The most dramatic scenes from the protests were of the harsh treatment government security forces inflicted upon striking teachers who marched in Rabat to protest job insecurity from all over the country. Thousands of them came in their white robes, a garb mandated by the Ministry of Education for all its public teachers. Hundreds were injured after police opened fire with water cannon and waded into crowds swinging their batons.
Over the past three years, striking and demonstrating teachers have been the target of arrests and beatings, sometimes resulting in the loss of life, as they have mobilized against their new precarious status as contract-labor under government privatization reforms implemented in 2016. While the general strike did not solely concern the educational system, it was the teachers’ mobilization that gave it a color—their white robes—and a stated goal—the preservation of public education, and more broadly, the public sector, in Morocco.
Three labor unions called for the general strike: the Organisation démocratique du travail (ODT), the Fédération démocratique du travail (FDT), and the Union générale des travailleurs du Maroc (UGMT). The labor wing of the Justice and Spirituality (Al-Adl wal Ihsane) Islamist movement also announced it was joining the strike. The unions leading the protests condemned the government’s continuing failure to negotiate with them over the “full integration” of the contracting teachers into the regular body of employees of the Ministry of Education and the deterioration of the workers’ wages and benefits more generally.
The choice of February 20 to hold a general strike was strategic: It was timed to commemorate protests that erupted in the country eight years ago, on February 20, 2011, as part of the regional Arab uprisings at that time. What became known as the February 20 movement demanded an end to corruption; a change in government; better housing, employment and living conditions; and a change in the constitution, which resulted in the new Constitution of 2011. The memories of the February 20 Movement and some of its demands are still vivid and their emotional appeal remains a mobilizing force.
The general strike, ongoing teacher protests, and the government crackdown on teachers, raise both immediate and far-reaching issues. The current wave of protests and strikes involves “contractual teachers” but it has garnered support throughout public education with more strikes of all public teachers slated for the following months. As the teachers have claimed, their struggle is central to the protection of public education in the face of a long-standing governmental push for its privatization. The teachers’ struggle is also bound up in the broader fight by Moroccan unions against the government’s neoliberal reforms targeting the public sector as a whole. Whether these protests will renew the momentum of the 2011 February 20 movement will depend upon the government’s response and the ability of the protesters to sustain and broaden the scope of their mobilization.
The Rise of the Contractual Teachers
The primary issue motivating the teachers who marched during the general strike, and those who show solidarity by striking throughout Morocco, is the new regime for hiring public school teachers on fixed-term contracts. This is a form of temporary contract labor that dismantles the tenure regime previously enjoyed by public teachers. Implemented in 2016, this regime was part of several unpopular reforms the previous leader Abdelilah Benkirane’s government passed targeting not only public education but the public sector as a whole. The most controversial reform was that of the pension system, which increased the number of required years of service while decreasing benefits. The reform of the pension system incentivized many teachers to take an early retirement with better benefits rather than retire later with a more modest take-away. The mass retirement of teachers could be an unintended consequence of the new pension system, but it may have been sought by the Education Ministry. In either case, regimes of early retirement have been used to move toward more privatization for teaching jobs in Morocco.
The contracting teachers are university graduates like their predecessors. But unlike them, they have to compete through a complicated regime of selection and exams to win one of these contracts. When the contract entered into effect in 2016, this competition also became a requirement for students already admitted to professional teacher training schools that had previously guaranteed tenured teaching positions upon graduation. Although the number of students admitted to these teacher training schools was limited by a yearly quota determined by the Education Ministry, those admitted had been guaranteed a job for life.
The implementation of the 2016 reform has leveled the playing field for a teacher contract downward for both those who had already been trained as teachers and those just graduating from universities. Both groups now enter a single competition for winning a teaching contract. If accepted, these candidates are given a two-year contract during which they undertake more training, take additional tests while on the job and then take a mandatory final examination at the end of their two years. After successively passing all these tests they gain the official status of teacher under a renewable yearly contract. There are now over 50,000 teachers hired under this regime.
