The Middle East Channel

A Moroccan monarchical exception?

A Moroccan monarchical exception?

Almost two years into the so-called "Arab spring," the record of revolutionary success is mixed. Whereas Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are engaged in their own post-revolutionary institutional experiments, Syria has descended into civil war, in a sure sign that the outcome will irrevocably undermine the Assad regime. In the midst of all of the revolutionary tumult, monarchical regimes, in the Gulf, Jordan, and Morocco, have for the most part withstood the tempest of the protests. This imposes imminent theoretical and empirical questions about the variation in the outcome of the Arab revolt.

So far, monarchies have been the exception and far from engaging in semantic exercises, this regime-type is indeed an empirical reality pointing to what I call an "advantage" that they possess over republican states in the Middle East and North Africa. After all, the Arab authoritarian states all used, in one way or another, similar strategies from the same menu of autocratic manipulation to deal with their respective uprisings.

The Maghreb’s only monarchy in Morocco proved more resilient than many had expected, and has largely outlasted and outmaneuvered the beleaguered February 20 movement. In addition to institutional manipulation and vastly cosmetic changes, monarchies possess an advantage over republican authoritarian states. In fact, while many may speak of a crisis of authoritarianism, we can perhaps identify a "republican" authoritarian crisis and a monarchical advantage.

This advantage is traced back to the colonial period when European colonial masters established most of the republican states arbitrarily. Monarchies like Morocco, on the other hand, feature a different state-regime relationship as remnants of political orders pre-existed the edifice of the modern state constructed by either French or British colonialism. Current regimes have managed to surround existing regime coalitions with modern states as a byproduct of colonial legacies, as is the case in Jordan and the Gulf states.

This "advantage" in its religious and traditional guise, and the resulting manipulation of its symbols of power facilitates the authoritarian rule in most of Arab monarchies. In Jordan, the mixture of tribal manipulation, and courting of the Hashemite lineage of the monarchy have been crucial in facilitating the regime’s grip on power. In Gulf sheikhdoms, tribal and clan relationships sustain the authority of oil-rich monarchs, in addition to the distribution of patronage. In Morocco, the French colonial project strengthened monarchical rule as it subdued former lawless territories outside the dominance of the monarch to a centralized modern state that grew more autocratic after independence in 1956.

Regime stability in Morocco has relied on the interplay between symbolic, historical, and coercive means subsumed under the authority of the Makhzen apparatus of the state. The state in Morocco is in many ways an authority in which two systems, rational-temporal and symbolic-religious, coexist in the face of modern challenges to regime stability. The modern Makhzen, initially buttressed by French colonial state modernization has of course adapted new constitutional and administrative structures while retaining its historical, symbolic rigor and authority. In fact, what the French created was a giant leviathan with its tentacles in the spiritual/traditional and the modern/temporal realms of power.

The duality of the monarchy as a modern and traditional authority thus created through colonial rule is difficult to challenge by any other opposition discourse and has made for a robust edifice for authoritarian rule based on patronage and specific institutionalized rituals of powers. The modern manifestations of old traditions of power create a culture of dissonance conducive to monarchical supremacy. The monarch’s spiritual hegemony in turn frustrates the opposition’s attempts to challenge the legitimacy of the regime.

The symbolic, traditional, tribal, or religious capital associated with monarchical regimes subsumes all other features of authoritarian rule. Morocco’s strategy toward the February 20 movement is instructive in this case. Relying on his socio-cultural capital, King Mohammed VI managed to slow the momentum of the February 20 protest movement, by offering a semblance of reforms. Thus in a nationally televised speech, the king pledged constitutional and political reforms. He stated his "firm commitment to giving a strong impetus to the dynamic and deep reforms … taking place." Days later, Mohammed VI established a blue ribbon royal commission entrusted with the task of proposing a new constitution which was unveiled and endorsed by the monarch in June 2011. The new constitution, hailed as a milestone in the process of democratic reforms in Morocco, was met with wider criticism from the vastly outmatched opposition and the February 20 movement.

The new constitution was later approved, after the royal endorsement, in a national referendum by an overwhelming majority of 98 percent of the votes. The new constitution consecrated the king’s religious capital, despite removal of any references to the sacredness of the personality of the king. The sovereign is still inviolable as "king, commander of the faithful (amir al-mu’minin)" and "head of state, and symbol of national unity." Despite the constitutional changes, the monarchy holds significant clout in the political system with control over the military and economy, and retains vast discretionary powers. The impacts of the February 20 protest movement of have been limited due to the colossal popular support for the monarchy in Moroccan society stemming from its tremendous religious and traditional capital.

Monarchical control over the realm of the religious and traditional is manifested through the use of regime rituals of power, which have been codified and institutionalized in the body of law, constitution, and political system in Morocco. The coup de grace for the protest movement was the legislative elections of November 2011, which saw the plurality victory of the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) and the appointment of its head Abdelilah Benkirane as prime minister. Many were hopeful that the electoral victory of the former opposition and Islamist party would be a prelude to meaningful political and economic reforms. Such hopes were quickly dashed as the work of the government continues to be undermined by the palace’s own shadow government of personal advisors.

Thus, Morocco’s monarchical regime is confident these days. In fact, it is so confident that it has launched the last phase of its strategy toward the February 20 movement. Instead of placating the protests, recent demonstrations witnessed outright state oppression as scores of protesters were injured while lamenting the increasingly dire socio-economic conditions. The poverty rate exceeds 20 percent, and unemployment is around 30 percent among people under 34 years old. The situation has worsened due to this year’s chronic drought, a drop in tourism, and the economic recession in Europe (Morocco’s leading trade partner). The protests also came amidst the governing JDP’s controversial decision to launch fiscal reforms of the state’s subsidy system. Benkirane’s government also unveiled a 20 percent increase in fuel prices, which angered many in the streets, already reeling from high levels of inflation and increased cost of living.

Whether it is a state of exceptionalism, an anomaly, or a temporary advantage, Morocco’s monarchy seems to have so far carefully navigated the first salvo of the Arab street unrest. In addition to institutional, and socio-economic manipulations, Morocco’s king and other monarchies possess a traditional, tribal, or religious advantage that may well have made the difference in their survival thus far. In the case of Morocco, as long as opposition forces are unable to demystify the monarchy of its religious hegemony, real progress will always remain elusive. At the same time, monarchy’s dual policy of promoting fictitious reforms, while at the same time oppressing individual liberties, and plundering the state’s economic resources, could gradually, and over the long term, erode its regime "advantage" especially as it is increasingly seen as an agent of paralysis.

Mohamed Daadaoui is associate professor of political science at Oklahoma City University.

This piece is a contribution to a multipart MEC symposium on the resilience of Arab monarchy.