From Pamphlets to Facebook: Collective Memory, Media Strategies and the Moroccan Left
In the first years following the country’s independence from France and Spain in 1956, the Moroccan Left was rapidly gaining in popularity in the political sphere and among the masses. It arguably looked set to dislodge an archaic Makhzen (political establishment centred around the monarchy) from the seat of power. Historical figures of the Moroccan Left such as Mehdi Ben Barka (1920-1965), Abderrahim Bouabid (1922-1992) and Abderrahmane Youssoufi (1924-) were not only respected for their political role in anti-colonial struggle, but also considered notable leaders of the Left movement in Morocco and around the Third World. The Moroccan intellectual scene and student movement were also dominated by progressive intellectuals and ardent student militants waiting for the right moment to strike and change the course of history from the liberal path chosen by King Hassan II with the ostensible support of the military, the rural landed gentry and a conservative urban bourgeoisie.
In the meantime, two historic events were about to alter the course of the nation’s post-colonial history before the Moroccan Left could translate into action any of its master plans for a just and prosperous Morocco. The failure of the first urban resurrection in Casablanca in March 1965 gave King Hassan II and the army the upper hand to undermine the Left by arresting union leaders and ‘disappearing’ or forcing most of the socialist leaders into exile. A state of emergency was declared and the parliament was put on hold until 1970. During those restive years, another strong blow was dealt to the pan-Arabist movement by the defeat of Arab state armies in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. The Naksa (Setback) had repercussions on the Left in Morocco, which had already gone largely underground through militant movements such as Ila al-Amam (Forward) and 23 Mars (23 March). The failure of two military coups to depose Hassan II in 1971 and 1972 provided the regime with even more grounds to crush the active cells of the Left movement.
In 1975, King Hassan II staged the Green March, which brought to an end Spanish colonial control over the southern Sahara region. This political manoeuvre made the King enormously popular as the symbol of national unity and Morocco's territorial integrity. The battle against progressive forces was now fought with the blessing of the people, who were increasingly made to believe that the Left was against national unity and, even worse, siding with the kingdom's sworn enemies represented by the self-proclaimed ‘socialist’ regimes in Algeria, Libya and the Baathist bastions further east. The end of the Cold War only brought home the reality of the rise and fall of the Moroccan Left in little over than three decades (1960-1980s). The growth of civil society activism since the 1990s has absorbed the remnants of the radical Left movement, but the absence of a strong and organised Left in the country has left Morocco open to rapid socioeconomic and political neoliberalisation through IMF market reforms first introduced by King Hassan II in 1983 following the first food riots against poverty and austerity across Morocco.
The story of the Moroccan Left, broadly sketched above, has yet to be told, particularly to a large youth population thirsty for knowledge about the most crucial yet least understood episodes of Morocco’s post-colonial history. The scant scholarship on the subject has often been produced political scientists based in Morocco and overseas. There is an increasing understanding of how political parties, police brutality, and the Cold War context worked to bolster the control of the monarchy in the Moroccan public sphere. However, much of the history of the Left remains untold and undocumented because it essentially belongs in the realm of culture and collective memory. In a predominantly oral culture such as Morocco, the multifaceted story of the Left as both political thought and activism is yet to be told by political activists, cultural actors (artists, musicians, writers, and so on), and ordinary people who lived through the turbulence of Sanawat Rassas / Isggassen n Lbaroud (The Years of Lead, 1956-1999). This research paper aims therefore to explore what these dispersed actors think about why and how doing (leftist) politics has changed in Morocco. Another key research question relates to the kind of communicative processes and strategies used by the Moroccan Left activists to mobilise the people before and after the advent of new and social media. In a nutshell, this interview-based paper aims to give voice to Moroccan political actors, intellectuals, academics and ordinary activists to tell the tale of the Left the way they see it. We have listened to them carefully in search of common threads and in-depth insights into the story of the Left in Morocco and its communication strategies from the 1960s to the ‘Arab Spring.’
