CASABLANCA // When tens of thousands of Moroccans took to the streets nationwide on March 20, their chanted demands echoed those of citizens across the Arab world: freer elections, greater civil liberties and less corruption.
But Moroccans were also protesting over the power of the royal investment fund.
SNI, with assets worth at least $2 billion (Dh7.34bn) is controlled by Morocco's King Mohammed VI and managed by Mohamed Mounir al Majidi, the king's private secretary, who has business interests of his own. The 47-year-old monarch holds stakes in banking, insurance, dairy, sugar and cooking-oil companies; his advisers are involved in ventures from consulting to advertising.
For protesters, SNI's web of interests highlights the flaw in the king's promise on March 9 to put Morocco on the path to becoming the Arab world's first constitutional monarchy. Unless the influence wielded by Mohammed VI and his advisers is weakened, his promises will ring hollow, they say.
"You can't have fair competition when the people with power descend into the souq," said Abdelilah Benkirane, leader of the Justice and Development Party, an Islamist party modelled on Turkey's AKP. "That has to end."
"SNI Out" and "Majidi Go Away," read banners held by demonstrators in many of the 53 cities that had protests.
The popular movements that ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have spread to Morocco, though with a difference. The crowds have been smaller and peaceful. Police have kept their distance. Moroccan protesters are demanding greater democracy and an end to corruption, not a change in regime.
The best way to reduce the king's hold over the economy is to pressure him to go through with the constitutional changes he's promised, Mr Benkirane said. The ruling family has reigned since the 17th century, and Mohammed VI's grandfather led the liberation struggle that ended the French protectorate in 1956.
"A political person can't also be an economic actor," said Chakir Aboubakir, a 28-year-old salesman and business student involved with February 20, a Facebook-based movement that organised protests on that day and again on March 20. "He has to choose."
Mohammed VI has loosened freedom of speech since becoming king in 1999, and set up an Equity and Reconciliation Commission in 2004. It investigated thousands of disappearances and arbitrary detentions under Mohammed VI's father, King Hassan II.
The constitutional changes, to be drawn up by a commission by June, will be put to a referendum in this country of 32 million.
During three days last week, unemployed university graduates gathered outside the parliament in Rabat to demand jobs, teachers camped outside the Education Ministry to protest against low wages, retired bus drivers in Casablanca demanded back pension payments outside the city courthouse and members of February 20 met at the headquarters of an opposition party to debate strategy. Police were barely in sight.
Omar Radi, a 25- year old economist and a member of the February 20 group, said: "The monarchy is not contested. Other countries haven't had the opening we've had since 2000. He's let some pressure off."
SNI, which has no website and operates from an unmarked Casablanca office building, was listed on the Casablanca stock market until August 2010, when it merged with its subsidiary Omnium Nord Africain and bought back its outstanding shares in a $3.9 billion offer.
According to the website of Bourse de Casablanca, the country's main stock market, SNI combined owns 48.3 per cent of Attijariwafa Bank, the country's largest publicly traded bank; 79 per cent of Wafa Assurance, the largest traded insurer; 63.4 per cent of Centrale Laitiere, its largest dairy; 75.8 per cent of Lesieur Cristal, its largest maker of cooking oils; and 63.5 per cent of Cosumar, the largest sugar refiner.
It controls 65 per cent of the steelmaker Sonasid through a joint venture with ArcelorMittal set up in 2006. Lafarge Maroc, the country's largest producer of building materials, is in a 50-50 venture with the Paris-based Lafarge.
At the time of the merger, SNI said it would sell its stakes in Cosumar, Lesieur Cristal and Centrale Laitiere, but it is has yet to do.
SNI did not respond to phone and e-mail requests for comment.
A US diplomatic cable written in December 2009 by Casablanca consul general, Elisabeth Millard, and released by Wikileaks said: "Institutions such as the royal family's holding company, Omnium Nord Africaine (ONA), which now clears most large [property] development projects, regularly coerce developers into granting beneficial rights to ONA."
Azzedine Layachi, a political-science professor at St John's University in New York, said: "Once there is a real parliament and government in place, then the real battle against the 'Makhzen' can begin." said. The "Makhzen" is a Moroccan term that means the "warehouse" and refers to the royal advisers, business leaders and top bureaucrats who hold power behind the scenes.
* The Washington Post