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January 23, 2012

Prayers for Morocco

Morocco has not been untouched by the Arab spring movement that started one year ago this month via the self-immolation of a fruit vendor. I doubt that Mohamed Bouazizi could have imagined that this single act would have such a tremendous ripple effect throughout the entire Arab region. Upon my last visit to Morocco in September of 2011, I wrote a blog detailing my observations about the profound differences I noticed visiting Essaouira and Marrakech as compared to previous visits to those same areas.

In order to deliver a quick and dirty history of the political instability of the last year: In mid- February (2011), sizable protests emerged in large cities throughout Morocco. Organized by the February 20th Movement, the primary stated goals were constitutional reform, restricted powers for the reigning king and the release of political prisoners. Though not formally stated, the lack of viable employment opportunities seemed to be a serious draw for demonstrators. Understandably so: the "official" unemployment rate for university graduates tops 16%, though real-word rates seem markedly higher. Those protests spread quickly and gained the attention of the king. On March 9th, King Mohammed VI promised reform. The protests, however, continued- with waxing and waning force- throughout the summer of 2011 as his constituents awaited delivery on the king's promises. Late April brought a horrific terrorist bombing at a popular cafe in Marrakech, the country's tourism hub, that claimed the lives of 14 people, most of them tourists. That event certainly did nothing to improve tourism and relax the woes of the Moroccan people. In late June, King Mohammed VI announced the proposed reforms and put them up for popular vote. Just one week later, the people of Morocco overwhelmingly approved the proposal. However, my local contacts seem uninspired and unsure of the future, attributing the approval to people who desperately need the country to stabilize in order for tourists to return and economic conditions to improve. That seemed to be central to the vote, far more than any real optimism for profound change. Protests fizzled during the holy month of Ramadan last fall and things have been relatively quiet, with pockets of unrest popping up now and again.

120119-rabat-630a.grid-6x2.jpg A Moroccan man reacts to the self-immolation protest of last week

January 2012, however, has not proven so quiet. Hassane has kept me informed of local happenings and it seems that protests are again gaining momentum. Last week witnessed the self-immolation of five university graduates who set themselves alight out of frustration due to the lack of skilled employment opportunities. Hot on their heels, seventy workers marched into phosphorous mines laced with explosives the next day in a planned mass suicide to bring attention to the same issue. It didn't help matters that ten protestors, some of whom had accused the government of torture, were sentenced last week in Safi to four years in prison for their role in protests last autumn.

As summarized by Reuters last week: "Almost a third of Moroccan youths are unemployed, poverty affects over a quarter of the 33 million population and there are persistent grievances about inefficient education, nepotism and widespread corruption." It is my understanding that people re quite on edge, that the air is filled with anxiety and that tourism is still quite depressed, furthering the strain on the pocketbooks of those who depend on the industry throughout Morocco. I worry for the safety of my friends and staff there. I worry for the students, whose educational opportunities are so fragile and easily derailed. I hope we aren't on a road that will disrupt their dedication and access to learning. I worry that continued instability will delay our next aid trip and the ability of our craftsmen to provide the indigenous goods which are the tools we need to have aid to distribute.

Please send some good juju out into the universe for Morocco.

Posted by Lela at January 23, 2012 12:29 PM

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