A man chants slogans during a protest in Rabat, Morocco, on Feb. 20, 2011. (Youssef Boudlal/Reuters)

Research on the Arab uprisings has tended to focus on states that experienced regime change or major violence. But Arab regimes that never came close to collapse, such as in Morocco, Jordan and the Persian Gulf states, experienced popular protests that thrust open political opportunity structures. These protests created exceptional opportunities during which political movements could vocalize demands, pressure regimes and force concessions. This brought into play a diverse set of political actors – Islamists, ethnic and sectarian groups, women’s movements, labor unions and others – who exploited the unrest to advance their interests and elicit concessions. By asserting themselves during the uprisings, such actors succeeded in winning specific benefits for their supporters, even when they failed in implementing broader strategies of democratization. Showing which actors gained or lost from their mobilizations, whether or not regime change occurred, provides a deeper, more holistic understanding of the importance of the Arab uprisings and how it reconfigured domestic politics in these states.

The labor movement in Morocco exemplifies this new dynamic, as I demonstrate in a new article in the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies. Even though Morocco’s monarchy retained firm control of the country throughout 2011, Moroccan trade unionists used instability from the uprisings to drive change in domestic politics. They successfully secured new material benefits, which they had been demanding since the late 2000s, for their supporters. Moreover, union mobilization provided an opportunity for two traditionally antagonistic opposition groups – Islamists and leftists – to ally to pursue similar goals and reward their predominately middle class supporters.

Although Morocco’s entrepreneurs accrued benefits after economic liberalization in the 1990s and early 2000s, costs fell upon the middle class, especially employees of the public sector (teachers, government clerks and others). By 2009, the costs of living in Morocco were rising 16 percent annually. Beginning in the late 2000s, unions representing Morocco’s Islamists, the Union Nationale du Travail au Maroc(UNTM), and its leftists, the Fédération Démocratique du Travail (FDT) and Confédération Démocratique du Travail (CDT), joined forces to exert pressure on the governing regime. To compensate for price increases, the unions demanded that the regime boost wages and raise pensions. The regime refused in 2009, and maintained this hardline position throughout 2010. Concurrently, the number of incidents of contentious labor actions – strikes, marches and sit-ins – rose dramatically.

Preceding the youth-organized protests of Feb. 20, 2011, union unrest in Morocco increased by 8 percent in the first eight months of 2010. To signal their dissatisfaction, unionists shut down important public institutions, including schools, municipalities, courts and state agencies, through strikes. Some of the largest strikes occurred in early January 2011, and striking workers constituted over 90 percent of total public employees employed in some provinces. This statistic held true for some of Morocco’s most economically marginalized and geographically isolated provinces, especially Oriental, Sidi Ifni and Sefrou. In stopping service delivery in key public institutions, the unionists exerted pressure on the regime and hoped to force it into negotiations over their demands. Yet, the regime continued to reject labor demands for higher wages and better pensions.

After protests began in Tunisia and Egypt, they spread to Morocco by late February 2011. As protests exploded in major urban cities, labor unions joined the fray. Unionists, affiliated with Islamist and leftist labor organizations, rallied around common material demands. In addition to calling for better material compensation, they demanded that the regime loosen its ironclad grasp over major sectors of the political economy, notably monarchy-owned companies in finance and agriculture. These companies, held in royal business conglomerates, enriched regime loyalists but not the middle class.

The regime feared these unions, even more than youth activists. In the 1980s and 1990s, labor protests that had started peacefully had ended violently, transforming into major urban riots in the cities of Fez and Casablanca. The regime seemingly realized that although labor activists did not harbor violent intent, their mobilizations created opportunities during which unemployed citizens and slum dwellers took to the streets, escalating the seriousness of protests. It appears for this reason, the regime decided to deal with the unions and concede to their demands rather than court potential riots. So unlike the late 2000s, when the regime chose to ignore union demands, it responded to labor unrest. It sought to buy social peace with unions through material concessions.

Through Prime Minister Abbas el-Fassi, who headed Morocco’s elected government between 2007and 2011, the regime opened talks with the unions on Feb. 21 2011 – only one day after the largest protests rocked Morocco’s cities. Throughout April 2011, the regime and the unions went back and forth in negotiations over material demands in what became known as the “social dialogue.” At points, the unionists – especially the Islamists – threatened to walk out of talks and rejoin street protests. Forcing the hand of the regime, the unions eventually won new concessions that enhanced the material status of their middle class supporters. These new benefits included a 600 dirham ($80) increase in wages for all public employees regardless of their rank in the civil service, and a 70 percent increase in retirement pensions (from 600 to 1000 dirhams per month). The regime also implemented substantial reforms to the civil service promotion system, which led to the promotion of 33 percent of employees. Finally, the regime relinquished control over some of its business holdings, selling large shares of firms involved in dairy farming, biscuit production and banking services.

The case of union activism in Morocco during the Arab uprisings carries important implications for scholarship and policymaking. The first is that labor unrest in the first eight months of 2010 foreshadowed the popular mobilization of youth activists of the Arab blogosphere, what became known as the February 20th Movement in Morocco. Although Twitter and Facebook empowered such “wired” youths to spread the message of protests, my research suggests that the origins of the uprisings lay with deeper causes: economic discontent and inequality. The second implication is that major political changes occurred in countries, like Morocco, where unrest did not produce systemic regime change. These micro-political changes significantly improved the material conditions of the country’s middle class public employees.

Matt Buehler is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Tennessee. He thanks the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar for its support.