The Bouazizi Effect in Morocco

by David McMurray | published February 21, 2013 - 10:13am

On December 17, 2010, a young Tunisian itinerant seller named Mohamed Bouazizi had a minor run-in with the cops. It was just another of many, but at this last indignity, the now world-famous produce vendor snapped. Later that day, in protest against his interminable humiliation at the hands of the police, he set himself on fire in front of the local police station. The rest is history.

But Bouazizi himself is not history. He’s very much alive and memorialized in neighboring Morocco in the form of the “Bouazizi effect.” The effect consists of three aspects. The first and most significant is the quasi-official hands-off policy toward itinerant vendors around the country. Rabat residents complain that the ambulant sellers have taken over certain streets and spaces in the capital city since the Tunisian uprising. Out in the provincial town of Nador, where I am living and which once had the biggest contraband suq in the country, the legions of street vendors were cleared out a long time ago, block by block, in an operation that took a decade to complete. At the time of Bouazizi’s self-immolation, only the immediate vicinity of the main mosque was still host to the vendors in any numbers. Now they are given free rein to set up shop almost everywhere. Locals explain that the government is afraid they will create a Moroccan Bouazizi if they hassle the vendors too severely. If one of them were to snap, who knows how much damage he could do to the normal order of things? Look what Bouazizi accomplished!

The second aspect of the “Bouazizi effect” is that Morocco has prohibited the sale of small amounts of gas or diesel. You can’t pull up to a pump and fill a gas can anywhere in the country. You can’t show up with a small container and buy gas to put in it. You can only put gas in vehicles or big containers. The government has implemented this policy in order to prevent poor people from setting themselves on fire. Again, they are afraid of the destabilization that might follow if Bouazizi’s example were to catch on.

The third aspect of the “Bouazizi effect” is to make it unofficial policy that nothing good gets reported from Tunisia, Libya or Egypt. Locals say that the Moroccan media miss no chance to dwell on negative or sensational events in those three countries. Whenever possible, a little editorializing laments the poor conditions in which Tunisians, Libyans and Egyptians find themselves, while adding, for the umpteenth time, that the people of Morocco are lucky to have been spared the fallout of such calamities.

The response of the Moroccan people to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt crystalized in 2011 into what became known as the February 20 movement, named after the biggest day of demonstrations in Morocco as revolt was spreading across the Arab world. The cops in Nador initially tried to head off the demonstration on February 20, 2011. It soon grew too big to stop, so they opted to manage its route. Last year on the first anniversary, demonstrations were held in Casablanca and Rabat, but nothing in Nador. The second anniversary, February 20, 2013, has just come and gone. Some 800 demonstrators met in front of the Parliament building in Rabat, and another 300 waved banners in Casablanca, but that was about it. Nador residents let the event pass without commemoration. Two locals predicted that nothing would happen. They claimed that Nadoris are too concerned with contraband commerce to bother demonstrating. They will only pay attention the day their business interests are threatened.

That day may not be too far away, at least not for the latter-day Bouazizis. A February 18 article in L’Economiste, a business daily published in Casablanca, describes the growing frustration of Rabati merchants at the spread of itinerant vendors and their “anarchic fairs,” which I take to be a reference to sellers of like products gathering without authorization to hawk their wares. Local merchants claim that they can’t compete with itinerant competitors who don’t pay taxes or rent and, on top of that, sell contraband products. An emergency meeting of the Rabat Chamber of Commerce is scheduled for the end of the week. They will try to increase pressure on the powers that be to curtail the informal economic activity made temporarily safe by Bouazizi’s martydom two years ago. (I couldn’t help but notice that the Chamber meeting will be held at the end of the week, that is, two days after February 20, not before.)

In 1984, austerity measures were imposed across Morocco that led to a national revolt against rising commodity prices. Part of those measures involved closing the Spanish-Moroccan border between Nador and Melilla to any further contraband smuggling. The city erupted in violence, which was brutally suppressed by the army. The government has since learned to move more carefully. The slow but sure, block-by-block cleansing of the itinerant vendors practiced in Nador in more recent decades will probably be the model for how things go in the near future, once Rabat decides to recommence its crackdown on itinerant sellers. But the state will have to move with caution. The specter of Bouazizi haunts government decision making in Morocco when it comes to how to manage the poor.