Morocco’s “Arab” Spring

By James N. Sater | Associate Professor of International Studies - The American University of Sharjah | Oct 1, 2011
Flickr user Al Jazeera English
Flickr user Al Jazeera English
Morocco’s “Arab” Spring

As elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East, the youth-driven revolts in Tunisia and Egypt produced a tsunami in Morocco’s political landscape. On February 20, a movement took shape that publicly demanded a constitutional monarchy in which an elected and accountable government would have control over the country’s social, economic, and security policies. All across the country, it organized rallies in which tens of thousands of Moroccans participated. Morocco’s largely co-opted and aging political parties, from the Islamist Justice and Development Party to the Socialist Union of Popular Forces, remained quiet, and distanced themselves from the young movement. At the heart of this movement’s demands has been the role of the King, who, since independence, has been in control of all senior governmental and military appointments. Especially under King Hassan II (1961–1999), the monarchy’s system of rule, called makhzen in Moroccan parlance, has often had recourse to force during the so-called Years of Lead.

Unlike its counterparts in the east, however, the February 20 movement has not openly asked for the removal of Mohamed VI from office or for the abolition of the monarchy. In addition, while Morocco’s security apparatus has been involved in violence against protesters around the country, its reputation has never been nearly as bad as that of its counterpart in Tunisia, or even Egypt. As a result, the movement asked for critical constitutional reforms rather than a revolution per se. Even the movement’s core constitutional demands, such as the election of the prime minister by the parliament, not by the King, had already been openly addressed and debated in the press and political party offices over the last two decades.

Consequently, the Arab uprisings met a particular political field that determined the outcome and future prospects of reforms in Morocco.

First, Morocco can be considered one of the most liberal of all of the authoritarian systems in North Africa and the Middle East. The Moroccan monarchy did not react to counter the February 20 movement with even a fraction of the violence that its neighbors used. Even the most violent crackdown on March 13 in Casablanca did not result in any deaths, and so far only one protester has died from police brutality in June. This relative restraint reflected the reformist nature of the protests. While keywords such as hogra and “rage” were used by the movement, it did not resonate among a larger Moroccan public as much as it did in neighboring countries. Slogans such as “degage!” as they were used in Tunisia remained unthinkable. In turn, the relatively liberal reactions of the state, which included a new constitution and referendum on July 1, did not galvanize the population like they did in other MENA countries, as evidenced by lower turnout rates to calls for protests in September. Effectively, in the summer the state was able to avoid a confrontation, as Moroccans have been swept with information about the misfortunes of their Libyan and Syrian neighbors, the uncertainty of Tunisian and Egyptian experiments, and the benefits of their new constitution.

Second, especially under Mohamed VI, the monarchy engaged in a series of political, economic, and social reform projects that made the King arguably one of the most popular contemporary Arab rulers. One of his landmark reform projects has been a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Unprecedented and unrivalled in the Arab world, the Truth and Reconciliation Commisision has allowed victims of past human rights abuses to talk about torture and other crimes that the state committed under Mohamed VI’s father, Hassan II. An independent (and banned) survey of 2009 credited the King with an approval rate of more than 90%.[1] While public support may partially have waned due to notoriously high unemployment levels and poverty, the monarchy devised a shrewd political system in which elected politicians of co-opted political parties are charged with the day-to-day running of government and therefore take the blame for any wrong-doings or failed policies. For example, unemployed graduates in Rabat routinely demonstrate in front of the elected parliament, not the palace, even though they are only 200 meters apart.

Third, partially reflecting his willingness to reform and commit to a “Moroccan-style” democracy, the King could quickly absorb the spirit of reform. On March 9, he announced the formation of a committee that would revise Morocco’s constitution and appointed trusted reformers and experts to draft Morocco’s fifth constitution since it achieved independence in 1956. He thereby sent a message to the protesters that he understood, even championed, their demands. He also illustrated his willingness to adapt to the new political reality that the Arab Spring created. As the reformist weekly magazine TelQuel succinctly headlined on April 22, “The Revolution is the King.” He also combined this pro-reform spirit with nationalist sentiments concerning Moroccan claims to the Western Sahara. After all, a new constitution was needed to ensure the partial decentralization necessary for Morocco’s autonomy plan in the Sahara. That he was not willing to hand over power to elected officials was also clear. It was not an elected assembly of politicians who were to publicly draft the new constitution, but rather an expert committee of royal appointees who would work behind closed doors. Clearly, they were accountable to the King alone.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Without any doubt, the new constitution is the most liberal constitution that Morocco has known since independence. It enshrines liberal principles and gives more independence to elected officials and the judiciary. It promotes gender equality and even creates an institution that is meant to oversee the actual implementation of gender equality. It also upgrades the importance of Tamazight, the language of the Amazigh (Berber) people, to become Morocco’s second “official” language next to Arabic. The King thereby created a strong incentive for two core constituencies, women and the Amazigh people, to support not only the new constitution but also his position as a guarantor of these liberal principles. This is because in terms of substance, the King’s position as Commander of the Faithful, Amir al-Mu’minin, remains intact. While Article 19 previously described his position as “sacred,” the new Article 46 makes his position “inviolable,” a difference that constitutional lawyers may find difficult to ascertain. Consequently, his speeches remain, as in the past, undebatable in public. In addition, he has to approve all legislation and governmental appointments, which gives him effective veto power. While he no longer chairs the Council of Government, which seems to imply more independence for the government, he still chairs a parallel organization called the Council of Ministers.

