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Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones

Is reform possible in the Arab world? Is there, that is, a fourth path beyond revolution, repression, and the wholesale bribery deployed by the wealthy Gulf states? If peaceful evolution is possible anywhere, it is in Morocco. And we won’t have to wait more than a week or two for the first clues about which way Morocco will go.

The Arab Spring reached Morocco on Feb. 20, when over 100,000 demonstrators, mostly educated young people, took to the streets in 53 cities to demand change. King Mohammed VI, 47, one of the generation of allegedly progressive young rulers in the region, allowed the protests to unfold unimpeded. The demonstrations continued, and on March 9 the king took the extraordinary step of appearing on television to promise constitutional reforms which, if actually implemented, would place real restraints on his powers.

This is precisely how those of us who wrote in years past about democratization in the Arab World imagined that change would one day come: pressure from below — and outside — would lead to reform from above. That was the premise behind President George W. Bush’s "Freedom Agenda," and calls for the United States and other Western states to support indigenous reform movements in the region. But that premise turned out to be wrong. Leaders like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and King Hamad bin Khalifa in Bahrain recognized that real reform jeopardized their rule; they were prepared to open the valves just wide enough to let off steam, and then jam them shut the moment citizens began to imagine that they could actually shape their own destiny.

And that, in turn, is why the choices in the Middle East have dwindled to revolution, repression, and bribery. Since no leader has been prepared to even begin to go down a path that could lead to his downfall, citizens have realized that real reform requires regime change. They’ve succeeded in Egypt and Tunisia; been checked, so far, by overwhelming violence in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain; and remained silent in Saudi Arabia. Only in Jordan and Morocco, both ruled by new generation monarchs, has there been meaningful hope for liberalization. And Jordan’s King Abdullah has been far vaguer about the path of change than has Mohammed VI.

In his March 9 speech, the king promised "comprehensive reforms." The prime minister would henceforth be chosen by the winning party, not by the palace. The parliament would gain "new powers that enable it to discharge its representative, legislative, and regulatory mission." The judiciary, currently run by the Judicial Supreme Council under the control of the king, would be granted "the status of an independent power." New mechanisms would be established to strengthen political parties, now widely deemed moribund. And the king announced that he was impaneling a committee of legal scholars to produce a draft constitution not by some remote future date, but by June.

The king’s speech provoked every possible degree of optimism and pessimism from Moroccans and Morocco experts. Tahar ben Jelloun, the country’s leading novelist, told me that he viewed the speech as "historic — the first time the monarchy has laid out a vision of reform." If the changes the king proposed are in fact adopted, ben Jelloun says, Morocco’s next elections will be "totally free," and will lead to the appointment of a prime minister with the same broad powers enjoyed by the prime minister of France (a less-than-encouraging analogy, given the way President Nicolas Sarkozy runs roughshod over his own government).

Of course, what was once touted as the new generation in the Arab world, whether the young kings of Jordan and Morocco or second-generation autocrats like Bashar al-Assad of Syria, have almost always disappointed the hopes they’ve raised. Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, says, "Mohammed has promised substantive reforms time and again, and has always portrayed himself as a modernizing reformer and democratizer. But he’s never lived up to that; it’s been largely cosmetic." Hamid sees the king’s speech as more of the same.

Early reports on the draft constitutional reforms suggest that they will both empower the prime minister and curtail the king’s sacred status. The new dispensation may make meaningful inroads on King Mohammed’s absolute powers without achieving real democracy. As Lahcen Achy, a scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, recently wrote, "the changes will not lead to a parliamentary constitution in Morocco, but they will introduce the separation of powers and reduce the king’s all-powerful role in government."

This is precisely the kind of incremental change-from-above that democracy promoters long hoped for. But Western reformers are no longer the only outside players in this game. Saudi Arabia, which feels profoundly threatened by the forces unleashed by the Arab Spring, has increasingly become a regional autocracy promoter, for example using its dominant position in the Gulf Cooperation Council to dispatch troops to Bahrain to bolster a fellow monarch beset by popular revolt. And last month, the GCC extended membership invitations to Jordan and Morocco, countries that are not in the Gulf and do not, like the other members, have oil. Rather, like Bahrain, they are Sunni monarchies wobbling before mass protest. The Saudis apparently hope to turn the GCC into a club of kings, much as Bourbon France, Russia, and Austria formed the Holy Alliance early in the 19th century to counteract the spread of democracy in the Americas and Europe.

Above all, the Saudis worry about the growing influence of Shiite Iran. But they fear democracy both because it could destabilize Sunni rulers in the region and because it undermines their own legitimacy. "A peaceful democratic transition in Morocco," as Anouar Boukhars, a Morocco scholar at McDaniel College in Maryland, recently wrote, would "provide a powerful model that the monarchies of the Gulf might potentially be forced to follow."

It’s not clear how, when, or under what circumstances Morocco would join the GCC, which has no formal accession policy. But the fact is that Morocco needs Saudi and Gulf money. The rising cost of food and fuel, which helped stoke the protests across the region, has forced Morocco to increase subsidies and raise wages, increasing the deficit and undermining an already weak economy. Morocco is engaged in a rivalry with Algeria — which does have oil — over the vast desert hinterland of Western Sahara, which it insists on retaining as a colony despite the lack of legitimate historical or cultural ties. Saudi Arabia has helped finance Morocco’s military purchases and its investment in the region. The GCC invitation can thus be understood as an offer to deepen ties in exchange for increased Saudi influence over Morocco’s foreign and perhaps also domestic policies.

That does not mean that the GCC will be sending troops into Morocco to quell protests, or even that the Saudis will warn the king against handing off real powers to a prime minister. But they might lean on their fellow monarch to slow-walk his planned reforms — and Mohammed, or more conservative forces around him, might be happy enough to have the pretext to do so. In short, hopes for genuine reform in Morocco are jeopardized not only by the king’s own ambivalence but by pressures from the outside.

The West does not have to merely watch this drama unfold. At the recent G8 meeting in Deauville, as I noted in my column last week, the leaders of the major industrial nations, along with the heads of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, offered a package of debt relief, aid, trade, and investment to Arab countries. Much of this assistance is to be directed to Egypt and Tunisia, the two countries where protest led to political revolution (though the Saudis themselves have offered $4 million to Egypt). The goal of all this assistance is to encourage and sustain the movement towards democracy. Evolutionary movement to this end should count as well. If the new constitution really does put Morocco on the path to democracy, then the country should be included in that most-favored club — so long as the king actually implements the changes he’s sponsored.