Moroccans rattle leaders with mass boycott over high prices

08-Jun-2018 - Morocco

Buying yogurt in a small grocery store in Rabat, Morocco, 24-year-old Chaima Lahsini has a request: "Nothing from Central Danone please," she asks the clerk, who looks back mournfully at the unwanted dairy products piled in his fridge.

Lahsini is taking part in a boycott movement that began by targeting the biggest companies, largely owned by a handful of tycoons, and has morphed into a protest against the concentration of wealth and power in a country that had been spared the tumult of the Arab Spring eight years ago. The movement started on social media and is now worrying the government, and prompting some companies, like the local subsidiary of dairy giant Danone, to lower milk prices to calm consumer anger.

"While I initially thought that boycotting this company and two others was just some new social trend, it proved to be more powerful than expected," said Lahsini. "Seeing how the Moroccan people grew to realize that as consumers they had the right to stand against the yoke of monopolizing companies and the economic regime is truly impressive."

An anonymous Facebook page a month and a half ago launched a call to boycott Afriquia gas and oil distribution company, belonging to the richest man in Morocco, Aziz Akhennouch; popular mineral water Sidi Ali, owned by chairwoman of the largest body of enterprises in Morocco, Meriem Bensaleh; and French-owned dairy company Centrale Danone.

In a country where the wealth of three Moroccan billionaires is equivalent to that of 375,000 Moroccans, according to 2018 Oxfam report, a large base of consumers joined the boycott movement.

"This campaign is the result of consumer frustration toward products that reign over markets and fail to meet consumer expectations. With prices consistently rising at alarming rates and life becoming ever more expensive, the people need to let out their anger," Bouazza El Kharati, president of the Moroccan Federation of consumer protection told The Associated Press.

The government liberalized prices for fuel and other goods in 2015, but "it failed to monitor and set up regulatory measures and give power to a competition council that's supposed to combat anti-competitive practices (...) and big companies thrived on this," said El Kharati, whose federation supports the boycott.

Consumers taking part in the boycott are turning to small businesses or rival producers instead.

Sidi Ali has blamed high taxes for the high price tags, and told customers not to anticipate drops in prices. Afriquia's Akhannouch has insisted the boycott would not affect sales, and said the Internet cannot change reality.

But local newspaper reports say both Afriquia gasoline and Centrale Danone lost more than 5 percent of their market shares since the movement began, according to local newspaper reports. The reports estimate Centrale Danone has lost up to 20 percent of revenues between April 20-30, and Afriquia's losses are estimated at between 25 to 45 percent of daily revenue.

The companies did not respond to requests for comment from The AP.

The impact of the boycott quickly caught the attention of the government. Finance Minister Mohamed Boussaid described boycotters as "morons." Government spokesman Mustapha Khalfi threatened to use a law against fake news to punish boycotters, for using the campaign as "a tool used to spread false news and damage the reputation of the country."

That only gave the boycott further momentum, with social media users, politicians, artists and national media coverage of the issue increasing exponentially.

After a lengthy silence, the head of the government finally promised to help consumers and demanded that the boycott end on June 1, saying it damages farmers and the local economy. Centrale Danone lowered the price of milk by 15 percent, but also said the boycott forced it to cut raw milk purchases from local farmers and lay off workers

"The depth of the boycott puts in question the politics of money and power that rule the country," said economist Najib Akesbi. "Until citizen and consumer trust is retrieved, and business is separated from power, it becomes evident that this successful boycott will continue."

The boycott marks a new kind of protest movement for Morocco. The country experienced a series of big protests over the past two years to demand social and economic justice. The state, however, used violence to intimidate protesters and arrest them - a risk that the boycotters don't face.

"Unlike anything Moroccans have experienced before, boycotters know that their involvement will not cost them anything," said Omar Balafrej, of the Federation of Democratic Left political movement. "This Internet-based activism does not present any danger or threat of arrest." (dpa) 

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