Youth Political Participation and Attitudes in Contemporary Morocco

This is part of POMEPS Studies 36: Youth Politics in the Middle East and North Africa. Download the full PDF here.

Yousra Kadi, Mohammed First University Oujda

This paper aims at examining the political attitudes and participation of Moroccan youth, mainly through their engagement in two main political activities: voting in local and national elections and participating in decision-making institutions, such as the parliament and political parties. It attempts to shed light on the current political situation of youth in Morocco with a particular focus on their participation in formal and informal politics and their new forms of engagement in politics. It aims to shed light on what lies at the heart of young people’s apparent disengagement from formal politics in Morocco: political apathy or a sense of political alienation. Moroccan youth largely support the democratic process, but are cynical of the way the Moroccan political system is organized and led by politicians. They are turned off by people in power in general and the political parties in particular. However, there is no standardized youth orientation to politics.

Morocco is suffering from an increasing disconnect between young citizens and electoral politics. Declining youth involvement in traditional forms of politics has manifested itself in lower voter turnout and a dramatic shrinkage in their membership of political parties. They are stifled and repressed and any attempt to express dissatisfaction on their part is considered a rebellion and rejection of the laws of the state. This attitude rests on a foundation of a tradition of patriarchal and tribal obedience: Moroccan youth have always been silenced by the patriarchal and tribal concept of respect of seniority. In the presence of seniors, the youth are taught to keep silent and listen to the elders who have more experience. This attitude prevents them from expressing their opinions or becoming part of a political elite.[1] Indeed, the whole political and social arena is off limits to them, as the elders dominate the public realm. Hence, the level of participation of youth in formal politics and decision-making is excessively low, and as a result Moroccan youth are in constant search of new ways and forms of political engagements[2].

Studying Moroccan Youth

Morocco has a rather young population; around 30 percent of Moroccans are aged between 15 and 29 years of age, representing 9 to 10 million young people. More educated and more aware of their global context than prior generations, these young people are facing a crossroad of major change in the country. Historically, Moroccan youth played an imperative role in resisting French colonialism and afterwards creating post-colonial institutions such as parties and student movements. However, in the last three decades, their participation in the political spheres has been dwindling especially when it comes to participation in decision-making, within political parties or civil society organizations. 

This essay is based on both quantitative and qualitative research methods: visits to the sites of the informants, interviews, and document analysis. The study makes use of a mixed research approach. It also uses three main data-collection instruments: frequent visits to political parties’ headquarters to interview their leaders, activists, and young and female members. Witten interviews lasted between 25 and 40 minutes, while face-to-face were between 45 minutes and 1.5 hours, allowing me to engage in deeper conversations with respondents. I interviewed students and young political activists who participated in the 20 February movement and a conducted a survey with 289 questionnaires sent through social media to different youth and women’s groups. I also conducted an online survey questionnaire containing a variety of political attitudes and behaviors on which the respondent should state his/her degree of agreement. I circulated the online survey through Google forms and sent it to youth forums, groups on social media, and blogs. It was also sent to students in six Moroccan universities via e-mail and Facebook:  Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdullah universities of both Art and of science, Faculties of letters and human sciences: Cadi Ayyad, Ain Chock,  Mohamed the First, Moulay Ismail, Mohammed V Universities.

The majority of political party leaders and Parliamentarians are elderly with very few young party members. As a result, problems related to youth do not always receive the necessary attention from party leadership, parliament, government, and municipal councils. Although many people observe that the situation has been improved somewhat in recent years, the democratization of the political environment in the country has not been followed by legal and effective initiatives to support the participation of youth in politics.[3] Statutes and regulations of all political parties in Morocco include specific roles, duties, and responsibilities for their youth forums, even though some of these functions are limited or decided based on certain quotas and proportions.[4]The role and importance of youth political participation diminishes when it comes to assigning them to decision-making positions within a party, or at a local or national level, resulting in a low number of young people in the central and executive government. Furthermore, the rate of their inclusion in the decision-making process within political parties is similarly low, as most of the political parties have not fully endorsed or sanctioned the right of youth to representation. An patriarchal way of thinking continues to bar young Moroccans from the political arena.

In December 2010, the massive involvement of young people in the wave of protests across the region triggered renewed interest in youth politics. In Morocco, the dominant narrative in the media and academia had often portrayed youth as politically inactive. Most studies and research conducted on youth have further confirmed a consistent trend of weak political participation and limited membership in political parties and unions. Very often, low rates of voting and engagement through formal politics were referred to as evidence of youth political apathy. The 2011 uprisings put those assumptions to the test. 

