The Itinerary of Civil Society in Morocco

The presence of civil society as an active political body within Morocco’s institutional tissue dates back to less than two decades. Although it is difficult to verify the exact number of CSOs, in the country, it was estimated that there are over 80,000 registered associations (Bohdana Dimitrovova, 2009). Up to the early 1980s, the Moroccan society was characterized by a sprit of community life under an absolute political control of the State. But the political and economic model followed back then proved to be sterile. The State’s traditional strategy of equilibrium, which consisted in the creation of relays, the recuperation of powers emerging at the base, the globalization at the top and the practice of state clientage, proved to be inadequate. State clientage has led, in a context of shortage of resources, to an overcharge of demands and a crisis of lawfulness of the state. Additionally, the increasing exclusion of young people from economic and political life has constituted the grounds for a radical and violent dispute between the people and the ruling body. Furthermore, limiting the political participation to the notables and docile elites has not been able to accommodate the presence of a middle class in full expansion. (Zef Bonn, 2005). Faced with these vertebral handicaps, the State had no options other than devising new political and economic strategies that would synchronize with the regional as well as the transitional fast rhythm of economic and social transformations, besides the opening up of the world market and the economic liberalization.

In 1979, Morocco ratified the International Pact on Civil and Political Rights; freedom of association has since become a constitutional right (Kausch, 2008a). In 2002, new legislation was adopted to facilitate the use of foreign funding by Moroccan CSOs (for details see Khakee, 2008). Furthermore, international pressure coupled with financial support for CSOs has promoted an agenda focused on political and civic rights: e.g. human rights, women’s rights, freedom of the press and association. Consequently, in a process that could be termed as ‘boundary setting’, the state has had to re-regulate state–civil society relations by defining the political spheres assigned to state and civil society actors. This dynamism gave birth to the associative life in Morocco, providing a new public space, which structured itself around the promotion of citizenship with autonomous social actors behaving as political forces. Since then, hundreds of associations in defense of the rights of man, women, young people, Berbers, civil liberties, political associations, fight against corruption or fight against aids and economic development issues mushroomed, and now, they have gained national and transitional recognitions.

This recognition came as an outcome of the fast growing number as well as quality-performance of civil society organizations, located in different geographical locations; both in the urban as well as the rural zones of the country. Moha Ennaji, for instance, talks about two categories of civil society organizations in morocco: the first type includes all the organizations that provide socio-economic and educational services and material supports and filling the gaps left by the state in social and economic development: such as education, health, building schools and health centers in rural areas and villages. The second type features mostly human rights associations that strive to foster “democratic culture advocacy”.  Zef Bonn’s model (2005) talks about three different categories: 1) business association, 2) labor unions, and 3) political parties. On the one hand, Labor Union, Zef argues, that regardless of its long existence and experience in militarism, is still ineffective dues to its old dated ways and means.

Syndicalism in morocco started as early as the beginning of the French protectorate (1912). It witnessed a structural reform in the mid 1950 when the Moroccan unions decided to align the Nation’s oppositional movements, giving birth to the first union (Moroccan Work Union) in 1956. Since then, their presence has gained more space, diversity, and affiliations in political parties. However, Syndicalism in Morocco has not been able to step out of its traditional operational framework. According to Zef:

“The Moroccan unions’ way of working is largely delayed in relation to the demands of the moment. Their attachment to syndicalism of the fifties and sixties doesn’t prepare them to hoist themselves to the level of decision-making. Their managements are not yet ready to use modern tools and methods. They act in the logic of a primary force report without reference to modern methods.” (Zef Bonn, 2005, P.11)

On the other hand, the associations of entrepreneurs emerged as an independent economic power in the Moroccan public sphere in the 1990s due to the linearization and privatization process the States ventured into. Later on, they have constituted an autonomous centrality within the economic life. The third type, political parties in morocco, can be localized under three blocks: 1) the “States’ parties”: the existence of these dates back to the period of the French protectorate. They have old tradition, and are equipped with organized structures, such as economic commissions, social commissions, and institutional commissions, which allow them a unique proximity to the monarchy and an active participation in the political debate. The second type is the “occasional parties”, created by administration during electoral periods. They are known for their managerial competency since they get first hand information about the social and economic realities of the country due to their close position to the administration. Finally, there is the “unrepresented parties: These are the advocate of the social rights of the rural side population. There are also parties of the two extremes: the extreme left and the Islamic parties.

