Sunday, February 21, 2016

5 years after Arab spring, Morocco still faces major challenges

After five years since the outbreak of the Arab spring in 2011, Morocco is still going through major challenges, namely terrorism and economic hardships.

On Feb. 20, 2011, following the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, about 200,000 Moroccans in 53 cities and towns across the country marched in a call for greater social justice and democracy. After a quick response from the monarchy, a more open constitution was adopted and a general election led to a historic victory for the popular Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD).

While this strategy has paid off in terms of political stability, the growing terrorism threat and the failure to meet numerous socio-economic aspirations of the people pose serious challenges to the Kingdom's stability.

As for terrorism threat, Morocco has seen a growing threat from the Islamic State (IS) group and extremists holding its ideology. After they struck Tunisia and found safe haven in Libya, the group seems determined to attack the Kingdom.

On Thursday, Morocco's Interior Ministry said that security services foiled "dangerous" IS terrorist attacks and arrested ten suspects, including a French national.

A day later, a top Moroccan intelligence official said that the IS planned a series of terror attacks on Friday in Morocco, including a suicide car bomb attack.

The director of the Central Bureau of Judicial Investigations, Abdelhak Khiame, told reporters that investigations revealed the members of this cell planned attacks against sensitive sites, including hotels, and high profile civil and military figures, and they smuggled sophisticated weapons from Libya.

The terror cell, busted on Thursday, is the fifth one dismantled in 2016. The ministry said it has arrested 31 terrorist cells since 2013 and foiled "numerous terrorist plans" targeting vital national, Arab and Western interests.

  • Mohammed Benhammou, President of Moroccan Center for Strategic Studies, told Xinhua that the IS is "the most dangerous" threat to Morocco's stability.

The recently busted cell shows the IS's determination to attack Morocco which is actively participating in counter-terrorism efforts worldwide, and provided numerous tip-offs to western intelligence services, including the ones that enabled French authorities to locate the mastermind of Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, Benhammou said.

In addition, the economic hardships the country has been suffering from are putting more pressures. The shock created by the world financial crisis of 2008, particularly in its main trade partner, the European Union, and the hike in the prices of energy products in the last few years have had an adverse effect on the country's public finances.

Faced with a sharp deterioration in its public finances and an increase in expenses due particularly to subsidies for energy products, the Islamist-led government exerts strenuous efforts to fix the budget balances than creating more jobs to its predominantly young population.

  • Unemployment, particularly among young graduates, has not shrunk in years. According to the latest official reports, 27 percent of fresh graduates are jobless.

However, the government has taken a number of unpopular austerity measures including, increasing oil related products and public cuts. The latest decision in this series of austerity measures was the cabinet approved of a pension reform draft bill which proposes to raise gradually the retirement age of public servants from 60 to 63 years by 2019, and public servants and employers' contributions to pension scheme by 14 percent.

These measures have stirred numerous protests, including massive protests in the Moroccan capital Rabat in January against controversial education cuts.

A few days ago, Morocco's four main unions announced a 24-hour nationwide strike on Feb. 24 in protest at the government's "ignorance of their demands concerning social issues, notably the reform of the pension schemes."

Despite its "questionable" positive effects on the macro-economic balances, the government's socio-political policy is "far away from the utopia of social justice which was called for during the Moroccan spring and was voiced in the political program of the leading Islamist party during the election," Hassan Tarek, a political expert, stressed.

He told Xinhua that while "February 20" as a movement is gone, its spirit is still awake as evidenced in the growing protests after the constitutional reform."

He added that Morocco's stability resides mostly in living up to the socio-economic aspirations of its population, especially the heavily politicized young people.

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