To Reign or Rule: Morocco’s Halting Road to Liberalization

To Reign or Rule: Morocco’s Halting Road to Liberalization
Photo: King Mohammed VI of Morocco at the Moroccan Ambassador to the United States’ residence in Washington, D.C., on November 20, 2013 (State Department photo).
On July 23, 1999, Morocco’s ruler, King Hassan II, died and was succeeded by his eldest son, Mohammed VI. Many Moroccans hoped that the succession would also entail a transition from a system of autocratic rule to a liberal democracy, and the new king’s early initiatives seemed likely to give substance to these hopes. Now, 15 years later, it is possible to see to what extent those hopes have been fulfilled and, if they have not, to determine why and to what degree they have been disappointed. The expectations for the new reign did not emerge, of course, in a vacuum. For at least the previous decade Morocco had experienced a gradual process of political liberalization, and Hassan had been quite explicit over his expectations for his son when Mohammed came to the throne. Hassan once said he recognized that he would never fully relinquish his autocratic habits; that, he went on, would be left for Mohammed. Indeed, the constitutional liberalization process of the 1990s was intended to set the scene in which this could be achieved. Nor did the process of political liberalization begin in a vacuum either; it was a product of the way the concept of monarchical rule had evolved from pre-colonial Morocco through the colonial era itself and had emerged, modernized, into independence. The Traditional Sultanate Morocco is one of the oldest states in the world, with a continuous history as a state beginning in the eighth century, just a century after Islam penetrated into North Africa. Morocco’s history as a state has revolved around the institution of a sultanate—which also claimed to be a caliphate and thus legitimized by its religious status—as its central authority. The current dynasty, the Alawi, which claims descent from the family of the Prophet Muhammad, has been in power since the 17th century. Morocco transformed itself into a monarchy when it achieved independence in 1956, through an alliance between the sultanate and a national liberation movement, Istiqlal. Perhaps the most important implication of that transformation was that it established the right of primogeniture. Prior to independence, a new sultan would emerge from within the ruling dynasty through a complicated process of consultation and selection. Urban and tribal elites would support whichever relative of a deceased sultan would best protect their interests, expressing their support through a written contract known as the “bay’a.” Although Morocco’s monarchy today is a modernized institution that is fully engaged in governance, the history of its evolution is an essential component of how it conceives of the culture and practice of power. That history was profoundly affected by the practicalities of power projection in the pre-colonial era, when the sultan did not have the instruments and institutions of the modern state at his disposal. He rarely had the luxury of a standing army to enforce his writ or to ensure tax collection; instead the sultan had to make do with unreliable tribal levies. These were often drawn from the so-called guich (army) tribes, who traditionally provided such levies in return for social and economic privileges. Although Sultan Moulay Ismail did create a professional slave army in the 18th century, his successors did not maintain it, partly because they feared that it would threaten them. Taxes were formally restricted to those that were religiously mandated, which were never enough to support the complex functions of government, and new taxation provoked rebellion. Indeed, Morocco’s predominantly rural population—only 10 percent of the population lived in towns—always resisted tax collection if it could, so that sultanic rule often seemed no more than a series of Tudor-style royal progresses, or tours of the country for the purposes of tax collection. The sultan was certainly autocratic wherever he could be physically present, but his power suffered from a basic defect: The technology of the pre-colonial era prevented him from effectively projecting power in geographic terms. So the old Moroccan adage, “To him who holds power, obedience is due,” might apply in the imperial capitals of Fez, Marrakesh, Meknes, Tangier and Rabat, or within the reach of the sultan’s “mehalla” (army) when he was on progress. But vast stretches of the country fell outside his control. There, local potentates—tribal leaders, religious personages, brotherhoods and “zawiyas” (religious foundations)—held sway, and the sultan only enjoyed the prestige of his office as head of the caliphate and as the “amir al-mu’minin” (the commander of the faithful). Yet that office also gave him a kind of indirect power for, since he was weak and unable to project power but at the same time embodied religious legitimacy, he could act as the indispensable arbiter or mediator in local quarrels through the prestige of his office. In other words, the culture of power in Morocco had as much to do with mediation as it did with autocracy—a principle that has persisted until today. Of course, the arrival of colonialism dramatically changed this traditional picture. European pressure on Morocco began with the French invasion of neighboring Algeria in 1830 and became an unavoidable