Earthquake a turning point for Morocco?

A wave of solidarity swept across Moroccan society in the wake of the recent earthquake. However, the disaster also revealed serious shortcomings in the state's institutions. Political analyst Ali Anouzla explains what lessons can be learned

By Ali Anouzla

Once the people of Morocco have buried the victims of the recent devastating earthquake, and while they are still treating the wounded and those who survived, the time will come to stop and consider how the Moroccan state dealt with the biggest disaster to befall the country in recent times. This assessment must be made at some remove from the initial feelings of pain and sadness and the intense emotions provoked by the fear, panic and shocking horrors of it all.

Political controversy surrounded the decision to reject aid from some countries. Unconvincing explanations were provided that sought to justify this rejection on the grounds of preserving national pride and protecting national sovereignty, which was felt to have been impugned. Perhaps the discussion was deliberate in order to cover up criticism of the delays in aid reaching remote areas, which in some cases took several days.

There has been no serious, cool-headed analysis of what happened. Maybe this assessment will come, once the wounds have healed, calm has been restored and the suffering of the marginalised communities is forgotten, just like their lives in poverty and neglect were forgotten for decades.

This is not about evaluating the actions of the men and women who risked their lives to save others. Nor is it about identifying the human mistakes made by those involved, especially certain "influencers" on social media who sought to get more "likes" and followers.

A women cries out among buildings damaged by the earthquake that struck Morocco on 8 September 2023 (image: Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images)
The magnitude 6.8 quake that struck Morocco late on 8 September 2023 brought dreadful devastation to the country and killed almost 3,000 people. "Perhaps the first lesson learned by the people of Morocco is that large swathes of the population live forgotten lives of misery and poverty," writes Ali Anouzla

The catastrophe is not over

When all that is set to one side, it can quite truthfully be said that the rescue efforts in Morocco were, by any standard, remarkable. Indeed, the rescue operation brought out the very best in the Moroccan people, who gave support to and stood alongside their fellow citizens in times of hardship. It is at times such as this that a nation's strength of unity and cohesion are put to the test.

I will return at a later date to this topic in a detailed article in an attempt to offer an objective critical analysis of what happened and what is happening. An honest appraisal, even at times of major trauma, allows us to identify errors that may have marred the official management of the aftermath, provided that such criticism is not coupled with emotionally-charged rhetoric and an exaggerated sense of patriotism. Only then will we be able to identify the main lessons to be learned from this terrible ordeal. Nevertheless, we can identify some initial lessons from the catastrophe.

This tragedy continues to affect the injured, who are still dealing with their wounds, the bereaved, who are mourning their dead, and the victims, who will have to live with this for weeks, months and perhaps even years before their homes, which were destroyed by the earthquake, are re-built. As for those suffering deep psychological trauma, they will live with it for the rest of their lives.

Perhaps the first lesson learned by the people of Morocco is that large swathes of the population live forgotten lives of misery and poverty. An earthquake is a geological phenomenon resulting from massive, deep fissures in the earth's crust and friction between tectonic plates that scientists are unable to predict.

The earthquake could also be seen as a warning signal that draws attention to the existence of similarly huge rifts within Moroccan society that could one day explode in a "societal" earthquake,  shattering the aura of stability that hides substantial social differences, a glaring inequity in the distribution of resources and an almost complete absence of social justice.

Citizens and rescue workers in hard hats move rubble in the search for survivors of the earthquake that struck Morocco on 8 September 2023 (image: Xiema Borrazas/SOPA/ZUMA/dpa)
Although governments around the word were quick to offer aid and assistance to Morocco following the earthquake, Morocco declined offers from a number of countries, including France and Germany. According to Ali Anouzla, "it was the Moroccan people who immediately rushed to help the victims. At the end of the day, the people helped themselves, without any fuss or false claims"

The people saved the people

The second major lesson to be learned from this tragedy is that the political system is moribund. This does not mean that there was no political debate at the time of the crisis because the priority was to save lives and to treat the injured, but that there were – and still are – no political actors leading the people through the crisis.

In the early hours and days after the disaster, there seemed to be an absence of political parties, trade unions and even registered civil society organisations. This is the result of the state and its security apparatus eroding political activity in recent years by curtailing freedoms and silencing every opposing and alternative voice – even independent ones.

