Morocco: Model of successful transition or Arab revolt’s major failure?


Moroccan King Mohammed VI is applying his father’s survival instinct to successfully navigate anti-government protests sweeping his country as well
as much of North Africa and the Middle East.

Almost four decades ago, sharp wits and quick response enabled his father to escape assassination. Mohammed was eight years old when the commander of the Air Force attempted in 1972 to down his father’s Boeing 727. The commander’s F-5 jets opened fire with machine guns and knocked out one of its engines.

Before they were able to make a second run, King Hassan, got on the radio to advise the fighter pilots that the king was dead. They fell for the ploy. The 727 landed safely and the pilots and their commander were arrested.

To be sure, constitutional changes adopted by Moroccans on Friday constitute more than just a ploy and involve a degree of real change. The changes are however just as much part of Mohammed’s strategy for survival and seem based on his father’s principle of the king is dead, long live the king.

In some ways, the organization of the referendum is more of the same: top down management. The proposed constitutional changes were drafted by a commission appointed by the king, albeit that some of its members were indeed independent and known for their pro-democratic inclinations.

The overwhelming majority of Moroccans that voted “yes” in the referendum voted for change. It remains to be seen whether that vote also means that the changes went far enough in meeting protesters’ demands for greater political freedom and enhanced economic opportunity.

King Mohammed, like King Abdullah of Jordan, is one of the few Arab leaders to enjoy popular support. Demonstrators have granted him the benefit of the doubt in the hope and expectation that he will meet their demands.

KIng Mohammed’s approach has certainly so far shielded Morocco from the turmoil that engulfed Egypt and Tunisia in the walk-up to and the aftermath of the toppling of their autocratic leaders and the brutal violence that is tearing Libya, Syria and Yemen apart.

Yet, entrusting responsibility to enact change to the very person who is asked to make concessions and cede power is a tricky business.

The Moroccan experiment is likely to be a model for other North African and Middle Eastern states no matter how it ends. A successful transition toward a democratic, constitutional monarchy would be a model for managing change with little or no pain. It would make Morocco the only nation in the region to break with autocratic rule in cooperation with rather than despite the government,

But if the process fails because the king has a change of heart or his changes stop short of the minimum protesters are willing to accept Morocco could emerge as the Arab revolt’s greatest failure.

The new constitution that Moroccans endorsed in the referendum invests unprecedented power in a civilian, democratically elected government. However liberalization of autocratic culture is gradual and it maintains the king as ruler with more than just ceremonial power.

The king retains the prerogative to appoint the prime minister even if he has to come from the ranks of the party that won the most seats in parliament in democratic elections. The constitution enhances the powers of the prime minister but execution of many of them has to be approved by the monarch, who remains head of the council of ministers. The king retains the right to address parliament without being challenged as well as the power to declare a state of emergency,

The king also retains control of the military and remains Morocco’s supreme religious leader under a constitution that guarantees freedom of religion but reaffirms the Islamic character of the state.

The right to criticize the king remains curtailed even though he effectively continues to control all major government decisions.

In some ways nothing has changed. The fate of what is potentially a Moroccan model is wholly dependent on the king. He has yet to indicate whether his model is one of movement in gradual motion towards a democratic, constitutional monarchy or an example of motion without movement in a bid to appease domestic public opinion as well as Western critics.

To be sure, the referendum is not the king’s first stab at reform. In fact, the current process is much like what the king did 11 years ago when he introduced sweeping reforms that significantly enhanced women’s rights.

The litmus test of the king’s approach will be how he addresses criticism that he failed to consult in the drafting of the new constitution, continues to rely on the old guard and his cronies, ignored protesters’ demands that they be recognized in the reform process in a meaningful way and in the end presented Moroccans with a fait accompli rather than the parliamentary monarchy in favor of which they took to the streets.

Whichever way the king goes, this is history in the making. The only question is whether it will be a history to be emulated or lesson of what to avoid.

(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: [email protected])