Morocco: Young and Wild and Free?

As activists, we must now take stock of where we might have gone wrong. We have had to admit that the massive “yes” expressed by the Moroccan people during the referendum revealed a different reality from the one we desired, and pushed us to acknowledge that we had failed, as a movement, to mobilise the people.

(El Idrissi 2012)

When in 2011 the so-called 20th February Movement (20F) took to the streets of Morocco to protest in opposition to the undemocratic monarchical regime of the country, it seemed like the Arab Spring had found yet another stage for yet another peaceful overthrow. Not quite so: Morocco would, at least in public discourse, remain the peculiar exception in the MENA region. Referred to before as ‚democratic monarchy‘, it now seemed to be particularly skilled in responding to these new forms of protest. As the Moroccan people demanded a constitutional reform, it was presented one. Yet, “despite the apparent concessions to popular demand, the monarchy in fact ceded none of its essential prerogatives” (Maghraoui 2011: 679) – the reform had, in a way, turned the protest movement’s momentum into the king’s own advantage. A quickly executed referendum with an overwhelmingly approving outcome provided the new constitution with enough legitimacy to even give the impression of being democratically implemented.

Now it is easy and tempting to judge the new, young and somewhat spontaneous activism of the 20F a failure. The monarchy and its entourage, the makhzen, managed to co-opt surrounding actors and thereby to minimise the movement’s outreach, while the 20F itself did not succeed with its strategy of rejecting conventional stages of participation and not aligning ideologically with traditional actors in the country. Yet, proper classification requires a more nuanced picture the paper at hand will attempt to draw. The 20F movement, not unlike many other forms of protest throughout the Arab Spring, can be characterised as an expression of “activated citizenship” (Cavatorta 2012: 78) that makes use of new spaces of activism beyond traditional formal structures. It is an unideological, flexible, structurally fluid association from the heart of civil society (cf. Cavatorta 2012) that poses the necessity of rethinking activism in the MENA region. Both its diffuse leadership and the consensus-seeking configuration of the makhzen pose the question whether the non-conformism and ideological neutrality of the 20F movement made it more or less effective. I will try to discuss this question against a Foucauldian theoretical background which allows for a more empirical understanding of the power relations at work. First, it is helpful to contextualise the strategic decisions of the 20F movement beyond a mere ‚copy and paste‘ effect of the Arab Spring. Second, the contextualist approach taken by Foucault shall be introduced, in this specific setting, in opposition to a structuralist understanding of power. These steps, then, allow for a more accurate evaluation of the fluid nature of the 20F movement and its effectiveness.

New Activism between Attractiveness and Fluidity

As in Morocco “the political parties have […] come under the orbit of the makhzan and they became gradually an integral part of it” (Maghraoui 2011: 680), the political scene of the kingdom has, in spite of an impressive plurality of political parties and actors, taken the shape of what one might call “excessive consensus” (ibid.: 686), monopolised and managed by the makhzen. The monarchy has even “favoured the existence of a rather dense fabric of political ‚intermediaries’” (Fernández Molina 2011: 436) as a buffer for managing consensus. This large-scale co-optation has increased the demand for extra-political actors and therefore provided a politically favourable set-up for the emergence of new actors and new styles of activism.

These new actors, among which most prominently the 20F movement, are required to address an extremely diverse, and therefore as unspecific as possible, target group in order to sufficiently mobilise for their cause. The ‚attractiveness‘ of new social activists, in providing political leverage, can only be secured by providing relatively more pull-factors (claims that are more broadly agreeable, such as ‚dignity‘ and ‚justice‘) and less push-factors (claims that are, at the same time, less ideologically connoted or assignable). The 20F movement has done so by not claiming any particular ideological affiliation to any of the major parties in Morocco, but also by offering a specifically inclusive discourse in which opposition to the status quo serves as common platform for actors from diverse political backgrounds.

The attractiveness of the movement, in addition to this type of self-limitation, was also mediated by not directly opposing the monarchy as such (cf. Férnandez Molina 2011) – a strategically advisable stance in a country in which the king enjoys widespread sympathy and exerts considerable authority. While one might say that this strategic configuration certainly has its place in a political landscape that is increasingly governed by market-like logics (considering notions of appeal and the need to ’sell‘ an initiative; cf. Eikenberry/Drapal Kluver 2004), it is precisely its non- institutional shape via which the 20F movement has initially escaped the negative impact of what some scholars have labelled the ‚marketisation‘ of civil society. Simultaneously, however, the resulting ideological neutrality the movement opted for might have backfired. Once facing a government that skilfully distracted attention away, the 20F activists were fundamentally disappointed, began to radicalise reactively and, ultimately, lost public recognition. Both strengths and weaknesses, therefore, can to some extent be found in the strategic particularities of the movement.