The spontaneous manifestations of popular solidarity that were seen in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake were entirely unprompted. Moroccans did not wait for a signal from anyone, only the call of their consciences, which works like a biological clock and does not need anyone to wake it up the moment it is needed.

Contrary to the official media line that says Morocco is a country of institutions, this disaster uncovered a massive vacuum within the shells of these so-called institutions – from parliament to every elected body and appointed council. None of them appear to have made any impact in dealing with the crisis, save for the two largest of the traditional institutions, namely the army and the Makhzen (royal court), which showed that they are the only institutions that can be relied upon in times of crisis.

A group of people huddle together in the sun on the roadside in a mountain village near Amizmi, Morocco (image: Jan Philip Scholz/DW)
According to Ali Anouzla, the earthquake has drawn attention to "huge rifts within Moroccan society that could one day explode in a 'societal' earthquake, shattering the aura of stability that has been built on substantial social differences, a glaring inequity in the distribution of resources and an almost complete absence of social justice"

No comfort from officials and leaders

The third lesson we learned is the fact that it was the Moroccan people who immediately rushed to help the victims. At the end of the day, the people helped each other, without any fuss or false claims. The main priority for ordinary Moroccans, who shared what little they had with those afflicted by the tragedy, was to save their own people. Nothing else. They had no hidden agenda. Those who had nothing to give resorted to prayer and shared in the grieving.

Right from the outset, the people of Morocco left no stone unturned: with whatever means they had at their disposal, they helped with the rescue operations, administered first aid, donated blood and supplied food.

To a considerable extent, this made the disaster less catastrophic than it might otherwise have been and helped reduce the number of lives lost. Were it not for this outpouring of popular solidarity, the scale of the disaster would have been even more horrific and more deadly. The solidarity of the people filled the huge void left by the state in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake.

One anomaly of this crisis was the absence of any official – at any level – who addressed, consoled or comforted the Moroccan people. This is in stark contrast to the many countries that have suffered similarly dreadful crises. In these countries, leaders, politicians, national icons and religious figures rose to lend their sympathy and support – and rightly so. Alas, this did not happen in Morocco. This is a very strange paradox that can neither be explained nor justified.

Left to fend for themselves

Another lesson, which few observers seem to have addressed, was that many victims were left to fend for themselves or had to rely on the support of their relatives and their people. Despite the frustration they felt at the slow start to the relief operation immediately after the catastrophe, they kept their anger in check.

They neither protested nor criticised the state or its institutions. This was not out of fear of the repercussions, since fear evaporates in moments of crisis, but because these ordinary folk in their mountain homes had already been forgotten for years, even decades. Their only resources were determination and hard work. They had never depended on anyone except themselves. So when they did complain, they merely raised their arms to the sky in dignity and begged for mercy and help from their Creator. None of them begged for help from the state, its institutions or its leaders. 

A turning point for Morocco?

Another lesson, and it won't be the last, is that the geological earthquake that shook Morocco will reverberate socially and politically for years – even decades – to come. This is precisely what happens at challenging times such as these: inevitably, they provoke thought and enrich the collective experience of the masses.

To conclude, I would like to draw what might be a far-fetched comparison with the devastating Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the reverberations of which destroyed many coastal towns and were felt as far as Morocco. That earthquake had a major impact on thought during the European Enlightenment and gave Europe and the world the era of the Renaissance, with its great thinkers.

One of these great thinkers was the writer and philosopher Voltaire, whose satirical work Candide  (The Optimist) taught us that hope can be born out of extreme human suffering, and it is this hope that makes nations, peoples and great civilisations.

I hope and pray that the earthquake that hit Morocco will be an opportunity to bury not just our victims, but also, more importantly, the social differences that have turned one Morocco into two; one functioning, the other not. Hopefully this tragedy will put an end to the division of the country into the people of political parties and trade unions and the people of the marginalised, silent majority that exists across Morocco.

We do not need a destructive earthquake to open our eyes to their dire situation, but a political earthquake that focuses attention on the suffering of this silent majority.

Ali Anouzla

© 2023

Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton