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The Human Rights Movement in Morocco: The Dialectic of Influence

The Human Rights Movement in Morocco: The Dialectic of InfluenceDownload Publication

The 2011 uprisings in the Arab region played an important role in changing the structure of the rights movement in Morocco. It contributed to expanding demands and shifting them to the micro level, thus becoming more focused on citizens’ everyday rights and needs. Social media networks, for their part, played a positive role and enhanced the impact of Moroccan civil society. The most significant results of this transformation were a wider base of human rights defenders and more public support for action in defence of basic rights in peaceful and more practical ways.



To analyze the impact of human rights civil society actors in Morocco, one should consider sociological factors that helped determine the evolution of civil society, its very demands, and how it worked to realize some objectives.  The 2011 uprisings in the Arab region played an important role, albeit a partial one, in changing the structure of the rights movement in Morocco. It contributed to expanding demands and shifting them from the macro to the micro level, thus becoming more focused on citizens’ everyday rights and needs. Social media networks played a positive role and enhanced the impact of Moroccan civil society.

Increased engagements among civil society actors contributed to the collective realization of common goals. Partnerships significantly increased after the Arab uprisings. This development in frequency and intensity, rather than in the quality or nature of human rights advocacy, is perhaps what distinguishes the activities and projects of the civil rights movement after 2010. While the frequency of actions increased, civil society actors continued to rely, almost entirely, on the same mechanisms. The most significant results of this transformation were a wider base of human rights defenders and more public support for action in defence of basic rights in a peaceful and more pragmatic manner.



A discussion of Arab uprisings is probably impossible without considering issues of democratization and considering how their evolution shaped civil societies in these countries, and conversely how these civil actors, however weak they are, helped fuel the momentum of these 2011 uprisings.[1] The clashing plethora of analyses on the structures, institutions and  socio-political systems of civil society, democracy and human rights, in most Arab societies, is partly caused by the different theoretical frameworks and the historically western production of most of these concepts. There is little dispute, however, that another defining concept, that of citizenship as a legal and political relationship between an individual and the state machinery, has not so far truly taken root in most Arab societies. This has weakened the foundation of the political and legal foundations of democracy and civil society, let alone human rights.

Definitions of civil society emphasize primarily the element of how independent its actors are. Badie defines civil society as “the totality of institutions that allow individuals access to goods and benefits without the intervention or mediation of the state.” Ashford provides a similar and condensed definition: “All those voluntary organizations that exist between the individual and the state such as the family, church, sports and music clubs, and charities.”[2] Civil society, then, is the sum of political, economic, social and cultural institutions that work in relative independence from the state authority and the influence of private companies.[3]

Civil society organizations (CSOs) are described in the United Nations and in other international institutions as non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The term indicates that while these entities are independent of their governments, they are still linked with them in a complex contentious relationship that includes both cooperation and conflict. CSOs’ impact relies to a large extent on the political system in place in their countries. Their ‘independence’ is not absolute because they are subject to governmental rules and political pressures - both internally and externally - as well as funding considerations; especially that most of them are dependent on foreign funding. The nature and suspected conditionality of funding often lead to questions about CSOs’ credibility and claims of representing certain social groups.[4]

This paper seeks to analyze the impact of rights actors in Morocco and how it is influenced by their relative independence, which is ultimately predicated on how citizenship and democracy are put into practice in the public sphere.[5] While the paper is not primarily concerned with the challenges and restrictions facing the human rights movement, it provides a brief exploration of these insofar as they relate to the scope and method of work of the human rights movement. It focuses on the restrictions imposed on freedom of actions and funding[6] in addition to internal challenges related to professionalism, coordination, and politicization.[7]

Therefore, the paper is centred on Rights Civil Society, i.e. the totality of organizations, associations and networks that operate within the framework of the internationally bill of human rights. Consequently, we will not include Islamist human rights organizations that adopt a selective approach to human rights. Ben Hassan described their attitude as ‘selective doubting’ since the Islamists would pick and choose from a menu of rights and argue that the whole paradigm emerged in the West and, therefore, its full stipulations are only appropriate to the religion and culture of the Western citizen and need to be adapted when applied in Arab Muslim societies. This paper, on the contrary, views the human rights paradigm as a historical product which is shaped and reshaped by the performance and actions of social actors. From this perspective, human rights do not constitute an abstract legalistic model but a continuous historical process whereby the rights are reconfigured as a result of social and ideological contentions.[8]

The most important mechanisms of rights actors include.[9]

·         Enhancing human rights awareness and disseminating human rights culture through lectures, seminars and the media;

·         Exposing human rights violations and breaches;

·         Fighting for more stable and stronger legal guarantees.

