Less than a block from the seventeenth-century walls that surround Rabat’s medina (old city) is the Association Tamaynut. Inside the three-room office one can attend meetings, listen to lectures and participate in passionate discussions. A young man, Ibrahim, is there every weekday from morning until night. One of Morocco’s many thousand unemployed college graduates, he spends his free time doing volunteer work that he finds gratifying.

Tamaynut is an Amazigh cultural association; Amazigh (pl. Imazighen), meaning “free men,” is the name active and educated Berbers of North Africa have chosen for themselves. Amazigh is preferable to the term “Berber” a derivative of the Latin word for “barbarian.” Their language, Amazight, is divided into three main dialects: that of the people of the Rif, the Mid- and High-Atlas, and the south. Like its 37 or so sister organizations, Tamaynut works to reassert Amazighi identity as an integral part of Moroccan society. It utilizes discussions, journals and performances to convey its message. Different cultural associations organize musical performances, while Amazigh literary magazines create the space for a new literature. These same journals have sought to rewrite the history of the Amazighi people and, by implication, the history of the Moroccan nation.

Growth of “Associative Space”

The Amazigh cultural movement is a result of an opening-up of relatively independent political space in Moroccan society. One Amazigh paper, Tasafut, dubbed this newly created area “associative space,” and attributed its emergence to a decline in repressive practices by the Moroccan government. International pressure on Morocco has enabled “militants” working through associations to claim autonomous space, to respond to public needs for social services and to promote rights. The result has been increased organizing around issues ranging from the economic aspects of development, to public health, education and the environment. The most visible organizations are human rights and women’s associations; the most popular are youth and cultural groups. [1]

Legacy of Governmental Repression

Since the early 1980s, many Moroccan activists have opted for a gradual and less confrontational approach than that which was taken by leftists and Marxists in the 1960s and 1970s. In those years, as explained by Zidi Omar, a member of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH, after its French initials), “the leftists went directly towards their goal. They were against the state, against the existing situation. They wanted to install another state — one more democratic and more just.” The ensuing confrontation resulted in the disappearance and imprisonment of hundreds of leftists, who were confined in appalling conditions, sometimes for decades, until an amnesty in 1991.

Today’s activists enjoy unprecedented space for the relatively free and unhindered exchange and development of ideas and activities. Since the royal announcement of the Droit Privé in 1958, Moroccans have had the official right to form associations. The only permitted associations, however, were not independent of the government, nor did they challenge it. Omar summarized the development of Moroccan civil society: “There have always been youth associations, cultural associations, associations that were concerned with children and so forth. But,” he emphasized, “since the beginning of the 1980s there’s been another dimension. For the first time you saw the birth of women’s associations. Now there are seven women’s associations. We also saw, since the mid-1980s, Amazigh cultural associations…and human rights associations. Ours, for example, was created in 1979.” Since 1988, however, he has felt that “society started to impose a latitude in one way or another. I believe that an associative tissue has become very important…. Associations have started to establish themselves in society.”

Omar, himself imprisoned three times for leftist and human rights activities, reminds us that this wasn’t a gradual or inevitable evolution: “There was almost 30 years of struggle, you can’t forget.” Many people have spent time in prison, and many were disappeared. “They paid a lot.” The relative breathing room that activists now enjoy “wasn’t given easily.”

The newness of this sector of civil society also means, in the words of Abdelhay Moudden, a professor of political science at the Faculty of Law in Rabat, that “you are dealing with groups that have a very short history of trying to reform the state from within.” While some organizations are making their power felt, there remains a great historical legacy of repression and fear of political action. In a country where activism and detainment and torture have been closely linked, this fear is not easily overcome.

“This Isn’t Our Business”

The rise of these associations has paralleled the fall of party politics’ credibility. Few Moroccans look towards the veritable gerontocracy of the Moroccan government to improve their lives. [2] Youths are especially impatient with the current political scene. [3] To a certain extent, the non-affiliated associations — including Islamist organizations — are filling the void. As Hassan Aourid, a professor at a private university in Rabat and editorialist for the Saudi Arabian daily al-Sharq al-Awsat, phrased it: “There was a time when all ideas were expressed through political parties. But now I feel they are expressed best through associations.” These groups are the means through which a multicultural and differentiated will can express itself.

