Morocco's mysterious young monarch is promising a "third path" between democracy and tyranny. Is it a model for the Arab world -- or a myth?
When I was in Morocco this summer, I heard a great deal about “Moroccan exceptionalism.” Historian Abdallah Laroui has described Morocco as “an island” cut off from its neighbors by sea, sand, and mountains, making it subject to its own laws of development. For the last four centuries, Morocco has been ruled by the Alaoui dynasty, which claims direct descent from the Prophet Mohammed. Moroccans, it is said, revere the monarchy as an almost divine institution, and they expect the current Alaoui king, Mohammed VI, to be an active, engaged monarch, to lead the country and serve as the arbiter among its diverse interests, classes, tribes, and regions. The king, in turn, wants to rule, but not dominate, I was told, which is why he agreed last year to promulgate a new constitution sharply limiting his powers. Morocco, in short, isn’t like Tunisia or Egypt or Libya or the other countries turned upside down and inside out by the Arab Spring. It has, instead, embarked on “a third path of reform with stability,” as Mustapha El Khalfi, the government’s spokesman and its communications minister, told me.
Has it? Nearly everywhere else in the Arab world since the upheaval began in the last days of 2010, power has been seized after a traumatic convulsion, or the ruler has stood his ground by crushing a popular opposition. Absolute rulers, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, do not normally surrender their power without a fight. So Morocco’s “third path” would constitute a rare, and precious, form of incremental democratization. If it worked.
It’s true that the country has not only a new constitution but a new prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, and a new government, which is feeling its way, albeit very haltingly, toward a new modus operandi with the king. No one really knows, however, whether the king and his palace aides are prepared to let the new government succeed or whether the mild Islamists of the ruling Party of Justice and Development are prepared to challenge entrenched royal prerogative.
One morning I took myself on a tour of the 19th-century royal palace complex in the capital city of Rabat. Visitors cannot penetrate the interior. (Moroccans cannot even linger within the outer walls.) As I was walking along the facade past a great tiled doorway, a security official emerged to say, “You cannot walk any farther.” I smiled and said that I didn’t see a line. “No,” he said gravely, “there is no line.” That is today’s Morocco: There are still limits, and you may not know until you’ve transgressed them.
ON MARCH 9, 2011, King Mohammed VI delivered an extraordinary televised address to the Moroccan people. Moroccans are quite accustomed to seeing their king on TV because the lead item on the news almost every evening is the king, in djellaba and fez, inaugurating a new maternity hospital, or mosque, or anti-poverty initiative. The King Mohammed shown incessantly to Moroccans is at once deeply humble and all powerful. That March evening, however, the high artifice of the king’s ceremonial appearances gave way to something startlingly real. For two weeks, protests had spread to the streets of every major city and town of Morocco.
Until then, the king’s nearly 12-year reign had been remarkably placid. He had never before conceded to the force of events, much less events in the street. And now, plainly, he was. Seated at a desk before the elaborate throne in his Rabat palace, solemnly dressed in a gray suit and flanked by his son and brother, the king promised “a new charter between the throne and the people.” The new constitution he proposed would guarantee “rule of law,” an independent judiciary, and an enhanced role for the prime minister. It would dramatically reduce the king’s power and increase that of the elected government. The next day, the king appointed an 18-member constitutional commission to put his vision into effect.
Until that moment, King Mohammed VI had been regarded as one of the new-generation leaders of the Middle East, but not a particularly bold or distinguished one. He had assumed the throne at age 35 upon the 1999 death of his father, King Hassan II, and he had largely put an end to the jailing and torture of political opponents that his father had practiced almost as a matter of habit. But he had come to be seen as a complacent steward of the status quo. A 2009 Brookings Institution report on the king’s 10th anniversary described an atmosphere of “political stagnation.” Absent major reforms, it concluded, “the Morocco of King Mohammed VI will soon come to resemble nothing so much as a blast from the past.”
