Boycotts in Morocco an expression of discontent helped by social media

Non-institutional actors, which include cyber-activists, caught the political parties and the government off guard.
Sunday 17/06/2018
Workers of the Centrale Danone company protest against the boycott of the brand, on June 5. (Reuters)
Ripple effects. Workers of the Centrale Danone company protest against the boycott of the brand, on June 5. (Reuters)

The boycott of certain products and services in Morocco, begun in April, is without precedent in the kingdom.

Facebook pages with more than 2 million users have backed the campaign, which no political or civil society group has claimed. One boycott page claims: “The goal of this boycott is to unite Moroccan people and speak with one voice against expensive prices, poverty, unemployment, injustice, corruption and despotism.”

The campaign has targeted the Sidi Ali and Oulmes mineral water brands, part of the Holmarcom Group owned by the Bensalah family. Its most-famous member is the former president of Morocco’s employers’ association, Meriem Bensalah Chaqroun.

The campaign also focused on the Afriquia petrol stations, which belong to the Akwa Group, whose key shareholder is Aziz Akhannouch, the powerful minister of agriculture and fisheries and one of King Mohammed VI’s liege men, and Centrale laitiere, a French company established before independence.

The boycott is clearly aimed at rich families and individuals whom critics feel abuse their privileged social and political position to extract high prices for the goods or services they sell. However, Centrale laitiere has not increased its prices in a long time so it is not clear why it should figure on the list.

For many Moroccans, Holmarcom and Akwa Group are symbols of an alliance between political power and money, which, they argue, allows some families to enrich themselves at the expense of ordinary people in a country where differences in wealth are considerable.

For the Bensalah family, the sources of mineral water they have been exploiting lie in the poor farming region around Khemisset, where schools and hospitals are often rudimentary.

The unemployment rate is very high and easy access to the internet has made local young people more aware of wealth disparities than before. Akhannouch’s fortune is estimated by Forbes at approximately $1.82 billion. Beyond his private company interests, he has overseen the key agriculture and fisheries portfolio for many years and is a key player in Morocco’s relations with the European Union.

Non-institutional actors, which include cyber-activists, caught the political parties and the government off guard and no one knows who lies behind this burst of activism. However, as Transparency International pointed out in May: “To analyse such a movement solely in terms of the cost of living is bound to be reductive. What is targeted here is the whole management of an economy undermined by windfall logic, by corruption and by the conjunction of political and economic power.”

It is indeed noteworthy that this movement appears to be a logical extension of protests that have been shaking the northern Rif region around the port of Al Hoceima for close to two years. They later spread to Jerada and Zagora.

On October 28, 2016, 31-year-old fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri was crushed to death in a garbage truck as he tried to recover fish that had been confiscated by a policeman. Riots erupted in Al Hoceima and protests spread to other parts of Morocco but, after months of some carrot and a little stick, the Hirak movement, as it came to be known, lost steam. Despite government promises, attempts at far-reaching economic or social reform were snuffed out.

In Jerada, protests started in December against what residents said were excessive electricity and water bills. On December 22, the protests grew bigger and angrier following the death of two brothers in an abandoned coal mine.

Digging for coal in mines — shut down in the 1990s when they employed 9,000 people — is one of the only means of eking out a living in a town whose population collapsed from 70,000 to 43,000 in 20 years. The area is isolated and the closure of the nearby border with Algeria offers little hope of employment to local inhabitants.

The Hirak Jerada movement, like the one in Al Hoceima a year earlier, used social media extensively to mobilise demonstrators.

Last summer, protests about water shortages drew many people into the streets of Zagora, in Morocco’s deep south. Here, as in protests in Errachidia, Ouarzazate, Khouribga and Tan-Tan, many women joined in.

Police cannot simply put the demonstrations down by brute force, as they would have been able to do a decade ago. Social and economic demands are sometimes satisfied in piecemeal fashion but the root causes of poverty are not addressed.

The Moroccan Association of Human Rights estimates that 300 Moroccans whom they consider political prisoners have been arrested since 2012. At no time have the protests represented a real threat to the monarchy even some cases, like in the Rif 18 months ago, saw demonstrations bring tens of thousands of protesters into the streets.

In the eyes of its organisers, the boycott has several advantages, including hurting the economic interests of powerful families with close ties to the monarchy while its initiators remain anonymous, thus allowing no easy target for retribution from the government and security forces.

The boycott represents a more sophisticated way of expressing discontent over social disparities and levels of poverty that remain a characteristic of Morocco’s socio-economic landscape.