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Tunisia revolt: Can it happen in Morocco?

Morocco has high levels of unemployment and poverty. But few expect a revolt.

Morocco demonstration
Anti-government protesters and young unemployed graduates are pushed back as Moroccan security try to disperse the crowd in front of the Moroccan Parliament in Rabat, Jan. 12, 2011. (Abdelhak Senna/AFP/Getty Images)

CASABLANCA , Morocco — The fall last week of one of the most dictatorial rulers in the Arab world, Tunisia's President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, has prompted many here to ask who might be overthrown next.

The Tunisian revolt began in the small town of Sidi Bouzid after a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in despair at the lack of opportunities for educated young Tunisians. His self-immolation ignited protests that began to spread around the country over joblessness, corruption and frustration with the lack of freedoms.

(Read about the U.S. response to the popular revolt in Tunisia.)

Weeks after the first demonstrations, something no Tunisians dared to dream of happened: Ben Ali, the man who had ruled the country with an iron fist for 23 years, capitulated and fled the country.

Many here call it the “Tunisian Miracle,” and now all eyes are on the other Arab countries — especially those in North Africa. Ben Ali’s downfall electrified the region and many are now exploring what lessons should be learned.

“Let the Tunisian people show the way for the Arab world — no more dictators!” said one tweet by a Moroccan lawyer who blogs under the name Ibn Kafka.

Scholars also expressed hope for future changes.

“A salute to Tunis, which has opened the road to freedom in an Arab world devastated by years of waiting on the curb,” said Burhan Ghalioun, head of the Center for Contemporary Oriental Studies in Paris and a political science professor at the Sorbonne.

But could something similar occur in Morocco?

“Is Tunisia the first domino to fall? Will the Tunisian ‘Jasmine Revolution’ spread through the Maghreb, and perhaps throughout the Middle East?” wonders Dominique Moisi, a senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations.

He remains doubtful. And many North African analysts agree. Moisi said that although the recent reforms in Morocco seem modest, they are still an important movement in comparison to Morocco’s more static neighbors.

“This is due to two things: ‘monarchy’ and ‘reform,’” writes Moisi in the daily French paper "Les Echos." “Faced with strong opposition, particularly from the Islamists, Morocco's king, ‘the Commander of the Faithful,’ has a legitimacy that is lacking in the military that holds power in Algeria and in Mauritania, and in the Ben Ali family in Tunisia.”

Morocco has some of the same problems faced by Algeria and Tunisia such as unemployment and rising costs. But Morocco also has political stability derived from the uniting symbol of the king. Mohammed VI, who has been in power since 1999, has also worked hard to modernize and develop the country. Besides trying to reform the economy, he has implemented many social reforms: in particular, more legal rights for women. He has also undertaken staunch anti-terrorist measures since the 2003 attacks on Casablanca that left 45 people dead.

But one major problem according to other observers is that the Moroccan regime, like the one in  Tunisia, has been repressing individual freedoms, restricting freedom of the press and punishing activists who protest too loudly.

"Tunisia has been famous for a long time for its authoritarian drift,” said Khadija Riyadi, president of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights. “We must not forget that the limitations of freedoms is growing in Morocco. There are lots of examples: trials against journalists, arbitrary detention of human rights activists. All this does not portend anything good."

Unemployment and poverty are also a factor. But even though food prices rocketed last year sparking minor protests in the country, it seems unlikely that they will lead to political instability. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization announced this month that the food price index rose 32 percent between June and December 2010. Prices are expected to climb even further in the coming year.

“In Morocco, poverty may be larger and more visible than in Algeria or Tunisia, but stomachs are less likely to go empty,” Moisi said.

How can the Moroccan government avoid the worst-case scenario? By stimulating the country economically, argues Khalid Tritki, editor of the Casablanca-based online business publication "Maroc Eco."

“The events in Tunisia may be an opportunity for the rebirth of politics in Arab countries,” he said. “From now on, practicing politics means saying the truth, acting on it and ensuring that people feel change on a daily basis.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/africa/110118/tunisia-riots-morocco-north-africa-democracy