The Middle East Channel

Just another king’s speech?

When the famed author Paul Bowles first caught a glimpse of Morocco, he quickly became convinced it was a "magic place." The Moroccan government long ago embraced this fantasy, selling itself as a bastion of calm in a troubled region, the Arab world’s model of reform. And American policymakers bought it. In sentiments repeated regularly ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

When the famed author Paul Bowles first caught a glimpse of Morocco, he quickly became convinced it was a "magic place."

The Moroccan government long ago embraced this fantasy, selling itself as a bastion of calm in a troubled region, the Arab world’s model of reform. And American policymakers bought it. In sentiments repeated regularly by her successors, Madeleine Albright called the North African kingdom a "leader in democratic reform" — boasting that "other countries are moving in the right direction, but Morocco is showing the way."

If Morocco’s political system was our model all this time, then perhaps our standards were too low. Having the least-worst record of democratization in the region should never have been enough. Every time the U.S. government lavished praise on Morocco, we sent a message to all Arab citizens: This was the most they should ever hope for.

In fact, even in the midst of this Arab spring, there was not a lot of reason to be optimistic about the prospects for reform in Morocco. Immediately following the largest day of protests on February 20, King Mohammed VI seemed unfazed, dismissing the ambitions of the country’s youth and saying simply that he would not succumb to "demagoguery." Most assumed he would proceed largely as he has for the last decade: pay lip service to democracy, but let ambivalence rule the day — and focus instead on economic development and the cultural and religious foundations of the monarchy itself, to forestall revolt.

After all, reform in the country has been stalled for quite some time. The country’s most recent national elections in 2007 were noteworthy not for who voted, but for who abstained. Spoiled ballots reached their highest level in Moroccan history. That number should have struck even the passing observer. Over a million Moroccans took the time to stand in line at polling stations just to send a message: Their "democracy" did not live up to their standards.

A year later, in 2008, in scenes that would seem all too familiar today, young Moroccans marched against rampant unemployment and for more open governance. This took place most dramatically in Sidi Ifni, a small Moroccan port town where I once served as a Peace Corps volunteer. After protesters brought the city to a standstill, security forces initiated a wide scale crackdown. Al Jazeera’s local bureau chief was brought to court for allegedly exaggerating police abuses. His source was jailed.

The king, though popular and relatively progressive on social issues, has held complete control over the political system, with the ability to appoint prime ministers or even dissolve parliament. A local newspaper has taken to calling the head of a major political party "the king’s shadow." Indeed, it is no coincidence that the word most commonly used by Moroccans to describe the palace is makhzen, or warehouse — for the bulk of the power of the country’s major institutions has remained tightly stored within its confines.

But that was until last week, when it suddenly and astonishingly appeared that the contents of that warehouse might actually be about to be distributed, that Morocco may now finally be serious about trying to chart a different course. In a dramatic TV appearance Wednesday, March 9, the king appeared — at least at first glance — to meet nearly all the protesters’ political demands. He unveiled a series of sweeping constitutional reform proposals, including those that could potentially make way for a stronger separation of powers, more independent judiciary, and a freer, more powerful, and more democratic parliament.

Why is the king’s speech so significant? Unlike their presidential counterparts, Middle Eastern monarchs will not fall; they will more likely fade away. But, thus far, none of them have been able to show how that might conceivably happen. Debates over power sharing — over the formation of legitimate constitutional monarchies — are already unfolding in other previously unyielding monarchical regimes such as Bahrain and Jordan.

To the Moroccan king’s credit, he attempted in his address to the nation what no other leader in the region has. He committed to undertake reforms proactively — before his position was at all threatened (protests there have been far more subdued than almost anywhere else).

And unlike Ben Ali or Mubarak, Mohammed VI’s TV mea culpa was concrete, short, and to the point. His drooping eyelids and haggard appearance displayed a new regional reality: Even the seemingly safest of Arab leaders is not getting much sleep these days.

But is a single speech enough?

The king has taken a critical first step: He has signaled his openness to reform. And as the king changes, so should we. The hollow rhetoric of yesteryear from American officials will no longer suffice. (Even before the king’s speech, Undersecretary of State William Burns this month called Morocco "a model of economic, social, and political reform.") In his address, the king pledged "comprehensive" constitutional reform to "revamp state institutions," but such comprehensiveness will require more work.

