The shadow of the 2010-11 Arab Spring still hangs over Morocco, as its authorities scramble to contain the latest political turmoil. The trigger for the current troubles was the gruesome death last October of a fisherman while retrieving allegedly illegal catch from the police in the Mediterranean port town of al-Hoceima. The incident in the Rif region, which has been periodically restive, proved a catalyst for social unrest witnessed since then against the general marginalisation of the population, and culminating in the detention of scores of protesters, including journalists and human rights activists. Protests have rocked Rabat too. Attempts to restore normalcy have been hampered as the government and angry protesters continue to trade accusations. A leader of the protest movement has been charged with threatening the security of the state, while some followers face criminal investigation. The monarchy under King Mohammed VI is contending with the overall fallout from the 2004 constitutional guarantees for women, including a minimum age for marriage and fair procedures for divorce. A decade-long campaign for gender justice is now focussing on the denial of equal ownership rights for women, and the government-backed privatisation of tribal land.
Against this backdrop, the onerous task of restoring popular faith in the democratic process has fallen on the multi-party coalition of Prime Minister Saad Eddine el-Othmani who took office in March. Paradoxically, the installation of the incumbent government led by the Justice and Development Party came after a prolonged impasse since the general elections of last October. The stalemate lent substance to scepticism that the reforms set in motion in the wake of the Arab Spring were at risk due to the renewed assertiveness of the traditional elites close to the monarchy. Morocco had successfully averted the political upheavals of the Arab Spring witnessed in Libya and Egypt through a calibrated approach of constitutionally managed transition. In return, the country remained a favoured destination for foreign investment and revenue from a thriving tourism sector. These were no mean achievements, in stark contrast to the atrocities unleashed against hundreds of thousands of popular protesters and the lurch towards authoritarian and more brutal regimes elsewhere in the Arab world. The same political sagacity and national stewardship is once again the need of the hour in order to restore confidence in the democratic process. The Prime Minister is known as a consensus-builder, and a genuine dialogue between the government and the leadership of the popular movement is key to a return to stability. Equally, the monarchy would do well to exercise restraint to facilitate the smooth functioning of the mainstream political process.