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Poverty provokes public anger in Morocco

January 27, 2018 at 2:24 pm

Protesters, supporting Rif Movement leader Nasser Zefzafi, stage a demonstration demanding the government to take action for developing the region in Hoceima, Morocco on June 11, 2017 [Jalal Morchidi/Anadolu Agency]

Official corruption in Morocco hampers the fight to reduce poverty. This is especially true in more remote areas, where local officials pay less notice to national programmes to tackle the issue. What’s more, no matter what promises are made at election time, they fail to materialise due to deep state interference and economic control. That is why, street demonstrations often remind politicians of their failure to distribute wealth evenly or to engage in genuinely beneficial reforms.

To foreign eyes, poverty levels in Morocco are surprising, not least because the number of billionaires in the country is growing. Their businesses thrive, benefiting from stability, relations with the EU and Africa, and neighbouring countries’ faltering economies. Morocco exports phosphates, vegetables, fish, textiles and services, giving the impression of a prosperous country. However, low wages, unemployment and illiteracy deepen inequality, since most businesses are crammed into big cities and their hiring policies are not compatible with college and university graduates.

In an attempt to end poverty, the National Initiative for Human Development was launched in 2005. The plan purported to provide direct help, allocating €6 billion to income-generating micro-projects. The UN and the World Bank extolled the initiative, but the devil lies in the detail. Ex-slum dwellers have been removed and jammed into tiny apartments in Casablanca, for instance. The bare numbers do not capture the true impact of the initiative; observers have no access to reports on the ways that money has been spent or whether it has reached those who truly need it. Some infrastructure projects are erected in the wrong place and, as a result, they close down half way through.

Moreover, national campaigns to collect social aid have been organised officially. Annually, the Mohamed V Foundation collects aid publicly for solidarity with the impoverished and vulnerable. Although this spreads a culture of aid-entitlement, the impact of such projects is difficult to evaluate in a state that supervises and monopolises civil society’s direct solidarity, sympathy and poverty alleviation. Thus, poverty does not shrink noticeably.

Adding insult to citizens’ injury, post-2011 governments have increased a number of taxes. The water and electricity companies were bailed out, imposing higher payments on end-users. In addition, to save the retirement fund from prospective bankruptcy, future beneficiaries have been charged extra-taxes, overlooking the fact that shortages in the fund result not only from demographic changes but also previous corruption and mismanagement.

On top of this, the government recently started to float the hard currency. The decision, claimed to benefit the economy, has long-term repercussions since the Moroccan economy is not strong, transparent or competitive enough to enhance a floating currency. The official reasons behind the decision have not been revealed to the public. Specialists have offered their own explanations instead, focusing on the need to monitor inflation and agreements with international funding institutions. They also highlighted that the problems that the decision will create outnumber the benefits in an atmosphere of corruption, vulnerability and unsteady reforms.

Furthermore, the public has not benefitted from stability. Fuel distribution companies, for example, increasingly raise prices, as the local prices have been freed to fluctuate with the international market. However, prices keep rising notwithstanding cheaper prices worldwide, since very few companies monopolise the fuel market.

With all factors considered, impoverished citizens risk their lives to get bread. In Ceuta, Moroccan women die in stampedes to buy smuggled goods from Spain. The deaths brings to mind a more humiliating incident in Essaouira, when fifteen women died in a food-aid stampede in an Argan oil-rich area. Extreme need in deserted towns makes the receipt of flour, sugar or oil donations an event not to be missed.

Citizens also express their anger on the streets. In Jrada, coal miners work in sordid conditions, subject to exploitation. Inadequate infrastructure and economic changes make the coal business insufficient for a decent living. Although they sell their coal for much less than what it is worth, miners die in derelict and unhealthy conditions. Protesters have taken to the streets in reaction. Similar to the Rif Hirak area, inefficient governance in the northern region of the country exacerbates vulnerability and austerity.

In Zagora, South of Marrakech, “thirst protests” have been demanding the sustainable provision of tap water and the release of detained activists. In Tendrara, a north-eastern town, a truck hit a 10-year-old boy, but the ambulance arrived too late to save his life. Angry protesters have been denouncing the inadequate infrastructure and general austerity and marginalisation.

All of this social mobilisation recalls 2011’s promises of reform under stability, since impoverishment results from local corruption and national despotism. Protests are well-organised and harness the potential of new media. They manage to grab national and international attention with the live videos that go viral on social media. As a result, public forces intervene more hastily to smother nascent activism, before street demonstrations grow stronger, as happened in Rif Hirak.

Will the public surrender to economic intimidation forever, though? Most probably not. Escalations in neighbouring countries, such as Tunisia, provide the incentive for public anger to kick-off at unexpected moments. Political disregard, economic hardship and democratic setbacks certainly intensify angry mobilisation.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.