Ducking the Arab Spring in Morocco

Blog entry posted 06.02.2011 in Morocco
The wave of protests shaking the Arab political regimes has made its way to Morocco. (Photo: The Immanent Frame)

The wave of protests shaking the Arab political regimes has quietly but forcefully made its way to Morocco. The February 20 youth movement—made up of a loose coalition of independent groups, backed by liberal, leftist, labor, and Islamist opposition movements—is leading the call for democratic change. Since February it has organized two mass demonstrations across fifty major cities and towns, drawing several hundred thousands of protesters. Social and political protests in Morocco are not new, nor do they yet threaten the survival of the regime. But the revolutionary spirit and mass appeal of the movement signal a major shift in popular attitudes regarding the monarchy’s monopoly and abuses of power.

Independently of civil society, political parties, and the traditional opposition groups, the movement gained momentum and quickly positioned itself as the only force capable of pressuring the monarchy for change. Like its counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia, the Moroccan movement is ideologically diverse and politically heterogeneous. But its members and supporters agree on five basic demands: the dissolution of the current parliament and government; the release of all political prisoners; the formation of an independent transitional government to prepare for new elections; a new constitution that limits the king’s prerogatives and asserts the division of powers; and judicial proceedings to investigate known cases of high corruption and human rights violations.

On March 9, the king responded by proposing limited constitutional reforms, to be elaborated by a consultative commission whose members were selected by the palace. Such a response is characteristic of the autocratic regime’s refusal to admit the political nature of the challenge they are facing. Instead, they turn the focus to social and governance challenges. For example, since street protests began in February, the government has held a series of roundtable discussions with trade unions and has made significant concessions, including salary increases, retirement benefits, and health insurance for workers. On a parallel track, the government revived measures to fight administrative corruption, cut red tape, and clean up the justice system.

Although the Moroccan monarchy has historically enjoyed legitimacy and allowed for some degree of political pluralism, it is not at all clear that the regime will be able to navigate the new challenge any better than the now deposed regimes in Tunisia or Egypt were. The regime’s legitimacy isn’t as secure with the younger generations, and claims of “pluralism” ring hollow after decades of social hardship, lack of political participation, and abuses of power. Morocco’s social problems are as bad as Egypt’s and certainly worse than Tunisia’s. The series of Arab Human Development Reports published between 2002 and 2009 show Morocco lagging behind most Arab countries (the exception being Yemen) in many important areas. Morocco’s electoral politics and party system exemplify everything that is wrong with Arab political regimes: corruption, repression, and lack of popular legitimacy. Popular participation in Moroccan elections has declined from about 65% in the 1960s to less than 25% in the last legislative elections (2007). Lastly, Morocco’s governance problems are hardly different from Egypt’s or Tunisia’s. During the last ten years, successive Transparency International and European Community reports have listed Morocco as one of the most corrupt countries in the Arab world. Like in Tunisia and Egypt, the ruling royal family and its close associates control the lion’s share of the economy. Hence, despite relative openness on the surface, Morocco’s structural problems are as severe, and in some respects worse, than those of other Arab countries.

What distinguishes the Moroccan regime from other “liberalized autocracies” in the region is its manipulation of the concept of “good governance.” Since coming to the throne in 1999, King Mohamed VI has insisted that Morocco’s main problems are managerial, not political, and can therefore be corrected through “good governance.”  In this case, the concept of good governance is an emphatically “technical” term that refers to policing, oversight, transparency, and accountability measures that aim to improve institutional processes, capacities, and performance with minimal interference with the regime’s political foundation. The World Bank, Western donors, and International NGOs have bankrolled this strategy. With the exception of the widely applauded family code reforms introduced in 2004, all of the king’s reform initiatives thus far have been based on the tendentious supposition that what Moroccans want most is “good governance,” not democratic government. Hence, a multitude of royal consultative councils, commissions, and committees are established in every vital sphere of social, political, and economic life to “rectify” the shortcomings of formal governmental institutions and, by the same token, to extend royal prerogative into every element of daily life. In the religious sphere, for example, the Moroccan monarch, who also holds the religious title “Commander of the Faithful,” launched several initiatives since 2003 to turn back the tide of radical Islamist contestation and violence. He established a royal commission to reform the shari’a-based family code, granting women more civil rights than they had hitherto been accorded. Another royal initiative was the establishment of a special graduate program to train women as spiritual guides. Religious programs on public radio and television were overhauled to project the image of a traditional Sunni, and specifically Moroccan, Islam. But, again, rather than to clarify the relationship between the religious and the political and to foster religious pluralism and toleration, the royal initiatives were intended to improve the government’s “management” of the religious sphere and to reinforce the monarchy’s religious preeminence.

But these opaque, unaccountable royal institutions haven’t performed any better than the government. The endemic problems of corruption, ineffective government, and abuses of power that most anger ordinary Moroccans have, rather, worsened over the years.

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[Excerpt—See accompanying link for full text.]