The Contradictory Worlds of Political Struggle in Morocco

inside the grand mosque in Casablanca

Montreal   The magic of the Organizers’ Forum is that we immerse ourselves in the work of counterparts in diverse areas of change making, along with as much of the local culture as we can absorb. The risk and constant caution is not deceiving ourselves that this deep dive ends on solid ground once on shore. We seize on clear visions, even while recognizing that they may only a mirage. Where we think we see democracy, may only be a face mask for a subtle repression. Where we embrace the energy and passion of individuals, we have to be careful to examine where everything is going and whether it is sustainable, whether it will actually work.

We always want to be positive and supportive, but we recognize that we are visitors. We are not tourists. We want to be seen as comrades in struggle, looking to learn, but we recognize that as North Americans and Europeans, we are seen as privileged and often opportunistically, no matter how humbly we try to represent ourselves. Finally, we are organizers, bred and trained to question, to be skeptical, to analyze and doubt, to test words against action, presentations against reality, all integrated into our every thought. In that spirit, a first-time participant turned to me after a long and exciting presentation from a labor organization, and asked me if I thought it was a “real union” or not. That’s just how we are.

working cart

All of which led me to reflect on some of the contradictions that emerged from all of our meetings that, if accurate, concern me. Among the people we met there seem to be divisions, perhaps irreconcilable, between the forces for change. On our first afternoon I was surprised to hear a journalist and activist from the 20th of February movement express an opinion indicating that most nonprofits and unions were essentially tools of the state. One activist pointing out the problems of minorities laid the blame on the King, but was also clear later that he did not want his photo used, and that he was leaving the country to make money in hopes of making change later. Other activists, including our favorite firebrand, Betty Lachgar with M.A.L.I., the Movement for Alternative Individual Liberties, resisted becoming nonprofits in the same way because of the requirements of the state. The issue was the usual requirement that in registering with the government, the organization was required to express some allegiance to the state, and in Morocco that also means the King and Islam, the state religion. Is that so different from the requirements that many US and Canadian organizations accept in order to get tax exemptions by pledging not to be political? Yes and no, but it’s only a difference in degree.

clock tower in Casablanca near old medina

On the other hand we met with cultural organizers with vibrant programs in art and theater and deep community roots and political programs, who had registered and received most of their support from foreign and EU sources, and were enthusiastically embraced by some of the same activists that scoffed at unions and organizational registration. Women’s organizations were also extremely politically active and essential in changing the family code and winning protections for women, but also registered and supported by the younger activists.

It seems the contradiction was more between activists and organizers. The organizers accepted the compromise of state registration in order to build more stable structures to sustain and fight for change. The activists were more committed to movements, solidarity, direct action, cultural events, education in the public space, mobilizing rather than organizing, social media rather than institution building. For the younger activists, their commitment was deep, but it was not their work in the same way it was the full-time commitment of the unionists or even the cultural and community center nonprofits, who also saw it as their life job. I’m not sure either realized the trade-off or the consequences.

In Morocco, they clearly knew each other and in many cases got along well and with respect, but would they have the ability to come together and find that they had built the capacity to make change when the opportunity presented or not? That question would stay with me a long time and leave me waiting to watch and see.

stop sign


Housing, Street Sellers, Rif Protests, and Political Prisoners

Housing Committee Activist

Casablanca  We could almost say this was an “easy” day for the Organizers’ Forum, because we finished earlier than usual, but we packed it full.

We started talking at length to an organizer-activist about the organizing of a housing committee to protect against evictions and displacements of lower income families, many of whom had traditionally lived in the old city, called the medina. His was an interesting story, but one that is all too common around the world as city after city fails to confront gentrification and the soaring values of properties in their central business core, whether it be Vancouver, Mumbai, or New Orleans.

His story was couched in the language of conspiracy and drama, but it stripped down to a fairly usual, but sad tale with some twists. The state using eminent domain condemned land. It contracted with private companies to build housing for displaced families on the land and market the properties to them at prices running about $20,000 for the land and $7000 USD for the construction of the fairly small places. These properties were more than a dozen miles from the city center where families had lived, so they now were staying at a considerable distance from their livelihoods. The housing scheme was somewhat similar to Delhi except the distances are often twice as far away, taking hours of travel each way. We could say at least there was alternative housing, often not the case in the USA or what we are now seeing in the Canadian and United Kingdom housing markets.

The displacement was an interesting version of the demolition-eviction schemes around Vancouver, British Columbia now with a New York City rent control twist. In Casablanca the rents have been frozen for several generations since families were allowed to inherit not only the apartments, but the actual rent. There were only four ways a landlord could change the terms of this frozen rent ranging from personal or family occupancy to forced rehabilitation and dangerous habitation. Not surprisingly some landlords were selling out and sometimes speculators were coming in, and both were often allowing units to deteriorate to the level that they could then fix-and-flip. Our friends organizing in these conditions often mounted resistance to the evictions, but seemed to still be uncertain of a successful long term strategy in a difficult situation. We found much the same as he discussed their work in trying to organize street sellers. The state had organized market places, but these cost money, and there were pressures against the union which seem to make the work of volunteers difficult.

We had promised to observe and join an action at the prison where political prisoners were not being allowed visits from their families. We were warned continually about not talking to what seemed to be reporters because many were thought to be employed directly by the security forces. In fact as we left and waited for our cab we watched a security official taking pictures of our delegation at length.

Prison Protest

Security taking pictures

Interestingly, we talked to an activist-organizer from the Rif where there have been protests in the northern, Berber part of the country for months involving tens of thousands of people, the largest demonstrations since the Arab Spring and the 20th of February. The demonstrations began around corruption and governmental inattention. The organizer told us the real issue now was, if anything, more fundamental. The water was no longer safe to drink, so the organizing was increasingly grassroots and demanding potable water so that people could maintain the simple, basic right to life.

It’s a big world, but the more we listened, the more we knew it was still one world grasping for change.


Organizers from the Rif