While the TV news showed a dedicated young monarch mingling with ordinary citizens and vowing reform in their name — “the king of the poor,” as he was known — the country’s GDP per capita put it well behind Tunisia and Jordan, and barely ahead of Egypt. The adult literacy rate was still an abysmal 56 percent in 2010, and far lower for women. Unemployment was so endemic among the young that close to 90 percent of young women and 40 percent of young men who were not in school were either unemployed or out of the labor force, according to the World Bank. Outsiders saw Morocco as a folkloric paradise with a beguiling history and charming restaurants; for most citizens it was a dead end.
So it was hardly surprising that the mass protests that rocked the Arab world lit a spark in Morocco. On Feb. 20, 2011, young people powered by social media organized simultaneous demonstrations in dozens of cities and towns. Islamists, the most organized force in Morocco as elsewhere in the region, brought tens of thousands of supporters into the streets. In Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, rulers had sent soldiers, police, and hired thugs to beat protesters into submission. But King Mohammed VI did not. Security officials largely permitted the demonstrations to proceed, though in the ensuing days large numbers of protesters were arrested.
And then the king made his speech. Without even alluding to the mass protests, he insisted he had made the dramatic gesture merely to “ensure the efficiency of the regionalization process” by which Morocco would be offering more authority to the disputed territory of Western Sahara and other regions. Few Moroccans believed that, but the national shock over the king’s concessions soon deflated the protests. Although the February 20 movement quickly condemned the constitution-writing plan as an exercise in top-down, unilateralist reform, the overwhelmingly loyal media welcomed it as a great step forward. The new constitution was released June 17 and submitted to a referendum two weeks later, scarcely time for opponents to organize. The measure passed with 98.5 percent approval and a 72 percent turnout — preposterously unlikely figures that the palace cited to reaffirm its role as both the guide and the instrument of popular will. And though many constitutional experts and Middle East scholars criticized the new constitution, the king won credit not only at home but in Western capitals. Two weeks after the March 9 speech, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Morocco’s foreign minister, and earlier this year the countries agreed to establish a “U.S.-Morocco Strategic Dialogue.” When it was formally initiated in September, Clinton said, “In many ways, the United States looks to Morocco to be a leader and a model,” specifically crediting King Mohammed VI for the reforms he had undertaken. The king’s legitimacy, as well as the speed and substance of his response, had steered Morocco around the shoals that broke regimes elsewhere in the region. He had produced the reform he wanted by a process he controlled. Or so it seemed.
THE KING OF MOROCCO, by virtue of his family’s legacy, occupies a station between the human and the divine. The Alaouites’ alleged descent from the Prophet Mohammed gives to their pronouncements something of the infallibility enjoyed by the pope. Even today, they style themselves “commander of the faithful,” reigning over both the spiritual and secular lives of their subjects like the absolutist European monarchs of the Middle Ages. “The king’s person is inviolable and sacred,” said the old constitution that the current king inherited from his father.
King Mohammed VI is a very conscious custodian of this inherited magic. He has never held a news conference or granted an interview to a Moroccan journalist, and he has spoken only a handful of times to reporters from abroad. His spokesman quit last December, and the palace has not hired a new one. He is, like a deity, both ubiquitous and remote. Every year, in late July or early August, he celebrates his accession to the throne with the ritual known as bay’a, in which as many as 5,000 leading subjects of the realm, including government ministers, prostrate themselves before the king and his horse, shouting three times, “Our Lord bestows his blessing on you!” The king, dressed in a cream-colored, hooded djellaba, does not dismount, for his feet — and his feet alone — will not touch the ground.
What is one to make of this opaque and ceremonial figure? In talking to those who know him, I had the impression that ascribing normal human attributes to the king might be deemed a form of lèse-majesté. “He is someone incapable of doing bad,” says Noureddine Ayouch, an ad man who has worked with the king on a variety of charitable projects. “He talks to the poor in a very natural way. Politics don’t interest him; what interests him is social development, the economy.” The king lives for his people, I was often told. Despite his stupendous wealth he has no interest in money. Despite the ritual prostrations of the bay’a, he is an egalitarian who regards signs of obeisance with distaste. “Watch him on television,” I was told. “He snatches his hand away when someone tries to perform the baise-main” — the kissing of the hand.
