Morocco Avoids Arab Spring Violence, but Progress Is Mixed on Reforms

BY Ray Suarez  December 19, 2011 at 4:35 PM EDT


Ray Suarez in front of the Parliament of Morocco in Rabat, the location of mass protests earlier this year. The NewsHour’s Morocco series begins Tuesday, watch a preview on our global health site.

In 2009, a Moroccan newsmagazine worked with a French pollster and asked a simple question: “Do you approve of the King?” The results are something democratically elected politicians anywhere in the world would give their eye teeth for: More than 90 percent told the pollsters they approve of King Mohammed the VI.

But the establishment around the king didn’t react the way you might predict: They seized the magazines and jailed the editor. Telling Moroccans almost all citizens approve of the king looked like the opening of a dangerous door. It allowed the existence of a possibility you might not approve. The public never saw the poll results or the magazines.

One by one, countries in North Africa, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf have exploded into civil unrest, political turbulence and, in some cases, civil war this year. Morocco’s elites want to make sure the country doesn’t join the list, and Morocco’s rank-and-file citizens are frightened by what they see elsewhere. Moroccans want a better functioning political and economic system, and aren’t sure how quickly they’re going to get to either goal.

In February and March, tens of thousands of Moroccans took to the streets in a country where mass demonstrations are rare. They were met by a partial police crackdown, and organized even bigger protests led by the new February 20th Movement. That’s when the king and his establishment, called the Makhzen by Moroccans, sprang into action. A referendum on a new constitution was quickly organized, a new constitution and electoral law were drafted, and national elections held. Dozens of parties entered the fray, longtime establishment and opposition parties jostled with brand-new political parties for votes and influence.

One February 20th Movement leader was skeptical of the constitutional referendum, and isn’t happy about the vote either. Zineb Belnkaddim met me for coffee across from the Parliament building in the capital of Rabat.

“This drafting of this new constitution was not democratic. The committee that came up with this constitution was appointed by the king.” Belnkaddem speaks English with an American accent. She has a college degree gained in the United States, and a confident manner. She doesn’t give the new political order much credit for being a change from the old one.

“They came up with their conclusions and granted the Moroccan people this constitution without any democratic process into it and so I just don’t consider it any different from the older constitution.”

I asked her if it was ever possible for a conservative society like this one to make much more rapid change.

“I don’t think so,” she said. “I think things are going exactly the way they realistically were supposed to go, and it is very frustrating for us activists of course. We wished that things moved really faster and that the king and the institution of the king and the Makhzen around him made more concessions so that we wouldn’t have eventually to revolt at some point but I’m really afraid for Moroccan’s future.”

The U.S. Ambassador to Morocco never thought things were going to move much faster. Sam Kaplan said the new constitution is a forward-leaning document, and a move in the right direction.

“It’s a document that contemplates the sharing by his majesty with the parliament and with the political parties. And his majesty has said publically that it is for the political parties to take control of the situation and see if they have the opportunity which is being provided to them how they deal with it and how they will proceed,” he said. “We don’t know what the outcome is going to be. And I don’t know that it’s going to be anywhere near perfect but it is moving forward I believe.”

Kaplan said he believes a sharing of power is possible, but he does not predict a time when the king will become only a ceremonial leader.

In our conversation, Belnkaddem was much more optimistic. She said she believes the king does intend over time to become a constitutional monarch. But the changes so far are not sufficient.

“[W]hen we are out in the streets protesting we want to see change happening,” she said. “And what we’ve seen so far, the change did happen and there were steps taken. Unfortunately the process was the same, and so no matter the outcome it will still be the same system underneath it.”

Morocco is unlike its neighbors. It borders Mauritania but it isn’t quite Africa. It sits next to the natural gas-fueled giant of Algeria but isn’t like other Arab countries. Morocco spent more than seven centuries in Spain and left its mark on Spanish language, cuisine, gene pool and architecture before it, in turn, was dominated by France, which stayed for half a century. Yet Morocco is most certainly not Europe.

The Arabic spoken here is peppered with French borrowings. The country is heavily influenced by Islam, yet women walk freely in public in everything from tight skinny jeans and hair blowing in the wind, to floor length coats totally hiding the body and niqab veils totally hiding the face. Traditionally regarded as a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, the king includes in his regal titles “Commander of the Faithful,” but also used to own the country’s largest brewer.

Ahmed Benchemsi was the publisher and editor of Telquel — one of the liveliest and most daring political weekly in Morocco. After the occasional seizure of the magazine, court cases and short spells in jail, Benchemsi decided to head to Palo Alto, Calif., where he now teaches at Stanford University.

Mark him down as one of the skeptics as well.

“You know what, you can’t have the cake and eat it … Either the central political player is elected and accountable or he’s not,” he said. “The king is not elected and he’s not accountable. So he should become a symbolic ruler and Moroccans are ready to respect him and even to give him veneration and all that stuff, no problem.”

Meanwhile, whether you give credence to the consitutional referendum or not, there is a new constitution, and there was a new election. With more than three dozen parties participating, the winner took just 25 percent of the vote, and not even half the eligible voters cast ballots. The new governing party in Morocco is the Islamist Justice and Development Party, or PJD.

Bassima el Haqqawi is a leader of the women’s group inside the party, and acts as a liaison to PJD affiliates in other Muslim countries. She has a seat in the new Parliament, and, she says, confidence in the new system. For one thing, the king followed through on his promise to chose the leader of the top vote-getting party as prime minister.

“It is the people who have power now, which is reflected in their choice of the government,” she said. “The king as well has been considerate of people’s will and got engaged in this democratic process by accepting the results and naming the head of the ruling party as the president of the government … the king could have named another person from the same party.”

However, when you combine low turnout, a full fifth of the ballots cast with no markings, and a “winning” party with a quarter of the vote, political scientist Mohammed Darif said his country’s new government is far from ready to take more power from the king.

“For changing to a parliamentary monarchy, two prerequisite conditions should be had. First, there should be credible and strong political parties, an electoral body supported by civil society and responsible for its choices; and this is very crucial,” he said. “Now everyone knows that we have weak and non-credible parties; and our electoral body needs to become really responsible for its choices.”

It is impossible to know whether the king’s political moves are just a smoke screen meant to tamp down domestic dissent and look good to Morocco’s friends in Europe and North America. The political analysts inside the country who say the king hasn’t given up much authority are undoubtedly right. But Moroccans aren’t attracted by what they see going on in other Arab countries on Al-Jazeera. The images from Syria, Egypt and Libya may be shocking enough to buy enough time for Morocco to decide just how free, and how democratic a country it wants to become.

*Editor’s note: A previous version of this story reported Morocco’s king currently owns vineyards, and stated France occupied the country for 100 years. Upon further research, both items have been corrected and clarified in the updated text. *