Power Struggles: A Contextualist Understanding of Resistance

In order to offer a Foucauldian-contextualist understanding of resistance in the context of the 20F movement in Morocco, it is necessary to first outline the prevailing contemporary understanding of power. Most commonly, our concept of power goes back to the liberal Kantian notion of the ‚legal state‘ or structuralist versions of an equally located instance of power. Habermas, for instance, builds upon Kant but shifts to an intersubjective model in which communicative action is what governs a consensual political encounter (cf. Flyvbjerg 1998). Still for Habermas, power inhabits specific institutions, such as the state or the constitution, and even if it enters the public sphere – it is being exerted, hence resides somewhere. Habermas introduces discourse ethics as a normative means of political participation, a situation governed merely by rationality, the ‚force of the better argument‘. In more practical terms, methods for progress in the sense proposed by Habermas would be, for instance, institutional development and the writing of constitutions.

Proclaimed anti-idealists such as Foucault have vehemently criticised this approach for overemphasising the role of consensus at the expense of the role of conflict. Foucault counters the “inherently good discourse” by pointing at how communication is “at all times already penetrated by power” (Flyvbjerg 1998: 216). According to Flyvbjerg, while Habermas disregards “the relative discrepancy between formal rationality and […] real rationality” (ibid.: 219; emphasis in the original), Foucault pursues contextual, substantive micro-politics under the premise that “nothing is fundamental” (ibid.: 222). In fact he literally ‚cuts off the king’s head‘, leaving power a diffuse, all- penetrating, intangible function.

It is widely disputed whether the Foucauldian theory of power relations leaves any room for activism at all. If, as contenders point out, power resides everywhere and “the subject is constructed as part of this order” (Neocleous 1996: 57), this is to say that even “revolution is a different type of codification of the [same] power relations” and that “even to ‚imagine another system is to extend our participation in the present system’” (ibid.: 82) – in other words: to accept power’s omnipotence and therefore resort to a passive stance. In the following, I will try to point out why instead, Foucault in fact offers an understanding of resistance that helps understanding the dynamics that have unfolded in the 20F movement in Morocco.

First, as Flyvbjerg (1998) emphasises, conflict plays, contrary to common interpretations, an indeed central role in Foucauldian thought. He provides a solid framework for action by placingconflict at the very foundations of power. In contrast to Habermas, accordingly, Foucault sees resistance and struggle, not consensus, as “the most solid basis for freedom” (Flyvbjerg 1998: 223). While in this fluid concept the nature of power itself cannot be changed, “relations of domination” (ibid.: 225) can. Consequently, “action is the exercise of power” (ibid.: 228), most pronouncedly so in the shape of conflict. In Foucault there is no exteriority to power, but that does not necessarily imply conceptualising citizens as passive, “docile bodies” (Neocleous 1996: 81).

Second, a more activist reading of Foucault allows for a number of implications for the case of the 20F movement: On the one hand, Habermasian discourse ethics have perhaps served, superficially speaking, as the primary mechanism of legitimisation of the makhzen, reflecting the aforementioned ideal-real discrepancy that reappears with the constitutional reform (which ideally is the outcome of rationality and consensus, in reality however much less so). Nevertheless, the Moroccan configuration of domination has left open a window of opportunity for activists – namely outside of politics, as elaborated above. On the other hand, the 20F movement, at this point, can be seen as responding in a somewhat Foucauldian manner with equally diffuse power politics. This happens on two strategic levels: The level of leadership, as one of the main characteristics of the movement was the fact that it did not have a clearly indicated or institutionalised form of leadership; and the discursive level, as overarching, categorical claims such as ‚dignity‘ or ‚justice‘ correspond to a subversive way of reshaping the dominant configuration of power relations. The latter point accurately illustrates the nature of Foucauldian power as a fluid mode of interaction which can be, because it is diffusely present everywhere, reconfigured from precisely every point of intervention.

In sum, the above elaborations underline how Foucault does in fact offer some opportunity structure, even if one accepts that power resides not in a single entity, but in all bodies. They also show how the Foucauldian framework helps grasp the significance of the strategic approach of the 20F movement – yet again, it does not normatively (morally) qualify it (as, perhaps, conducive to democratic civil society), but instead leaves it open and vulnerable to continuous re-shaping (by constantly changing, contextual circumstances).