My research, however, suggests that some, but not all, young Moroccans are politically engaged and continue to be interested in and informed about politics. But they are less active in formal venues, such as political parties and trade unions, and, rather, show a preference for activism through informal means of participation (e.g. via protests and social media). More than half of the respondents are neither interested in politics nor engaged in any form of participation. The low level of youth engagement has more to do with distrust in political institutions than distrust in democratic institutions as a means of governance. While many youth believe in their agency, they are aware of the limits of their influence through formal politics in a regime characterized by the centrality of power and a controlled partisan scene. Moreover, their experiences of political exclusion and marginalization create barriers and disincentives to participation and political engagement.[5]

Political Attitudes and Participation

The first step in examining Moroccan youth political attitudes and participation is looking at the extent to which they vote in both local and national elections and participate in formal institutions such as the parliament and political parties. My study indicates a positive response from Moroccan youth when it comes to electoral participation in both local and national elections. Most male respondents (60-80 percent) agreed to being registered to vote and voting, especially in local elections, given the fact that they were not eligible to vote in the national election of 2011. They also showed a positive attitude towards voting as an important part of civic participation. Female respondents did not indicate a significant level of electoral participation, but they exhibited an intention not only to be registered to vote, but also vote in the next national elections. 

These findings contest the idea that Moroccan youth have become more apathetic as far as voting in elections is concerned. Moroccan youth are interested in their right to vote and evaluate voting as an important activity for their participation in politics. The problems with youth involvement emerge when it comes to real participation and access to decision-making in political parties and the parliament. The rate of inclusion of the respondents in the decision-making process within political parties and the parliament is very low (especially for young females), as most of the political parties have not fully endorsed or sanctioned the right of youth to representation.[6] Thus, they are excluded from having a pro-active role in politics and influencing policy and new programs, both at the local and national level. 

Based on my interviews conducted with young activists from the February 20th movement with members of the party youth councils, university students, and political members and experts, the inclusion of youth and women in the decision-making process is often obstructed by an old-fashioned mind-set of traditional party members, who consider the youth as inexperienced. This leads to a discouragement of youth and women from being members in political institutions. There is widespread agreement that there is an association between the gender of the respondents and their level of interest in politics. Females show a lower level of interest than males in politics and government.

One of the key findings of this study is that young people are not apathetic or unwilling to participate, but rather feel that the political system is neither sufficiently listening nor sufficiently adapting to their hopes and needs. A majority of respondents said that it was important to them how the country is run by the government. However, youth think that politicians are not interested in their opinions and that most of the political parties are corrupt. Many young people express the view that the Moroccan governmental system itself does not work well enough at the moment and needs to be fixed. They argue that democracy should not work better for some than for others, as it currently does, and point out that too many categories of people are being excluded or left out. 

From Youth Apathy to Youth Activism:

In 2011, a movement which was called ‘The February 20 movement’ was born as a result of interactions between technophile Moroccan youth and street activists inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings that had started shortly before. Many of the group’s leaders were young people who had, for the most part, prior experience as activists.[7] As in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, Moroccan protesters were seeking the establishment of laws, mechanisms, and institutions that guarantee individuals’ social, economic, and political rights, based on dignity, freedom, equality, and social justice.[8]

As protests grew in Tunisia and Egypt, young Moroccans started to express their support for the protests on Facebook, but carried the conversation further by discussing political reforms in their own country. Dissatisfied young Moroccans were the main force behind this so-called ‘February 20 Movement’. Demonstrators in Morocco, unlike their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, did not call for radical regime change. As in Jordan, most Moroccan youth called for an evolution rather than a revolution. Protesters’ main demands focused on ending corruption, reforming the judicial system, improving access to education, and creating a better health care system.[9] Essentially, young people wanted a better functioning state, which to them did not necessarily entail a complete overhaul of the regime.

One Facebook page, “Freedom and Democracy Now” became the basis of future mobilization; it was the platform where young Moroccans debated how they would create their own protest movement and where they set the demands that eventually became the basis of the movement’s founding document. The protesters’ demands were numerous.[10] Just days before the 20 February protests from which the movement gained its name, the group released its founding document on Facebook, demanding the creation of a totally democratic constitutional reform representing the will of the people, the dissolution of parliament, reduced corruption and trial for corrupt officials, and the release of political prisoners.[11] It also called for the recognition of the Amazigh language as an official language, in addition to a slew of labor and social goals such as transparency in hiring practices, opportunities for unemployed graduates, a guaranteed minimum wage, access to public services for the poor and reduced living costs. In addition, they demanded health reform and education reform. 

The Hirak movement offers important evidence that youth activism in Morocco is not over yet, despite the fading momentum of the February 20th movement. The recent protests in the Rif region in Morocco were ignited in October 2016, after the gruesome death of a fishmonger named Mouhcine Fikri. The event very much resembled the death of fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, which triggered the Tunisian uprisings leading to the Arab Spring in 2011.[12] The Al Hoceima region has been at the center of Morocco’s unrest since the October 28 death of Mohcen Fikri, the young fish market vendor was crushed to death in a trash truck while trying to salvage what he could after police threw out his market goods. But since Fikri’s 2016 death, a new set of protests have started to take place in Morocco’s Rif region. The shocking photos of Fikri being crushed to death in the rubbish truck after he jumped to protest against the authorities’ confiscation of swordfish caught out of season were widely circulated in social media and caused public outrage. Anthropologist Miryam Aouragh has described the Al Hoceima uprising as the “unfinished business” of Moroccan the “Arab Spring” activists, and some on social media have been calling the latest wave of widespread demonstrations the “new February 20”.[13]

Conclusion

Young Moroccans have become increasingly alienated from parties and politicians, but are active in politics in a broader sense. The evidence uncovered through this study indicates that young people (both males and females) in Morocco show interest in political affairs, dispelling the stereotype that their apparent disconnection from formal politics is as a consequence of their general apathy. Despite very negative perceptions of politics, respondents assert they are interested in political matters and a range of political issues. 