Once upon the Left
The participants in this research project come from different age groups, political and professional spheres. They are five actors within and without the Moroccan Left. The first interviewee Ali Fkir is commonly referred to by his friends and Moroccan journalists as “the last Communist in Morocco.” Long years spent behind bars at the height Morocco’s Years of Lead have not deterred this staunch socialist and tireless activist from defending the rights of workers and the poor in the country. As he relates in our interview as well as in his recently published autobiography Le petit berger qui devint communiste (2013) [The Little Shepherd Who Became a Communist], Fkir was born in the 1940s to a nomadic Amazigh (Berber) community near the town of Beni Tadjit in Morocco's desolate southeast. The little shepherd entered school late, but he naturally felt inclined to leftist ideals about social equality and human dignity, the sort of values he experienced daily among common people in his home region. Comrade Fkir became active in the student movement and integrated the Marxist-Leninist 23 March movement in the late 1960s. He was arrested and jailed for long periods due to his political activism and presumed threat to state security. He was released in the late 1980s and became a teacher. He resumed political activism in Hizb al-Annahj al-Democratic (The Democratic Path Party), the country's largest socialist party, and has remained close to the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH), which has absorbed many radical leftist activists since the early 1990s. In January 2014, I met Mr Ali Fkir in the city of Mohammedia and interviewed him about the past and current situation of the Moroccan Left with a focus on social activism and media representation.
Ahmed Assid is a thinker and Amazigh (Berber) activist. He is one of the most influential public intellectuals in Morocco today. A philosopher by training, Assid is best known for holding anti-Islamist positions and for his defence of secularism, civil liberties, and indigenous rights in a multicultural Morocco. His popular version of being a Berberist on the Left and an outspoken critic of the Moroccan establishment lands his participation in this project a value-added potential for a rich portrait of Moroccan leftist thought and social activism from independence to the present day. I interviewed him in his office at the Royal Institute for Amazigh Culture (IRCAM) in Rabat in January 2014.
Khadija Ryadi is a former president of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights. She is an influential defender of the rights of women as well as those of vulnerable social groups such as single mothers and sub-Saharan migrants. Her active participation in Moroccan civil society since the 1980s brings a unique gendered and human rights perspective to this oral history of leftist activism and the media in Morocco. In 2013, Mrs Ryadi won the prestigious United Nations Prize for Human Rights. I caught up with the Iron Lady of the Moroccan Left in January 2014 in Rabat.
Mohamed Ouddi is a teacher and Amazigh activist from southeastern Morocco. When I met him for an interview in January 2014, Mr Ouddi was taking part in a sizeable demonstration staged by teachers in front of the parliament in Rabat. The teachers were trying to put pressure on the government to grant them pay rises on the basis of their recently earned higher education qualifications. Mr Ouddi represents the voice of the middle class professional with origins in and a will to speak for marginalised rural regions around the country. He hails from the poor desert province of Errachidia (now part of the Tafilalet-Draa Region), which continues to suffer from a massive brain drain to other regions and overseas.
Camilia Rouan is a young and prominent member of the 20 February Movement, which was born in early 2011 and staged massive street protests that forced the regime to make some concessions such as the release of many political prisoners and the amendment of the constitution. She is also a member of the Democratic Path Party. In addition to her on-the-ground experience, Ms Rouan brings in the urban youth perspective on the Moroccan left into the project, particularly after the 2011 popular uprisings.
Memory is a dominant language of representation in leftist talk in Morocco today just as is the case in other countries with a recent past of serious human rights abuses and authoritarian rule. While talking and listening to my five interviewees, I came to believe that this remarkable presence of memory is due primarily to a desire to talk about the Left’s experience after the Years of Lead, on the one hand, and to a certain will to understand what went wrong and the lessons one can learn from that experience today, on the other. This explains the role of memory in the discourse of both young and old activists. The salience of memory can also be explained by the desire to understand and come to terms with a traumatic past, for the experience of leftist activism in Morocco has been a bloody one and is still broadly shrouded in secrecy even among the activists themselves. Despite the renaissance of prison literature and cinema besides and the creation of an official truth commission in 2004, the people who experienced or are living in the aftermath of the Moroccan Left's heyday are still unwilling or unable to articulate all the dimensions and implications of the trauma of the Years of Lead, which often pitted the regime against leftist thinkers, activists, and underground cells.