Teachers have always struggled with deteriorating life and work conditions, shrinking resources and a student body disenchanted by the schooling system. But they were granted a job for life, and a gender-equity system of compensation and benefits. They could aspire to middle-class status, have job security and become an organized work force with a greater political leverage. The newcomers, however, are a disposable work force that can be transferred, penalized and fired with no compensation. They can be called upon to fill vacancies, teach outside of their realm of expertise and work in more than one institution or even in two different cities. Inside of their institutions they constitute a second-class citizenry of employees who share the same title as their tenured colleagues but cannot aspire to equal status.
Whether tenured employees or contracted labor, however, teachers have been showing signs of solidarity by organizing massive protests since the new regime was announced in 2015 and entered into effect in 2016. They have staged rallies and sit-ins to call for the integration of all teachers into a single tenured status. State responses have varied in intensity, but the repression of all forms of collective protests by teachers has now become almost banal, sometimes leading to loss of life. Akin to the decades-long mobilization of unemployed university graduates (les diplomés-chomeurs)—who have been claiming the right to public sector jobs—teachers’ protests might very well be the last bastion against the full dismantling of Moroccan public education.
Dismantling Public Education
While downsizing public education employees into a temporary contract labor force might be the most controversial aspect of the government’s reforms, this policy certainly did not happen in a vacuum.
Dismantling public education has long been on the political agenda, taking root since the implementation of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) mandated by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), between 1981 and 1994. The World Bank has issued reports and negative assessments of an education system viewed as the site of multiple deficiencies. Like most economies of the Global South that have been slated for neoliberal interventions in the 1980s and 1990s, the remedy is always the same: decreasing costs and increasing efficiency, often through privatizing the public sector. Successive Moroccan governments have generated committees and hired consultants to craft new policies and initiate reforms. Broad popular concerns and opposition, however, soon crystalized over the effects of privatization, increased education fees and decreased quality of service.
Growing opposition to privatization, rampant unemployment and the withdrawal of state subsidies for basic necessities triggered major street protests thorough the era of Structural Adjustment Program in the 1980s. Known as the IMF riots (1981) and the Bread Riots (1983-1984) in Morocco (and Tunisia), street protests were also heightened by concerns over potential rising cost of education in Morocco. For instance, in August 1983, the government announced a 77 percent increase in the prices of basic food necessities due to the withdrawal of state subsidies. Yet it was only in December that a rumor concerning a significant increase in high school fees propelled students to take to the streets and declare a strike in Marrakech. They were joined by other victims of structural adjustment as well as those affected by the years of drought that hit Morocco in the early 1980s.
These grievances equally resonated with unemployed youth, working-class men and women and labor unionists. Their strikes took a national and tragic turn when protestors from the northern Moroccan cities of Tetouan, El Hoceima and Nador joined. In Marrakech, mothers took to the street to denounce the violent treatment of their children by the security apparatus and the growing use of anti-regime slogans turned the city of Marrakech into a major site for the deployment of the disciplinary machinery of the Moroccan state (popularly known as the Makhzen). While the city was placed under a complete media blackout, the army was called in to put down the protests. The exact number of casualties of these nationwide upheavals might never be known, but some investigations report up to 400 deaths and 9000 arrests.
More broadly, the gradual intrusion of a business model and the language of efficiency, rationalization, goals and outcomes has paved the way for the transformation of educational institutions into places where providers and clients meet under the authority of Regional Academies for Education and Training (AREFs). These are public institutions tasked with supervising and managing the needs of public schools in their designated regions. Created two decades ago by the Ministry of Education, Regional Academies have gained unfettered power over elementary and high school institutions, and have become also the de facto the public entity providing and supervising teachers contracts. The gradual privatization of teaching jobs is taking place through shifting not only the management but also the budget for hiring from the Education Ministry to these academies according to considerations of supply and demand.
Privatized (Public) Teachers
While the state has failed to fully dismantle the public education system primarily due to resilient teachers and students, it has long tried to convert the teachers into private investors. The controversial policy of hiring teachers on yearly contracts, or even on an hourly wage-labor basis, actually began many years ago, but under a different type of intervention. Called the Program of Voluntary Retirement, this 2004 program paved the way for blurring the differences between the status of teachers as public civil servants and as private employees.
