In the Mabella district of Rabat, a middle-class neighborhood inhabited by civil servants and a new class of private sector cadres, dozens of packs of Sidi-Ali mineral water and Oulmes sparkling water are piled high in front of a grocery store in the blazing hot sun, ignored by passers-by. “I don’t know what to do with them. I’ve been on the phone for days trying to get them to come and take them back but they just don’t want to know. . .” Lahcen, the owner’s son, complains bitterly on this, the first day of the month of Ramadan. Ever since the call for a boycott of three brands: Sidi Ali and Oulmese, the Centrale Laitière and the Afriquia filling stations began to circulate on Facebook, their products have been piling up in Lahcen’s grocery store. “I can scarcely move around,” he adds.
A customer comes in and casually asks for mineral water. Without hesitation, Lahcen hands him a 5-liter canister of another brand: “Look, nothing to do with Sidi Ali” he says reassuringly, and points to a notice stuck on the container.
A Revolt Against the Privileged Classes
This is the first time a movement of this sort has been launched in Morocco by non-institutional actors, cybernauts and cyber militants in particular, catching the Palace, the government, the political parties and the owners of the targeted companies completely off guard. It is not known who started the boycott, but some suspect the sympathizers of Abdelilah Benkirane, former Islamist Prime Minister dismissed by the King in humiliating fashion, of being behind it.
So what has come to be called “al muqataa” (the boycott”) is often presented by its promoters as a protest against the high cost of living. However, their arguments are quite disparate. They mix political and social issues and are up in arms against the windfall economy, the confusion between political activity and the accumulation of wealth, social disparities, privileges, etc. Even if they are occasionally incoherent (la Centrale laitière, for example, is a French Company established in Morocco since 1953 which has not raised its prices in several years) the accusations are mostly aimed at Aziz Akhannouch, the billionaire Minister of Agriculture and Marine Fisheries and the ultra-rich Bensalah family whose most illustrious member is Meriem Bensala, former president of the employers’ federation. Both are very rich and very close to Mohamed VI and his friend Fouad Ali El Himma, known as the “viceroy.” They are among “His Majesty’s bosses,” politically compliant but economically voracious.
Akhanouch’s Financial Empire
Aziz Akhannouch is the second-richest man in Morocco, after the King. In 2018, his personal fortune amounts to some two billion euros according to the US magazine Forbes. The Akwa group, in which he holds a majority of shares, is a mastodon which occupies a dominant position in the oil, gas and chemical sectors. This financial honeypot has enabled him to put together, in just a few years, an economic and financial colossus operating in areas as diverse as tourism, real estate, telecommunications and the press.
In 2016 this businessman with practically no political opinions was suddenly made leader of a party where he had never set foot: the National Rally of Independents (RNI), an economically liberal party founded in the 1970s at the behest of Hassan II (1929-1999) and his then Minister of Home Affairs, Driss Basri (1938-2007). In the eyes of the monarchy, Aziz Akhannouch was meant to provide an alternative to the Justice and Development Party (PJD, Islamist) whose popularity today is seriously eroded. With the backing of the Palace, our businessman was propelled into the game of party politics. The objective is the next general election, set to be held in three years’ time, unless an early election is called. His present position as (super) Minister of Agriculture and Marine Fisheries has made him a key player in dealing with the Kingdom’s main economic partners, especially the European Union, to the detriment of the nominal head of government, Saadeddine Othmani, who is little more than a factotum.
Thus boycott advocates’ main argument is political. It is simple enough, but it has had an immediate impact on a population devastated by social inequalities: Akhannouch is the new personification of the nuptials between money and politics, his rise to power will serve his own economic interests and not the common good. However—and here lies another contradiction in the arguments put forth by the boycotters—if Akhannouch really does embody this incestuous marriage, what about the King? At the head of an absolute monarchy of divine right, “M6” is also a prosperous businessman (in 2017, Forbes estimated his net worth at 5 billion euros). His political powers and his prerogatives regarding appointments to state institutions make it easier for the firms he controls to conquer new markets, especially public ones. So why are these groups not targeted by the boycott, considering that one of them, Chergui, occupies a prominent position in the dairy industry? The question is often raised but remains unanswered.
The Bensalahs Family Saga
The other group targeted by the boycott is Holmarcom, headed by Miriem Bensalah and her brother Mohamed Hassan Bensalah. The history of this group is indeed a family a saga! The Bensalahs exploit the Oulmes hot springs, a sparkling bicarbonate water which has been gushing forth in the Zemmour and Sidi Ali mountains in the Middle Atlas region at 42° C. ever since the 1930s. But while these two springs have over the years become veritable gold mines in themselves, the group has grown by diversifying its financial and commercial activities. Besides being number one on the bottled water market, Holmarcom has invested in tea and in bakery products, insurance (Atlanta and Sanad), retail home appliances and even airline transportation (with the regional Air Lines and the low cost Air Arabia Maroc). The group also possesses large farmlands equipped with state-of-the-art technology and thus benefits from liberal State subsidies under the Maroc-Vert program (carried forward by none other than Aziz Akhannouch!)
Holmarcom is often reproached with exploiting natural resources that bring in astronomic profits in a Berber region, Oulmes, which has scarcely emerged from the Stone Age. The few schools still open are in an advanced state of disrepair and the nearest hospital is at Khemisset, an impoverished town 160 km away (for lack of proper medical equipment, patients are often “transferred” to Rabat, another 100 km further on). The rate of unemployment among young people is one of the highest in the country and their relatively easy access to the Internet makes them want to find freedom far from their mountains, but such a step is almost completely beyond their means.
Besides which, the excessive exploitation of those springs has caused the wells to dry up in a region where subsistence farming is the main activity.
After the Rif, Zagora and Jerada
A recent press release by Transparency Maroc (19 May) sums up the situation very well: “To analyze such a movement solely in terms of the cost of living is bound to be reductive. What is targeted here is the whole management of an economy undermined by windfall logic, by corruption and by the conjunction of political and economic power. The movement is an extension of the protests in the Riff, at Zagora and Jerada which involved basic social and economic demands and encountered harsh repression. The obvious success of this call to boycott expresses a deep-rooted malaise and a growing civic awareness and it concerns, first and foremost, the national authorities.”