Morocco and the Arab Spring

By Percia Verlin

November 2014

Nearly three years ago today, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire and sparked a revolutionary movement throughout the Middle East and North Africa. In many nations, young men sought to imitate Bouazizi’s act in order to spark revolutions in their respective countries. “In no country have they done so more often than in Morocco,” writes Nicolas Pelham of the New York Review of Books. Since 2010, nearly twenty youths in Morocco have followed suit, yet none have succeeded in igniting revolution.[1] Perhaps one explanation for this lack of revolution is that Morocco’s leader, King Mohammed VI, did not seek to retain absolute power in the face of protest but rather agreed to reform. In March 2011, King Mohammed unveiled a new constitution that relinquished his claim to divine right as sovereign and improved freedom of speech and association. This political transition in Morocco has led to extensive democratization. Nevertheless, many of the economic conditions that precipitated political unrest in 2011 persist today: GDP growth has not exceeded three percent, one out of every five youth in the country are still unemployed, and social welfare remains poor. Less than six months ago, a Moroccan street vendor Mbarek al-Karassi imitated Bouazizi and set himself on fire, demonstrating that many of the conditions that led to Moroccan reforms could also lead to the unraveling of its government.  

King Mohammed VI’s proactive response to protesters’ demands has discouraged public violence. In early 2011, inspired by the events in Tunisia and Egypt, young Moroccans began the February 20 movement to address monarchical power, transparency, and corruption. The February 20 movement, involving over 200,000 Moroccans, represented “the first time in Morocco that the king was openly criticized and they didn’t shoot people,” states Maati Monjib, a professor at the University of Rabat.[2] King Mohammed VI chose to publicly address the concerns of demonstrators and announced plans for constitutional revisions within a month. The King’s response quelled dissent and swiftly transitioned protest into political action.

The constitutional referendum of 2011 proved successful, as 70% of the population voted and 98% of them voted in favor.[3] The major appeal of this constitution that differentiated it from the 1996 constitution was the subsection focused on human rights. Vital rights for the Moroccan people are enumerated in Article 20 to Article 31 including the right to life, the right to physical and moral integrity, the right to a fair trial, freedom of press, and gender equality.[4] Additionally, the inclusion of rights for the Amazigh indigenous people, such as making Tamazight a national language, was a huge step forward.[5] However, except for the de-linking of the King’s “Commander of the Faithful” and “Chief of State” roles, the political and economic reforms in the Constitution went mostly unnoticed by the general populace.[6] Political reforms in the new constitution largely focused on the division of powers between the King and the Parliament. The 2011 Constitution somewhat strengthened parliamentary powers, but the King continues to hold most of the political authority.

The existence of an active, uncensored civil society in Morocco has also allowed citizens to express their opinions without necessitating the overthrow of the government. Political openness, including advances in freedom of speech and association, led to the robust growth of associations, or advocacy groups, in the 1990s. There are currently 30,000 to 50,000 associations in Morocco[7] that focus on issues such as women’s and children’s rights, human rights in general, and the development of the Amazigh movement. Kristina Kausch of the think tank, FRIDE, describes Moroccan civil society as “one of the most diverse and vibrant civil societies in the region.”[8] Compared to the civil societies in Egypt and Tunisia that emerged in the wake of the Arab Spring, civil society in Morocco has been a component of the country’s socio-political fabric for over two decades. According to an internal study of Morocco’s civil society conducted by Espace Associatif and CIVICUS, civil society enjoys high levels of public trust and perceived impact; most Moroccan citizens believe civil society serves the public and influences government policy.[9] Government support of the associative movement has been one of the main reasons why civil society has flourished. In particular, the 2002 enactment of the Law of Associations allowed for the establishment of an association simply by registering with local authorities rather than requiring prior approval, as is common practice in most MENA countries. Though “40% of civil society organizations [still] find it [the legal framework] unduly restrictive,” the general lack of restrictive regulations and censorship has made civil society the preferred outlet for political engagement.[10]

Although Morocco avoided outright revolt during the Arab Spring, many of the social and economic conditions that precipitated conflict still plague the country today and could lead to unrest in the future. Analysts suggest that Morocco’s economy is not growing fast enough to keep pace with its demographic growth. Large youth bulges, coupled with a lack of labor demand in urban areas, could lead to conflict.[11] With Morocco’s fertility rate expected to increase between 2010 and 2015 to 2.79 children per woman and the working age population expected to reach 67% by 2020,[12] a lack of economic growth or jobless growth-- such that labor demand does not grow at the same rate as labor supply-- could lead to higher youth unemployment. More importantly, since the percentage of urban population is expected to rise to 60.4% by 2020,[13] the concentrations of unemployment and poverty in urban regions could brew dissent.

            Improvements in public health, education and social welfare will decrease the probability of future unrest. Government subsidizations of food and fuel, among other economic policies, have increased inequality by benefiting the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Seventy percent of subsidies go to the wealthiest 20% of the population.[14] Structural reforms, including a reduction in subsidies, will be necessary to achieve higher sustainable growth. Improvements must also be made in public health and social welfare. With only 34% of Moroccans currently covered by the Obligatory Health Insurance scheme, the King announced the Medical Assistance Plan in April 2012 with the goal of improving healthcare for the rural poor. The success of this program will dramatically improve the quality of life and public satisfaction with the current regime.

            Morocco’s exceptional Arab Spring was characterized by a collected response by its leader and a desire for further progress by its populace. The 2011 constitutional referendum was a success on the part of King Mohammed VI in so far as the reforms calmed Moroccans and satisfied their demand for an enumeration of human rights. However, these advances do not mean that Morocco will be free of turbulence in the near future. Economic growth in non-agriculture sectors must keep pace with population growth, especially growth in the working age, urban population. Furthermore, the government must take active steps to improve the quality of life in urban and rural areas by improving its social welfare programs.  


[1] Nicolas Pelham, “How Morocco Dodged the Arab Spring,” The New York Review of Books, July 5, 2012,

[2] Aidan Lewis, “Why Has Morocco Survived the Arab Spring?” BBC News, November 20, 2011.

[3] Betsy Ray, “The Arab Spring and Morocco’s Reforms: Heading for an Overhaul or an Overthrow?” August 2013, 2.

[4] Chloe Mulderig, “New Constitution, Old Tricks: Moroccan Exceptionalism During the Arab Spring” 2014 Graduate Student Conference (2014), 4.

[5] Mulderig, “New Constitution, Old Tricks”, 5.

[6] Ibid, 3.

[7] Azeddine Akesbi, “Civil Society Index of Morocco: International Version,” CIVICUS (2011), 20.

[8] Kristina Kausch, “Morocco: negotiating change with the Makhzen,” Working Paper (2008),

[9] Ibid, 9.

[10] Ibid.

[11] United Nations, “World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision,” 2012, Available at

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ray, “The Arab Spring and Morocco’s Reforms,” 3.