Morocco’s Moderate Revolution

Unlike their Arab brothers and sisters in Tunisia and Egypt, Moroccan protesters are asking for modest amounts of change. For now.


When I was living in Morocco in 2007, I often noticed that foreign journalists were completely confounded by the country. And understandably so, because, depending on whom they talked to, the country was either on the verge of full democratization or about to have a Russian-style revolution. Elections were going to bring about an Islamist tsunami or the leftist coalition would surprise everyone by its strong showing. The recent family law reforms had brought in real change for women or it did not matter because the judges were not applying the new law anyway. The Equity and Reconciliation commission was proof that the infamous Years of Lead — a period during the 1960s to 1980s characterized by widespread extralegal detentions and torture — were being reckoned with or that the victims of abuse had been unwittingly co-opted by a wily government. The Francophone elite was fleecing the country or it was the country’s only chance of moving forward in an era of globalization. The king’s right-hand man had quit his post and run for a parliamentary seat because he had fallen out of favor in the palace or he had quit because he was going to be appointed prime minister.

The truth was, nobody knew.

Nobody could know, because no one who wanted to write these overview pieces was prepared for the simple truth, which is that it is not possible to summarize the incredible complexity of Morocco, a country of 31 million, in just one article. And yet they tried, and the result was usually an article that reiterated what was by then a well-established narrative: Morocco is a country "where modernity collides with religious traditions," where "tensions between feminists and conservatives" remain high, where national challenges include "poverty, illiteracy and corruption," but where the "reform-minded king" was working to keep it a "liberal beacon" in the Arab world. Women — or, more accurately, their clothing choices — always merited a mention. They wore "long, flowing headscarves" or they "would not look out of place in New York or Paris," and it was usually clear which ones had earned the writer’s sympathies. These sentence fragments could be rearranged in any number of ways, like magnetic pieces on a refrigerator door, to produce newspaper or magazine articles about Morocco. And in all the time I’ve spent reading them, they made about as much sense to me as refrigerator poetry.

Now it is four years later, and the country is still confounding foreign analysts. The tide of change that has swept across the region — bringing down Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak — has begun to affect Morocco. Simultaneous marches took place in nearly all regions of the kingdom on Feb. 20, modeled on protests that have taken place elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East. Early estimates put the number of protesters at 37,000. But, in contrast with protesters in other countries, the Moroccans who started the Feb. 20 movement for change have not called for the king’s overthrow. Instead, their focus has been on meaningful constitutional reform, which limits the powers of the king and affirms the independence of the legislative, judiciary, and executive branches. And, despite looting incidents that took place after the protests, the demonstrations throughout the country seem to have been generally peaceful and free of violent rhetoric.

There are three reasons why the movement for change is focusing on a parliamentary monarchy rather than a republic. One is that the institution of the monarchy is well established: Morocco has had native, hereditary rulers, of one sort or another, for nearly 1,200 years. Even when the French colonized the country, Muhammad V, then sultan of Morocco and grandfather of the present monarch, managed to hold on to his throne and, after a brief period of exile, return as a liberator. Since the era of independence, the monarchy has only consolidated more power in its hands. The constitution adopted in 1962, for instance, gave the king the power to act as head of state, appointing and dismissing government ministers at his discretion.

The second reason for these evolutionary — rather than revolutionary — demands is that King Muhammad, at 47, is relatively young. He has been in power for 12 years, which, in comparison with long-serving autocrats like Mubarak or Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, makes him seem like a newcomer. Furthermore, he and his wife often grace the pages of society magazines and present, both to the country and to the outside world, a glamorous image that stands in sharp contrast to the gloomy one adopted by his father, King Hassan.

But the most important reason is that, over the last 12 years, King Muhammad has successfully co-opted many positive forces for change in Morocco. The family law reform, for instance, which was proposed by feminist activists, had been languishing in parliament for years until he threw his support behind it. The Equity and Reconciliation commission, established in 2004 to document thousands of cases of torture and abuse during the Years of Lead gave him an opportunity to distance himself from his father’s brutal reign. And he regularly offers financial support, through one of his numerous charitable foundations, to civil-society projects that have acquired prominence and popularity, thus getting credit for some of their achievements. As a result, Moroccans often blame the rampant corruption in all state institutions on the cabinet, even though each and every member of it is appointed by and accountable to the king.

Still, many Moroccans are fully aware that the king’s absolute power — as stipulated in the current constitution — has resulted in an unbalanced model of governance. Parliament’s role is mainly to rubber-stamp royal decrees. Judges routinely hand down prison sentences against independent journalists who dare to even mildly criticize the king. WikiLeaks cables have shown that the Omnium Nord-Africain, a private financial and industrial group in which the king holds a large stake, is involved in nearly every major real estate project in Morocco. And, as a January 2005 cover story by Driss Ksikes and Khalid Trikti in Tel Quel magazine revealed, King Muhammad costs the Moroccan taxpayer $270 million per year, which is more than the queen of England costs the British taxpayer.

All this is why the Feb. 20 movement has made it clear that it wants a king who reigns, but does not rule. The reaction to these demands has been quite strong. Although the king remained silent, government ministers and their proxies tried to discredit the protesters by calling them foreign agents. (This trick has been used in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and now Libya.) The day before the protests, the official news agency of Morocco released a statement saying that they had been canceled — an attempt to limit turnout.

Still, all the marches took place as scheduled, and the Feb. 20 protesters stayed on message: They want an evolution to a parliamentary monarchy. But, as we have seen in Bahrain, this does not mean that they will not ask for something more tomorrow –something more revolutionary. It is patently clear, based on the steadfastness of the protesters and the regime’s virulent campaign against them, that both sides know this. Already, Moroccans of all walks of life are choosing between these two camps. It is now up to the king to make clear where he stands: change or status quo.

But, in a speech given Monday to announce his new Economic and Social Council, the king made no reference to the Feb. 20 movement or to the protests. Instead, he highlighted the need to "revamp the economy, boost competitiveness, promote productive investment, and encourage public involvement." He also stressed his desire to "forge ahead with the Moroccan model" in which "new reforms will shore up the current process, thus reflecting the deep, mutual understanding and cohesion between the throne and the loyal Moroccan people." Tellingly, however, the words "parliamentary monarchy" did not pass his lips.

Laila Lalami, the author of Secret Son, is associate professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside.