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Martin Jay: Morocco’s youth movement, Fev20, will inevitably splinter, but will this mean leaving Morocco’s banned extremist party holding the megaphone?

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It was once said that the first casualty of the battlefield was the truth; this is certainly true of Morocco’s youth movement and its fight for reform as almost nothing that the media here reports about this 70,000 strong movement is true.

In a country where story telling is admired and even revered, this youth movement has done well out of being mythical, mysterious and largely misunderstood. The adage all publicity was good publicity was true enough for these irreverent kids who started a Facebook page in February and threatened to bring down the Arab world’s longest serving monarch. Until now.

Of late, the Moroccan media and circus of so-called respected commentators appear to have started repeating the government line
about the movement being now run by the extremists – who, depending on who you listen to either had connections or sympathies with Al Quada at a certain point, or, funders in Saudi Arabia or more recently the Iranian regime. I recently heard from a government minister the word “hijacked by the extremists” when talking of the youth movement and wondered how realistic this was. Could all those people who paraded through the streets of Casablanca Sunday after Sunday – and some of whom I drank tea with – be extremists? How did this come about? This is largely down to the fact that the movement is an open house for any political party to occupy. And the temptation for the banned Islamist party -- Al-Adl Wal Ihsan (party of justice and spirituality) – to turn up to those meetings in the early days in high numbers was predictably too much to resist. King Mohamed’s haste at reforming Morocco in a bid to dampen down the possibilities of unrest has ironically given the country’s extremists the opportunity to come out of their dark cellars and secret hideouts and be heard.

Last Sunday I was told about a demonstration being organized by pro-monarch supporters in the poor suburb of Sebata in Casablanca – Morocco’s over-populated commercial capital, which could easily be described as the nemesis of Rabat -- in that it is a chaotic mass of poor town planning, taxi drivers who appear to drive blind-folded and four million people who live absurdly beyond their means.

In some respects Casablanca is the worst of Morocco as parts of its outer city appear ‘third world’ for some western observers. Sebata’s poorer end is grim. Typically it accommodates high numbers of young unemployed men who have veered towards what they might argue is a purer, more orthodox interpretation of Islam. And for these youths, Morocco’s evolvement towards a modern, hip European satellite state with an moderate Islamic foundation, has left them out in the cold. They see the beautiful girls in mini skirts, the nouveaux riches toys paraded in front of their eyes and feel that they are not part of it; they read reports about the government and the parliament and don’t feel at all represented.

But Sebata in an area of high number of supporters of Al-Adl Wal Ihsan and had previously been the battlefield in May 29 where Fev20 supporters and police clashed in what shocked us all with YouTube pictures of police mercilessly beating men on the ground with truncheons and, in one case, the gruesome sight of a woman being beaten who was caught in the middle of a scuffle.

Last Sunday started off with pro monarch supporters chanting and waving Moroccan flags, while in the same area two groups of Fev20 supporters were attempting to rally: one anti-constitution (and what could be called moderate) and the second, anti monarch and hard core Islamists, members of Al-Adl Wal Ihsan. This latter group does not accept the monarch as the religious leader and makes up the bulk of any Fev 20 demo. It was at this rally, where the hard core Islamists had organized a last minute change to its location – sparking fury with the moderate members that I was with – where I witnessed first hand the blatant bitterness and resentment from each side to the other’s presence. The moderates tend to feel more that they started the movement with the Facebook page and the postings in the early days; the Islamists now show the arrogance of those who have colonised and are no longer bothered with the foibles of those under the cosh, as, simply by their turnout they are able to call the shots.

I saw three fights break out between these two groups within the crowds. And perhaps more shocking a young girl who was beaten by her brother for being amongst the Islamists. The moderates have their euphemism buzzwords for the Islamists: “militants” is a word often heard. But it is clear to see at these rallies why the Moroccan media tarnishes this movement as extremist and, more importantly, anti monarch when the vast majority in the crowd are from this banned underground extremist group. “These thugs will ruin it for all of us,” Hassan, one of the Casablanca moderate leaders of Fev20 tells me through the side of his mouth as he watches the chanting. Then suddenly one of the extremists turns around and photographs him and within seconds a scuffle breaks out. Hassan took the mobile phone out of the hands of the extremist and held it as though he was going to break it. Within barely a second he was surrounded by an angry mass wrestling with him, taking him away like a parting wave, while his won friends finally ploughed through to save him.

Minutes later I was approached by a young man called Osama who three weeks previously I had interviewed on camera for a Western TV network in English. He was smiling, proud of the group of young idealistic men he was with. “What happened then with the interview? I didn’t see it on TV,” he asked quite innocently. I didn’t answer but did have a question for him. “You are with these [Al-Adl Wal Ihsan] and you are also Fev 20?” I asked. He smiled but said nothing. “So you lied then? You told me before that you were not with Fev20.”

He smiled again. But again said nothing. As we were talking secret service police – the much feared DST – masquerading as protesters but fooling no one approached us and photographed us both with their telephones. Again, Osama just grinned like a kid who just found a very large bag of sweets and looked at them as though they were paparazzi.

He said on camera earlier that “Moroccans want change, dignity….Morocco is just in a mess.”

But “change” is a word often heard in Morocco. Few though are clear about how they see it or what they want. Unlike other Arab countries, Moroccan people face Europe for their social/economic inspiration. The three million Moroccans who live in Europe keep their relatives up to speed on the latest social fad, which explains a lot about the idealistic and sometimes comically unrealistic idea that some youth movement followers have about change. The moderates likes Hassan want a crackdown on corruption and real accountability in government.

Above all though, they want jobs to be made a priority and want the government to magically weed out all its corrupt officials and start behaving like a European organization. And with those changes, pie-in-the-sky ideas like free health care or 1970s European protectionist measures towards utilities, gasoline and cooking oil. Essentially, they want France. And they want it more or less now. They talk of ‘democracy’ like it is some crude commodity, which arrives in a container at Casablanca port.

But for the others, like Osama, change means “cleaning up” all the Western, degenerate fads of modern morocco and aligning the country more with Islamic, traditional values.

It is a miracle of tolerance that these two groups shared a social media Internet page for so long, let alone a street with about 50 riot police blocking both ends.

Just the other day, my phone rings at the end of the day from one of Hassan’s gang. News comes through from a woman whose panicky voice tells of the first signs of an inevitable split by these two groups. A Fev20 assembly organized for Monday night had the extremists lock the doors, blocking entry for their ‘moderate’ friends and resulting in a rather brutal attack on one young man, a moderate Fev20 campaigner, who was hospitalized. Ironically he was beaten for trying to get into a meeting of an “open house,” tolerant, liberal free-thinking, passive organization which was meant to be a megaphone for debate and reform.

It seems now though the extremists have the megaphone. Expect new messages soon.

(Martin Jay is a journlist based in Morocco. He can be reached at: martinjay851@gmail.com)