The interviewed activists seem to be concerned with the democratisation of the memory of both the Moroccan Left and the Years of Lead. They were eager to tell me about their experiences and those of their comrades and friends from the safety of the present situation in Morocco. The older activists (Fkir, Ryadi and Assid) were particularly keen on seeing Moroccan youth become interested and have an accurate understanding of this fraught past. The younger activists (Rouan and Ouddi) were evidently knowledgeable about this past to a large extent and seemed ready to continue the struggle for a better Morocco. Both groups of interviewees are also keen to see the academic community become interested in the experience of the Moroccan Left against or in conjunction with the current overabundance of scholarship and funding for research on Islamist movements. Ahmed Assid, the most academic of my interviewees, is a human rights activist with a record of popular writings on the Islamist movement in Morocco, but during our interview he argues that the current growth of Islamist ideologies and politics is the natural outcome of both the decline of what he calls “the organised Left” and a logical consequence of the Moroccan regime’s Conservative Turn in the late twentieth century through educational and cultural policies in order to undermine the Left’s influence during the Years of Lead.
The interviewees were not afraid to cast a self-critical eye on the Moroccan Left, past and present. Some even stressed that this self-critique is a prerequisite for a renewal of progressive politics and strategy in a neoliberal environment. They openly criticised what they saw as the pitfalls and strategic mistakes in the Left’s strategies to gain power in post-colonial Morocco. The nature of this critique varies depending on the past and present affiliations of the five interviewees. For Ali Fkir, the Left did what it could under the difficult circumstances of authoritarian rule. However, many activists then and now pursued their personal interests at the expense of the Left’s unity and strategic power. As a Marxist feminist, Khadija Ryadi revealed how the Left could not gain allies and a strong base in many strategic sectors of society such as the countryside, which it left largely under the influence of conservative parties and the regime's power brokers. Women have not always been acknowledged as active agents in the struggle against the regime of Hassan II. This left many fissures in the edifice of the Left, which began to crack even at the height of its power in the 1960s and 1970s. In our interview, Ahmed Assid also opposed the hegemony of pan-Arabism within the Moroccan Left. He sees it as one of the reasons that the Left could not take root in a multicultural society. Leftist thinkers and activists have long ignored the cultural specificity of Morocco within the so-called Arab world. Mohammed Ouddi attacked the continuity of this ideological Achilles' heel in large parts of the Moroccan Left today. An optimist at heart, Camilia Rouan criticised the assimilationist tendencies of some leftist circles and parties, but remained hopeful that the real Left is beyond co-option and the control of the Makhzen.
Media and the Left
Media have been one of the major battlegrounds between the Left and the Makhzen from the dawn of independence. Whilst the regime has always controlled the public media and used them to spread its own ideology and undermine any opposition to its rule, the Moroccan Left has used alternative media to counter the establishment's monopoly of public opinion. National television and radio have been the absolute monopoly of the Makhzen in post-colonial Morocco. It was only recently that the regime allowed for the creation of private radio stations in the country. These stations have not posed a serious threat to the establishment. There is no privately owned television station in Morocco even today. In the first decades of independence, the Left had to rely on its own newspapers and underground publications and tracts to spread its message. The leftist newspapers were heavily censored most of the time, and the circulation of pamphlets and other publications underground was prohibited and severely punished by jail or arbitrary detention and ‘disappearance’. Nevertheless, Al-Moharrir and its replacement Al-Ittihad al-Ishtiraki‒the official newspapers of the main socialist party under Hassan II, The Socialist Union of Popular Forces‒were the most read papers in Morocco until the 1990s. This means that even though it lived under the censorship regime, the Left managed to reach at least the educated middle classes through its print media. Underground publications were used to spread more serious and direct messages to activists or among the masses.
Nevertheless, according to the interviewees, the official media have been an efficient element of the Moroccan state apparatus. One of the latent battles between the Left and the Moroccan regime has centered on the education of future generations of Moroccans. Given their finite resources and limited circulation in a largely illiterate society, the print media on the Left could not sustain a long battle for the hearts and minds of millions of Moroccans. In societies where orality and illiteracy are predominant aspects of social life, the audiovisual media are more effective in reaching the widest audience possible. With their huge resources drawn from the taxpayer and with the support of schools and other modern institutions of discipline and control, the Makhzen has always aimed to have the hearts and minds of Moroccan people on its side in the battle against the opposition. Public media have therefore focussed on undermining the Left’s progressive ideas by adopting an identity politics centred on religion, Arabisation, and the role of the monarchy in guaranteeing social cohesion, territorial integrity, and economic progress. This ideological apparatus centred on creating subjects docile enough to live under an authoritarian regime whilst still believing that it is the best alternative be to a demonised Left and, much later, the Islamist movement. The Makhzen's use of the media has been nothing short of ensuring its ideological hegemony through the manufacture of consent over the years.
