Analysis

The King Reinstated the Draft but Moroccans Demand Employment and Education First

The decision to reinstate compulsory military service sparked a storm of protest with people saying they won't serve as long as the government fails to provide them with essential services

Demonstration in Rabat, Morocco.
Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP

“Oh how I wanted to serve in the military. But after I thought about it a lot, I decided to refuse to serve,” Moroccan blogger Omar al-Taleb wrote in a long and detailed post. Taleb is running a major risk — a fine as high as $1,000 and imprisonment for up to a year for draft evasion.

It's been 13 years since Moroccan King Mohammed VI scrapped compulsory military service — over concern that radical forces and even terrorists would join the military. But six months ago the monarch reinstituted the draft without explanation. As a result, as of next September, young men between the ages of 19 and 25 will have to report to enlistment centers for training and a year’s service. They will receive a monthly salary of about $100, in addition to medical insurance and other benefits.

Potential draftees who are their families' only sons will be exempt from the draft, as will men whose brothers are already serving and students attending university — until they finish their studies. The goal in the first phase is to draft 10,000 men and then to increase that number periodically.

Western Sahara

Compulsory military service is ostensibly a natural move in a country that has been fighting terrorist groups and that is in a battle for control of Western Sahara. But the decision has already sparked a storm of protest and a Facebook page called "Moroccan opposition to compulsory military service." The Facebook page has about 15,000 embittered followers who are not prepared to serve in the army as long as the government fails to provide them with essential services, mainly involving employment and education.

Taleb writes eloquently that military service provides a unique experience "that will be engraved forever in the memory of those who serve, and leave a positive impression for their entire lives.” He adds, however, that the resumption of the draft was a decision made without consultation with the public on the part of a government that Taleb says "has gotten used to disregarding our opinion, and as a result, it is our right to refuse [to comply] with all of its decisions.”

Such a democratic principle is not new to the people of Morocco. Although the country escaped the discord of the Arab Spring, its impact on public consciousness has even been clearly felt in the royal court. The king launched a series of human rights reforms a few years ago, but Taleb has his specific complaints.

“Millions of dollars that have been allocated by the government for the draft should have been directed to education and advancing health services and knowledge in general, sectors that have been suffering a steep decline in Morocco,” he wrote. If the state wants to spread the spirit of patriotism, this is not the way to do it, he says.

"Everyone knows that the step was taken to restrain the anger and dissatisfaction of young people over conditions in the country. Compulsory service will provide the opportunity, at least temporarily, to get rid of those annoying people who are demanding better conditions,” he added.

Among the conditions Taleb mentions in particular is unemployment, which is currently 9.8 percent — a slight improvement over last year. But the statistics reflect major disparities between men and women, between men up to the age of 24 and older men, and mainly between city dwellers and rural villagers. The average wage of a mid-level official in the city can be $300 to $350 a month, while the poorly paid don’t get more than $100 to $150 a month. By contrast, foreign staffers in specialized jobs such as high tech earn between $40,000 and $70,000 a year.

“Most young people want to emigrate to ensure themselves a proper living. How long will the government use the carrot and the stick against young people to make them obey?” Taleb asked.

Government spokesmen say, however, that military service is not intended just to encourage “a spirit of patriotism and love of country.” It is also meant to give young people a profession and skills that will help them in civilian life afterwards. But that explanation is difficult for opponents of the draft to accept, because they say one year in the army is not enough to give them the experience that they would need to make them attractive on the job market.

Protests erupt

On Wednesday, thousands of Moroccans translated the anger and frustration that many of their countrymen feel into protests that erupted in the capital, Rabat, where demonstrators clashed with police. Leading the protest were teachers who came from around the country to demand higher pay, and particularly to eliminate temporary contracts that do not include benefits such as health care and pension benefits. At the demonstrations, which came exactly eight years after the Moroccan protest movement began, calls were heard to “get rid of the dictator” and for a revolution, demands that protesters in Egypt and Tunisia also made in 2011.

Morocco is considered a stable country, despite frequent anti-government protests and criticism on social media. But one might compare stability of this nature to the stability of a sand dune.

The deep frustration and lack of economic horizon along with the disparities between a thin stratum of wealthy Moroccans and the poor majority are the stuff of which Arab Spring revolutions have been made.

For her part, Aisha Basha, the coordinator of a committee opposing mandatory military service in Moroccan draft, who lives abroad, said: “Let the first draftees come from among the sons of the decision makers, ministers, parliament members and diplomats. Then the state can break the stereotype that wealth is for the politicians and patriotism is for the poor.”

Such a wish will apparently remain on hold for a long time to come.