20 million eligible voters are registered. As the summer approaches Ramadan, February 20th Movement protesters insist that the Arab Spring is not over, vowing to continue until they have won real democracy and economic and social justice.
The United States supplies arms to the Moroccan military, which has maintained an occupation of the Western Sahara since 1975. The Obama administration is a supporter of King Mohammed VI, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently praising the king’s constitutional changes.
I interviewed Mohammed Elbouliki, a member of the administrative commission of the Moroccan human rights organization Association Marocaine des Droits Humains [«Morrocan Association of Human Rights»]. He was detained from November 1985 – July 1994 as a prisoner of opinion under King Hassan II, including one month in the Derb Moulay secret detention center near Casablanca. A teacher by profession and a lifelong political activist, Mohammed talks about the February 20th Movement’s demands, hopes, and activities in the wake of the constitutional referendum and offers suggestions for how international supporters can stand in solidarity with Moroccan movements.
Sarah Lazare: What is the February 20th Movement doing now, in the wake of the constitutional referendum?
The new constitution is nothing. The changes are not meaningful. It is not responding to the demands for dignity and democracy that have come from the people. You can even make the argument that it gives more power to the king. The constitution gives him the right to do many things unilaterally. What the constitution does is give more power to the king, not in one single article, but in many different articles.
There was a debate before the vote on the new constitution about whether the February 20th Movement should stop. But the movement decided to keep going, because the constitution is not democratic.
The February 20th Movement is concentrating on economic and social claims right now. We want health care, work, transportation and housing. We also have a primary demand for a democratic constitution – not a constitution that was prepared by a commission nominated by the king. We want a constitution coming from a free commission. Marches and sit-ins are going on in many cities and towns, and even villages, in the north, south, center and east of Morocco.
Mohammed Elbouliki: What repression has the February 20th Movement faced?
The phenomenon of the baltagiya is going on. This was developed by the state, in particular the Ministry of the Interior. Here’s how they work: First, they were organized by elected officials from the municipality. These officials are accustomed to making people work during the election; they give people money to work for them to gain publicity for their campaigns. These people are marginalized, poor, illiterate, and sometimes addicted to drugs and possessing criminal records. They are known in towns. The elected officials are now enlisting and paying these people for the purpose of repressing the February 20th Movement. They are summoned to the town hall and shown what to do. They are given simple slogans: «We are with the king»; «Yes to the constitution, no to the February 20th Movement»; «The February 20th Movement protesters are traitors»; etcetera. They are encouraged to encircle the movement and use loudspeakers to drown out the slogans of the movement. The movement does not have big loudspeakers – we do not have these tools. The baltagiya are encouraged to isolate members of the February 20th Movement away from journalists and beat them. But not in front of journalists and cameras. We are beaten, threatened and abused.
One administrative party, the Liberal Party, was created by the state and is led by the lawyer Maitre Ziane. They have been playing a direct role in enlisting these baltagiya. Some of the baltagiya meet in the local of the Liberal Party. They are instructed to go there.
When the baltagiya attack members of the February 20th Movement, the police are neutral. They see someone being beaten and they ignore it. But when they see the February 20th Movement grow stronger in marches and sit-ins, they intervene. Police are indirectly on the side of the baltagiya.
You can find an intersection with this baltagiya and those in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya. They are the same. They are pro-state and used to threaten, beat and, in some countries, kill protesters. Who knows the role that the civil police play in organizing them.
There is also a media war on the movement. The government wants people to believe that the movement is divided, that it is not one movement. They want to say that it is controlled by the Justice and Charity party. But in fact there are several political parties and associations participating. They want to isolate the movement. Yet, we are determined to keep going and continue making our demands for a democratic constitution and economic and social justice.
Kabbouri Saddih, a member of the February 20th Movement in Bouarfa, near Oujda, is facing a one-year prison term for participating in marches and sit-ins. We are supporting him, as he was unjustly arrested and detained.
What do you expect for the future? Where do you think things are headed?
In my view, the protests will continue. August will be slack because of Ramadan, and the rhythm will change because of fasting. I expect marches during the night, after 9 or 9:30 p.m. Perhaps there will be more repression since the state will think that it can stop the movement during this time. But I think the protests will continue.
Perhaps the state will try to bribe us by meeting our economic demands. The economic crisis in Morocco is so deep, and corruption is so widespread and rooted in the state, that they wouldn’t go far in economic reforms because it goes against the state’s benefit. Friends of the king from the palace are major businessmen in Morocco. They are the big firm leaders.
How does the February 20th Movement organize?
The movement doesn’t have a direction nationally. We try to keep it open for everyone to join. You just have to be okay with the claims and demands of the movement to join. Every decision is made in an open meeting. Yesterday, for example, there was an open meeting in Rabat. Sometimes people are sent by the authorities to spy. We let them, because we have nothing to hide. The February 20th Movement is trying to establish small commissions in poor neighborhoods, to get local people involved. Here in Rabat, we are trying to start commissions is AlKarya and Youssofia, which are poor neighborhoods.
What is the position of the February 20th Movement on the Moroccan occupation of the Western Sahara, which has been maintained since 1975? Are you in favor of a referendum to allow the people of the Western Sahara to choose between independence and integration into the Moroccan state, and what do you think is stalling this process?
The Moroccan state tries to say that the movement is supported by Polisario [the Polisario Front is a Western Saharan national independence movement that has been banned by the Moroccan government]. Some people from the Sahara are members, but the February 20th Movement has no position on the Western Sahara. We don’t discuss this issue in meetings. There are people who are for and against the referendum in the Western Sahara. The issue is not debated. We stick to our main demands for democracy and dignity.
How can people in other countries support the February 20th Movement?
If you want to support, give us media support. Make known this movement and its claims. Let people know that it is not directed by Islamist groups. There are many other groups, sections and individuals.
Help Moroccans outside of Morocco organize to support us. In Canada, there is a small group of Moroccans who support the February 20th Movement, as well as in France, Belgium, Spain and other countries. Collect signatures, show your support for the movement, tell people about our demands.
In the US, perhaps you can tell them that the constitution doesn’t satisfy the demands for democracy. There is no separation of powers, no guarantees to stop corruption, no guarantees that there will be genuine elections. Send more journalists here to see and follow the violations of democracy and human rights. It will continue and perhaps get more repressive. Now we can sit here to talk and meet. But I am not sure about tomorrow. There are no legal guarantees to protect human rights defenders. Come back and see what it is like in a few months.