Specifically, three things still need to happen for Morocco to offer a real road map to reform.

First, and most significantly, the precise role of the monarchy needs to be clarified. The loudest among the protesters in Morocco, it should be noted, have not been demanding Egypt- or Tunisia-like results; they didn’t want their head of state deposed or banished. The major calls, even from the largest illegal Islamist movement, focused instead on constitutional reform.

One Moroccan blogger joked that he would be happy simply adopting an Arabic translation of the Cambodian Constitution, the relevant section being Article 7: "The King of Cambodia shall reign but not govern."

Others have called for following the Spanish model. While the analogy isn’t perfect, it is still instructive. King Juan Carlos certainly oversaw a constitutional referendum over 30 years ago, but he had less to give up: Put simply, he never ruled Spain to the same extent as Arab monarchs do. But as Mohammed VI grapples with relegating authority, he should be reminded that even a ceremonial king can be relevant. Ceding more power to a prime minister need not mean the ultimate dissolution of the monarchy. The king of Spain, for one, remains the most popular leader in the Spanish-speaking world.

But will Morocco’s new constitutional monarchy be more constitutional or more monarchical? The proposals would certainly strengthen the role of the prime minister and the judiciary, but the speech included few specifics about the governing responsibilities the king will maintain. He will give up some control, in sum, but the question that remains is how much.

The iconography told one story. Perched confidently and diminutively beside the king on Wednesday night was the heir to the throne: his 7-year-old son, Moulay Hassan (named after his grandfather, King Hassan II), in a matching black suit, white handkerchief, and tie bar. The picture broadcast on national TV sent an obvious message: The monarchy isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Young Moulay Hassan will one day be known as King Hassan III.

But the king’s words also marked the potential birth of a strong executive to reign in the monarchy. The next prime minister, the king said, will finally be appointed by the elected parties, not by him. And before being enacted, the proposed changes will be put to a referendum. Recall that after the 2002 elections, the king went entirely outside the realm of the parties to select, almost at random, a technocrat, Driss Jettou, as prime minister. In 2007, the king also selected the PM, this time at least choosing one from the top vote getter, the Istiqlal party. Moroccans, it became clear, had been voting for parties, but the king was still selecting their leaders for them.

For genuine reform to take place, the second thing that needs to happen is tackling the problem of corruption. The king’s core promises — "invigorating the role of" political parties and lending "independent power" to the judiciary — will be impossible without this. Unfortunately, Mohammed VI never even uttered the word "corruption" last week. Yet, recent State Department documents released by WikiLeaks expressed in writing what most Moroccans already suspected: "major institutions and processes of the Moroccan state are used by the Palace to coerce and solicit bribes." No proposed Moroccan government will ever have the confidence of the people until graft is tackled head-on. The king can initiate this process by dismantling state monopolies and speaking out against cronyism and nepotism.

Thirdly, as the country begins the long course of political reform called for by the king, its people need to have the freedom to debate the terms of any proposed changes openly. On Sunday (just four days after the speech), police in Casablanca undertook a violent crackdown on peaceful protesters under the pretense that they planned to "terrorize citizens."

Indeed, WikiLeaks documents accused the palace of "appalling greed" in controlling the country’s wealth, but there also exists a certain amount of greed in dominating public opinion. In the past year, the Moroccan newspaper, Nichane, was forced by the regime to shut its doors after it published a poll that found that a whopping 91 percent of Moroccans approved of Mohammed VI’s performance as monarch. A government spokesman declared when the newspaper ran the poll story: "The monarchy cannot be the subject of debate." But it is precisely this type of debate that the king unleashed in his March 9 address. Hopefully, these discussions can now be allowed to continue unfettered by all Moroccans — on the streets and in newspapers.

If — and it’s still a big if — all these changes come to fruition, Morocco may finally have an opportunity to become the model it has always longed to be: a model, in this case, for how to gradually relinquish monarchical control. Despite all the revelry, there hasn’t been one in the Arab world this year, yet.

Avi Spiegel is an assistant professor of political science at the University of San Diego and a fellow at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas, Austin.

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