They are also interested in a new style of politics. While they may eschew much of what could be characterized as formal or conventional party politics, there is evidence of great support for a different type of politics that is more participative and direct.Moroccan youth have their own views and engage in democracy in a wide variety of ways. Indeed, it is young people themselves who are diversifying political engagement: from the streets to the Internet; from political parties to social movements, issue groups, and social networks.[14] In  Morocco, young people are now more likely than the country’s population as a whole to participate in demonstrations and express their political views in online forums. Moreover, recent years have also confirmed that they are more likely than previous generations to get involved in protest politics.[15]

Young Moroccans are also still committed to the idea of elections and the democratic process; they strongly believe that the future of Morocco can improve with economic, political, and social changes. They believe it is their responsibility and burden to carry out these changes, as they consider that those charged with conducting politics on their behalf – the political parties and professional politicians – are self-serving, unrepresentative, and unresponsive to their demands as well as  indifferent to the country’s development.[16] Thus, it can be said that there is a civic orientation amongst the young to the democratic process, and democratizing the country is generally seen to be an urgent need. Taken together, these findings serve to call into question the assumption that youth are politically apathetic, as their lack of participation is based ultimately on barriers they face. At the heart of declining youth election turnout is a strong sense of political alienation rather than political apathy. As the political system in Morocco fails to provide the stimuli necessary to encourage young people and women to take a greater role in political life, it faces a crisis of democratic legitimacy.


[1] Bourqia, Rahma, Mokhtar El Harras and Driss Bensaïd (1995), Jeunesse estudiantine marocaine. Valeurs et stratégies, Rabat, Faculté des Lettres et des Sciences Humaines

[2]Sadiqi, F, and Moha E. “The Feminization of Public Space: Women’s Activism, the Family Law, and Social Change in Morocco.” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies  (2006): 86–114

[3] Rachidi,I.(2015, February 26).Inside the movement: what is left of Morocco’s February 20?. Retrieved from: http://www.middleeasteye.net/in-depth/features/what-left-morocco-s-february-20-movement-857852436

[4] Maddy-Weitzman, B. (2012). Is Morocco Immune to Upheaval? Middle East Quarterly. Winter: pp. 87-93.

[5] Jaafar,L.(2012). Moroccan Political Context.National Democratic institute.Retrieved from: https:// www.ndi.org/morocco.

[6] Naciri, Rabea ( March 1998). ‘political discourse in Morocco’. Occasional papers. United Nations Development Programme.

[7]     Naciri, Rabea ( March 1998). ‘political discourse in Morocco’. Occasional papers. United Nations Development Programme.

[9] Jaafar,L.(2012). Moroccan Political Context.National Democratic institute.Retrieved from: https:// www.ndi.org/morocco.

[10] Douglase, E .A. (2015).National Development and Local Reform Political Participation in Morocco, Tunisia, and Pakistan. United States: Princeton university press.

[11] Rachidi,I.(2015, February 26).Inside the movement: what is left of Morocco’s February 20?. Retrieved from: http://www.middleeasteye.net/in-depth/features/what-left-morocco-s-february-20-movement-857852436

[12] Rachidi,I.(2015, February 26).Inside the movement: what is left of Morocco’s February 20?. Retrieved from: http://www.middleeasteye.net/in-depth/features/what-left-morocco-s-february-20-movement-857852436

[13] Allagui, I. & Kuebler, J. (2011). The Arab Spring and the Role of ICTs. Editorial Introduction. International  Journal of Communication 5: pp. 1435-1442.

[14] Balleria, M. (2011). Why now, what is next: The February 20th  movement challenge to the state. SIT Morocco and Multiculturalism and Human Rights. January 4. ISP Collection, paper 1003 (retrieved November 6, 2011). http://digitalcollections.sit.edu/isp_collection/1003

[15] Henn, M., Weinstein, M. and Wring, D. (2002) ‘A Generation Apart? Youth and Political Participation in Britain’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 4 (2), 16-92

[16] Kimberlee, R. (1998) ‘Young People and the 1997 General Election’, Renewal, 6 (2), 87–90. Kimberlee, R. (2002) ‘Why Don’t Young People Vote at General Elections?’, Journal of Youth Studies,5 (1), 85–97.