Ahmed Benchemsi is a celebrated Moroccan journalist, former editor, publisher and founder of popular weekly magazines TelQuel and–the now-disappeared–Nichane (Straight Forward). Mr. Benchemsi has now moved to the US where he works as a researcher at Stanford University. Here he speaks at the Oslo Freedom Forum about what he calls “the subtleties” of both the Moroccan dictatorship and that of the pro-democracy youth movement. He dissects, then entertainingly demystifies some of the major arguments the Moroccan regime usually uses to sell its image abroad as an “Arab exception.” A must watch presentation!
This text was originally published on Foreign Policy.
The makhzen refers to an ancient institution in Morocco — the extended power apparatus close to the Moroccan monarchy, made up of a network of power and privilege. It allows the King to act as an absolute monarch and the de facto head of the executive. Beneath the give and take of everyday politics, the makhzen has always been the ultimate guarantor of the status quo. For three months, the pro-democracy youth movement, known as “February 20,” has been advocating against that status quo. Protests have not been targeting the monarchy directly, but instead have been urging for reform that would yield a system in which the King reigns but does not rule.
What started as a small group on Facebook earlier this year, has since grown into a nationwide movement made up of a loose coalition of leftists, liberals and members of the conservative Islamist right. Inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings and powered by new media, the movement convinced hundreds of thousands to take to the streets. The demonstrations held week in, week out, were remarkably peaceful. In response, King Mohammed VI promised a package of constitutional reforms to be submitted to a referendum in June. But as protesters, unconvinced by the King’s promise, vow to keep up pressure on the regime, authorities seem increasingly impatient and determined to break up protests violently, paving the way toward escalation and confrontation with the street. The middle class is joining the mass of demonstrators, moving the protests beyond the core of mobilized youth. Their target is the makhzen — which has become a code word for the monarchy’s abuses of power and monopoly over large sectors of the economy.