On September 26, Morocco’s central bank governor, Abdellatif Jouahri, faced journalists for the first time in months, after the much-anticipated announcement on the country’s plan to introduce more flexible currency reforms was unexpectedly delayed under relatively opaque circumstances. Much to the chagrin of reporters, Jouahri remained silent about whose decision it was to delay the announcement, though he hinted that it was up to the government to initiate the reforms. He also deflected questions on when a new date may be set. The months-long delay has coincided with the height of social unrest in the country’s northern Rif region, where protests have been taking place since October 2016 following the death of fish vendor Mouhcine Fikri, further raising questions about whether the current political and social context in Morocco has prompted authorities to halt economic reforms that have the potential to generate protests—a situation with which the country has been all too familiar in recent history.
Prior to this press conference, the last time Jouahri addressed journalists was on June 20, when he indicated that an announcement for the first phase of liberalizing the currency was forthcoming. The measure is intended to entice slumping foreign direct investment and propel Morocco to the forefront of regional financial markets. The subsequent delays to the currency reforms have indirectly revealed a schism among Moroccan officials: Central Bank Governor Jouahri is cautious of the statements he makes due to the direct consequences they have in the financial market, Minister of Finance Mohammed Boussaid is anxious to move forward with liberalization measures, and Prime Minister Saadeddine El Othmani is wary that his economic policies could be seen as dictated by International Monetary Fund (IMF). These entangled positions highlight officials’ fear of being blamed for any negative impact on the Moroccan economy and generating or amplifying protests.
The value of the Moroccan dirham is currently fixed through a peg that is tied 60 percent to the Euro and 40 percent to the U.S. dollar. In late 2015, Jouahri hinted at plans for currency liberalization, stating Morocco would eye a flexible exchange rate regime for early 2016. In June 2016, he announced those measures would be pushed to the first half of 2017. Then in September 2016, Jouahri said they would be postponed to the second half of 2017. According to the June 2017 announcement, the first phase of the reforms would widen the bracket in which the currency is traded from plus or minus 0.6 percent up to plus or minus 2.5 percent, a figure Othmani reiterated in an interview on July 1, stating that the process of attaining full currency flexibility could take up to fifteen years.
Because of Egypt’s experience in floating its currency, Moroccan officials have tried to quell concerns that similar devaluation and inflation would take place. Prime Minister Othmani even chided reporters for describing the forthcoming measures as “floating” the currency, instead pushing the term “flexibility.” While a “managed float” is arguably the most apt description, the delays to the measures are likely driven by fears of the Egyptian scenario—but unlike in restrictive Egypt, there is greater potential for social unrest in Morocco. Despite the country’s fears, however, the IMF has been one of the most optimistic voices about the planned reforms, asserting that not only is Morocco ready, but that the measures do not give the country “big exposure to risk.” Fitch Ratings concurred, stating that the currency reforms would “have a limited impact on macroeconomic stability in the short and medium term.” Bolstering these optimistic views is the $3.5 billion credit line the IMF has made available to Morocco to facilitate socially risky subsidy cuts on staple commodities, including sugar, wheat, and gas.
One of the factors necessary for a successful transition to a flexible exchange rate regime, for example, are strong foreign reserves, which Morocco possessed until the first week of May 2017. Over the following two months, foreign reserves fell from nearly $26 billion to just over $21 billion, sparking reports that the central bank was rationing out foreign currency to banks to accommodate many Moroccans abroad who have to trade in their dirhams for dollars and euros. Since then, foreign reserves have slowly inched back up to $23.5 billion, though that is nearly 11 percent lower than country had at the same time in 2016. In June, Jouahri slammed currency traders for speculating against the dirham, blaming them for the fall in foreign reserves. The widening trade deficit of $13.6 billion, mostly due to an increase in energy imports, exacerbated these circumstances. In an effort to reassure the financial market in June, Jouahri asserted that there would be no planned devaluation, likely an effort to buy time for reserves to stabilize and for protests in the north to subside. In his press conference on September 26, Jouahri made the rare move to speak about government decisions, perhaps attempting to present a united front between the government and central bank, saying, “It is positive if the government wants to take the time to appreciate this reform and its consequences. If it takes the time to do so, I am happy.”
Over the past few years, in an effort to narrow the budget deficit, the government has managed to pass some minor economic reforms, including reforming the pension fund and ending fuel subsidies. However, further reform efforts have mobilized popular opposition across the country. Some of the largest social demonstrations in Morocco over the past three years were prompted by the government’s efforts to introduce economic liberalization measures. Other government plans to privatize the education sector by reducing grants and public hires, or to reform the pricing structure for utility services, have been put on the backburner due to massive protests.
For a country with a bloated public sector and an economy heavily reliant on imports, unpopular structural reforms and austerity measures, largely pushed by the IMF, have been Morocco’s go-to remedy for its budget deficit. Economic liberalization in Morocco, however, has undoubtedly been a political project ever since the first wave of structural adjustment measures in the 1980s privatized publicly owned enterprises, putting them in the hands of business elites with close ties to the government and reinforcing the state–business networks that exist to this day. The government’s current apprehensions about implementing steep economic liberalization measures are informed by the bread riots that shook the country in the 1980s, which were largely prompted by the rise in food prices following structural adjustment measures, and which Central Bank Governor Jouahri witnessed firsthand as minister of finance. Today, these apprehensions are compounded by ongoing tensions in the country’s northern Rif region.
For decades, Moroccan officials have managed to appease the international financial institutions to which the country is financially indebted while largely keeping a lid on social unrest. However, since the 1980s the economic measures implemented in Morocco have failed—and continue to fail—to fully integrate the country’s marginalized rural regions, where some still live without access to basic infrastructure and services. A more assertive pursuit may jeopardize the government’s ability to balance the immediate potential for unrest and the long-term socioeconomic consequences of these politically inconvenient economic reforms.
Samia Errazzouki is a PhD student in history at the University of California, Davis and previously worked as a journalist in Morocco. Follow her on Twitter @S_Errazzouki.