Sidi Mohammed, as he was known as a boy, did not have an idyllic childhood. King Hassan II, who ascended the throne in 1961 and ruled for 38 years, was a stern, even brutal figure. The current king’s cousin Moulay Hicham, who was brought up with him, told me, “We were raised the Spartan way. There was no room for showing emotion; I could not cry over the coffin of my own father. Friendship was not something to be enjoyed; you should look for loyalty. There’s no place for a private life; everything is ceremonial and functional.” King Hassan II administered beatings for even minute transgressions. Sent to Paris at age 10 for the funeral of President Georges Pompidou, the young prince was said to be “as grave as a pope.” He studied briefly in Brussels, where he acquired a more flamboyant reputation. As king, the weekly TelQuel has carried extensive accounts of his jet-ski outings, fleet of expensive cars, ski chalet in Courchevel, long vacations on the royal yacht, and hobnobbing with rock stars like Jay-Z and Johnny Hallyday.
Among the king’s critics, few of whom actually know him, it is frequently said that the punishing regimen he endured at his father’s hands broke, rather than toughened, him. “He is complexé,” says Bishr Bennani, a prominent publisher and palace critic. “He does not have the inner fiber to rule.” The most damning judgment may have come from King Hassan II himself, who at the very end of his life reportedly told French journalist Éric Laurent, one of the authors of Le Roi Prédateur, a critical account of the current king’s tenure published in France this past spring, that he had not decided whether he would appoint Mohammed as his successor. King Hassan II, who seems to have enjoyed demonstrating to the author his utter mastery of Morocco, then allegedly explained this shocking admission with a phrase now known all over Morocco: “I could never wish that this country be the victim of a chromosomal error.”
I knew that it was very unlikely that I would get to meet the king, but I hoped at least to speak to his inner circle. This proved to be virtually impossible. The one intimate with whom I spoke begged me not to use his name. I asked Karim Medrek, spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Ministry, whether he could help arrange an interview with Fouad Ali El Himma, a childhood friend of the king who stands at the very heart of the makhzen, as the network of power and privilege traditionally surrounding the king is known. He could not; nor could he furnish Himma’s office phone number. Nor could the communications minister. Himma occupied a realm not only separate from theirs, but far above it.
Medrek, who was generally very helpful, flared up when I said that I needed to penetrate the makhzen. “What do you think this word means?” he said. (The word refers to the warehouse in which the king’s tax revenue was traditionally received.) It was, Medrek told me, an anachronism. “There is nothing which goes on behind the walls. There is no secret code which I and others do not know. We have a government. We have a prime minister.” Yes, but who decides? Is it Medrek’s boss, Foreign Minister Saad dine El Otmani, who makes foreign policy; or the “minister delegate,” appointed by the palace; or the king’s foreign-policy advisor; or the king? There were lines, but they were not visible
KING HASSAN II WAS a ruler from the pages of The Prince, a tyrant who governed through fear rather than love, a brilliant manipulator who stayed one step ahead of his enemies and survived two coup attempts. During the 1960s and 1970s, King Hassan II responded to threats to his regime, from both Islamists and left-wing activists, by imprisoning thousands of his opponents; others simply disappeared. This era is now known in Morocco as the années de plomb — the years of lead. Nevertheless, in the early 1990s the king allowed “opposition” parties to take power, released political prisoners, and permitted limited freedom of speech and the press. The conventional explanation for this reversal is that King Hassan II wanted to hand a new Morocco to his son and heir, though his deathbed remarks, if they are to be trusted, cast grave doubt on that theory. Perhaps, having shattered the opposition, he realized he could afford to loosen the clamps.