Conclusion: Re-evaluating the 20th February Movement

In practice, how can the 20F movement be evaluated against the theoretical background introduced above? Did, after all, non-conformism and ideological neutrality make it more or less effective? In the following, two key aspects shall be taken into consideration: the discursive aspect, which indicates the extent to which intentional non-alignment has enhanced or impeded the movement; and the power-relational aspect, which places the interplay of involved actors in terms of power at the centre of analysis.

First, in terms of discourse, I have pointed at a powerful subversive technique employed by the activists: Reacting to diffuse power with an equally diffuse mode of operation, one that lacks leaders, institutions and ideological alignment. It is thus difficult to pinpoint, to co-opt and, ultimately, to mitigate. Nevertheless, the makhzen did manage to do all that – which reinforces the Foucaldian absence of fundamentals and universals. The 20F movement, in spite of self-identifying as primarily oppositional, was not fundamentally so: Its discursive diffusion left the doors open on both sides – not only to leverage by means of increased attractiveness (the ‚product‘ 20F offered itself to almost everyone), but also to actors that would be able to undermine its credibility (such as the Islamists who would join later on). If we were to understand power as something permeable and fluctuant as does Foucault, it simultaneously introduces opportunity and danger.

Second, in terms of power relations, we can conclude that indeed in engaging with the power relations at hand, the 20F movement did of course re-codify this same type of power to a certain extent – yet it also, on a more positive note, reformulated the conditions of monarchical legitimation for the future by posing the pressure of having to react. Even if the outcome might not be seen as a success of the movement itself, it is also a response to it. Considering the insignificant changes the new constitution introduced, one might be tempted to say that nothing much has been transformed. One might say that not only Habermas‘ idealism fails to explain this situation (by disregarding actuality), but that moreover Foucault’s contextual approach is merely pessimistic. However, this is not accurate enough: Diffuse power is perhaps not unlike water – any movement in it causes a reactive movement somewhere else. And in this sense, civil society activism in this case definitively merits the credit for having reconfigured the conditions of legitimation. Of course, it is still the makhzen that is at the head of the state and government – but since 20F, it has taken one more step back, and that is considerable. The answer to the question whether the non-conformism and ideological neutrality of the 20F movement have made it more or less effective must therefore remain dialectical: The nature of this initiative, and many others that have made the Arab Spring an intriguing phenomenon, has given it quite some appeal – in terms of mobilisation and as an emerging extra-political actor, we can say, it has made it more effective. This same nature, however, has also made it susceptible to undermining elements. Responding to a massive market of demands for fluidly defined types of attractiveness with a levelling-out of sorts might, after all, be short- sighted or at least necessarily short-lived.


  • Cavatorta, F. (2012). Arab spring: the awakening of civil society: A general overview. na.
  • Eikenberry, A. M., & Kluver, J. D. (2004). The marketization of the nonprofit sector: Civil society at risk? Public administration review, 64(2), 132-140.
  • El Idrissi, S. (2012). February 20 movement: reflections of a young activist. Retrieved 23 April, 2016, from
  • Flyvbjerg, B. (1998). Habermas and Foucault: thinkers for civil society?. The British Journal of Sociology, 49(2), 210-233.
  • Foucault, Michel. „The Subject and Power.“ In Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, edited by H. Dreyfus and P. Rabinow, pp. 208-226. 2nd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983.
  • Habermas, J. (1991). The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. MIT press.
  • Maghraoui, D. (2011). Constitutional reforms in Morocco: between consensus and subaltern politics. The Journal of North African Studies, 16(4), 679-699.
  • Molina, I. F. (2011). The monarchy vs. the 20 February Movement: who holds the reins of political change in Morocco? Mediterranean politics, 16(3), 435-441.
  • Neocleous, M. (1996). Administering civil society: Towards a theory of state power. Macmillan Press.
  • Sales, A. (1991). The private, the public and civil society: social realms and power structures. International Political Science Review, 12(4), 295-312.
Zementblog bei Facebook!    Zementblog bei Twitter folgen!



Dir gefällt Zementblog? Unterstütze uns mit einer Spende bei PayPal - jeder Beitrag zählt!

Schreibe den ersten Kommentar

Schreibe einen Kommentar

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht. Erforderliche Felder sind mit * markiert

Diese Website verwendet Akismet, um Spam zu reduzieren. Erfahre mehr darüber, wie deine Kommentardaten verarbeitet werden.