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MOROCCO: Protest violence could escalate, intelligence analyst says

May 23, 2011 |  7:17 am

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Moroccan police beat dozens of protesters who defied a ban on demonstrations and took to the streets of the capital Rabat and Casablanca on Sunday, according to news reports.

Months of protests in the north African nation have led its monarch, Mohammed VI, to make some concessions, but not enough to please protesters. They appeared more defiant Sunday, although their numbers have failed to match the scale of demonstrations in Egypt, Tunisia other countries that saw "Arab Spring" uprisings.

Babylon & Beyond spoke Monday with Metsa Rahimi, an intelligence analyst with London-based Janusian Risk Consultancy who specializes in North Africa, about the Moroccan protests.

B&B: Why are people protesting in Morocco?

M.R.: The protests have been going on for three months now, so it’s not necessarily new. It was inspired by other events in other countries in the region back in February, the 20th of February protest movement.

The economy is one of the poorest in the region, dependent on tourism, with a younger population.

In terms of the other monarchies -- there is a sense of loyalty to monarchies, as opposed to self-appointed autocrats, and so they have been less vulnerable to protesters calling for their downfall.

Q: How have Morocco's leaders and security forces responded to the protests?

A: Until now, we haven’t seen a lot of violence in Morocco. It’s all been very moderate. What we’ve seen in the last fortnight, not only has the 20th of February movement become more radical, but the police have begun to use more force.

They didn’t authorize this protest in the capital this weekend which had been authorized in the past. That’s something the protesters can protest against and when that starts to happen, protests escalate. We saw that this weekend, people talking about the makhzen, the elites, you know, "Down with the makhzen! We want more reform, more freedom!" When you start seeing police brutality, people start condemning the government.

At the end of June, the king is supposed to be announcing reforms of the constitution. Morocco has stood out over the years as one of the countries that has been very reformist and people in the West have looked on it with respect, but a lot of the reforms have been superficial. A lot of people are saying he is doing constitutional reforms, but will it really mean anything?

Q: Why haven’t we seen major protests in Morocco and in neighboring Algeria, as we have in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt? Has the government made more concessions, or are security forces just better at dispersing crowds?

A: One of the big things in Morocco was the police and security forces didn’t use that kind of violence, but now that’s starting to escalate. The 20th of February movement, the king did invite them to participate in the constitutional amendments, but they chose not to participate and to stay on the streets. Now there’s all sorts of factions, there's Islamists involved in the 20th of February movement now and what they want is really not as clear as it was in the begining.

If the police continue to use force and the 20th of February movement continues to prefer to be in the streets rather than get involved, then it could get worse.

Algeria is a special case. Everything points to it being another case of this "Arab Spring," but in the '90s they had a very bloody civil war. The memory of that — thousands of people died in that war — it's still with people, the older and younger generation. That’s a big deterrent in people not going out into the streets.

Also, the power structure in Algeria is very different in that the security services hold the power so asking for the president to step down won’t really change people’s lives. People have been protesting since back before the Arab Spring started. And the security forces, every time they tried to gather, there was a massive response and they just couldn’t do it. People were also gathering for diffrerent things -- teachers, professional groups -- not as one against the government.

Q: Morocco has been invited, along with Jordan, to join the Gulf Cooperation Council, a group until now only open to Persian Gulf monarchies, which some analysts have nicknamed the "Club of Kings," opposed to Arab Spring uprisings — what does that say about its government’s place in Arab Spring?

A: I was really shocked. It just doesn’t make sense because it’s not a gulf country. Jordan, I suppose you could justify because it’s near the gulf. It is a club of kings, potentially trying to bolster the Saudis and what they want to do to counter Iran, this sort of cold war in the region.

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Cairo

Photo: A protester lies on the ground in the wake of advancing riot police during a demonstration organized by the 20th of February movement in Casablanca on Sunday. Credit: Reuters

 

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