Whether or not he wanted to rule, King Mohammed VI plainly did not want to do so as his father had. “The day after he became king,” says Abdellatif Bendahane, a Foreign Ministry official with strong ties to the palace, “he said, ‘Open the doors and windows. Let the people breathe.'” Indeed, soon after ascending the throne in 1999, the young monarch fired or reassigned King Hassan II’s most odious courtiers. The change in tone did not, however, lead to substantive reforms for a number of years. Then, in 2003, the king promulgated a new Family Code establishing more rights for women (though preserving the Islamic principle that men can have up to four wives). The following year he established the Equity and Reconciliation Commission to acknowledge the gross abuses of the années de plomb and to ensure that they would not be repeated.
In the retrospective history of King Mohammed VI recounted by advocates of the “third path,” the king long intended to rewrite the Moroccan constitution (even if February 20 changed the “cadence” of reform, as Medrek delicately puts it). In fact, however, there is virtually no evidence that is so. Like other new-generation autocrats in the region, he was a modernizer, overseeing improvements in literacy and health care and promoting his country’s image as a good place to do business. But he was no Western liberal. The Moroccan people, he told Le Figaro in 2001, wanted a “strong, democratic, and executive monarchy,” which sounds like a contradiction in terms. And he paid no more heed to Morocco’s Socialist government than his father had. When the government collapsed in 2002, he appointed as prime minister a palace technocrat with no party affiliation. After the traditionally royalist Istiqlal Party gained a majority in 2007, the king appointed as prime minister a party leader, Abbas El Fassi, who was, as Hamid Barrada, a leading journalist, puts it, “an ectoplasm” — a blob. (And Barrada is a fan of the king.) Fassi famously declared, “I will apply His Majesty’s guidance to the letter.”
The problem with rule-by-ectoplasm was that it made the king’s alleged commitment to political pluralism look like a dumb show. The people were not fooled. According to an official count that was probably wildly exaggerated, 37 percent of voters had turned out for the 2007 election. King Hassan II had been perfectly comfortable as the country’s puppet-master; his son was not. What’s more, the only party with a serious following was the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD), which the palace feared. In 2008, Himma, the king’s old friend and confidant, established the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), whose very name conjured up the king’s conflicting impulses.
The PAM quickly attracted a mixture of palace loyalists and party hacks, doing well enough in the 2009 local elections that it seemed poised to gain a parliamentary majority two years later and thus place Morocco’s government in the hands of a party formally independent but in fact fully answerable to the palace. Here was a far more elegant solution to the problem of democracy than anything King Hassan II had ever dreamed of. And then the Arab Spring rudely upset the king’s plan.
Protesters who were unwilling to target the king turned instead on Himma, a symbol of the privileged classes exploiting their proximity to royal power. In the November 2011 elections, the PJD won a plurality, followed by spoiled ballots, two other parties, and then the PAM. (Some claim that spoiled ballots came in first.) Himma resigned his position and entered the palace as an advisor to the king.
Democracy, like all other good things in Morocco, would have to come directly from the king. The palace, not the government, appointed the 18 members of the constitutional commission. All were incremental reformers committed to maintaining the monarchy’s control over religion and the Army and to preserving its role as the country’s supreme arbiter. Some, however, were also leftists who over the years had made their peace with the palace and believed, like the king, that an “executive,” if less active, monarchy could be squared with democracy. The document they produced — in barely three months — attempted to enshrine that principle.
Even the king’s sharpest critics generally admired the preamble of the new constitution, which states that the country has been enriched by “African, Andalusian, Hebraic and Mediterranean” influences; describes Morocco’s religious values as “openness, moderation, tolerance and dialogue”; and affirms the country’s attachment to “human rights as they have been universally recognized.” The 22 articles on “liberties and fundamental rights” include a stipulation that “arbitrary or secret detention and forced disappearance are crimes of the highest order” and guarantee a wide range of political and social rights.
The debate over the Moroccan constitution revolves around which powers the king retains. The king’s person is no longer described as “sacred,” but only as “inviolable” — a distinction without a difference to some, but to others the first chink in the king’s semi-divine status. The king remains commander of the faithful and continues to chair the Council of Ulema, which controls fatwas and oversees the content of sermons at Friday prayers — a provision that many secular liberals view as a crucial safeguard against Islamic fundamentalism. The king also chairs the Supreme Council of the Judiciary, a new National Security Council, and the Council of Ministers, which must approve all legislation.
