Tarik Nesh-Nash uses a series of online and offline tools to bridge the gap between citizens and government in a region currently exploring new possibilities of self-determination. Tarik enables average citizens to actively participate in shaping and reforming the policies that govern their everyday lives, moving beyond simply voicing their long-held frustrations to taking part in the political decision-making process.
The New Idea
Building on his recent success in launching the Arab world’s first online crowdsourcing platform to solicit recommendations for the new Constitution in Morocco, Tarik is now focusing on creating the full architecture for ongoing citizen participation in the political processes of his native country. He has honed in on the importance of accelerating the changing attitudes of a previously muted citizenry about its role in democracy. Tarik achieves this by creating the ability for the average citizen to learn about and express his/her views on critical aspects of government—at strategic moments, in real-time, and in a targeted manner. This increased coherency and accessibility of citizens’ demands, in turn, encourages the likely take-up of these demands in the political decision-making process. And this, in turn, encourages more—perhaps previously skeptical and/or apathetic Moroccans—to participate.
Tarik firmly roots himself in the current historic moment that has given rise to many of the key pillars necessary to build this new reality of active citizen engagement. He sees the emergence of a mobilized section of the population already using technology to clamor for change. The February 20th Youth Movement, for example, used Facebook and a YouTube video that went viral to bring tens of thousands of young Moroccans to the streets shortly after a Tunisian streetcar vendor’s self-immolation ignited calls for an end to the old order across the region. More importantly, Tarik recognizes the opportunity to use emergent technology to funnel this clamor into direct participation in many governmental functions—from federal budgeting to parliamentary lawmaking.
And while the call for increased citizen engagement within government halls is less audible than on the streets, Tarik recognizes that there is an increasing cohort of elected officials who seem receptive to this momentum. Up from zero in the last parliamentary election, for example, more than forty current Members of Parliament used the Internet in the November 2011 elections. Many of them are still using social media to stay in touch with citizens. Seven Parliamentarians have already expressed interest in what Tarik is planning to be the foundational platform for active citizen engagement: a soon-to-be created website integrated with the latest social media technology that enables constituents to suggest and respond to various government initiatives and debates in real-time. Instead of waiting until elections four years later to express discontent in a road not being built or schools not being resourced, for example, a simple Tweet from all those discontent could make it such that when Parliamentarians log on, they see on a daily basis what the most urgent requests are. Similarly, Parliamentarians could essentially post a question that was put before them in a committee debate in the morning, hear feedback from thousands by the evening, and return on day two of the debate with the people’s voice on their smartphone. Tarik is set to meet with the head of each of the seven main political parties in Morocco, recognizing that adoption of the platform from any one party will likely trigger the others to follow suit. Tarik is also considering requests to build similar platforms in Egypt.
With an absolute ruler and no constitution, Morocco’s transition from a European colony to an independent nation lacked the basic foundation for democratic governance. And while general elections in 1963 led to the formation of the nation’s first parliamentary government, the King, who is considered the highest political and religious authority, has held a firm grip on the country’s institutions. Recently, a young Moroccan journalist was sentenced to three years in prison after being accused of mocking the King. Indeed, Morocco decisively ranks as an authoritarian regime with a score of 3.83 out of 10 on The Economist’s Democracy Index, placing it number 119 on a list of 167 countries.
In this hereditary monarchy system in which access to information is tightly controlled and opposition leaders are silenced, and even reprimanded, the culture and application of democracy has never had a chance to truly take root. All relevant stakeholders—from organized citizen organizations (COs) to dispersed citizens to concerned members of government—struggle to make sense of how to open up and/or plug into the decision-making processes of the country. It is not an unfamíliar occurrence, for example, for government to issue laws and approve or appeal them internally without providing public access to these decisions.
Starting on February 20, 2011, this intense political exclusion exploded into protests in sixty cities across the Arab world’s second most populous country as Moroccans took to the streets carrying signs that read “Hear the Voice of the People” and chanting “Down with autocracy.” While this courage to publicly and loudly demand participation represents a great leap forward, Tarik has his eye on the next necessary step to cementing this political revolution: figuring out how to get even more voices around the country involved in this discussion—beyond just the young and tech savvy—and then have all interested voices directly implicated in the country’s vital political processes.
