Since April, Moroccans, fed up with the slow pace of social and economic progress, have been boycotting three major national companies: Centrale Danone, a producer of dairy products and a subsidiary of French company Gervais Danone; Eaux Minérales d’Oulmès, makers of Morocco’s ubiquitous Sidi Ali bottled water; and Afriquia, a major gas distributor and retailer.
The public is increasingly taking an alternative approach to political participation as the country’s traditional political establishment appears unable to address day-to-day challenges. The boycotts, which were launched online last April, speak to many Moroccans’ concerns about their ability to afford the rising cost of living in the country. They have been driven by a perception that the prices of foodstuffs have been unfairly inflated.
This development marks a change in Morocco’s post-2011 political trajectory in which politicians had attempted to become more responsive to popular sentiment. However, the palace’s more overt role in politics has weakened political actors and again made concepts such as political representation and elections meaningless. Consequently, protest movements have been on the rise. As the government has become more detached from everyday politics, the population has seemed increasingly engaged.
The choice of the boycotted companies was no coincidence. They were singled out for their large market share, proximity to power, and perceived disregard for the welfare of Moroccans. Centrale Danone was previously under the joint management of France’s Danone and the royal holding company, the Société National d’Investissement, but since 2014 a majority of its shares have been acquired by Danone.
Eaux Minérales d’Oulmès is owned by Holmarcom, a conglomerate that is family-owned and -operated. Oulmès is managed by Miriem Bensalah Chaqroun, who until recently was the head of Morocco’s largest business confederation. She reportedly enjoys a close rapport with King Mohammed VI and embodies the strong links between the business elite and the palace, often accompanying the king overseas as part of business delegations.
However, perhaps the most charged boycott in the eyes of Moroccans was that of Afriquia. For many people the company has personified cronyism. Aziz Akhannouch owns and runs the Akwa Group, of which Afriquia is a part, a family conglomerate he inherited from his father. Akwa specializes in the refining and downstream distribution of petrochemicals, particularly gasoline and fuel, as well as real estate and development. Akhannouch, a close friend of the king, is currently Morocco’s agriculture and fisheries minister, a post he has held in three separate governments since 2007. After late 2016 his political profile rose, however, as he assumed the leadership of the National Rally of Independents (RNI) following parliamentary elections. Under his leadership, the RNI disrupted the government-formation process at the request of the palace, a move aimed at maintaining the king’s dominant position in managing Moroccan politics.
Control of the economy by a small business elite close to the monarchy—and by the monarchy itself—was a significant driver of protests in 2011 and represents an important motivation for the ongoing boycotts. It reflects a more profound problem in Morocco. Despite significant developments over the past two decades, inadequate governance still generates significant economic, developmental, and administrative challenges for the country, reflected in uneven development, corruption, poor services provision, and high unemployment. These challenges have come to the forefront in recent years as civil disobedience has increased since 2011.
Morocco has a history of protest movements. While Moroccans are acutely aware of how anti-government protests in other parts of the Arab world have led to political chaos and conflict in recent years, there are few other viable avenues to draw attention to problems in the face of unresponsive governments. In October 2016, protests in the northern Rif region shook the country and lasted until recently, when mass arrests were used to put an end to them. In September and October 2017 protests erupted in Zagora, a city in the Atlas mountains in Morocco’s poorest region, Dara‘-Tafilalet, where citizens have struggled to gain access to clean drinking water. Prior to that, in Tinghir Province in the same region, protests broke out in April 2017 following the death of a small girl as local hospitals did not have adequate facilities to treat her injury from a fall. And in January and February 2018, another wave of protests engulfed Jerada and surrounding communes in eastern Morocco after two miners died while struggling to eke out a dangerous living from a closed mine. This once again highlighted the lack of vital services and the dire poverty in which many citizens live.
The government has failed to offer satisfactory answers to many problems. It remains unable to improve economic conditions and raise employment, especially for youth. The palace has sought to intervene, but a coherent strategy has been lacking. In October 2017, in one of several speeches on the matter, the king lamented the state of the public administration and the economy’s inability to address citizens’ needs. Since then, he has announced changes in the central and local administrations, and has even spoken of accountability. Yet the palace’s ritualistic, perfunctory sacrifice of politicians and bureaucrats is losing its effectiveness. These measures have failed to resonate with Moroccans. Many continue to voice a deep sense of dissatisfaction and concern about the country’s future. They point to an apparent lack of leadership on the part of the monarchy and government.
A common complaint among people, even those who respect the king and the institution of the monarchy, is the king’s figurative and physical detachment from the country. As Spanish journalist Ignacio Cembrero, a longtime observer of Moroccan affairs, has pointed out, even though Mohammed VI effectively monopolizes all political power, he spent only 20 days of the first three months of the year in Morocco. This detachment is of concern to Moroccans, particularly when the country seems adrift.
Furthermore, the political class has been dealt major blows. The Islamist Party of Justice and Development, whose popularity had risen prior to the elections of 2016, was neutralized by being forced into a weak coalition government. This government has failed to address national needs due to a lack of political will, the competing interests of parties in an unruly coalition, and disempowerment by the palace.
Instead of addressing core issues, the palace and the government are choosing to combat the growing unrest. They have introduced significant limitations on freedom of speech and expression, with individuals or media outlets threatened with legal repercussions if they overstep the line. Nothing illustrates this point as well as the trial of the Rif protesters. Up to 1,000 people may have been arrested, many of whom received heavy sentences as a deterrent against further demonstrations, though some were recently pardoned. A strong-armed approach might work in the short term, but it also points to a lack of viable solutions to Morocco’s troubles down the road.
In October 2017 the king promised a “political earthquake” to spur the political class into action. In July 2018 he gave another speech lamenting the lack of progress and admitted that something was “missing.” In the past, the monarchy often sought, even superficially, to generate a sense of optimism. But increasingly today the king is no longer providing an anchor for popular discontent. Instead his recent speeches have reflected rising frustration that could potentially pave the way for tighter monarchical control and the further curtailment of political freedoms.
The paradox is that the king already has great power, so that if nothing is done to ameliorate the situation, it may reflect badly on the monarchy itself. Meanwhile, as the boycotts have shown, Moroccans are looking for alternative ways to bring about change.