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A peaceful transition? Morocco prepares for political change

By Zakya Daoud and Brahim Ouchelh, Le Monde diplomatique, June 1997

Despite the civil war raging in neighbouring Algeria, Morocco looks to be about to move towards peaceful political change. Local elections are taking place on 13 June and should, for the first time, be free of the dirty tricks of the past. The outcome will show whether the government has actually abided by the pact signed last February, designed to promote the process of democratisation. If all goes well, a general election could be held next September. That has still more important implications: although the Islamist vote is an unknown factor, various surveys suggest that the left is well-placed to win and implement its programme of (moderate) reforms. This would be an historic event for the whole of the Arab world in a country ridden with inequalities and where the social situation is volatile in the extreme.

On 28 February 1997 in Rabat 11 political parties (five of them opposition parties) signed—together with Interior Minister Driss Basri—a political charter designed to consolidate the democratic regime founded on the monarchy on the basis of consensus. The way in which the document is framed is an indication of the political atmosphere surrounding the process of transition currently under way in Morocco. All the signatories have undertaken to respect the law. The administration has undertaken to treat equally and with impartiality all of the political parties and to penalise illegal practices. And the parties have promised to mobilise their electorate in a positive spirit and not to dispute a priori the fairness of the elections.

The announcement that the charter had been signed left Moroccans somewhat bemused. As a Moroccan journalist put it: Since when has it become necessary in democracies to sign an undertaking to proclaim, with much ado and full media fanfare, that people are actually going to obey the law (1)?

The charter was in fact a political turning-point. The opposition, and more particularly, the Union socialiste des forces populaires (USFP), is ending the stand of non-cooperation it has maintained since 1959, which has led it to highly dramatised episodes of fanning the flames or letting them die down.

Sociologist Mohamed Guessous’ explanation for the USFP’s previous policy of non-cooperation is what he calls the deep wound of exclusion inflicted even before the 1960s as a result of the state’s stranglehold on all institutions and the authorities’ refusal to take account of the popular legitimacy referred to by Mehdi Ben Barka (2).

Believing they are sufficiently in control of the situation, the authorities are now advocating openness, playing the transparency game and, as a result of the pact, putting a stop to what Abderrahman Youssoufi, secretary-general of the USFP, describes as dirty tricks.

That kind of skulduggery took place in the 1993 general election held after a referendum in which the opposition had campaigned for a no vote. The opposition groups forming the Kutla (3) declared that the election had been rigged and pointed the finger at Mr Basri, calling on him to resign. An outraged Mr Youssoufi actually went into exile for 18 months, but not before calling for a revision of the constitution and electoral law, which he claimed stood in the way of democratisation.

In an effort to resolve the impasse, King Hassan II proposed that the opposition should join the government, but refused it the right to select either the prime minister or the ministers of interior, justice or foreign affairs. The opposition refused.

Consequently, the process of revising the electoral rolls and setting up a National Commission to supervise elections gave rise to lengthy negotiations between the authorities and the opposition, which demanded guarantees to prevent the kind of blatant fraud which had taken place so frequently in the past. According to statistics recently published in the Moroccan press, there are more than 4.5 million doubtful entries on the electoral roll out of a total potential electorate of 12 million. It took seven months of negotiation to arrive at that conclusion, and took some 26 meetings before the ministry of the interior would allow access to the files and permit the opposition to rectify dozens of irregularities. All of which lends substance to the opposition claim that After 40 years of independence no-one can genuinely claim to know the real political map of Morocco.

The government appears to have come to the conclusion that it needed to change its team and make use of other political forces, if only to obey the orders of its economic masters, namely the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. It has also decided that integration into the global economy is best achieved via political reforms. Since 1992, opposition and government have been engaged in a process of rapprochement. The opposition did everything it could to win power for itself without compromising itself with the regime, but to no avail. Now, with the prospect of victory in next autumn’s elections ahead of them, opposition activists are champing at the bit, eager to take over the reins of government and determined to put past quarrels behind them.

The 1992-93 elections clearly showed the opposition the dangers of obscurantism, denounced by Noubir Amaoui, secretary-general of the Confédération démocratique du travail (CDT) (4): the populist backward-looking or fascist inclinations, the rise in Islamism (5) and, above all, the extent of mafia-style activity in Morocco. According to Mohamed Guessous, the proceeds of this (smuggling, abuse of administrative and political power and corruption) account for 50% of Morocco’s GNP (6).

