Morocco weathers the storm
Morocco’s strategic response to the Arab uprisings received mixed reviews. King Mohammed VI took the challenges head-on by promoting a new constitution, having elections for a new parliament to be led by the party with the most seats and speaking out often about the need for citizen participation in governmental affairs.
He reiterated his commitment to better education, more equitable economic development and greater personal and institutional freedoms.
Those who defend the regime say this is part of a process that began in the late 1990s with the installation of an opposition leader as prime minister and recognition by King Hassan II, the current king’s father, that unchallenged royal business as usual would not survive another decade. They blame the slow pace on birthing pains of a parliamentary democracy.
Moroccans are of two minds: either the government has been co-opted and remains too friendly to the royal palace, slowing needed reforms; or it is a conspiracy in which a bit is given up here and there to maintain stability but reforms that threaten existing power centres are stalled. They point to human rights abuses, negative government responses to criticism and lack of large-scale job creation as failures.
The reality is fluctuating between “the government is beholden to the palace and won’t rock the boat”, and “the king is a visionary who supports and, indeed calls for, more progress than is being made.”
So what can Morocco do and what is the reality behind its moderate and mostly successful leadership in the region?
Difficult points of departure are the redlines in Moroccan discourse: the monarchy, territorial integrity (read the Western Sahara/ South/Southern provinces) and Islam. Negative comments on any of these have led to bloggers being jailed and newspapers fined and confiscated. How does Morocco’s handling of these core topics contribute to understanding the debate of the country’s progress?
Let’s begin with the monarchy. The king is the supreme head of the country in terms of the military, religious affairs and symbolic and real leadership. He has given, under the 2011 constitution, real powers to parliament, which is evolving as an institutional powerhouse.
There are areas in which intense debates have taken place and the media follow and stoke partisan positions on all sides of issues. So, while parliament might only get a grade of C+ or C-, it is far more decisive than any of its neighbours. If member discourse matures as parties become more serious players, parliament stands a chance of becoming an engine for progress in Morocco.
The king seems aware of what’s going on. When the conservative Istiqlal Party bolted from the initial ruling coalition, Mohammed VI refused to get into the squabble, forcing the parties to come up with solutions that allowed the government to go forward.
His speeches are inspirational regarding his vision for Morocco, its citizens and its future. He is, on the other hand, quite direct, if not hostile, to those who challenge Morocco’s territorial integrity and would damage its identity as a Muslim state.
Which brings us to the second issue: the Sahara. A non-governmental organisation (NGO) in south Morocco that is pro-independence has been allowed to register and Morocco remains steadfast in its claim to the southern provinces, committing billions of dollars to its development.
The Economic, Social, and Environmental Council (CESE) has taken a lead in economic development for the territory as a model for Morocco’s “advanced regionalisation”.
Observers note a level of heightened security in dealing with outsiders such as human rights organisations, European left-wing politicians and NGOs with similar orientations. This is a difficult challenge for the government that has yet to balance safeguarding freedoms of speech and assembly with implementing regionalisation.
Islam is a special category in Morocco’s heritage. As a descendent of the Prophet Mohammad, the king has special obligations towards the religion. Some challenge critics of the king’s religious role with the query as to who is better able to do this? Would they prefer an Iranian-or Saudi-style religious domain?
The king’s promotion of Maliki Islam’s moderate principles, his exemplary handling of issues regarding the Jewish heritage of Morocco and his continued interest in the status of Jerusalem are only some of Morocco’s assets when it comes to Islam.
Much has been made of Morocco’s imam training programmes to counter extremism and the king’s promotion of women’s rights. Using Islam as a touchstone for Morocco’s progress illustrates the king’s awareness of the sensitive ground he treads.
Morocco has much to offer as a workshop in which democratic and social development challenges are being articulated, refined and implemented. How it succeeds will depend largely on the king’s ability to inspire parliament and the Moroccan people to recognise progressive steps. If parliament takes advantage of the constitution and builds an institutional foundation for government, Morocco will succeed where others fail.