New Media, New Struggles
The interviewees stressed that the advent of new media has brought about both great opportunities and enormous challenges for the Moroccan Left. It is true that the democratisation of access to information made possible by the coming of the Internet age and the increasing levels of literacy in Morocco have provided new tools and platforms for the Left to reach its target audiences and challenge the Makhzen's hegemony shouldered by its monopoly over the traditional media. Leftist activists and parties have been active in the online media to varying degrees. The parties and their newspapers have websites in Arabic and French, and activists keep Facebook and Twitter accounts to inform and spread progressive thought and ideas to a wide general public in Morocco and abroad. This role of the online media became apparent during the 2011 popular uprisings when calls to demonstrate and denounce police violence and arrests played a major role in the battle between the regime and an increasingly Internet-savvy Left and youth population. The February 20 Movement, which was born out of a coalition of Moroccan youth with various political persuasions in the context of the 2011 uprisings, has used the Internet to effective ends to rally support behind the demonstrations and demands for political reform and social justice. Influential websites and news outlets were born out of the momentum created by the energy and will to revolt manifest in 2011 and the following years. Evidently left-leaning news websites like www.mamafakinch.com, www.demainonline.com and www.lakome.com (in French and Arabic) seized the moment and played a significant role in forcing the monarchy to concede some powers to the elected parliament and government through an amended constitution in 2011.
In spite of the customary euphoria about the emancipatory functions of the Internet and its pivotal role in the mobilisaion of masses as well as the digital vernacularisation of leftist thought and activism, the five interviewees did not neglect to mention that the Makhzen has intervened with great force to retake control of the new media landscape in Morocco. Since 2011, official and semi-official media have proliferated online and the regime has introduced new legislation to curtail the power of oppositional media. Many journalists have been jailed or coerced into silence. The most famous case is that involving Ali Anouzla, the editor-in-chief of the Arabic edition of lakome.com. Anouzla had been an active journalist and strident critic of the regime in the print media before 2011 despite the multiple closures of his papers and the sanctions imposed on him and like-minded journalists. Lakome.com emerged as a strong and widely respected information portal in 2011. The editorials signed by Anouzla often made the news in Morocco and were translated into many languages. When his news website published the link to an anti-Makhzen propaganda video by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), Anouzla was arrested and jailed for two months. Both the Arabic and French websites of lakome.com were shut down by the authorities. Anouzla was released on bail and has tactically been silenced through his constantly postponed trial on charges of terrorism. The case of Ali Anouzla shows how the Makhzen has been able to strike back against the Left's use of the media to defy the informational hegemony of the regime and its political power, which even the Arab Spring did little to undermine in the long term.
In Morocco today, memory, conflict and the Left are intertwined elements of a multi-faceted puzzle. How did a powerful Left projected to play a leading role in a newly independent country become powerless over a relatively short period of time? How do leftist activists remember that past? What media strategies did the left use in Morocco and how have they changed over time? Although the story of the Moroccan Left is dramatic due to the Years of Lead, activists have continued to battle a powerful regime bent on weakening and co-opting its opponents. The regime has perfected its tools over a long period of time, but leftist activists are aware of these strategies and have evolved their own. Whilst the global environment and neoliberal globalisation have weakened the Left everywhere since the end of the Cold War, Moroccan leftist activism is showing signs of renewal. The 2011 popular uprisings breathed a new spirit into even the most cynical activists and thinkers on the Left. The events demonstrated that while the Left has lost influence as an organised body of (counter-)power at certain times in the history of Morocco, the ideals of social justice and dignity are still alive and threaten the monopoly of power by the monarchy. The uprisings also revealed the power and potential of new media in leftist mobilisation and popular appeal. In a country where the powerful media are still official and often distort the message and political project of the Left, the social media have provided a vast platform for activism and mobilisation for the Moroccan Left. Old and young activists, civil society organisations, and political parties have all invested in the new potential of the new forms of mass mediatisation in the 21st century. How this will shape the story if the Moroccan left and national history remains to be seen.