Could economics bring a new wave of radicalism to the streets of Morocco?
Tired of waiting for the Islamist-led government to address their needs, young Moroccans took to the streets this week.
The estimated 10,000 people who marched Sunday (March 31st) to demand action on unemployment and development hope authorities see their Rabat protest as a wake-up call.
Almost half of all Moroccan youth between the ages of 15 and 29 are neither working nor in school, a 2012 World Bank report said.
Since graduates represent just 5 per cent of total youth unemployment in Morocco, however, the remaining 95 per cent – with lower education levels – have limited options.
Poverty only adds to their misery.
Young people are often forced to trample on their dignity and ask their mothers for spare change to buy a newspaper to check employment ads. Many would stay in bed rather than face a new day with old problems.
Even responding to an ad requires money: to photocopy diplomas and identity cards, prepare and print a CV and then post send the file to the potential employer. Rural residents can barely afford the cost of transportation to Rabat or Casablanca to take an employment test.
"Many young people wait ten to fifteen years before getting their first jobs," says Imad Akka, who runs the "Youth for Youth" association. Such a long period of unemployment "leaves disastrous psychological marks", the NGO head tells Magharebia.
"We cannot sleep in peace while we have 700,000 young people who wake up every morning idle with no work, formation or training," agrees Jamal Belahrach of the General Confederation of Moroccan Companies (CGEM).
"The situation is extremely dangerous," he adds.
The World Bank report is equally dire: "The social cost of economic exclusion is high, with young men in particular experiencing very high levels of frustration."
"Young people in Morocco are full of ideas and are keen to contribute to society," World Bank report team leader, Gloria La Cava said. "But they have been excluded from opportunities, have not benefitted from the last decade of economic growth, and have very limited voice in the decision-making process."
Poverty in itself is not the cause of terrorism, it just makes the recruiter's job easier, says African Federation for Strategic Studies (FAES) head Mohamed Benhammou.
"These young people can feel ostracised, they don't have much to do and are beyond all hope: they end up in a life devoid of education and possibilities. They can therefore easily fall prey to radicalisation and violent fundamentalism," he notes.
Radicalism feeds off exclusion, from city shantytowns to rural villages.
Some young people fall into the hands of radicals and terrorists in prisons, places of worship and neighbourhoods where fundamentalism has taken root. Others start the self-radicalisation process via the internet.
Incidents over just the past five months across Morocco confirm that violent extremist groups are no longer just the problem of "other countries".
In late December, judicial police broke up an al-Qaeda cell in Fez. The group's goal: to "enrol and recruit young Moroccans who have embraced jihadist ideas, in order to send them to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) camps", the interior ministry said.
Another Morocco AQIM cell dismantled the same month allegedly sent more than 20 young Moroccans to join al-Qaeda and MUJAO in northern Mali.
A new Ansar al-Sharia offshoot group in Rabat was accused of plotting attacks against government buildings and tourist sites. Still another terrorist cell planned to establish a training camp in the Rif mountains to "carry out terrorist acts against public authorities", the interior ministry said.
"Morocco's geo-strategic situation is an ideal rear base for al-Qaeda to carry out its plans in the Maghreb and Europe," analyst Said El Kihel told Magharebia.
Until now, the international community's approach to the Sahel region was all about security. That needs to change, he argues.
"The threat persists today, despite the military operation in Mali. There needs to be a global approach that incorporates development," El Kihel suggests.
Political scientist Zouhair Chafiki agrees that regional co-operation in education, employment, and health care is essential to fighting vulnerability and exclusion.
From a religion standpoint, poverty cannot justify terrorism. Still, says Cheikh Abdelbari Zemazami of the Research and Jurisprudence Studies Society, young people need economic, social and spiritual support to keep from succumbing to violent extremist groups.
It is not just clerics and think-tankers who recognise the problem. Young people also observe that conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism need to be fixed.
As Ali Mourabiti, a 22 year old student, points out: "Young people who have a future and promising prospects don't succumb to fundamentalism."
"We need development to live a stable life," he says.
In order to stop the Morocco terror threat in its tracks, many experts are joining young people in a call for action.
According to sociologist Samira Kassimi, employment is just part of the picture. To keep young people from being led astray, they need something to do.
Solutions include new sports centres:
"Young people need spaces where they can freely express themselves and practise their hobbies, such as youth centres. At the moment, they are few and poorly equipped," she tells Magharebia.
Sport can also help young people achieve fulfilment.
"Young people need to be given a boost through cultural and sporting activities that will take them away from the obscurantists," Kassimi adds.
The government says it is already working to fix this problem. According to the ministry for youth and sport, projects already in development include 120 youth clubs, fifteen new cultural centres and four new holiday camps.
Their capacity will be increased to accommodate more than 300,000 young people. There will also be greater financial backing for youth associations.
According to Imad Akka, the establishment of a national fund to support the rights of young people would go a long way towards alleviating their suffering.
"The fund can help young people in difficult situations in different ways. For example, it can give young job-seekers discounted transportation tickets or discounted stays in hotels when traveling to Rabat or Casablanca," he says.
The government and civil society must find common ground and focus on Moroccan youth before it is too late, the NGO head says.
"If we don't extend a helping hand to these desperate and frustrated young people, they will easily fall prey to dark forces that lurk in wait for them," he warns.
"They will cross the path of criminal gangs, drug traffickers and terrorist groups," Akka adds. "They will be forced to give up their freedom, dignity and values for a living."