Lalla Amina Drhimeur, Sciences Po Lyon
Soon after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed, Morocco started implementing preventive measures. On March 20, the country declared a national health emergency. What followed was a set of swift and strict measures to contain the spread of the virus. Airports, schools, mosques, restaurants, and shops were closed. Public and private gatherings as well as sport activities were prohibited. Citizens had to get a certificate of movement from local authorities to get to work or run errands. The country called for mandatory lockdown. The Police and the Army ensured compliance with the measures and military vehicles deployed in the streets.
COVID-19 mitigation measures included cash transfers, food baskets distributions, and tax deferrals for households. Besides direct financial aid, the Comité de Veille Economique (Economic Watch Committee), established on March 11, 2020, to absorb the economic shock, took a set of fiscal measures that aimed at facilitating access to bank loans and deferring tax payments.
When the crisis revealed the fragility of the health system, Morocco was quick to ask for international financial and technical support that kept the system from collapsing. The aid has enabled the doubling of the capacity of hospital beds, paying for medical equipment and setting up testing centers. The country launched a massive vaccination campaign in January 2021 after having secured a large stock of vaccinations before most of its neighboring countries.
The preventive measures and the different lockdowns succeeded in containing the spread of the virus, at least during the first few months, but they also altered economic activities causing a recession. Morocco experienced one of the strongest recessions in the region. The poverty rate was expected to increase from 17.1% (2019) to 19.87% (2020). Many people lost their sources of income, deepening gender and social inequalities. The pandemic also revealed the fragility of health infrastructures, as the sector lacks medical personnel and is underfunded.
The aim of this paper is to examine the implications of the pandemic for politics in Morocco and what it means for citizens’ trust in formal political institutions. In other words, have COVID-19 mitigation measures helped Moroccans regain trust in the government, political parties, and public institutions? How has the pandemic affected the way politics are perceived or structured? I argue that COVID-19 mitigation measures did help Moroccans regain trust in formal politics, but this trust was short-lived. Also, these measures reveal how the government and political parties were sidelined in the management of the pandemic in favor of traditional political actors, that is to say the monarchy and its coterie.
The Monarch In Charge
King Mohammed VI took a very visible role in directing the response to COVID-19. On March 15, 2020, he gave “His High Instructions to the government to proceed with the immediate creation of a special fund dedicated to the management of the Coronavirus pandemic.” This fund, endowed with 10 billion dirhams, allowed millions of households to benefit from cash transfers. It received donations from local businessmen, citizens, governmental and non-governmental institutions. He also gave his instructions to fight against all forms of price increases, monopolies, and speculation to ensure the market is regularly supplied and to ensure people have fair access to food and everyday consumption products.
On March 17, 2020, the king chaired a working session with high officials on the management of the pandemic to review how measures were implemented. He also ordered the deployment of military medical resources and the construction of new military hospitals. In a royal speech, on July 29, 2020, the king gave his instructions to launch the Strategic Investment Fund, as part of an economic recovery plan. He aimed to revive the economy that had been hit hard by the pandemic, calling for the generalization of social coverage, family allowances, retirement, and loss of employment compensation. The speech explained how “those were difficult – and at times painful – decisions to make” but “they were not taken light-heartedly. In fact, we had to resort to those measures for the sake of the safety of our citizens and in the interest of our nation.”
On November 9, 2020, the king chaired another working session on the country’s vaccination strategy and ordered a massive vaccination campaign against COVID-19. On January 28, 2021, he officially kicked off the country’s vaccination campaign and was the first to get the shot. In the summer of 2021, he gave his instructions to facilitate the return of the Moroccan community living abroad to spend summer holidays in Morocco. He urged transportation companies to offer affordable travel fees so that those living abroad can return home and spend time with their loved ones. Pictures of these meetings and royal activities were widely diffused on TV and shared in the written press. The royal cabinet communicated regularly on the king’s activities, recommendations, and initiatives in the fight against the virus.
These are some examples of the monarch’s high level of activism and how it was carefully managed to increase its visibility during the pandemic. The visibility was intended to support the legitimacy of the monarch as the one in charge, seen to be leading the fight against the pandemic. By presenting COVID-19 mitigation as having come mostly from the king, the monarchy managed to solidify its position as the “first among institutions” and the main political actor genuinely concerned with the wellbeing of Moroccans.
Political Parties Sidelined
Morocco is often referred to as an “executive monarchy.” The king’s directives are the road map to guide the government’s economic and social policies. They cannot be debated. Political parties have been trying to assert themselves but were mainly sidelined in the management of the pandemic.The measures were announced by the Ministry of Interior, which is part of what is commonly referred to as “ministries of sovereignty” that fall under the “domaine réservé” of the king. Two other figures became highly visible: Mohamed Benchaaboun, the Minister of Economy and Finance in charge of the economic recovery plan; and Moulay Hafid Elalamy, Minister of Industry, Trade, and New Technologies. Both belong to RNI (National Rally of Independents, Rassemblement National des Indépendants), a political party known for being close to the Palace which won the 2021 Parliamentary elections. Through their press releases and visibility, they were presented as the leaders, the strongmen in the fight against the pandemic.