In our research, we thus excluded actors that do not adhere to a universality of human rights as their frame of reference out of an ahistorical immutable view of how these rights should be tailored from a culturalist perspective. Meanwhile, this paper selected a broad range of actors to study both their impact and the methods with which they realize their objectives. These included networks, alliances, associations, coalitions and organizations engaged in the field of human rights to different degrees in diverse areas. In total, this paper included 54 Moroccan rights actors either through responding to a survey or by analyzing their internet presence (websites and social media platforms).[10]

The broadest questions for the survey and social media analyses were:

  • How related were the achievements in the field of human rights after 2010 to the public uprisings? And how much were they a result of a long history of struggle?
  • Did the 2011 Moroccan constitution change the discourse of the rights actors in how they sought social change? And how?
  • Have rights actors become braver and bolder in approaching public issues?
  • Did the mechanisms of impact change and improve or decline in how much change they engendered because of the uprisings? And how?
  • What means made available by the uprising enhanced the impact of rights actors? And what negative factors, if any, were produced by the public uprisings?
  • What were the social and political conditions that encouraged or impeded the influence of rights actors over the long term and after 2010?

The main hypotheses we are testing include:

  • The uprising as a turning point in the process of realizing rights that had been long demanded.
  • Social media networks played a pivotal role in enhancing the impact of rights actors as well as introducing them to a broader audience.
  • After 2010, the successes or failures of rights activists no longer solely rely on state response. More important are societal pressures and social protest as it interacts with demands made by activists and various rights actors. 

The rest of the paper will be divided as follows:

1-Rights Civil Society:

2-The Moroccan uprising and structural transformation of Rights CSO

3-Rights activities and projects before and after the uprising:

4-Working within civil society before and after the uprising

5-Foreign funding: Nature of funding vs. the magnitude of impact

6-The dialectics of influence before and after the uprising

7- Social networks and their impact before and after the Arab momentum

8-Facebook pages and the expansion of the sphere of impact

To read the full paper, click here


[1] The word uprising or Hirak  is employed here as a more objective description of the events that unfolded in Arab societies. The word “revolution is inapplicable in that context as revolutions require a radical transformation of economic and political structures. Similarly, the word “Spring” has positive connotations that are not entirely appropriate in this context. The word “Arab”, on the other hand, is employed to refer to a broad civilizational context and should not be taken as an ethnic or racial indication. We note this here given that some Moroccan rights groups interviewed for this research have had reservations on the use of the word “Arab” which they considered exclusionary of certain linguistic groups in North Africa, especially the Amazigh.  

[2] B. Bertrand, Sociologie politique, Presses universitaires de France, 1997, p. 105.

[3] Mahmoud Karzeez and Mariam Yahiawi, The Role of Civil Society in Realizing Comprehensive Development in Algeria: Constancy and Change, Baskara University, 2008 (Arabic: دور المجتمع المدني في تحقيق التنمية الشاملة في الجزائر: بين الثبات والتغير).

[4] ‘Onsar El Ayashi, “What is Civil Society? Algerian Model”, Paper presented to the symposium on “The Nationalist Project and Society” at the Department of Social and Philosophical Studies, Damascus University’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities, 2008. (Arabic: ما هو المجتمع المدني؟ الجزائر نموذجًا، ورقة مقدمة لندوة "المشروع القومي والمجتمع المدني").

[5] ‘Azmi Bishara, Civil Society: A Critical Study, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 2012 (Arabic: المجتمع المدني، دراسة نقدية).


[6] Mervat Rishamwi and Morris Tim, “Overview of the Civil Society in the Arab World”, INTRAC: Praxis Paper No. 20, 2007, available at

[7] Nour Edeen ‘Aloush, NGOs and the Human Rights Gamble: The Moroccan Human Rights Organization, Nasheri for Electronic Publishing. p. 5, 2011 (Arabic:  المنظمات غير الحكومية ورهان حقوق الإنسان: نموذج المنظمة المغربية لحقوق الإنسان.)

[8] Abdel Basset Ben Hassan, Our Rights in Culture and Society. Arab Organization for Human Rights, 2014, p. 22. (Arabic:  ﺣﻘﻮﻗﻨﺎ ﻓﻲ اﻟﺜﻘـﺎﻓﺔ واﻟﻤﺠﺘﻤﻊ).

[9] Nour Edeen ‘Aloush, NGOs and the Human Rights Gamble, p. 5.

[10] Check Annex 1 for list of organizations.