But the unstoppable force for change, as it was described by King Hassan’s nephew, Hisham Ben Abdallah al-Alaoui, has in fact caught up with all those involved. They are all are now in agreement with Mr Youssoufi that political change has to come from the ballot box.

The critical moment came in September 1996 when (not, it would appear, without some uncertainty) the opposition decided to campaign for a yes vote in the referendum on the constitution. This was a first for the USFP, which had either boycotted or voted no on the previous four constitutional amendments (7). Why then did it accept in 1996 what it had rejected in 1992? Because, according to opposition leaders, it had finally obtained agreement that the government should be produced by the ballot box, should be answerable to parliament and that the first chamber of parliament should be directly elected by the people. Some add that it is not currently possible to move further along the path of reform.

The referendum of 13 September 1996 led to a change in the system of representation. The current system (a single chamber, a third of whose members are indirectly appointed by the government) is to be replaced by two chambers. All of the members of the lower house are to be elected by direct universal suffrage, whereas members of the second house, called the Chamber of Counsellors, are to be elected by indirect suffrage and will represent the real forces in the country.

Flimsy guarantees

At a grass roots level, many citizens believe the gamble to be a risky one. Nor does everyone share the enthusiasm of the politicians and official media. Some members of the opposition are going so far as to voice their disquiet, discreetly, of course.

The guarantees are the first area of concern. For example, Mohamed Bensaid, secretary-general of the Organisation de l’action populaire et démocratique (OADP), who had already refused to toe the line of the other opposition parties in accepting the 1996 constitutional reform, and saw his party break up in consequence, is openly questioning the vital democratic structures that have to be set in place to secure respect for the charter. Abderrahman Youssoufi also stressed in his own way that this is no watertight guarantee. As he put it, We have only the King’s word. And there is certainly no question of the authorities being prepared to agree to the presence of international observers at the next elections.

Nonetheless, the revision of the electoral roll continues, the aim being to enforce the principle of one entry in the register, one polling card and one vote per voter. And there is no guarantee that this Herculean task will be completed in time for the next elections in the autumn of 1997. Although parliament has approved the 297 articles of the electoral code (after it had been rehashed at least three times), we have as yet nothing concrete on either the many basic texts or the actual composition of the second chamber of the future parliament.

All we know is that it will be made up three-fifths by communal, municipal and regional representatives (which will mean over-representation of the rural sector) and two-fifths by elected professional people and trade union members. Come next September, the opposition will therefore be joining battle to some extent with its eyes closed, although, for once, it will be a united force. The Kutla is going to be fielding joint candidates, as it did in the 25,000 or so wards in which municipal elections were held on 13 June 1997. The current majority parties, known as the parties of the administration (Union constitutionnelle, Mouvement populaire and Parti national démocrate), which make up the Wifak, ought to be doing the same but some of their elected members have sensed that change is in the air and are already moving towards the Kutla.

And so it seems that Morocco is moving de facto towards a bi-party system, though there may always be independent candidates. However, according to Mr Youssoufi, there is no other choice: we reject the policy of accepting the worst possible line to enable us to achieve our own ends: Morocco has already lost four years.

There are others who have reservations at this stage in the process of democratisation. The small parties of the extreme left feel excluded and, along with the Islamists, some of whose organisations are involved in politics (8), they are reduced to mounting a show of force on the streets, as happened in January 1997 (9). All these groups could be tempted to re-enter the fray and set themselves up as some kind of opposition front. Emerging groups within civilian society are puzzling as to how they can become active players in the political debate. There are the women’s groups, divided on the issue of quotas; organisations for the defence of the rights of the individual (10) and émigrés who are demanding to be able to sit in the second chamber at least (11).

Meantime, some militants in the Kutla parties are finding it hard to come to terms with having to abandon their confrontational approach: they are worried about being manoeuvred, manipulated and used. Their disenchantment is probably being fuelled by those opponents of reform who cannot come out into the open.

A further major obstacle is the disillusionment with politics felt by a large proportion of the population, and, in particular, young people who have been left without hopes or dreams. Level-headed, Mr Youssoufi, a unifier and active advocate of peaceful transition, finds this hard to swallow: We have to mobilise everyone. New horizons are opening up and the possibilities are immense. Mr Youssoufi then quotes the following five principles laid down in the opposition programme.

The opposition has to show that there is another way of governing. It has, at last, to establish, a relationship between citizens and a new kind administration and justice system. It has to restore the concept of public service. It has to revive an economy lacking in investment by acting responsibly and effectively, by rationalising and by demonstrating integrity and good management. Finally, it has to turn its attention to the fate and future of young people.