Whether in business association, labor unions, and/or political parties, feminist movements in Morocco are omnipresent in all of these public spheres with various degrees of influential performance. There are more than 30 women’s rights organizations in Morocco. Some of them deal with the political and institutional emancipation of women, others with socio-economic issues such as education and poverty, others with issues related to civic rights, and the list goes on. Founded in 1985, the Democratic Association of Moroccan Women (Association Démocratique des Femmes du Maroc, ADFM), one of the leading and oldest feminist organizations, assigns itself the mission of protection and promotion of women’s human rights as universally recognized.

 Nowadays, the most persistent voices are expected to come from civil society. At the same time, the maintaining an exclusive link between civil society and the democratization process often leads to a dichotomous, if not a violent confrontation, relationship between the state and the civil society; and it is not always easy to maintain power balance while surviving this dichotomy. With all its limitations and constraints, civil society has helped Moroccans, in general, and women, in particular, in gaining back some of its civic rights. Yet, it would be misleading to attribute the origins of this reform solely to civil society. Many believe that the democratization potential of Moroccan civil society is very limited and clearly defined within the ‘public spheres’ boundaries that are chartered by the States. In other words, unlike its theoretical usage in some Eastern European States where the concept of civil society has often been associated with the analysis of opposition to non-democratic states to foster political liberalization and lead to increased civic participation in the public sphere (Gellner, 1994; Hirsch, 2002), in Morocco, civil society and its oppositional role is tightly controlled and often guided by the omnipresence and vigilance of the State. So, oftentimes, members of civil society can only be permitted to resist the State’s totalitarianism to an extent that would save the face of the former and project a brightened image of the latter outside its geographical boundaries. Working under such a condition renders the productivity of this institution very limited and rarely extraordinary. There are some voices that see nothing coming out of the civil society, but an extension to the State’s institutions, since they both echo the same discursive strategies.

Bohdana Dimitrovova (2009), for instance, argues that large segments of Moroccan society, that do not accept the status quo imposed by the political elite, are shunned by the makhzenian structures, are excluded from the public sphere. Nevertheless, empirical evidence suggests that the possibility of dialogue within this normative public sphere where “a fair balance of interests can come about only when all concerned have equal right to participation” (Habermas, 1999, p. 72) is rather limited. These politics of exclusion and inequality are diametrically opposed to Habermasian (1999) notions of the public sphere in which the dialogue between the state and civil society is based on mutually accepted ethical principles. The oppressive character of the Moroccan public sphere has important consequences for the actual functioning of civil society. It is agued here that civil society does not always adhere to the principles of ‘civility’ and ‘tolerance’, and that it can be subject to political patronage and competition. Another difficulty with Habermas’s somewhat idealistic notion of the public sphere is the elitist nature of Moroccan civil society and its weak social impact. Scholars such Denoueux and Gateau (1995) have pointed out that many Moroccan CSOs are linked more to the State than to the real concerns of society, which raises the question of who the civil society actually represents. The elite character of mainly urban CSOs and their distance from the reality on the ground has generated widespread skepticism of ‘active’ or responsible citizenship through community involvement

All in all, both history and performance the Moroccan Civil Society has walked reveal that the organization has come a long way; and yet, “The challenge facing these organizations is to establish themselves as forces for innovation and to encourage the state to change policies that are detrimental to Moroccans and their democracy. Indeed, the state in Morocco relies on these organizations to implement policy and help meet the needs of the public. Giving them the space to operate independently would help civil society have a genuine partnership with the state.”