The past 20 years have been witness to several positive developments amongst Morocco’s civil society, demonstrating that organisations in this sector can inform national policy in this ever-evolving country.
Morocco experienced dramatic changes in the 1990s when economic difficulties and social pressure led Morocco’s King Hassan II to amend the constitution and allow for more political reform. Electoral law was revised so that all members of the country’s House of Representatives were elected by popular vote. As the political sphere became more democratic, a multitude of civil society organisations and associations emerged on the national scene, improving human rights, women’s rights, economic development, education and health, all the while propelling Morocco to the forefront of legal, social and political reform in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
These organisations’ ongoing dialogue with the Moroccan government led the current King Mohammed VI to directly establish the first truth commission in the Arab world, the Equity and Reconciliation Commission (IER). Founded in January 2004, the IER investigated and documented the forced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and other grave abuses that occurred from Morocco’s independence from France in 1956 until 1999, when King Hassan II ended his 38-year rule. Since it was established, the IER has awarded financial compensation to over 9,000 victims and survivors of these abuses and proposed safeguards against such abuses from recurring, including the separation of powers and increased respect for human rights in domestic law.
The collaboration between the state and civil society has continued to move the country forward through other reforms in women’s rights, labour and ethnic rights. The new family law, adopted in January 2004, secures several important rights for women, such as the right to divorce, the right to child custody in cases of divorce and raises the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18 years.
The new labour code guarantees equal rights to workers in the private and public sectors. The nationality code was reformed in 2008 after much input by women’s rights non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like the Democratic Association of Moroccan Women and The Union of Feminine Action. It now acknowledges the principle of gender equality by allowing a woman to pass Moroccan citizenship to her children from a non-Moroccan father – an issue which is still hotly debated in other Arab countries.
Finally, in 2001, pressure from Amazigh – or Berber – organisations led to the recognition and revival of the Amazigh language through the creation of the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture, which safeguards and promotes the Amazigh language, partly by introducing it in schools and universities.
There are two main types of civil society organisations that not only informed these changes, but also made sure they actually happened. The first type provides public services, filling the gaps left by the state in social and economic development. These NGOs provide education, health and economic development by building schools and health centres in rural areas and villages.
The second type, featuring mostly human rights groups, focuses on advocacy and lobbying in order to strengthen democratic culture in Morocco. They have gone from a defensive role, denouncing human rights abuses under King Hassan II’s regime, to a proactive one, promoting democratic values and the rule of law. Some of these leading NGOs – such as the Moroccan Organisation of Human Rights, the similarly named Moroccan Association of Human Rights and the Berber advocacy organisation Tamaynout – even adopt both roles: they provide legal advice to victims of human rights violations while lobbying for legislative change to ensure better protection of these rights.
Civil society in Morocco is promoting active civic participation, social mobilisation, good governance and a culture of responsible citizens instead of one of passive subjects. Civil society organisations have become real schools of democracy by training youth to be more engaged in community work and collective action in pursuit of the common good.
The challenge facing these organisations is to establish themselves as forces for innovation and to encourage the state to change policies that are detrimental to Moroccans and their democracy. Indeed, the state in Morocco relies on these organisations to implement policy and help meet the needs of the public. Giving them the space to operate independently would help civil society have a genuine partnership with the state.
* Moha Ennaji is an author, international consultant, Professor of Cultural and Gender Studies at Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University and President of the South North Centre for Intercultural Dialogue in Fez, Morocco. This article was written for Commonground news