The head of the government, Saad Eddine el-Othmani, and former leader of the PJD (Justice and Development Party), a party with an Islamic reference that has been struggling for power with the palace, was busy executing their directives. The PJD rose to power in 2011 and were reelected in 2016. Since then, the party has evolved within a politically constraining system that sought to undermine the PJD and subvert its internal cohesion. Different moves to weaken the party included the nomination of technocrats to strategic government departments to help the regime maintain control over crucial issues; and the dismissal of the former party leader, Abdelilah Benkirane, by the king in 2016 after he failed to form a coalition government. This was followed by the nomination of Saadeddne El Othmani as the head of the government and the formation of a coalition government with actors close to the palace. Cracks within the party started to form and the PJD lost the 2021 legislative elections. Opposition groups such as Adl wal Ihssan (Justice and Spirituality), an Islamist movement that rejects Morocco’s political establishment and refuses to participate in formal politics, expressed their support for the measures. They even asked people to respect the state of health emergency. Rif activists, who took to the streets to demand good education, jobs, health care and an end to corruption in 2016 in the northern region of Morocco and received heavy sentences, also endorsed the measures and asked their followers to comply with them.
The strict measures, the confinement and the curfews enabled the government to get a short-lived respite from protests and social mobilizations, but demonstrations soon came back to characterize Moroccans’s daily lives. Morocco mobilized multiple law enforcement agencies, including the police and the military, to enforce the restrictions. The government banned protests, and violently repressed some. Thousands of people were arrested for violating the state of health emergency. The restrictions were criticized for reintroducing authoritarian practices that suppressed the rights to freedom of assembly and association, and which could also have been used to silence dissent voices within the opposition.
On March 19, 2020, the government adopted a new law that aimed at fighting fake COVID-19 news on social media. However, the falsity of the news is determined by the government without setting clear criteria on how to determine what is fake. The police made a dozen arrests. Journalists Mohamed Bouzrou and Lahssen Lemrabti, were arrested in April 2020 for having spoken against the governmental COVID-19 restrictions in what Amnesty International describes as a new crackdown on freedom of expression. In March 2020, the government attempted to pass a new law on the use of social networks that would make it illegal to call for a boycott movement online. Under pressure from public opinion, the bill was abandoned. This might explain the decline in perceptions of freedom to participate in peaceful protests, in freedom to express opinions and freedom of the press. Freedom to express opinions and freedom of the press declined by nine-points from October 2020 to March 2021 while perceptions of freedom to participate in peaceful demonstrations declined by 14 percent during the same period.
Citizens’ trust is short-lived
Morocco’s response to the pandemic has been perceived as very effective. 86 percent of respondents in the Arab Barometer survey expressed their satisfaction with how the country has responded to COVID-19. Similarly, the transfer of aid contributed to restoring trust in the government, at least during the first months of the lockdown. As of the beginning of 2021, 60% of polled Moroccans declared being very satisfied with the way the government handled the pandemic.
Thus, trust in the government seemed to have increased compared to 2019 when Morocco recorded low trust levels in formal political institutions. Prior to COVID, only 30% of polled citizens trusted the government while 20% trusted the parliament. The slow pace of reforms explains the low voter turnout during 2016 parliamentary elections. Endemic corruption, and dissatisfaction with the overall performance of the government have pushed citizens to look for alternative informal mechanisms to express their grievances. To circumvent traditional processes of representation, people choose demonstrations, boycott movements, sit-ins, and social media activism. This reflects deep distrust in formal political institutions and processes and uncertainties that the government is efficient in dealing with the country’s socio-economic issues.
This sudden burst of trust in formal institutions has proven to be fragile and short. The pandemic has revealed how lack of investment in public services and mismanagement of economic resources have deepened social inequalities leading to more precariousness. This came back to taint trust in public institutions as nearly half of Moroccans registered to vote did not cast a ballot in 2021 parliamentary elections. Citizens do not trust the electoral process and politics are often compared to a “muddy place.” Citizens often criticize formal politics for lacking credibility. Demonstrations are as strong as before. For example, Moroccan teachers’ unions resumed demonstrations to demand better working conditions in March 2021 and in February 2022, Moroccans took to the streets to protest soaring prices and what they perceive as government inaction to control inflation.
The 2021 elections in Morocco drew over 50 percent of voters, slightly higher than in 2016 given that the authorities combined parliamentary and local elections, which usually draw better participation. Abstaining from formal politics reflects a deep distrust in political parties that are often criticized for their lack of responsiveness. Their cooptation and fragmentation pushed citizens to look for informal alternatives to do politics. They seem to prefer informal spaces in their contestation of power and to influence political and social change. Mobilizing outside formal politics does not mean that citizens lack political commitment. Protests, sit-ins, online political campaigns and calls for boycotts reflect a crisis of legitimacy within formal political institutions and mechanisms but a high degree of political consciousness.
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