Given the lack of legitimacy accorded to political parties, the legacy of political repression against dissident politics, and a newfound effectiveness through indirect channels, the rhetoric employed by associations avoids political discourse. As one Moroccan explained, “People say, ‘This isn’t political, it’s cultural; I’m not political, I’m an artist; I’m not political, I’m an academic’.” People disavow any ulterior motives for their actions, or, more precisely, any awareness of such motives.

The emergence of associations touches upon the very meaning of citizenship in Morocco. Associations pose questions about how much control citizens have over their own lives. In Aourid’s words, “people haven’t reached a point where they feel secure enough to express their own ideas. It’s not that they aren’t interested; it’s that they’re scared. Even the elite. And, as the Americans say, when you don’t use something you lose it: the right to criticism.” In Aourid’s opinion, the rights of citizenship “could be jump-started by an intelligentsia to make people aware of their rights.”

Omar echoed these views in the context of the defense of human rights. The problem presented to human rights workers in Morocco was how to develop “the consciousness of people to defend their rights after decades of oppression. Every time people want to act around an issue, they say to themselves under their breath: ‘This is politics,’ and politics here in Morocco is conceived of as something that is automatically in opposition to the state. People act in accordance with their sense of what’s possible. But often they don’t act at all. They say under their breath, ‘This isn’t our business.’… And that’s just it: The point of consciousness hasn’t yet arrived.”

It must be acknowledged that part of this hesitancy is valid. “We don’t yet have the liberty to demonstrate here,” Omar said. Ahmed Adraghni, an Amazigh activist and lawyer, noted, “Some activities are permitted, but not all.”

Government vs. Civil Society

A tacit rule of the new political climate is that activists should not hold spontaneous demonstrations. The consequences for breaking this agreement were made clear at the unsanctioned 1994 May Day rally for recognition of the Amazight language in the southern rural (and thus, largely Berber) town of el-Rachidia.

The government broke up the rally and imprisoned six of its leaders. The king later pardoned all those involved. He went on to acknowledge Amazigh as a part of Moroccan history and culture in a royal declaration, albeit as a “dialect” rather than as a full-fledged language. Additionally, a quasi-governmental organization (with official NGO status) named Tafilatet was founded and local Amazigh activists were offered positions of power.

The regime released the prisoners to forestall the invocation of a public rallying cause: strictly cultural movements do not have political prisoners. While this conflict revealed that activists would be punished if they spoke too loudly, it made it equally clear that the government would reward them with lucrative and prestigious positions if they were willing to moderate and keep their aims “non-political.”

This formula has been applied to other movements, among them an official governmental women’s association and a human rights group. The Islamist groups, except those in the universities, are increasingly seen as coopted. [4] Since the top-down authoritarian structure of associations changes very little across the political spectrum, the cooptation of leaders is very simple.

The strength of leaders and their unwillingness to share power means that the number of people who feel competent to organize is small. The benefits to the government of parallel governmental organizations or cooptation lies in the undermining of the initial raison d’être of the autonomous or semi-autonomous organizations. Furthermore, as adherents see their members coopted, the movements lose credibility. “I think the government is acting in a very smart way,” said Aourid.

Political parties also utilize hollow rhetoric and strategies of cooptation to undermine genuine efforts at social change. Many even have auxiliary single-issue organizations. One young activist referred to them as “carried shadow” (ombre porté) groups, expressing suspicion about their intentions.

Some observers suggest that the eventual realization of activists’ goals would not necessarily run counter to the government’s interest. Moudden contends that “the state is more legitimate now than in the past. It’s not as nervous about people talking a language other than the one they want them to talk, or asserting a different gender dynamic than the one they want to impose. It doesn’t feel frightened by all this.” The monarchy now understands “that in the long run its future is diversity,” and is betting “on a long-term existence in pluralism.” In Moudden’s view, the logic behind this plan is that “the more diversity you have in society, the more that society will need a unifying force. In the past it was different tribes fighting each other. Now you will have different cultures interacting, and the one institution that will remain a unifying force is the monarchy.” No one in Morocco can impose one homogeneous culture now, Moudden feels, “so whoever is in charge will have to ac­cept this diversity of Moroccan society.”

