Since 5 January, a group of unemployed graduates, les diplômés chômeurs, have staged a sit-in in Rabat demanding jobs and calling for economic reform. After suffering from violent police brutality, whereby the police forcibly dispersed them from protesting near Parliament days ago, events took an urgent turn when 5 of them set themselves on fire (warning: graphic footage) after being denied food by police. Many Moroccans have expressed varying sentiments regarding the acts of immolation, some saddened, others outraged, and a big majority seemingly indifferent. Though, before jumping on the knee-jerk reaction boat, it’s imperative to assess the reasons behind these events that have led to such conditions, the political economic and regional context, and a glimpse on the way mainstream media has provided coverage on such events.
In order to understand the widespread dissent regarding economic reform and why the government is the target of such dissent, there is a long political economic history that has set up the stage. After colonialism, the development of the infrastructure and the economy was a job left for the regime. This was common throughout many post-colonial societies throughout the world. State-led growth had two main purposes; generating capital for the regime so that it may catch up to the economic development of the rest of the world, and reproducing hegemony while securing support and alliances. Over the course of several decades, the state was the main employer and the main provider of welfare. Again, this was a commonality throughout North Africa at the time. This allowed some level of productivity while ensuring that the state was maintaining political support. And it worked for awhile. However, as living standards began to increase, so did the population, exponentially in fact. The state can no longer sustain its public sector, productivity and efficiency decline, there is no competition, and the result is a bloated public sector.
The solution to this unintended economic disaster was to begin privatizing industries, but wait! Not just any industries. Instead of divesting the most failing industries to secure long-term economic development, the most valuable industries went up for divestment, including finance, energy, and tourism. The main industries that remained under state ownership were transportation, communication, and mining, ones that still partially remain under state ownership into today. While the purpose of privatization is to encourage efficiency and competition, the purpose of privatization for the regime at the time was for quick capital. Sure enough, the divestment of the state owned enterprises (SOEs) mentioned above yielded an 11.9% turnover for the state and $1.3 billion in revenue with just 25 of the 77 SOE’s sold. (See my piece on Morocco’s private sector for sources).
But just like the state selectively divested its enterprises, the figures who took control of these newly privatized industries were mostly either former state officials, or allies/family/friends to members of the state. What this did was ensure that the fresh capital was in the hands of people who were loyal to the regime, creating an elaborate network of business-state elite, the Makhzen. Even to begin to list the figures within this extensive network would need a post entirely of its own. A prime example of such figures is my personal favorite, Aziz Akhennouch. Initially a businessman, one of the wealthiest in Morocco, after joining the royalist Rally of National Independents, he would later become minister of agriculture and fisheries. After the most recent elections, he resigned from his party and was able to maintain his position as minister.
Between the selective privatization and the rise of a business elite class with close ties to the state, capital was accrued at a zero-sum gain, with the majority of the population receiving the short end of the stick. Over the years, conditions were exasperated, with bread riots in the 1980s, and the diaspora of Moroccans to Europe and North America (including my parents).
Soon after the beginning of protests in February 2011, King Mohammad VI quickly responded with a speech announcing constitutional reforms. However, what he did before releasing the constitution was perhaps the one major thing that quelled the rise of a popular uprising. The increase of public wages and food subsidies, especially before Ramadan, was the regime’s short-term solution to a long-term problem. In fact, Morocco’s economic response to the protests was that of a rentier state, except Morocco is certainly far from one (Despite the fact that Mohammad VI’s personal wealth is greater than that of the monarch of a rentier state).
With the recent protests of the unemployed graduates, whose entity is separate from that of the February 20th Movement, economic dissent is becoming a greater common denominator for protesters in Morocco, regardless of political affiliations, demographics, and ethnicity. Similarly protests in the northern city of Taza broke out in the first week of January of this year, with protesters, again unaffiliated with the February 20th Movement, demanded economic reform and chanted slogans which addressed the king’s personal wealth.
The reality is that for decades, the policies pursued by the regime have led up to conditions where economic grievances were bound to be a major rallying point for the average Moroccan. I was personally set off by an article published by the NY Times that concluded an article about the self-immolations with the following:
While some Muslim clerics have maintained that such suicidal protests are forbidden under Islam, self-immolations used to protest perceived injustice are viewed by many Muslims as acts of courage and not as suicide, as my colleague Robert F. Worth has reported.
I think I’ve provided enough of an explanation that these protests have little to do with religion, so why should religion be the concluding remark on these events? It’s about entitlements, about decades of state-led growth depriving a majority of the population of basic opportunities in a society plagued with corruption and nepotism, creating conditions of hopelessness to the point that baring your chest to bullets or dousing yourself with gasoline then igniting yourself with fire isn’t suddenly a lingering thought of desperation, but a public act meant to incite anger and frustration, with an intention of sparking debate. However, the debate meant to be had shouldn’t focus on whether or not these acts of self-immolation are sinful, but to focus on why they happened in the first place. Where’s that debate?