The Middle East Institute (MEI) recently presented a panel discussion on “Protests in North Africa: parallels and prospects.” Speakers addressed “the social and economic drivers behind the recent demonstrations [in Morocco and Tunisia], as well as prospects for resolving these inequities.”
The Washington, DC panel included Intissar Fakir (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), Dokhi Fassihian (Freedom House), William Lawrence (George Washington University), and moderator Paul Salem, MEI’s senior vice-president for policy research and programs.
Although the immediate causes of the most recent demonstrations are very different – in Tunisia protesters want a change to the country’s new austerity laws, while in Morocco the flashpoint is the death of two young coal miners, Houcine and Jedouane Dioui in Jerada – the root causes are the same: economic inequality, perceived lack of investment and development resulting in high unemployment, and ineffective government responses to local needs due to corruption and lack of accountability.
In Tunisia, protests have been continuing for many months due to the lack of economic growth in the country, corruption and lack of government accountability, and strong feelings of marginalization among youth. Laws exonerating wealthy businessmen and politicians from persecution for actions during the Ben Ali regime overthrown in 2011 have soured public confidence in the government. Despite large amounts of international assistance, some significant international investment, and large doses on congratulations for Tunisia’s democratic progress, many citizens are unhappy with the government’s inability to develop sustainable and equitable strategies for moving forward. Its nascent democracy is challenged by these protests as the government is resorting to tougher security measures, arresting hundreds of demonstrators.
Although Ms. Fassihian, senior program manager for MENA at Freedom House, characterized Tunisia as “more free” than Morocco due to its strong and more open human rights record, she notes that the continuing demonstrations have led to extensive arrests and to trials in military courts, further undermining the civilian government’s credibility. Arrests are both planned, i.e. targeted at certain leaders, and random of people at the demonstrations. This has resulted, according to Ms. Fakir, who is the Editor-in-chief of Sada, CEIP’s Middle East blog journal, in a growing lack of trust in the government and impatience with its inability to resolve the economic crisis. The lack of transparency in decision-making has also undermined the public’s faith in the government.
In Morocco, one can link the Jerada protests to the 2016 marches in the Rif protesting the death of fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri in El Hoceima. Both incidents highlighted the regional and local governments’ lack of accountability and corruption, leaving them unable to move effectively to solve local programs of unemployment, lack of investment in infrastructure and social services, and providing the services, education, and job opportunities that citizens expect.
The protests, which spread beyond the Rif region, drew a strong response from King Mohammed VI who showed his displeasure with those officials charged with not having carried out the more than $100 million of development projects allocated to the region over the past six years. He fired and blacklisted past and current ministers, director generals, and other officials responsible for the economic development and governance of the region. The King sent his personal envoy, Aziz Akhannouch, Minister of Agriculture, to meet with leaders of the Rif protests.
Now, the King faces a similar crisis some 120 miles away where young men, working to mine coal in abandoned quarries, died in attempts to scrap out some income for their families. Again, there are charges of local government inaction, extensive unemployment, corruption and lack of accountability, and insufficient investments to retool the local economy, create jobs, and build needed infrastructure.
While Ms. Fassihian pointed out that Morocco is at least attempting to observe freedom of assembly by allowing protests, security forces eventually cracked down on the protestors. The judicial system is still dominated by the security forces, controlled by the Palace. So without an independent judiciary, there is an observable regression in observing civil and human rights, more protests, and a decline in public confidence. Hence, demonstrators continued to come out in order to reach out to the King as the ultimate arbiter in the country.
One of the recurring themes mentioned by the panel is the need for credible decentralization or regionalization that devolves effective decision-making from the central government to local elected authorities. Both countries have committed to decentralization as a means of promoting political and economic development. Ms. Fassihian noted that although Morocco is a leader in the region in decentralization, the process is very slow and many obstacles are due to lack of clarity from the central government on issues such as power-sharing between elected and appointed leaders, budgetary guidelines and allocations, and standards of accountability and transparency in government transactions and services.
Despite these challenges, there was agreement among the panelists that US policy can play an effective role in both countries. Dr. Lawrence pointed out that he US government has many links to Morocco and Tunisia through various agreements, assistance programs, training programs, as well as educational and cultural ties. A more strategic and targeted approach, especially focused on economic issues and youth can have a significant impact as these are the root causes, along with corruption and accountability, that drive the protestors.
It is a conundrum in Morocco and Tunisia, as well as other emerging economies in Africa, to meet the rising expectations of the majority of their citizens without a more efficient use of their limited resources. There are no single or simple solutions. Each country, given its historical and recent experiences, must confront dilemmas that arise from inequities in their societies that reinforce social, economic, and political disparities. Morocco is fortunate in that it has a King, widely respected, but a government which lacks widespread credibility with the people is not trusted to carry out needed policies.
Tunisia’s struggles are well-known, some historical, others part of the generational shift from an authoritarian regime to a democracy that seeks to balance its forward progress without weakening the country’s economic, cultural, and social infrastructure.
A major step in the right direction could be a firm and consistent commitment to forms of decentralization/devolution/regionalization implemented within a context of clear government authority, responsibility, and accountability. The people of Tunisia and Morocco are demanding to be at the core of their countries’ futures. The US can continue to upgrade its commitment to its partnerships by working to target both the short and long-term efforts to enable and ennoble the government-citizen relations.