The Unemployed Graduates

One group that has averted cooptation is the “unemployed graduates” (chômeurs diplomés), a loosely intertwined national association of roughly 20,000 members. [5] The group was formed to demand that the government provide jobs to well-educated Moroccans. In a society where mass post-secondary education is still a relatively new phenomenon, those who have studied feel they are entitled to something in exchange for their efforts.

Particularly compelling is the plight of the 3,400 Moroccans with more than three years of education beyond the baccalaureate level. Most are forced either to take occasional and humiliating odd jobs or to teach for very low wages. These young people feel a desperate need to improve their situation.

The unemployed graduates use sit-ins and hunger strikes as their main tools of activism. Highly embarrassing to the Moroccan government on an international level, this group has won a number of victories. These successes have fueled more activism, convincing strikers that their aims are justified and will eventually be achieved.

Many of the “rank and filers” firmly refute the idea that their movement is political. As one unemployed man with a doctorate told me: “Give me a post and vive le Roi and all that; I don’t give a shit!” The position the graduates take is that they were promised something, so they fight for their due. As with the Amazigh groups, their apolitical claims allow them the space to organize.

An interesting aspect of this movement is the diversity of its members, who come from various disciplines and thus do not have any common professional interests. What they do share, however, are lifestyles and politics. Sit-ins are a perfect, informal environment in which the graduates can get to know one another and engage in critical discourse. Consequently, the unemployed graduates comprise one of the few non-hierarchical organizations in Morocco. [6]

Although many strikers have been harassed and brutalized by Moroccan police, and although their leaders are trailed and phones are tapped, so far the group has not yet experienced an unambiguous confrontation with the state over its right to exist. Many members are apparently willing to risk confrontation because they feel their demands are just, and more important, they do not see any other options.

A contributing factor to the emergence of the move­ment of the unemployed graduates was a rapidly privatizing state which could not provide the same level of employment as it once did. Repressive states may earn a degree of legitimacy if they can provide near total employment for all their citizens. When that level of employment decreases, however, the state must either democratize or be prepared for confrontations. In the eyes of Morocco’s unemployed college graduates, the state has yet to fulfill its part of the social and political contract.


The Moroccan state’s choices with regard to civil society are variant forms of open political repression, which could well cause a flight of foreign capital, or its current path of reluctantly allowing slow democratization. The government is already highlighting democratization as one of the main attractions to foreign capital.

What role the successor to the throne will play during this process of change remains to be seen. There are many unspoken hopes for a monarch willing to be a figurehead. For now, political space and freedom seem to be growing. This space, however, is contingent upon activists following the implicitly understood rules of the political game, and as such, could be retracted at any time. In the form of lapdog organizations, civil society has very little strength. It is among the stronger groups, such as the Amazigh cultural organizations and the unemployed graduates, who are carving their own political space, that the potential for real gains lie.


[1] Takfarinas, “L’Espace Associatif: Un Autre Espoir de la Societe Civile,” Tasafut 17 (January 1997).
[2] On the excessive age of the Moroccan political elite, see “New Democracy, Old Men,” Economist, April 5, 1997.
[3] For a description of Moroccan youth and their modes of political expression, see Mounia Bennani-Chraebi, Soumis et Rebelles, les Jeunes au Maroc (Paris: CNRS Editions, 1994).
[4] On the Moroccan government’s strategy of presenting itself as a fundamentalist state to undermine Islamist accusations, see Francois Bourg and William Dowel, The Islamic Movement in North Africa (Austin: University of Texas, 1993). On the changing relations between the Islamists and the government, see Malika es-Saedi, “Que Se Passe-t-il l’Universite?“ Jeune Afrique, February 5-11, 1997.
[5] This figure is out of the over 110,000 eligible Moroccans who have graduated from college since the 1980s and are not now gainfully employed.
[6] Interview with Shayna Cohen, American researcher, Rabat, May 1997.

How to cite this article:

Daniel Burton-Rose "Room to Breathe," Middle East Report 209 (Winter 1998).

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