The program can be traced to 1995, when the World Bank issued its Report on Administration and Education in Morocco. Released as the era of economic restructuring officially came to an end, the report underlined discrepancies between the Moroccan higher education system and the needs of the private sector and the job market. The report marked a turning point in the perception of public education in general, and higher education in particular, as failing both their “clients” and the employment market more broadly. The report was highly publicized in the Moroccan press and widely discussed, and called for the reform of a costly sector to make it more efficient.
While the Education Ministry used to be a major employer of university graduates, it also provided them with a significant avenue for social mobility. If fully privatizing education was not an option in a country where over 50 percent of the population living in cities never went to school, then privatizing the teachers might be the path to reducing the budget. But how do you convince teachers, and public employees generally speaking, to leave their jobs? In order to address this issue, the World Bank promoted a Programmatic Development Policy Loan (P-DPL) program that was implemented by the Moroccan government in 2004. This new loan encouraged a nationwide “voluntary retirement” (al-mughadara al-taou’iyya) in public administrations.
Deemed “shock therapy” by the government, the program sought to reduce their overall costs by enabling civil servants to leave their current professions with a generous package and a monthly allowance of around 80 percent of their salary. One of the program’s stated goals was to provide “the opportunity for all public servants to convert themselves into private investors and open a new chapter in their professional life.” To entice this workforce conversion, the government mobilized 11 billion Moroccan dirhams (MDH) to compensate those who accepted retirement under the program. The monetary compensation offered to public servants reached an average of 289,730 MDH ($28,973) per employee.
Although this program was meant to ease pressure on the budget of all public institutions, it was the educational system—and notably higher education—that was hit hardest. Elementary schools and high schools lost 13,047 teachers and administrators while universities lost 2,838 professors, mostly senior faculty. Some of those retired professors did go on to open their own schools, centers and consulting firms. Yet the ongoing shortage of teachers and university faculty became all the more pressing with this mass purging of salaried teachers and increased demographic pressure from students mainly from middle-class, lower and rural backgrounds who attend public schools. This purge of senior faculty also created an overload for their junior colleagues, compelling universities to re-hire some of the “voluntary retirees” as privately-contracted faculty, paid on a yearly or hourly basis, while still receiving their generous monthly pension from the state treasury.
It is important to set the latest mobilization of teachers fighting against their reduction to contract labor in the broader context of privatization programs that attempted to privatize teachers before privatizing their schools. The program of voluntary retirement created the opening for privatization of the public educational system through the emergence of contingent labor. This blurring of the lines between the public (secure and permanent employment) and the private (temporary and privately negotiated wage labor) is what this new generation of teachers is collectively fighting against on the streets.
In the midst of the February 20 general strike that mobilized the broader public sector, teachers appropriated the streets once again to reclaim the value of public education. Their signs, re-posted online, proclaimed: “The contract is the grave of public education” and “No to dismantling public education.” Beyond calls to preserve public education, what may have compelled the police to violently repress the strikers was the growing presence of overtly anti-government slogans and signs such as “A Mafia Government,” ” The time of enslavement is over, now is the time of boycott” and “Freedom for political detainees.” According to other accounts, it was the protestors’ decision to march toward the King’s Palace that drew the swift response by the police, who used batons and water cannons to disperse them, injuring several marchers.
Teachers are still mobilizing across the country in daytime protests and nightly encampment occupations under the anxious eyes of the government and a heavy police presence. While the teachers are determined to continue fighting for their status as civil servants, the Education Ministry has so far refused to negotiate.
As repression continues, a culture of protest also continues to take root in Moroccan streets and throughout the country. One remaining question is whether the labor protests will engage with other activists and ordinary citizens and whether they all can renew the main demands of February 20 movement: democracy, dignity and social justice.
 Zakia Salime, “The Women Are Coming: Gender, Space, and the Politics of Inauguration” in Frances Hasso and Zakia Salime, Eds, Freedom Without Permission: Bodies and Space in the Arab Revolutions (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).