“If I were to remain silent, I'd be guilty of complicity.” -Albert Einstein
Throughout North Africa and the Middle East, youth have been at the forefront of revolution and political change. Here in Morocco, thousands took to the streets in Spring 2010, raising their voices, calling for reforms and demanding to be heard. That demand was in full force at a recent symposium I attended in Rabat, Morocco’s capital.
“I think it is time to have this conversation,” said Yousef El Miadi, a cultural studies student at University of Mohamed V in Rabat, Morocco. “Not from older to younger, but from man-to-man.”
I was at the October symposium partly because it was sponsored by World Learning (the parent organization of SIT Abroad) and partly because I was extremely curious what young people in Morocco had to say about protests, youth and civil society. About one hundred Moroccans and Americans, most of us students, were crowded into a meeting room at the University of Mohamed V. For the first two hours, Moroccan academics and researchers presented their findings on subjects ranging from youth civil service to religious education to the uses of social media in bringing about political change.
“For right or for wrong, your generation is going to inherit a number of really vexing, very challenging critical global issues,” said Adam Weinberg, president and CEO of World Learning, who addressed the gathering.
One of those issues became the forefront of the discussion that followed: the struggle for democracy in North Africa and the Middle East. In Morocco the King is still firmly in control of the country and most people appear to support the monarch who is also their religious leader. The February 20th Movement, Morocco’s version of Arab spring did lead to constitutional reform and an election that established a moderate Islamist government. But the election was not embraced by young people, according to Saloua Zerhani, a law professor at Mohamed V-Souissi. “The percentage of youth voters in Morocco is very small,” Zerhani told the us.
“Youth feel they have no voice,” she added.
However, it seemed that may be changing, at least for some of the young Moroccans present who said their voices raised in protest forced Morocco’s recent constitutional reforms, which guarantee a range of human, political and social rights.
“This older generation …for a long time they have not done anything and the young people they made the change,” said Mahomed Majdoubi, a journalist one year out of university. “We are witnessing it, it has started and it is [a] transition.”
Monzi Oni, an fellow American student from Stanford University, jumped in to point out that protest tends to come in generational waves and previous protests, such as the civil rights movement, laid the framework for future change in the United States. She pointed out that “women did not vote themselves the right to vote.”
“History has shown that protest is the only thing that has made concrete change and I think that we are starting it and it is conversations like this that will inspire people to continue,” she said.
Gavi Keyles, another fellow study abroad student but from Northwestern University, thinks the Moroccans’ protests could inspire American young people involved in movements like Occupy Wall Street, which had relatively little impact.
“We have a lot to learn from the Moroccan youth, in that setbacks aren’t walls, they’re just bumps and we have to get over them,” she said.
The conference came just two weeks before the U.S. election, which added a pressing tone to the discussion. El Miadi, the Moroccan student, pointed to Obama and Romney, and claimed there was little difference between them. He wondered why Americans even bother to vote. With that, the room burst into debate, Moroccan and American students alike turned to one another with visceral reactions, some gasps, some laughter, and some loud declarations of dissent. But everyone was talking.
It became clear that the country each student came from affected whether they thought protest was effective. The Moroccans pointed out that after years of corruption they had little reason to believe that their vote counted. Why not protest where they knew they were at least physically being heard? But for American students, voting wasn’t just for the big national elections. Some pointed out that the local elections and voting on issues like gay marriage and voter ID laws showcase the real power of voting.
To me it showed that the power of democracy isn’t so much in the physical act of voting, but in what you vote on and whether it means anything, as well as the political structure that is already in place. Our discussion on voting versus protest ironically took place with a 3-foot-tall photo of the king staring at the students from the front of the room. He wasn't elected to the throne, yet holds the majority of political and religious power in the country. Voting doesn't exactly apply if the people are not happy with his work.
The moderator said there was time for a final comment, and an SIT student raised his hand.
“I would like to end with a quote of inspiration,” he said with a laugh, and the students around him clapped. The student quoted from a scene in the American movie, Coach Carter.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure,” he began.
Moroccans and Americans – young and old -- nodded in agreement as he continued.
“…We are all meant to shine as children do. It's not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
The entire room burst into applause.