The Corollary to Moroccan Exceptionalism

by Jais Mehaji, Arab Spring Series // Published June 21, 2011
2011 06 18Moroccan king

The Arab Spring movement continues to have an impact on nations across the Arab world. Now this remarkable time of change has touched Morocco, the region’s oldest monarchy. In a televised speech on June 18, King Mohammed VI once again set the kingdom apart from the rest of the region by announcing sweeping constitutional reforms whereby he would relinquish some of his powers, empowering a hitherto moribund parliamentary system and granting the prime minister more executive powers. As a citizen of Morocco and backer of the 47-year-old monarch’s reform proposals, I see them as a bold and shrewd move that underscores his commitment to Morocco’s democratization and meaningful transition to a constitutional monarchy. 

What is more interesting is that by pro-actively and preemptively taking steps to open up the political space, the king has not only set the country apart from the other nations of the region but has set himself apart from the hereditary republics. Despite some mild protests by the February 20th movement – a loose coalition of young liberals, secularists, Islamists (much smaller in numbers than those in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen, etc.) – the King was courageous enough to embrace the winds of change in the region, and confirm to the whole world his role as a reformer; a role he has embodied since assuming the throne in 1999.

A few words must be said about what many have termed “Moroccan Exceptionalism.” While most, if not all, the countries of the Arab world have experienced unprecedented upheaval after the successful overthrows of tyrants in Tunisia and Egypt, Morocco has been a relative island of stability. Despite socioeconomic conditions in fact more parlous than their North African counterparts – which would seemingly have presented Morocco as a prime candidate for revolution – the phrase Moroccan exceptionalism was invoked to argue the kingdom was immune to revolutionary foment.

But the same was said about Tunisia and Egypt, before what many thought was impossible was achieved. Contagion finally did spread to the westernmost North African country, though the term Moroccan exceptionalism still held a modicum of truth. In fact, protesters under the umbrella of the February 20th movement (which you can read more about here) numbering the few hundred or few thousands at best, scattered around major cities, were not met with repression as in Syria, Libya, or the Gulf states.

But to someone from Morocco, that is hardly surprising. Protests are not uncommon in Morocco; in fact they are routine. Freedom of expression is guaranteed, albeit with certain red lines that ensure the inviolability and sacredness of the 400-year old Alawite dynasty. Despite a weak party system, multipartyism has always been a political reality, and the country is hardly a police state compared to Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt.

In March, the King made a speech where he announced historic changes: the devolution and decentralization through a process of regionalization, granting local municipalities more power and autonomy, the election rather than appointment of the prime minister, an independent judiciary, a commission to investigate corruption, and so on. The speech was praised by prominent politicians in the U.S and Europe, confirming the monarch’s long-standing commitment to the modernization and democratization of the country. Despite terrorist attacks in Marrakesh in April, which killed 15 and wounded 20 (most of them tourists), King Mohammed VI did not exploit it to put a break on reform and resort to repressive tactics.

On June 18, though, the constitutional provisions he proposed in his historical speech once again suggested an aura of Moroccan exceptionalism. The King promised a nationwide referendum on July 1st, where Moroccans will decide whether or not to ratify the new constitution – one which curtails the political powers of the King. The reforms he promised include a prime minister elected by the people (determined by party that wins the elections), who will be the president of the government. An independent judiciary will also be ensured. The King, however, will retain his role as Commander of the Faithful and thus the highest religious authority of the country, as well as maintain his power over security affairs and the army.

Immediately after the speech, a number of Moroccans flocked to the streets waving Moroccan flags and honking their cars in support of the monarch’s reforms. What is even more commendable are the sweeping reforms with regards to women’s rights and the elevation of their status, freedom of worship, and the officialization of Amazigh, the language of the Berber minority – enshrined in the  constitution as existing alongside the official language, Arabic, as further evidence of the king’s commitment to cultural pluralism. In his speech, he stated:

“Given the cohesion characterizing the various components of our unified, rich and diverse national identity — including the Arabic Islamic, Berber, Saharan, African, Andalusian, Jewish [emphasis added] and Mediterranean components — the draft Constitution confirms the status of Arabic as an official language of the Kingdom, and provides that the State pledges to protect and promote it.”

Morocco’s February 20 movement, however, has responded to the king’s speech with skepticism, calling the promised reforms cosmetic and not substantive enough. They plan more protests to come, although the short timeframe for the referendum campaign limits opportunities for opposition to form.  Furthermore, this loose coalition, with no specific mandate, by playing the rejectionist card, may see its support erode. As a reformer myself, I see the King’s reforms as indeed unprecedented, and at least seem to have the potential to embark the country upon the path of democracy and constitutional monarchy.

Despite the announced political reforms, the protesters’ socioeconomic grievances are certainly legitimate and more still needs to be done to address these concerns. Youth unemployment is at about 30 percent, corruption is rampant and crony capitalism is manifest. Nearly half the population is illiterate, a lot of Moroccans do not have access to health care, and disparities between rich and poor are more pronounced than ever. Although this landmark constitution shows that summer might have come to Morocco, these changes must be embraced and the new political avenues that the king has offered must be pursued to address the country’s dire socioeconomic needs. Nonetheless, as some have argued, all this suggests that there is something to be learned from the Moroccan experience. On July 1st, we will see where Moroccan exceptionalism will go.