In terms of procedure, the organization of a referendum on July 1, only two weeks after the presentation of the new constitution in mid-June, can be considered a complete farce. Not only was a public debate avoided on the altar of a quick fix, but the entire state apparatus also was mobilized to ensure a high approval rate within two weeks. State TV disproportionately aired opinions in favor of the “yes vote,” and the King’s personal, televised message of support that included Qur’anic verses not only made public disagreement a crime according to the old (and new) constitution but also a sacrilege. In addition, simple vote rigging, the absence of “no-votes,” lax identification and registration requirements, and the bussing of voters in cars organized by local ministry of interior officials all cast serious doubt on the fairness of the election. Not surprisingly, the approval rate of 98.5%, and an official participation rate of 72%, reminds observers of Hassanian practices during the Years of Lead. Simultaneously, demonstrations of sometimes violent pro-monarchy loyalists and thugs further reminded February 20 activists of Egypt’s notorious baltagiyya.[2]

Allah, Watan, Hurriya

Although mass mobilization and repressive tactics continue, it seems that the monarchy has scored important points in its dealing with the Arab Spring. The monarch compounded his image as a reform-minded ruler, and political stability was reconfirmed before serious doubts could arise. The Arab Spring’s revolutionary spirit was translated into reforms as understood and guided by the monarchical state. Not surprisingly, Standard & Poor’s credit outlook for Morocco remained “stable” and international support for its reforms and stability came from both the East (the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC) and the West.

Still, the Arab Spring opened Pandora’s Box in Morocco. While protesters may be divided between Islamists, leftists, middle-class intellectuals, students, unemployed graduates, and the country’s poor, the question of the King’s powers has exited intellectual circles, academia, and political party offices, and has occupied the street. This is unprecedented, even if a unified vision for Morocco’s future is still lacking. Consequently, as in other countries, the “wall of fear” has been broken and will inform street action, public discussions, newspaper editorials, and electoral politics in the coming years. This will include a critical questioning of the King’s personality and role in the political and economic marginalization that many Moroccans experience. For example, in one of his songs, the Moroccan rapper Mouad Belghouat changed the country’s slogan from “God, Country, King” to “God, Country, Freedom” (Allah, Watan, Hurriya).[3] While Belghouat was arrested in September for having allegedly assaulted a regime loyalist, the public nature and distribution of such a song is a significant symbol for changes that have occurred. Although the monarchy may still feel powerful after this last constitutional coup which resembles yet another public relations campaign, the nature of politics has fundamentally changed and will give rise to many more challenges. The fact that the political parties took on a bystander role will be critical in any future assessments of their effectiveness in responding to the demands of Moroccan citizens. In orchestrated events such as the upcoming November 25 parliamentary election, the contradictions between a young, mobilized, and politicized population and an old, co-opted party system that increasingly forms part of the monarchical state, makhzen, will soon create challenges that the King may no longer be able to thwart. Effectively, by proposing a new, controlled constitution, the monarchy has played its last card in a plural and semi-liberalized authoritarian system.

 


[1]. TelQuel 2009, “Le Peuble Juge son Roi” [“The People Judges its King”], Le Monde, August 3, 2009.

[2]. Paul Silverstein, “Weighing Morocco’s New Constitution,” Middle East Report Online, July 5, 2011, http://www.merip.org/mero/mero070511.

[3]. Mouad Belghouat Alias, “Haqed, the Fanatical One” ARTE video, 4:19, http://monde-arabe.arte.tv/en/#/video_3269_mouad-belghouat-alias-haqed-t....

 

... the monarchy has played its last card in a plural and semi-liberalized authoritarian system.

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