Once King Mohammed VI announced his decision to undertake a comprehensive constitutional reform aimed at improving democracy and the rule of law a few weeks after protests began, Tarik recognized the perfect opportunity to begin to have Moroccan’s learn about key issues and express their views in a way most conducive to then having those views absorbed in the political process. Instead of allowing the new Constitution to be drafted solely by a commission assigned by the King, and then put to the public afterward for a simple yes or no vote, Tariq placed the entire existing Constitution on a newly created website to open up the drafting process. At his www.reforme.ma/constitution, citizens could show their support for—or lack thereof—each article, or part of an article in the Constitution. They could also rewrite articles or add new ones. To drive traffic to the site, Tarik partnered with the Facebook groups that had been pivotal in getting the masses to the streets. Indeed, full Facebook and Twitter integration allowed anyone who was a “friend” or “follower” of anyone already commenting on the site to also become aware of the site and what his contact on Facebook or Twitter was “Like-ing”—essentially creating a viral effect.
Tarik also set out to reach those groups not already active on these online forums. He hosted a press conference that led to wide coverage of his initiative in four national and two international newspapers in Spain and France, five television stations, and seven local and international radio channels. Technology allowed him to entice each of these outlets with real-time sound bites of which of the Constitution’s articles were most popular or unpopular on any given day, hour, or minute. In fact, simply presented, (computer-generated) quantitative analysis was available for all to see on the website. And as such, the platform saw an embrace across the political spectrum, as both the Islamist and Leftist parties were able to quickly assess and quote the opinion of a large section of the population whenever they saw something that supported their respective positions.
After one month, Tarik’s website received more than 200,000 unique visitors who read all or part of the Constitution—a stark contrast from the drafting of the 1996 Constitution that was never made publicly available. Indeed, this number is larger than the amount of votes typically received by two of the three leading political parties that form Morocco’s coalition government. This kind of attention led to an invitation from the King’s Commission for Tarik to present an analysis of the roughly 10,000 comments left on his website before parliament. While Tarik never received official feedback from the commission, a study conducted by Marseille University in France showed that over 40 percent of the proposals put forward by Reforme.ma were included in the new Constitution. This included the following several landmark reforms: identifying the native tongue of the minority Amazigh population as an official language, declaring the supremacy of international conventions, increased equality between men and women, removing the concept of “the King as sacred,” and the appointment of a prime minister from the majority party rather than by the King. With this success, Tarik saw a flurry of contact from a series of other groups—including the University Abdelmalek Saadi, the Journal de Tanger, and the Organization Marocaine des Droits de l’Homme (OMDH), Morocco’s leading human rights organization—who had initially hesitated to join him, not yet sure of what to make of his path-breaking efforts.
Partnering with the leading election monitoring CO for the November 2011 elections led to media coverage ranging from the BBC to Al Jazeera to French TV, and saw 15,000 reports filed—a mixture of online and telephone reporting. The reports ranged from citizens sharing how they were given money after attending a campaign event to spotting the use of children under the age of eight being used in campaigns, both of which are explicitly illegal.
Tarik realized that there was another already mobilized set of actors that could accelerate his impact: the citizen sector. COs would naturally gravitate to a tool that would help them effectively garner citizens’ opinions on relevant topics and quickly aggregate that data for usage in their ongoing work for reform. In fact, they would likely take the lead on fundraising for it. In turn, Tarik could use the citizen sector’s largest, most reputable, and most networked organizations to quickly access even more media and government contacts as well as field workers to reach those members of society who are not yet online. COs also provide a home for each online platform that is created, which not only allows Tarik to be shielded behind the veil of just being “the IT guy,” if necessary, but also allows the platform to endure and be ramped up again whenever necessary—e.g. the next election. Not worrying about overseeing several platforms also allows Tarik to be free to move on to focus on the next critical aspect of government in need of active citizen engagement.