reality in the second half of the 19th century. However, it was only after Britain abandoned its insistence on controlling both sides of the Straits of Gibraltar in 1904 that colonial occupation loomed. In 1912, French forces under Marshall Hubert Lyautey forced the Moroccan sultanate to sign a treaty that would allow France, along with Spain, to occupy the country, ostensibly to aid in its modernization but in reality to create a colony of settlement. Lyautey was anxious to preserve the traditional institutions of government, known in Morocco as the “makhzen,” in that process of modernization, so the sultanate formally survived. And, by allying itself after 1944 with the Istiqlal movement, it guaranteed its survival into the post-colonial era too. From Sultan to King Indeed, it was the sultanate, now transformed into a monarchy, that ended up being the ultimate beneficiary of the colonial experience when Morocco achieved independence in 1956. When Morocco’s post-colonial era began, the monarchy inherited from France the infrastructure and institutions of a modern state. Gone were the days when power projection suffered from what the historian Geoffrey Blainey termed in another context the “tyranny of distance”; now power could be projected in all of the king’s domains with equal effectiveness, along modern roads and with the support of a modern army, police force and the “mokhazniya” (paramilitary forces), backed up by an effective administration and financial infrastructure. No longer did the king have to tolerate powerful local potentates who recognized only his prestige and not his authority, even if initially those local powers failed to register the ways in which Morocco had changed. Nor were these traditional powerbrokers the only ones who misread the implications of monarchy within a centralized modern state. The independence movement itself, as well as the other political formations that emerged in its wake, had also misjudged what their relationship with the monarchy would be now that it could achieve the objectives of the Weberian state and exert the monopoly of legitimate violence within Morocco’s borders. Yet, for the makhzen, the culture of power had not altered; its use of power remained both autocratic and mediatory, and it crushed opposition only when it could not divide it or win it over—when its preferred technique of “recuperation,” or bringing its opponents within the political system as loyal subordinates, did not work. Thus, in the immediate wake of Morocco’s independence, Mohammed V—the current king’s grandfather, who in 1944 had sealed the bargain with Istiqlal that eventually led to an end of the colonial period—felt threatened by Istiqlal’s assumption that it would be at least an equal partner in power with the monarchy. So the royal palace first engineered a split within the movement and then encouraged the nationalist rump of Istiqlal to join the royalist camp while isolating and persecuting another faction, the socialist Union Nationale des Forces Populaires (UNFP). After Mohammed V’s unexpected death in 1961, the UNFP rump was encouraged—with a little help from the makhzen—to split again. This time, the palace embraced the new movement that emerged, the Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires (USFP), which today forms part of the loyalist opposition in parliament. Another example of the makhzen’s tactics under Mohammed V’s son, Hassan II, is the way it dealt with a clandestine opposition movement, the Front Progressiste, in the 1970s. The Front Progressiste consisted of an Islamist movement, the Chabiba Islamiyya, and a cluster of extreme left student movements, typified by Ilal Aman and the March 23rd Movement; the Islamists and the Marxists were united in their dislike of the monarchy. The makhzen initially responded with outright repression whose ferocity came to characterize the “years of lead,” as Hassan II’s 28-year reign was called. Yet, once the makhzen identified a desire for compromise on the part of its opponents, it created space for them to be integrated into the formal body politic. Thus, from the Chabiba Islamiyya emerged, by a series of slow steps, today’s Parti de Justice et du Developpement (PJD), which is now the dominant partner in a coalition government headed by its leader, Premier Mohamed Benkirane. From the March 23rd Movement came the Organisation de l’Action Democratique Populaire, which joined the USFP in a coalition government at the end of the 1990s before being absorbed into a new loyalist political party a decade ago. And from Illal Aman, which in challenging Morocco’s claim to the Western Sahara had committed an egregious offense in the monarchy’s eyes, came yet another opposition party, now integrated into a loyalist opposition, after Illal Aman received a royal amnesty in 1994. The Western Sahara issue itself, perhaps the key issue in Morocco’s regional policy, also reflects the royal palace’s preference for absorbing opposition whenever possible rather than using simple repression. Thus, in 1974, after having had to confront three major challenges to its political hegemony—an attempted army-backed coup in 1971 during the king’s birthday party at his summer palace of Skhirat; a second attempt on the king’s life the following year by Morocco’s air force as the king returned from a visit to France; and a 1973 rural rebellion implicating the USFP—the makhzen revived a long-dormant claim to the colony of