(music for reading)
Hello and welcome to Undercurrents, a bastion of nonsense in a sea of abject mediocrity. This week, we turn our eyes to Morocco, the one country in North Africa that your mom is sort of okay letting you visit. You know, because she saw Casablanca that one time.
When it comes to MENA (Middle East/North Africa) monarchies, Morocco is very much the exception. Whereas the current kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia can only trace their monarchal lineage to the early twentieth century (that was back when the British were literal kingmakers), the current monarch of Morocco, King Mohammad VI can trace his heritage back to the mid-seventeenth century. Whereas the various boy-kings of the Arabian Peninsula use institutional misogyny and religious fundamentalism to reinforce their oil-propped dictatorships, Morocco has taken a more moderate approach, granting significant rights to women and children in 2004 (known as the Moudawana) and allowing a vibrant if somewhat restrained civil society. And while Saudi Arabia and Bahrain responded to the peaceful protests of the Arab Spring with murder and imprisonment, Morocco responded with moderate constitutional reforms. Of course, this is all relative (one cannot call Morocco a free state), but get the MENA states into a room for a family reunion and Morocco comes across as the new age tree-hugging uncle who donates a significant amount of his limited income to NPR.
Given this moderation, as well as the almost cartoonish levels of violence in Libya, Egypt and Syria, Morocco often gets ignored by Western observers trying to comprehend contemporary politics in the Arab world. This is a shame, as it is the everyday workings of more moderate MENA regimes like Morocco and Tunisia that tell us of the future of the region, not the humanitarian basket-cases which dominate apocalypse-loving news organizations. To jump back to the earlier metaphor, the general state of your family should be determined by the quiet desperation of your siblings, not your cousin Steve who lost two fingers while dynamite fishing at the public pool.
This week saw an escalation of protests in Morocco’s northern Rif region, where grassroots movements have been arguing for economic improvement, an end to corruption and greater access to jobs, health services and infrastructure for Moroccan women. Significantly, these protests (staged by the Hirak Movement) are largely led by women, pushing against Western stereotypes of the silent, victimized Muslim woman (women played a key role throughout the Arab Spring, but that wouldn’t really fit into Fox News’ narrative of the evil of Islam (also, I’m pretty sure Morocco has a far better record on women’s rights than that coterie of misogynists and creeps)).
The protest movement has been going strong since last October, when fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri was horrifically crushed to death in a garbage compactor, after trying to retrieve swordfish which had been confiscated by the police. It shares quite a bit in common with the earlier Arab Spring movement, which was set off by the self-immolation of the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi and (perhaps more to the point) decades of incompetence and corruption by an arbitrary elite. Also mirroring the 2011 protests, the Moroccan protesters have only called for constitutional reforms, and have not reproached the monarchy (as far as platitudes go, at least “history repeats itself” has weight).
Worryingly, after months of peaceful tolerance, the Moroccan police have begun to crack down on protesters, arresting Hirak leader Nasser Zefzazi for “undermining the security of the state” (because peaceful activists calling out bullshit make authoritarian regimes as insecure as any teen going through puberty) and stifling Saturday’s women’s protest in the coastal city of Al-Hoceima. Many protesters are fearful for their safety, even as government officials have acknowledged their demands as legitimate and in need of being addressed.
Now, as far as Middle East politics go, I am the first to say that this story is not particularly “sexy”. Like the Umbrella movement in Hong Kong, the Moroccan protests have not led to civil war, regime change or new venues for international rivalries. International readers (or at least international news organizations who sell to them) love these broader narratives of chaos. For some people, safe in their quiet democracies, visions of war from “over there” provide a certain form of entertainment, satiating a bloodlust unmet by Call of Duty or History Channel documentaries while also confirming their own biases that “the rest of the world” is a savage (and thus lesser) place. When the majority of the Arab Spring protests failed to bring true democracy or devolved into violence, many news outlets focused not on structural impediments to democratization like economic inequality or the lack of a strong civil society, but instead on the “anti-democratic nature” of Arabs and/or Islam (“In most Arab countries, the authoritarian leadership is in some ways more liberal than the majority of the citizenry” claims the Federalist’s David Harsanyi, because apparently someone asked for his opinion for some reason (I of course recognize the brutal irony that nobody asked for my opinion also)).
The Morocco protests, complex and uncertain as they are, show that argument to be complete and utter bullshit. Liberty and democracy are fluid concepts, but the citizens of Morocco have shown that they are important enough to upend their lives. As the world grows more chaotic, it is important to remember that the vast majority of people desire peace and a better life. Dismissing a population as undeserving of those opportunities because of their “nature” is not only bigoted, but also not helpful in the least. (“Not helpful in the least” is a nice epitaph for the current media climate actually.)
And with that call for decency (or at the least to not be a dick), Undercurrents is done for the week. See you next time.
Header from here.