Tarik continues to form partnerships with key COs and think through the right set of online and offline platforms to encourage direct citizen engagement. He has joined the board of Morocco’s Transparency International as well as OMDH. He is beginning to experiment with tactics like arming field workers, including OMDH’s 600, who already frequently visit communities to take surveys and record human rights abuses, with iPads so these communities can also participate in citizen engagement activities. Tarik is also thinking through how to capitalize on Morocco’s 110 percent mobile phone penetration rate.
Most immediately, Tarik is gearing up to bring citizens’ voices into the lawmaking process as the country’s laws will have to be amended—and some created—to reflect the new constitution. He is also considering bringing the same approach to bear on the national budgeting process.
Awakening the citizenry to their power in governing themselves and building that capacity is not restricted to the official political processes, however. In fact, because corruption pervades so many aspects of life in Morocco and thus, induces a general sense of resignation, in January 2012, Tarik launched www.mamdawrinch.com which allows citizens to report instances of corruption. The site has already seen reports of professors, traffic cops, and job interviewers asking for bribes, as well as declarations of nepotism and ill-gotten government contracts. Tarik geographically maps these instances of corruption on the site, without names or revealing too many key details, and pushes this out to the respective social media outlets to spark conversation. This map also appears on the website of a series of networked COs, which provide consultation to the lawyers if any party is interested in taking their case to court.
Tarik’s core team includes the ten full-time staff of Software Centre, the company he started in 2009 with a vision to create a technical framework using technology to enhance democracy and encourage concrete advances in the development of the country. While most of the team focuses on the technology, including creating websites for other private clients in order to help finance the core work, Tarik serves as the overall strategist. He finds the right partners to help take charge of the creation of the qualitative report that is presented to the relevant government body during each initiative, as well as the media campaigns that occur to first inform the public of the initiative and then to share its result. Tarik also ensures that all profit from work with private clients is reinvested to support the main democracy initiative.
The grandson of a militant leader against French colonization and then in the Moroccan King’s tight clasp, Tarik grew up watching a loved one thrown in and out of jail for attempting to take down undemocratic regimes. Even more intimately, he watched his father found many of the country’s most prominent human rights institutions. Not only were philanthropy and the universal values of freedom, dignity, and tolerance major pillars of his education, indeed they were the topic of nightly dinner table conversation.
While choosing to study mathematics and engineering in university did not represent the most obvious continuation of the “family business,” this upbringing no doubt influenced Tarik’s decision to co-found the Student Government Association to voice the concerns of the student body during his university years. After graduating summa cum laude and experiencing all of the professional success he could have hoped for managing a team of thirty engineers at Microsoft’s headquarters in Seattle, Tarik found himself wondering if there was more he should be doing.
It took a year’s sabbatical working on an emotionally devastating mission in Iraq with the International Committee of the Red Cross, an organization he had volunteered with since he was 10, for Tarik to realize that what he was interested in was not the piecemeal, though important, work of humanitarian organizations. Instead, he wanted to change the systems underpinning the need for so many humanitarian efforts.
Tarik moved back to Morocco and thought he would tackle the country’s health, education, and all of the other key social sectors through IT. Then he realized an earlier, more important step was necessary. For these institutions to truly be effective, citizens would have to first demand this, and then hold governments accountable for it. Many people would have to learn new roles, including a generation of people equipped to safeguard the transparency of government, constantly pushing the boundaries to ensure efficacy. At the core of this was the need to build a new communication channel to government. With an IT background, Tarik felt well placed to do just this, but he also decided to go to law school to get a better understanding of the political processes that could facilitate such accountability.
Law school provided an environment to begin testing various open source initiatives. In 2010, Tarik developed www.Juriste.ma, Morocco’s first community of law professionals (1,500 lawyers) and legal information portal. A free public encyclopedia of Moroccan law, Juriste.ma was designed to empower average citizens by educating them about their rights and obligations. The site includes a forum where people can post legal questions and law professionals can reply back with answers. The platform was presented at many lawyer attended events, opening up new debates such as the relationship between IT and law—“legal informatics.”
Though graduating in June 2012, Tarik was inspired by the country’s rallying call to action during the February 2011 protests to launch his initiative.