the Spanish Sahara. In domestic terms, at least, this was an attempt to solidify popular support, and the makhzen brought the political parties onboard with a promise to revive parliamentary governance, which had been suspended since the late 1960s. The following year, after an ambiguous ruling on Morocco’s claim by the International Court of Justice, Morocco organized a massive demonstration of 350,000 people along the borders of the Spanish colony. A confrontation with the Spanish army was avoided through a backdoor deal with the government in Madrid—at the time in confusion over the transition from Francoism to its own constitutional monarchy—in which the colony was effectively handed over to Moroccan and Mauritanian control. Three years later, Mauritania relinquished its portion of the Sahara to Morocco, which has maintained its claim to the region ever since, despite Algerian opposition. The dispute has now become a symbol for the struggle between the two largest states in North Africa for regional hegemony and for support from Europe and the United States. It is a struggle that Morocco appears to be winning, despite its refusal to accept United Nations demands for self-determination in the Western Sahara. More important to the monarchy, perhaps, has been the nearly universal support its stance on Western Sahara has enjoyed inside Morocco itself, including the quiescence of the political parties, despite the costs and sacrifices that 39 years of military preparedness and occupation of the former colony have demanded. The palace’s decision in 1974 to use the issue to ensure domestic stability appears to have been a gamble that has richly succeeded. Political Liberalization Despite having developed a policy of autocracy and co-optation as a means of entrenching its hegemonic power inside Morocco, the monarchy had to face the fact that it had not achieved total domination of the political scene. In part this was a consequence of the very difficult economic circumstances that faced the country at independence and that have persisted ever since. Morocco has no significant reserves of oil and gas, although it is a major phosphate producer and exporter; its economy was and remains primarily based on agriculture and a relatively small industrial sector, with Europe as its major trading partner. As a poor country, Morocco has energy demands that are inelastic and it has, in consequence, suffered as oil and gas prices have risen. Indeed, as early as 1984 Morocco had to adopt an International Monetary Fund program of neoliberal economic reform and restructuring, and the country still suffers even today from widespread poverty, illiteracy and unemployment. Inevitably, therefore, the royal palace was aware that such circumstances only increased the chances for disaffection, alienation and rebellion. After all, it faced serious riots in 1965, 1981, 1984 and again in December 1990. The monarchy was aware, too, that its own hegemonic position within Morocco’s government could also be a threat to its longevity, and here it took note of its own pre-colonial experiences. The monarchy had survived at the time because it was weak yet legitimate and, as such, became the indispensable mediator; after independence the monarchy became all-powerful inside the state, and the only way it could be challenged was by an attempt to remove it from power. At some point in the late 1980s, King Hassan II seems to have realized that the very strength of the monarchy was also its greatest weakness, and that its ultimate survival would depend on its ability to share power. In the context of the modern state, in short, it had to constitutionalize itself—the Moroccan monarchy, given its inviolate status as a caliphate, had always stood above the constitution—and learn to reign rather than to rule. The best way of achieving this, the makhzen decided, would be through a process of slow and guided political liberalization. Thus, toward the end of the 1980s, socio-political conditions began gradually to improve in Morocco as overt censorship came to an end, and the security services gradually curbed their interference in daily life as freedom of assembly and expression became ever more accepted realities in the social environment. Limits certainly continued to exist—the monarchy, the free market economy and the Western Sahara policy remained beyond criticism—but within those constraints much of the fear that had characterized the “years of lead” ebbed away. The process of political liberalization received added impetus in 1990 from the combined effects of two events. The first was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which the king initially condemned before wide public disagreement with his position forced him to retreat. The second was the Fez riots at the end of the year. Politicians and trade unionists privately warned the palace that public anger was building and had to be defused. The formal response came two years later in reforms to the constitution that diminished royal control over the government. In 1996 came more significant constitutional reforms, which further reduced the makhzen’s control over the political process and which also led to the king’s cherished project of “alternance”: the creation of two political blocs that could alternate in government, thus facilitating political continuity. In 1998, the USFP, for the first time, was able to become the party of government, at the price, of course, of