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In a small hotel, within Marrakech’s Medina, I talk with my host and friend Yousuf. Over the past two days he has been, very patiently, helping me to refine my impoverished and diminutive knowledge of Arabic. We discuss pronunciation and, of course, dialect. Arabic is perhaps more diverse than any other major language, so much so that an Arabic speaker from Syria may struggle to understand Arabic dialect in Algeria.
During the conversation Yousuf pauses to tell me that he has ‘his own language’, in addition to Arabic. His eyes change; he is unmistakeably proud. Berber, he says, contributes considerably to Moroccan dialect Arabic, but is also a language in its own right. Berber is Yousuf’s ‘own language’.
“That 98.5% of Moroccans agree on such a complex and important question is extremely unlikely.”
The next day I travel across Morocco by taxi. It is a long and fascinating journey, but its defining feature is the police checkpoints. Every 20 miles there are policemen stopping motorists. My first thought is that they must be monitoring long distance travel within Morocco, as part of a surveillance program aimed at keeping tabs on the Polisario.
In 1975 Western Sahara was finally decolonized, and as soon as the Spanish left, Morocco and Mauritania immediately invaded. By 1979 Morocco had established administrative control of the country, but the Polisario – a Sahrawi resistance movement – were both strong and popular. I ask the driver why there are so many checkpoints, are they monitoring the Polisario? He replies only to tell me that he was ‘a policeman for five years’.
As we drive on another possibility presents itself. A convoy of about 20 cars is driving slowly down the main road, accompanied by the sound of honking horns. On this point, our driver is far more amenable. The cars are draped in hand written signs that are, he says, canvassing the ‘Yes’ vote in the upcoming Referendum. In response to the wave of protests and popular political organization that has gripped Morocco just as strongly as the rest of the Arab world, King Muhammad VI had offered a referendum on a new constitution.
The new regulations would involve the King renouncing a modest amount of power, make the prime minister the head of the government, grant women ‘social equality’ with men, and – strikingly – acknowledge Berber as an official state language along with Arabic. The ‘Yes’ convoy is unobstructed by the police. Is the referendum the reason for the quantity of checkpoints?
It is the 30th of June. Throughout my travels King Muhammad VI has been there. In every hotel, restaurant, shop, café, and even in the souks of Marrakech, there are portraits of the King. His ubiquity is a stark reminder of Egypt in 2009, when Hosni Mubarak’s face was plastered even onto the make-shift walls of Cairo’s shanty town. I am in the coastal town of Essaouira, and in the central square there is a large rally.
A stage is erected, and the sky is strewn with ‘Yes’ fliers. The ‘Yes’ campaign is undoubtedly well funded. The town is, however, divided. The ‘Yes’ camp are louder, they dance, and their microphones ring through the streets. Their supporters clutch the same portraits of King Muhammad that have become so familiar.
But there is a considerable group of protesters calling for a boycott of the referendum, and though there is no sign of any violence, they are completely contained within a police cordon. Is this Moroccan Kettling? Are the police merely pre-empting clashes, or are they sending a message?
Though they are not insignificant, the reforms are not those that the protest movements want. The February 20th movement has been vehemently arguing for a political system based on the separation of powers, foreign policy decided democratically, and for something to be done about Morocco’s increasing youth unemployment, which currently stands at nearly 40 percent. The referendum, it is widely agreed, is as much a vote on King Muhammad as it is on his minor reforms. If that is true, it follows that the referendum was not a vote the King could afford to lose.
The result comes in: 98.5% have voted yes. The UK government has decisively moved to support not only the new constitution but this result, and therefore there are some points that need to be made. The first is hardly necessary to emphasize; the proportion of support is scarcely believable. That 98.5% of Moroccans agree on such a complex and important question is extremely unlikely.
The second is that the opposition and popular movements have pushed for boycott, rather than a ‘no’ vote; this alone at least partially invalidates the result. There are also questions that remain unanswered. What effect has the police presence and its noticeable yet measured action around the referendum had? And how many people, proud like Yousuf of a sense of distinct Berber identity, have supported the reforms because of the King’s addition of the official language change?
King Muhammad VI has been shrewd. His referendum is ostensibly a victory, and a weapon against those who will argue for more radical democratic changes. It is also an excuse for Western governments like our own to oppose Arab democracy, as they always do. Scratch the surface and you find the reality is more complicated. Though Morocco is not Libya, or Egypt, the protest movements will not be perturbed by this.
I learned much about language in Morocco. The truth about the referendum is that it was not a loud clear shout of support for the King’s continued power. The reform movements are alive and well, and will continue to voice their desire for a more democratic Morocco, in both Arabic and Berber.