Yasmine Zarhloule, University of Oxford
Morocco implemented strict measures as a means to curb national infection rates after the outbreak of COVID-19. These have included the closure of schools, universities, non-essential shops, as well as mosques. The regulation of the population’s movements is consolidated through curfews and the prohibition of accessing the public space without a state-issued authorisation. While Morocco was hailed for its fast response, and the implemented measures were applauded by a vast majority of the population, the country’s lockdown could have significant long-term costs. On the societal and political fronts, the pandemic highlights important dynamics between the regime’s structural responses and the nationalist rhetoric deployed to sustain it.
Morocco faces major economic hardships due to the pandemic. It will especially suffer from the loss of tourism which is the second largest contributor to the economy, accounting for 11% of the country’s GDP and 532,000 jobs in 2017 (nearly 5% of jobs in the overall economy). Due to the decision to close borders and the suspension of all international flights, announced in a communiqué by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Royal Moroccan Airlines recorded a loss of around $400 million in just two months. With nearly 13 million tourists in 2019, the Kingdom’s economic outlook for the coming year remains bleak. This is not likely to be reversed soon. The UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) expects international tourism to drop by 20-30 per cent in 2020 due the global pandemic. The severity of the economic impact is even greater when considering the health crisis’s burdens on the agricultural and trade sectors at a time when Europe, Morocco’s main trading partner, is battling the virus on its own grounds.
The Moroccan state acted firmly in its response to the pandemic. On Wednesday 18th March, in Casablanca, officers of the Auxiliary Forces ordered people to stay in their homes, ‘to be conscious and stay united.’ The following days, the military and police forces took over Moroccan streets to ensure the lockdown was rightfully implemented. The government placed the country officially under a state of medical emergency until April 20th, 2020, with the possibility of extension. Besides the imposition of state issued authorisations to leave the house and a national curfew, the directive established a 24-hour hotline in coordination between the Ministry of Interior and the Royal Armed Forces. The service aims to provide necessary health recommendations and to ‘urge vigilance to fight the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and safeguard the health of citizens.’
Two aspects of regime behaviour have been particularly interesting. One aspect, the emergency state and the restrictive measures put in place to contain the pandemic, have raised fears about the rise of repression. The strict enforcement of the emergency state, and the general applause for state decisions, were defied by protests in Tangier, Sale and Fez. On the night of March 22nd, groups of people were shown on social media and local media demonstrating in the streets, chanting ‘God is the greatest and only he can help us.’ The government responded to these protests by arresting 450 individuals in the first week for violating measures of the state of health emergency. This decision is in accordance with the draft decree Law 2.20.292, stipulating sanctions against those who violate the precautionary measures laid down by authorities to curb infection. Those who disobey the protective measures during the quarantine period could face jail terms from one to three months as well as fines ranging from 300 to 1, 300 Moroccan dirhams (roughly $30-130). Another 56 were prosecuted over spreading COVID-19 fake news, following the adoption of the bill no. 22.20 regulating the use of social networks and cybercrime. Overall, an intensified policy of street patrols has brought the total number of people arrested for breaching the state of emergency to 22,541, since its start on March 20th.
The imprisonment of protestors stands in stark opposition to worldwide calls to contain the spread of the pandemic in prisons by releasing inmates. Others have been subject to repressive measures by security authorities. There is no disputing the importance of the confinement measures put in place to contain the pandemic. However, the specific strategic apparatuses of control deployed have the potential to produce new configurations of power and political agency, contributing to the normalisation of certain security practices. The mechanisms of power at play could ensure the continuous institutionalization of state control and the regulation of society’s movement in the public space.
Mass surveillance is a good example of these new mechanisms of control. Governments would have the ability to take advantage of statistics from the High Commission of Planning, or the National Census, as a means of dissenting areas under high surveillance and increasing gatherings’ repression. Such methods might achieve the overt goal of keeping the population at home and flattening the contamination curve in the short run. However, the instrumentalization of fear and repression are likely to harm long term trajectories of civil-state relations. This is particularly important considering the pre-existing tensions over Morocco’s crackdown on activists and journalists prior to the outbreak. A serious focus on a holistic approach to health, where information is provided transparently and efficiently by the concerned authorities, would prove more effective – but this would not serve the objective of institutionalizing new forms of repression.
Second, the shift towards mobilising the population’s support is even more strategic in the face of current challenges to the healthcare and governance systems in Morocco. Within conventional security, security is conceived as an inherent protective strategy, thrown to a subject or object whose existence is thought to be prior and independent of the security practices. When the object to secure is human life itself, the provision of security is no longer defined by military capacity and the defence of a limited territory. It goes beyond traditional concerns; emphasizing a ‘version of security which prioritises homeland livelihood systems and infrastructures.’ In the absence of sustainable and efficient institutions to attain this, the response to the threat becomes primarily framed within the logic of ‘winning hearts and minds.’ Government and popular calls for unity and solidarity expand to the core building of the nation, as they seek to legitimize the security practices used to formulate a coherent state narrative. Thus, by tying social groups directly to national survival, political leaders can reduce the possibility of being overthrown and increase their institutional capacity to overcome non-ordinary, spontaneous crises. In this, the state is the primary and sole mediator of security; framing any intervention in terms of sovereignty and locating power within its apparatus. Power functions discursively through the deployment in the public sphere of norms, values, and assumptions on how communities ought to feel and which ensuing behaviour is legitimate.
In the case of the Moroccan response to COVID-19, this rhetoric is found in the mobilisation of the ulema (theologians), preachers and imams to raise awareness on the prevention of COVID-19. Their cooperation in the important decision to close down mosques sets a precedent and sends a symbolic message to the population with regards to the gravity of the situation and the necessity to act responsibly. Winning hearts and minds to strengthen nationalism appears to be effective so far. The pandemic provides an avenue through which the state is not only able to control and diffuse existing political tensions; but the powerful tide of nationalism, in times of insecurity, yields the ability to reinstate a renewed and shared understanding of the nation. Yet this approach might be short-lived considering the weak healthcare infrastructure systems and the public’s low levels of trust in political institutions. Whether we see uprisings or a tighter union between the state and the people remains highly contingent upon the levels of repression deployed and, more importantly, the state’s ability to absorb the crisis.
 ‘Covid-19: How Moroccans view the government’s measures?’, Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis, 25th March 2020.
 ‘Morocco: Crackdown on social media critics’, Human Rights Watch, February 5th, 2020; ‘Protests in Morocco demanding improvement of social and human rights conditions’, Middle East Monitor, February 24th, 2020.
 Arab Barometer (2019) ‘Arab Barometer V Country Report – Morocco’.