Critics like Ahmed Benchemsi, the former editor of TelQuel, who left the country after his brave reporting came under intense pressure, argue that these formal positions ensure that the king can veto anything he doesn’t like, making the whole process no more than a “smokescreen” to hide the palace’s domination of Moroccan affairs. On the other hand, Abdesselam Aboudrar, president of the government’s anti-corruption commission, points out that while “the previous constitution laid out the prerogatives of others, and everything else was left to the king,” this one does the opposite: The king has a prescribed domain, and the rest belongs to the government. In that sense, the new constitution offers a form of checks and balances. The king must appoint a prime minister from the winning party, though he could choose an ectoplasm should he be so inclined. Much remains ambiguous: The king retains the power of dahir, or decree, but only, it seems, in reserved domains like religion or the military. (Others read the text as giving the king more latitude.) He can dissolve the government, but nowhere is it stipulated that he can fire the prime minister. “The prime minister has all the power he needs,” says Mohamed Tozy, a political scientist who served on the constitutional commission, “if he is willing to use it.”
One point on which the king’s supporters and his critics agree is that Prime Minister Benkirane’s government, conditioned by long years of conscientiously avoiding stumbling over invisible lines, has been extremely cautious. To date, the government has taken very few measures to halt Morocco’s economic slide or even to implement the broad language of the new constitution. Karim Tazi, an industrialist and palace critic, says, “Right now the prime minister and the king are only preventing each other from ruling. The king does not want to give the impression that he is still running the country, while Benkirane is uncertain of his own domain. The country is running on inertia.”
For the PJD government, as for so many Moroccans, the problem is not only the king but the king-inside-themselves. “The conflict in the head is deeply rooted over the centuries,” says Nidal Salem, a young activist who played a leading role in the February 20 demonstrations. We met at the dingy office of the Moroccan Center for Human Rights, where Salem works. She is quite sure that the opposition movement will triumph in the end but acknowledges that it may take longer than she once thought. “The regime is so ancient,” she says, “that for Moroccans it’s like God.”
KING MOHAMMED VI HAS one vulnerable point: He is very, very rich. According to Forbes, he is worth $2.5 billion, which makes him richer than Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, not to mention the emirs of Qatar and Kuwait. Moreover, the king’s wealth is reported to have grown by a factor of five since he assumed the throne. Even a loyal citizen might be inclined to believe that the king has used his power and status to squelch competition and dominate protected markets, which is precisely the master theme of Le Roi Prédateur, as well as a number of well-documented accounts in the Moroccan media. It did not exactly help matters when WikiLeaks revealed a December 2009 cable from the U.S. Consulate in Casablanca describing a conversation with a real estate developer who explained that officials at the king’s holding company, Omnium Nord Africain (ONA), “regularly coerce developers into granting beneficial rights” to the company. The cable also cites a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco lamenting “the appalling greed of those close to King Mohammed VI,” which, the cable says, “seriously undermines the good governance that the Moroccan government is working hard to promote.”
Under King Hassan II, ONA held a dominant position in Moroccan agribusiness, including the production and distribution of sugar, edible oils, milk, and yogurt. Because many of these products were subsidized by the government, Moroccan citizens were effectively paying taxes into the king’s coffers. King Mohammed VI rebranded many of the firms held by ONA as “national champions” — models of modern capitalism that would help Morocco compete in a global economy. In fact, the king’s firms did not even have to be competitive at home. For one thing, agribusiness was exempt by law from taxation, a rule that helped only the tiny fraction of farms that turned a significant profit. And who would stand up to a royal firm? Le Roi Prédateur is filled with stories of ONA using its political power to eliminate or neutralize competitors.
