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The last Moroccan king?

The Makhzen (the name given in Morocco to the state apparatus) seems to be losing the deterrent effect on which it relied so successfully in the past.
Merouan Mekouar
8 August 2011

Is Mohamed VI going to be the last Moroccan king? The question may seem preposterous given that the monarch’s recent constitutional reform (subject to referendum on July 1) has just been approved by 98.5% of the popular vote, and that the vast majority of the population remains deeply attached to the royal institution. In 2008, a poll conducted by the now defunct Moroccan journal Nichane revealed that more than 90% of Moroccans support the palace – a figure that may very well still be valid today.

Yet, despite the enviable popularity of the current King, the long-term survival of the Alawi monarchy may be less certain than is commonly thought. Contrary to his late father Hassan II who used a mix of constitutional reform, repression and cooptation of the opposition to survive 38 years of rule, Mohamed VI is confronted with a  series of new challenges that may very well prove impossible to overcome with simple cosmetic constitutional change.

First, Mohamed VI seems unable to dissociate himself from his widely loathed entourage. Given his quasi-total omnipotence in Moroccan politics, the king could have deflated popular mobilisation very early on simply by punishing those in his entourage who are held in widespread contempt by the populace: the  very unpopular Prime Minister, Abbas el-Fassi, and his sprawling family;  advisor and close friend, Mounir Majidi (who dominates the country’s economy thanks to his proximity to the palace); or the infamous Minister of Information, Khalid Naciri, who shocked many Moroccans two years ago by threatening a policeman who was attempting to arrest his son in front of the national parliament. Many Moroccans consider these three figures to be living representation of corruption and nepotism.

Instead of tackling the real problem, namely corruption, the king is using the same card that his father played a couple of decades ago: cosmetic constitutional reform as an attempt to increase legitimacy and deflate popular mobilization. As noted by many analysts, the new constitutional text does not curtail the authority of the king in any meaningful way. Instead of being “sacred” the monarch is now “inviolable” and cannot be criticized or held accountable. The king nominates all of the government members (including the PM who must be from the leading party) and retains the power to veto all decisions made by the government or parliament. The new constitution does not offer any tool to limit the impunity of the king’s intimate circle of friends and family who may still use their proximity to the palace to dominate the economic sphere and escape judicial control.

However, with every passing day, corruption, nepotism and police brutality give birth to new opponents who logically coalesce around the pro-democracy February 20 Movement, while the palace is unable to create new followers. Whereas the informal and decentralized nature of the current opposition makes it easy for any disgruntled citizen to find a space to voice his or her grievances, the monarchy mechanically relies on the same set of discredited traditional intermediaries (such as rural notables and co-opted political parties) it used so heavily in the past without realizing that these often corrupt intermediaries are precisely those at the origin of popular resentment. The regime is also frustrating many by forcing a number of respected journalists to downscale their criticism of the government, pushing previously independent artists to take a stance in favour the monarchy and even compelling traditionally apolitical religious groups to engage in pro-government activities –angering many followers in the process.

More importantly perhaps, the King cannot resort to the same degree of repression that his father used against the leftist opposition throughout the 60s and the 70s. While Hassan II did not hesitate to kidnap, torture, or imprison large numbers of opponents, Mohamed VI needs to take into account increased international scrutiny from human rights organizations, as well as a generalized seditious atmosphere following the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. While the Moroccan government was able to quietly get away with the systematic torture of suspected Islamist militants in recent years, the Arab spring has given local militants the courage to express themselves publically, post daring videos on Youtube and Facebook, and even attempt to picnic in front of an alleged torture center less than two miles from the royal palace. In effect, the Makhzen (the name given in Morocco to the state apparatus) seems to be losing the deterrent effect on which it relied so successfully in the past.

Finally, the palace is facing a very organized and determined opposition that is active throughout the country and cuts across regional, economic and social cleavages. Whereas the opposition under Hassan II was mostly urban-based and educated, the current King has to deal simultaneously with very motivated urban kids, adherents of the popular Islamic movement al-Adl wal-Ihsan (Justice and Benevolence), radical unions, Berber sympathizers, respected bloggers, as well as a wide range of semi-organized militants abroad. Both the level and quality of popular mobilization are unprecedented. Every Sunday since February, pro-democracy activists organize simultaneous protests in more than 25 cities, a level of mobilization unseen in the country in the recent decades. Ramadan, a particularly special occasion for Moroccans, is offering local militants an unusually fertile ground for mobilization. Despite the heavy police presence, activists are regularly arranging popular public evening meals followed by massive protest marches in various working-class neighborhoods across the country.

Without genuine reform, of which this latest constitutional change falls far short, the monarchy’s popular base will keep eroding until it is perhaps too late for the King to redeem himself by finally dissociating himself from his tactless friends. Given the content of the new constitution which does little to increase the accountability of the palace, as well as the impressive amount of bad faith that characterized its writing (the committee responsible for drafting the text was composed  of long-time loyalist figures, while political parties and unions were only very superficially consulted), it is increasingly clear that the monarchy is unwilling to address one of the most important demands made by the protesters: putting  its own house in order and limiting the greed of its numerous associates. Hubris or fecklessness, the coming years will tell. 

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