The Middle East Channel

Election dilemmas for Morocco’s protest movement

Moroccans head to the polls in just under two weeks to elect a new parliament. The elections have been touted as a test of the King’s constitutional reforms, passed by referendum in July, and are ostensibly shrouded in uncertainty. Will the elections produce gradual movement toward democracy, as the regime has promised? Will the winning ...


Moroccans head to the polls in just under two weeks to elect a new parliament. The elections have been touted as a test of the King’s constitutional reforms, passed by referendum in July, and are ostensibly shrouded in uncertainty. Will the elections produce gradual movement toward democracy, as the regime has promised? Will the winning political parties take advantage of their somewhat increased powers and enact better policies? Will Moroccans even show up to vote?  Will Morocco be the Arab Spring’s great success or great failure, as the Atlantic provocatively asked? 

In all likelihood, the elections will neither produce clear answers about Morocco’s future, nor will they reveal just what it is that Moroccans want. They certainly seek change — their country has one of the highest levels of inequality in the Arab world, and one of the lowest incomes with GDP per capita under $3,000. Political parties are widely viewed as corrupt and inept, and unemployment and underemployment continue to pose problems, particularly for the younger generation. Yet Moroccans are divided as to how best to rectify these problems, and whom to hold responsible.

The February 20th movement, whose protests earlier this year led the King to initiate constitutional reforms, has been thus far, unable to assign blame or propose a concrete agenda. Its uneasy alliance with the banned Islamist group, Justice and Charity, cost it some of its supporters and created internal fissures. It has not yet managed to forge the linkages to other segments of society that were so crucial in Tunisia and Egypt. In the wake of the King’s constitutional reforms, the movement lost momentum.

Yet although the February 20th group has been faulted for failing to provide a platform for change, they have articulated a clear, simple message, despite critics’ claims to the contrary. Movement activists, like many Moroccans, want an end to elite privilege and corruption — they want elites to share political power and wealth with the rest of the country and they want increased political liberties.

What they haven’t asked for is regime change. In this respect the Moroccan protests more closely resemble the Occupy protests in the United States than those that swept Mubarak and Ben Ali from power. They are anti-privilege, but not anti-monarchy. Moroccans blame a number of actors for the current state of affairs — bickering political parties that fail to deliver on campaign promises, corrupt ministers, post-colonial legacies, and a disengaged public. But they do not lay the blame at the foot of the King. And neither does the February 20th movement — for blaming the King is a sure way to lose support.

Why don’t Moroccans blame the King? He is, after all, the logical person to hold responsible — the country’s chief power-holder. The answer lies, in part, in the person of King Mohammed VI himself. Since his reign began in 1999, the King has presented himself as a newer, friendlier version of the monarchy. He has distanced himself from his father’s more brutal practices, modernized the monarchy, and promised slow, sure change. He has been dubbed, "The King of the Poor," reflecting the view that he sincerely seeks to fight poverty in the kingdom. 

The goodwill toward the King is not just the result of effective public relations.  Though observers note that the King retains nearly absolute political power, even after the constitutional changes, Moroccans have seen tangible improvements over the last decade. Women gained rights when the King sponsored changes to the system of family law in 2003. Today, they are present in places traditionally dominated by men, from the cafes to universities to the parliament. The King has also invested in infrastructure, such as the new high-speed train linking Casablanca and Tangier or the modern tramway in the capital city of Rabat. Economic growth has been decent in the past few years. "Things are getting better here," said one Moroccan youth, "they are not getting worse, as they were in Tunisia and Egypt." This sense of progress contributes to a willingness to follow the King’s lead, and seek evolutionary, not revolutionary, change.

But part of the reason that the King is blame-free has little to do with the actions and attributes of this particular king, but of the institution of monarchy itself. The monarchies that survived the early post-colonial years have proven resilient. In the new context brought on by the Arab Spring, it is indeed good to be a king. Some have suggested that the monarchies are shielded by their legitimacy, an explanation however, that if not tautological (in the sense that the proof of a leader’s legitimacy is that he stays in power), is unverifiable since it is unacceptable and illegal to question the king’s legitimacy. Mohammad VI’s father was nearly overthrown by a coup early in his reign. Had those coup attempts succeeded, no one would be asserting the dynasty’s legitimacy today. 

It is the longevity of monarchical rule and the absence of viable alternatives that shield the monarchy today. Having survived the early years, when kings in other parts of the Arab world fell, the monarchy became a symbol of stability, its endurance proof of its ability to provide security, if not democracy. A poll carried out by Le Monde and the Moroccan journal TelQuel in 2009 (banned in Morocco) found that the vast majority of Moroccans supported the king, which is unsurprising given the constraints on criticizing the monarchy. A more astonishing finding was that the majority of Moroccans who described the monarchy as authoritarian approved of its authoritarian bent declaring, "Better that power should rest in the hands of the king than in the those of corrupt politicians out for their own interests." 

For Moroccans seeking change, there are few good models to imitate. Revolution has little to recommend itself, if it is followed by the kinds of authoritarian republics that replaced the monarchies elsewhere in the Arab world, by the instability that occurred in neighboring Algeria, or by an Islamist takeover. Spokesmen for the regime have not been shy about pointing to these dismal alternatives to the status quo.

Without viable alternatives, it’s no wonder that some are asking whether it is worth it to vote in the upcoming elections. The February 20th movement and the banned Justice and Charity Group have called for a boycott, but if there is low turnout, it will not necessarily signal support for these groups, given the myriad of reasons why potential voters may stay home. One shopkeeper spoke of a general disenchantment with politics — he’s not voting because the "solutions don’t lie in politics at all, but in each one of us. We must find the answers ourselves, not look to politicians to find them for us." Others echo his sentiments, expressing doubt that real progress will come out of the parliament.

Even if turnout is respectable, it is hard to see what the elections are capable of accomplishing. The moderate Islamist Party of Justice and Development is favored to gain seats, but is unlikely to push for radical change and will need to form a coalition with parties that have diverse interests. 

A result that favors the status quo may renew protest activity and push the King to make further changes, but activists, whether from the February 20th movement or the Islamists organizations, must develop long-term strategies. Articulating a positive agenda and fielding candidates of their own is the route to democratic progress in Morocco. By keeping up the pressure and expanding their organizations, they may yet offer a viable alternative to the status quo, even if it is not a revolutionary one.

Adria Lawrence is an assistant professor of political science at Yale University.

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