ONA has since been absorbed into an investment company, Société Nationale d’Investissement (SNI), in which the king holds a dominant position. One of SNI’s senior executives agreed to meet me in the company’s wood-paneled 14th-floor reception room in Casablanca. A waiter brought ice water and a pot of tea. The official explained that in July 2011 SNI had begun divesting itself of the agribusiness firms once held by ONA. The king’s critics had found the timing suspicious; I had been told that Ayouch, the king’s friend, had hurried to the palace in the midst of the February 20 demonstrations to suggest that the king sell off some of his more burdensome properties. Not at all, the executive said; SNI had decided in March 2010 to shift from directing large enterprises that often held dominant positions in their markets to making strategic investments, much as the British Crown under Queen Elizabeth has done. He gave me a copy of a news release from that time outlining the strategy. As with the constitutional reform, the protests seem to have reminded officials about such promises.
The young investment banker explained that His Majesty was making a patriotic choice. “What is the alternative?” he asked. “Our king has chosen to invest money in Morocco. Should he have invested his money in Switzerland, as other kings have done, or in a football team?” I said that he must have found it ironic, given this patriotic investment strategy, that many of the February 20 protesters had targeted the king’s wealth and had held placards criticizing the immensely wealthy Mounir Majidi, who serves both as the king’s private secretary and as the overseer of his financial empire. He nodded. “Our analysis,” he said, “is that the situation is not well understood by the public.
THERE IS AN ELEMENTAL fact about the Arab Spring that Morocco, for all its exceptionalism, may be unable to escape: What was acceptable yesterday is no longer acceptable today. Arab autocrats taught their citizens to have low expectations, but a rising generation, better educated and connected to the Internet, refuses to accept the innumerable indignities, the grim job prospects, and the rituals of obedience that their parents resigned themselves to.
It’s hard to see why Morocco should be different. Aside from its long-term economic and developmental problems, Morocco’s immediate economic prospects are not good. Europe’s recession has weakened its principal export market and has endangered its two chief sources of foreign exchange: tourism and remittances from the approximately 10 percent of Morocco’s population that lives abroad. Emigrants, especially those in Spain and Italy, may also begin to return home and swell the ranks of the unemployed. A drought last year forced the government to increase subsidies for food and fuel to $5.74 billion, almost equal to the entire amount it spent on public investments; this year’s wheat harvest is projected to drop by 40 percent, which will intensify further the pressure on the budget. State finances were so dire that the Moroccan treasury had only four months of foreign exchange until the IMF stepped in with an emergency $6.2 billion loan in August.
Morocco has, in short, the same social, economic, and demographic problems that led to mass protests elsewhere in the Arab world. Still, the king’s supporters persist in believing that February 20 was no more than a flash in the pan: The people wanted reform, and the king gave it to them. But the people who took to the streets wanted jobs, a better life, and an end to the corrupt bargains struck by members of the makhzen. And it’s unlikely that the Benkirane government will be able to deliver those things. “Moroccans believed in Benkirane,” says Salem. “But once they see that nothing concrete has changed, the movement will return.”
You have to wonder how long the protesters will continue to make a special exemption for the king. February 20 tore away the curtain of propriety that had protected the monarchy. The world of privilege that has wrapped itself around the king like so many layers of glittering nacre has now been exposed to the public. For years, the king benefited from a profound cognitive dissonance: The palace is rotten, but the monarchy is benevolent. That, as Tazi, the opposition businessman, puts it, is the “Freudian way” of dealing with criticism of the father in Morocco’s deeply paternalistic society. But the patriarchy is losing its moral force; people will no longer accept what they used to accept.
Constitutional reform, by itself, will not be enough. Morocco cannot become a democracy as long as it has both a government and a feudal court that claims not to govern and therefore is unaccountable to the public. Morocco may be exceptional, but it cannot be amphibious. Hicham, the king’s cousin who is a public advocate for a democratic Morocco from his exile in the United States, says that he has come to the unhappy conclusion that incremental reform will not succeed. “The monarchy cannot open up without blowing open,” he says. It might survive, but it would have to, as he says, “kill the makhzen.” You can have a country governed by deference and awe, or a country governed by equal citizens. There is no third way.