The Moroccan exception, and a king's speech

Morocco is not immune to the forces of change sweeping across the Arab world. But the response of its head of state reflects its distinct political character, says Valentina Bartolucci.
Valentina Bartolucci
11 March 2011

The Arab world’s turmoil continues, from protest in Bahrain and reshuffles in Tunisia to violence in Libya. The wave of change that started in a small Tunisian town is less than three months old, but its consequences have already been momentous. The combination of  its scale (hundreds of thousands of people involved), ideals (freedom and dignity), means (peaceful protest) and channel of influence (the internet) already justify the term “Arab spring”.

The changes are visible everywhere, and everywhere there is a long way to go - including in Morocco. But here, in the westernmost country of the Arab world - also with a substantial Berber component - the announcement by its monarch of a package of constitutional reforms on 9 March 2011 emphasises once more Morocco's singular political character.

The pressure from below

The immediate road to the king's speech began with the creation of an online movement for “Freedom and Democracy Now” that called for demonstrations to be held in several towns around the country on 20 February 2011. This Facebook initiative was accompanied by a video posted on YouTube that described Morocco’s social problems in detail (illiteracy, marginalisation, poverty, lack of media freedom, inequality and corruption) and demanded governmental changes and constitutional reforms.

The response was immediate, as groups and individuals spread the message and reached thousands of Moroccans. A counter-movement emerged that asked people not to demonstrate “for the love of the king”. A fierce “cyberwar” resulted.

Many did answer the call and mobilised (largely peacefully) on the day. The evidence was clear that many Moroccans - like their counterparts in Tunisia, and Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain, Algeria and Libya - want democracy and real reforms. In particular, Morocco simmers with anger over poverty, unemployment, and the high cost of living, issues that give rise to regular protests.

Yet there are factors in Morocco’s situation that distinguish it from other parts of the Arab world, and may partly explain the relative neglect of the country in current debates about the regional risings. The sovereignty dispute over the Western Sahara is one, the uncertain power of the country’s Islamists another. There is also a broader difference related to the ruling system and how it influences people’s aspirations, in four ways.

The pull of stability

First, Morocco is a monarchy whose King Mohammed VI is widely believed to act as the guarantor of political stability and social cohesion, and arbitrator between opposed factions. The consequence is that very few people in Morocco want to depose the king or seek outright revolution. Rather, people have generally demanded constitutional reforms that would limit the monarch’s powers (as well as other measures such as more transparency and less corruption in government).

Second, the king combines in his figure the highest political and religious authority - a unique status embodied in the formula amir al-muminine (Commander of the Faithful). A leader who is considered a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed himself is ultimately untouchable. 

Third, since Mohammed VI’s accession in 1999 Morocco has already undertaken limited democratic reforms, notably of the Moudawana (family code). Stephen O Hughes writes that soon after coming to power the new king “impressed many with his willingness to listen, his interest in advanced technology, his relaxed manner when not surrounded by courtiers, and his sympathetic concern for social betterment of the poor” (see Morocco Under King Hassan [Ithaca Press, 2001]). His attention to social issues even earned him the nickname “king of the poor”. This popularity is further owed to an effective strategic approach in defusing the ostensible threat of political Islam, something that has also won praise from western observers (see Nelcya Delanoe, "Morocco: a journey in the space between monarchy and Islamism", 5 February 2003)

Fourth, there is an overall sense that Morocco is still “exceptional” within the Arab world - its people believed to be moderate and peaceful Muslims, devoted to their king, and deeply hostile to violence. These perceptions mix with self-perceptions to affect the collective mood, though they are quite compatible with demands for reform (see Laila Lalami, “Morocco's Moderate Revolution”, Foreign Policy, 21 February 2011).

These ingredients of Moroccan political reality were on display when King Mohammed VI told his people that by 30 June 2011 a committee reporting to him would propose significant changes to the country's political and judicial system. They include the appointment of the prime minister by parliament (rather than, as at present, by the king himself); moves to guarantee judicial independence; the introduction of direct elections at a local level; and constitutional amendments that would guarantee more civic and gender rights. All this, the king said, would amount to "comprehensive constitutional reform".

The space of doubt                                                              

Even now, the degree of stability in Morocco shouldn’t be overstated. The acclaimed exceptionalité Marocaine has already been buffeted by the bombings in Casablanca in May 2003 which brought the country into the orbit of the “war on terror”. Today, the illegal but tolerated Islamist movement - the Al adl wal Ihsane - may still have the chance to grow. The thorny question of the Western Sahara can act as a focus of nationalist sentiment. Many demoralised young people have only dreams of escaping to the inaccessible “fortress Europe”, 14 kilometres away, to sustain them (see Ivan Briscoe, "Dreaming of Spain: migration and Morocco", 26 May 2004).

There have been signs of discontent even within the royal family, with the king’s cousin Moulay Hicham voicing his support for the protestors. And an unpopular governmental elite (seen as separate from the person of the king) is criticised for its failure to address the deep problems affecting millions of people.

Morocco has experienced its first cases of self-immolation, including of a young man in Benguerir who acted in this desperate way after losing his job. Several sources (including Twitter posts) report a worrying declaration by the high-profile activist Nadia Yassine -“we will have a transition, either on a voluntary basis or gained with force” (which contradicts her movement’s commitment to peaceful change, and has yet to be to be validated).

These are indeed exceptional times, which are full - as Tunisia, Egypt and in a different way Libya have shown - of unexpected events. Laila Lalami has even warned: “there is only so much Moroccans will bear. If the call for evolution is ignored, it could morph into a call for revolution quite quickly”.

The call for evolution has indeed been heard. Indeed, a recent visit to Morocco confirmed in me the view that Moroccans were seeking not revolution but definite if gradual change - with their king. Their widespread if qualified welcome of his proposals for reform suggests that Morocco will continue to be exceptional for at least some time to come.

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