Morocco (do not publish again).
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
One of the most
striking aspects of the political upheaval that has cascaded back and
forth across the Middle East and North Africa over the last half-year
has been the fact that it largely bypassed Morocco, a country which
suffers from many of the same underlying ills, which drove the protests
elsewhere – corruption, poverty, unemployment, the concentration of
wealth in the hands of a small stratum, the absence of real democracy
and closed horizons for its large, youthful population.
sure, a loose amalgamation of youthful activists, organizations and
parties demanding fundamental reforms did arise, and security forces
occasionally employed a heavy hand in repressing demonstrations. But
the protests never reached a critical mass, while the Moroccan
authorities, i.e. the Royal Palace, were proactive in their response.
They increased state subsidies on basic goods, raised salaries for civil
servants and promised a constitutional overhaul.
The upshot was
that on July 1, 98.5 percent of Moroccan voters (73 percent of those
eligible) endorsed a new constitution designed to modernize Moroccan
political life while maintaining the prerogatives of the ruling Alouite
monarchy. The absence of upheaval and the veneer of reform measures
further strengthened Morocco’s favorable image in the West, one of a
country characterized by a benevolent mix of tradition and modernity,
authenticity with openness to foreign cultures, political stability and
evolution towards greater pluralism. This includes an Islamist current,
as well as one which seeks to enhance the status of women.
one speak of Moroccan exceptionalism? Is there a secret to Morocco’s
ability to dodge the shock waves roiling the region? To be sure, Morocco
possesses some distinct assets: a political and societal center within a
distinct geographical core stretching back more than 1,200 years; a
ruling dynasty whose legitimacy is based on direct descent from the
Prophet Muhammad; religious homogeneity; and a distinct material and
popular culture, religious practice, and linguistic configuration, much
of which stems from Morocco’s Berber population. However, if
anything, Tunisia and Egypt possess an even greater degree of cohesion,
which did not prevent the latest revolutions.
Was it the
legitimacy provided by the monarchical institution that explains the
lack of a massive popular uprising? To even suggest so would have been
ridiculed a generation ago. But by the 1990s, Middle East monarchies
began to be viewed in a more favorable light, a resilient institution
that often provided vital social cohesion in times of rapid change.
Moreover, the last years of the late King Hassan’s 38- year reign, which
ended in his death in 1999, were marked by what he called “homeopathic
democracy” – measured, incremental steps at political liberalization.
However numbingly slow, it resulted in the ending of some of Morocco’s
most notorious human-rights abuses, an expansion of the space for civil
society organizations, and an agreement with the historic opposition
political parties to re-enter the political game.
hoped that Hassan’s son and successor, Muhammad VI, would move towards
establishing a Spanish-style constitutional monarchy, à la King Juan
Carlos. Although this was not in the cards, he made Morocco a
significantly more relaxed place, politically, socially and culturally,
in sharp contrast with the political stagnation and retrogression which
had marked the Tunisian and Egyptian political landscapes and set the
stage for their 2011 revolutions.
Part of Muhammad VI’s ruling
formula was to allow a certain degree of Islamist political activity.
Another was to balance it by strengthening the country’s liberal
current. One centerpiece of his approach was the adoption of a new
family law, which brought women significantly closer to legal equality
with men. Another was a truth and reconciliation commission to
acknowledge the abuses committed by his father’s minions. A third was
the partial support of the Amazigh (Berber) culture movement. Real power
in the kingdom, however, stayed in the hands of the palace and its
affiliate circles, while parliament remained emasculated and political
parties mainly competed for the patronage the palace was willing to
bestow. Moreover, in more recent years, the country regressed in
terms of press freedom and human rights, while economically, growth
rates were insufficient for reducing the high rate of unemployment and
the rate of illiteracy remained over 40 percent.
The new Moroccan
constitution, which was drawn up by a crosssection of experts appointed
by the palace, contains a number of potentially meaningful innovations.
Ensuring human rights, gender equality and a genuinely independent
judiciary are considered core values. Tamazight (Berber), spoken
by up to 40 percent of the country’s population, is recognized as an
official language of the state, alongside Arabic – a historic
achievement for the Berber movement. The constitution even acknowledged
the Jewish contribution to Morocco’s national identity.
minister will now be the head of the political party that receives the
most votes, and his powers and that of the parliament are somewhat
enhanced. However, preponderant power remains in the hands of the king
who, while no longer defined as “sacred,” remains the Amir al-Mu’minin
(Commander of the Faithful), both the religious and political head of
the state, symbol of the nation’s unity, guarantor of the state’s
existence, supreme arbiter between institutions, and personally beyond
In short, Morocco’s new constitution reflects the
country’s dual, and often contradictory nature – a hereditary,
Islamic-based absolute monarchy, ruling over a modernizing,
multicultural and politically pluralist social and political order.
Mohammad VI has bought further time with his latest measures, and
Moroccan society as a whole does not appear ready to go to the
barricades. But staying ahead of the rising curve of demands for real
reform will demand much skill and wisdom from the country’s political
elite, beginning with the king himself.
author is the Marcia Israel Senior Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for
Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University.