But in a country in which so much has been so long neglected, there are countless issues to contend with—and they are all urgent. In particular, even if growth were to reach a record level of 9.5% this year, large sections of the economy are in crisis; and, one year on from the violent riots of 5 June 1996 in Tangiers, the social situation remains volatile. Fifty per cent of the population is illiterate (the highest rate in the Maghreb). Twenty per cent of the urban working population is unemployed (this affects young people in particular and includes more than 300,000 who left higher education with a qualification). There are huge disparities in income levels, in health care and in education, all of which could be a source of serious conflict. Administration of the towns and cities is chaotic and the countryside has been neglected. Moroccans everywhere have been left with a sense of permanent injustice, arbitrary treatment, inequality and insecurity.

On top of all that, the lack of confidence demonstrated by investors (barely 5% of the $9 billion capital value of the Casablanca stock exchange is held by inward investors) is going to have to be overcome; public finances are going to have to be overhauled, and the new government will have also to tackle the problems of the national debt, inflation, deficits and the high cost of living. Ravaged by unbridled liberalism and corruption, the economy is going to have to be given a human face and revived—and the same applies to cultural policy.

Other issues will have to resolved in the meantime, including negotiating a settlement of the problem of the Western Sahara. The socially excluded, the young, the unemployed, women and émigrés are going to have to be properly integrated into society. In a nutshell, the new government is going have to create a state based on the rule of law.

Although the main opposition leaders are currently prudent enough to be wary of engaging in demagogy, they know that to attract popular support and overcome resignation, they are going to have to reform and set new guidelines that are realistic and pragmatic. They have in their favour the credibility their past struggles confer on them. As Abderrahman Youssoufi puts it, We have paid the price for our ideas but we have never strayed from our path.


(1) La Vie économique, Casablanca, 7 March 1997.

(2) Moroccan socialist leader abducted, on 29 October 1965, in tragic circumstances that have yet to be cleared up in front of the Brasserie Lipp in Paris. Despite his disappearance and the assassination of other leaders, including Omar Benjelloun, and many prosecutions (6,000 militants were arrested and detained during the 1970s), contacts between the USFP and the authorities were never broken off completely.

(3) The Kutla al Democratiya is a front made up of four opposition parties: the Istiqlal, the old nationalist party founded by Allal al-Fassi; the Union socialiste des forces populaires (USFP), the successor to the party founded by Mehdi Ben Barka; the Parti du progrès et du socialisme (PPS), the former Communist Party; and the Organisation de l’action populaire et démocratique (OADP) (left wing) which split in September 1996, after the fifth referendum on the constitution, some of whom went on to found the Parti socialiste démocratique (PSD) which is also a signatory to the charter.

(4) Restored to his position of secretary-general in March 1997, Noubir Amaoui was long thought of as the leader of a more radical left at the head of this trade union, the Confédération démocratique du travail, as a result of having been arrested and held in detention for two years on account of his views.

(5) See Libération, a French-language publication of the USFP, 4 July 1996; see also Abderrahim Lamchichi, L’islamisme s’enracine au Maroc, Le Monde diplomatique, May 1996.

(6) In an October 1995 report, the World Bank also refers to centres of opposition to reform, comprising those who had profited from the previous 40 years. See Hubert Prolongeau, Bidonvilles et trafic de drogue à Tangier, Le Monde diplomatique, May 1996.

(7) Constitutions of 1962, 1970, 1972 and 1992. In 1996, of 12 million voters, 10 million voted yes, there were only 45,324 votes against.

(8) In 1994 Dr Khatib’s small party, the Mouvement populaire pour la démocracie constitutionnelle, amalgamated with Abdelilah Benkirane’s party.

(9) Dominant in the university, Mr Yacine’s Al Adb Wa Lhissane staged student strikes in December 1996-January 1997. Against a background of economic, social and moral crisis, the islamists are motivated in the same way as their counterparts everywhere else.

(10) Although a general amnesty was declared in August 1994, what happened to some of those who disappeared in the 1970s has still to be explained. Abraham Serfaty has still not been allowed to return home. In the report they published at the end of 1996, the human rights groups noted that the situation had deteriorated (OMDH report, January 1997).

(11) They showed their determination by creating a collective, Maroc Solidarité, in January 1997. Banned from being represented in parliament in 1993, they were given a promise that that decision would be reversed in 1996.