Abderrahmane Youssoufi’s death highlights Morocco’s longstanding struggle for equality and political opening
On May 29, 2020, Morocco’s former Prime Minister Abderrahmane Youssoufi passed away. Twice arrested, once imprisoned for his political dissidence, he was one of the most important figures in Morocco’s political scene. He was a trained human rights lawyer, a co-founder and former leader of the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP), an opponent of the late King Hassan II, and Morocco’s first and only socialist prime minister (1998-2002). During his mandate, he alleviated political pressures and economic hardship. However, given the regime’s extensive powers, he could not implement deep reforms without its permission and cooperation. Consequently, Youssoufi was unable to address Morocco’s longstanding challenges- namely, persistent inequality and a weak legislative branch. Close to two decades after Youssoufi’s mandate ended, both challenges continue to thwart Morocco’s development.
Prime Minister: Achievements, Challenges, and Criticism
In 1998, Youssoufi was appointed prime minister by Hassan II to lead the government of alternance which was comprised of ministers from socialist, left-of center, and nationalist parties, in addition to Palace-backed technocrats. This government was not fully independent as Hassan II retained his massive powers, appointed the Minister of Interior and controlled high-level bureaucrats who interfered in day-to-day government operations. However, the government of alternance was far more independent than past governments as the king encouraged Youssoufi to improve Morocco’s human rights record and to implement economic, administrative, and social reforms.
Beyond leading a historic experiment, Youssoufi’s government succeeded in implementing significant change to the socioeconomic and political landscapes of a country which was experiencing high inequality and was still in the process of concluding a dark chapter of human rights abuses. Indeed, during his mandate, the press enjoyed greater freedom so long as it did not cross red lines, and Morocco’s human rights record drastically improved as the government set up truth commission and compensations for the political detainees of the Years of Lead. Youssoufi also adopted administrative reforms to strengthen the country’s legal and taxations systems. Moreover, positive change took place at the level of governance which gave hope for reform. Between 1998 and 2002, Morocco scored in the range of 37 to 47 (out of 100 points) according to Transparency International’s corruption perception index. This score was higher than previous years; in fact, since Youssoufi’s mandate, Morocco’s score has never reached 47 points.
Most striking were the efforts to improve socioeconomic conditions. To reduce inequality, the prime minister increased funding for education, health, and housing; he introduced mandatory health insurance coverage for salaried employees;and he created 70,000 public sector jobs between 1998 and 2002. His mandate saw positive economic change in terms of indicators. Growth rose from 2.6% (1993-1997) to 3.8% (1998-2001). Inflation decreased below 1.5% (1998-2002) compared to 4% (1993-1997). The national deficit was maintained at 3% which allowed the government to increase national investment by 23% between 1998-2002 compared to 1993-1997. Between 1998 and 2020, tourism revenues rose by 3.4 percentage points,direct foreign investment as percent of GDP by 6 percentage points,budget revenues as share of GDP by 4 percentage points,and exports by 48 billion dollars.
Challenges and criticism
Yet, within the wider population, many were unhappy with the government’s socioeconomic policies. Specifically, at the time, 80% of surveyed citizens expressed dissatisfaction with unemployment, poverty, and corruption; 79% with healthcare; and over 60% with education, politics, and housing. Popular dissatisfaction was exacerbated by the reoccurrence of droughts between 1998 and 2001 which impacted the agriculture sector; the 1999 drought alone cost around 900 million dollars.
Other were unsatisfied with the progress made in terms of political freedom and civil liberties. Within Youssoufi’s party, Mohamed Lahbabi described the government as a “dismal and bitter experience,” and criticized the prime minister for following the recommendations of the IMF and World Bank.Allies of the USFP criticized the prime minister’s “slow progress” (the Party of Progress and Socialism) and lamented “an absence of a political will to trigger change on the basis of national consensus” (the Organization of Popular Democratic Action). The USFP’s youth front and the Democratic Confederation of Labor organized protests and positioned themselves in opposition to the government.
The harshest criticism Youssoufi faced was due to the December 2000 shutdown of three domestic publications (Demain, Assahifa, and Le Journal) for crossing several red lines.Abraham Serfaty, a previously imprisoned and exiled dissident, argued that this episode showed that the prime minister had bent to the will of the regime and the army.It is unclear who ordered the shutdown, though the order likely came from the top.
Morocco’s Longstanding issues
“The clock cannot be turned back,” replied Youssoufi in 1999, when asked if more must be done to initiate further change.Yet, 17 years after Youssoufi stepped away from politics, Morocco continues to struggle with the same- albeit slightly improved- issues: social inequality persists and the legislative branch is not fully empowered.
Indeed, inequality remains a significant issue in the kingdom which has the highest Gini inequality score in North Africa – excluding Libya which is undergoing a civil war. According to an OXFAM study in 2018, three Moroccan billionaires had an estimated wealth of 4.5 billion dollars, more than 375,000 of the poorest Moroccans. In terms of income distribution, a Moroccan on minimum wage (around 250 dollars per month) would need 154 years to earn as much as a billionaire does in one year. These numbers are exacerbated by the country’s consistently high unemployment rates which in 2019 reached 22% for young people nationally and 40.3% in urban areas.In terms of gender inequality, only 22.4% of women were part of the labor force in 2017.As for human development, a 2019 UN Development Study ranked Morocco as 121 out of 189 countries, two places below the Gaza Strip.In fact, Morocco only has seven doctors and 11 hospital beds per 10,000 people in 2019.
Furthermore, the realities of Morocco’s political dynamics greatly restrain elected officials. In the absence of separation of powers, Youssoufi and the prime ministers that followed him faced similar issues. While the regime introduced reforms in response to the 2011 protests that marginally limited its powers, it continues to control the political sphere at the expense of the legislative branch. Indeed, the regime controls the appointment of key positions (e.g., the ministers of interior and defense, secretaries of state, governors etc.). Elected officials do not have the power to effectively govern or to implement deep reforms; they need the regime’s permission and cooperation to do so. Therefore, importantly, their policies cannot clash with the regime’s interests.
Abderrahmane Youssoufi was a towering socialist figure and principled political actor who dedicated his career within the government and as a dissident to improve the kingdom’s political and socioeconomic realities. Much of the criticism he received for not achieving great enough change can be attributed to the constraints which prime ministers face in Morocco given its structure of rule. Despite these constraints, Youssoufi managed to work within the system to implement significant reforms that moderately improved the country’s socioeconomic and political landscapes and repaired its abysmal human rights record. Today, Morocco has a long way to go to effectively reduce inequality and strengthen the legislative branch.
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