accepting its new position from the hands of the royal palace. Indeed, the continued hegemony of royal power, even if increasingly expressed through its ability to reign over the political scene rather than to rule it directly, was the essential condition of political liberalization. This meant that King Hassan’s admittedly autocratic nature continued to be the ultimate arbiter of Morocco’s political fate, even if much the country’s human rights situation had improved. And it was for this reason that Mohammed VI’s arrival to power was so eagerly awaited in July 1999; would he, as his father had hinted, complete the transition? Or would he continue the old makhzen bargain of concessions in return for popular loyalty and royal inviolability? Initially it appeared that real change was on the way. Hassan’s feared advisers, particularly Driss Basri, the interior minister, were removed from power. A “truth and justice” commission was established to ventilate the long-obscured memories of the “years of lead.” The new king sought to launch initiatives to improve economic conditions, thus earning for himself the sobriquet the “guardian of the poor.” And, in 2002, in the face of considerable opposition, the king forced through a reform of Morocco’s family law, which, though not abandoning the law’s basis in Shariah principles, in effect ensured that women enjoyed far greater equality with men. The Arab Spring The momentum that this implied, however, was soon to lapse. In May 2003, Casablanca was shaken by a series of terrorist incidents, and the government, in response, enacted a ferocious antiterrorism law to nip the violent challenge to its authority in the bud. The king’s appetite for political reform, too, seemed to lapse in favor of economic change instead. Press freedoms declined, and the 2002 Press Code became an instrument through which the media could easily be disciplined. For the most part the Moroccan public, which is predominantly conservative and which feared political violence of the kind that had wracked Algeria in the previous decade, protested little over the slowdown in political liberalization, leaving only the youth, with its growing engagement with social media and the Internet, as the voice of protest. In early 2011, Morocco, like the rest of North Africa, was shaken by riots that initially, at least, grew from protests over the dramatic rise in food and energy prices over the last six months of 2010. Inevitably, as in Tunisia, political resentments surfaced too, particularly in demonstrations on Feb. 20, 2011. These demonstrations had been organized by a loose coalition of youth groups and a moderate Islamist movement—Adl wal Ihsane (Justice and Charity)—that had deliberately remained outside the formal political scene but had been tolerated by the palace. The palace reacted with surprising speed and, within a few days, acknowledged the need for further political reform and invited suggestions as to what should be done. The palace then proposed a new constitution, apparently granting far greater powers to an elected government and reducing its own role in managing the way in which future governments would be formed and would operate. By July 2011, a new constitution, drafted by the palace, had been approved by referendum and the February 20 Movement, which had spearheaded the demonstrations that led to the palace’s reaction, found itself marginalized and excluded from the tumult of political change. A subsequent legislative election brought the PJD to power at the head of a new governmental coalition formed through the electoral process and not, as in the past, by royal diktat. It would be satisfying to report that the essential political transition heralded 30 years ago had, as a result of the Arab Spring, been concluded and that Morocco is now a functioning democratic and constitutional monarchy. Unfortunately, that is not fully the case. It is true that the monarchy has ceded power and that the Moroccan government has more real power than it has ever enjoyed before. But, even with the constitutional changes that have been enacted, the royal palace remains the hegemonic power; it still dominates the political process and, at one remove, still controls it. The monarch is still, in effect, inviolate and still rules, rather than reigns. The king is still the “commander of the faithful” and, as such, is both the guardian and the controller of the political process. But, although the speed of the palace’s reaction in 2011 may have taken those who seek real democratic change by surprise, the reformers have not abandoned their objectives. In the end those reformers will achieve their goals, for they coincide with the palace’s own ultimate objective of survival. George Joffé teaches postgraduate studies of the contemporary Middle East and North Africa at the University of Cambridge, in England. Previously, he was the deputy-director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House). He is currently the co-editor, with Phillip Naylor of Marquette University and Greg White of Smith College, of the Journal of North African Studies, which he founded in 1996. His most recent publication, which he edited, is “North Africa's Arab Spring,” published by Routledge. Photo: King Mohammed VI of Morocco at the Moroccan Ambassador to the United States' residence in Washington, D.C., on November 20, 2013 (State Department photo).

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