The right king in the wrong monarchy?

The paradox of the political situation in Morocco is that King Mohammed VI seems to want to bring about domestic political change, whereas his entourage, which has grown rich and influential since the country gained independence, is resisting such efforts. By Mohammed Hashas

By Mohammed Hashas

Assuming that democracy is the best available political system for the improvement of the human condition, a brief examination of six major aspects that measure the democratic spirit of a political system provide a good insight into the state of Morocco's democratisation process.

1          Constitutionalism and representatives

Morocco boasts that it has one of the oldest monarchies in the world (twelve centuries old). Despite the various shortcomings of monarchies in non-democratic societies, Moroccan history does not feature any long periods as dark as those of the absolute monarchs of Europe.

Moroccan monarchs often ruled in consultation with a quasi-independent religious body of scholars and tribal bodies in the various regions of the country, bodies that worked as representatives of the tribe. This old aspect of consultation disappeared with the idea of the centrist modern nation state. The inability to adapt old local political customs to the modern institutions installed with colonialism have left the country divided into two systems that are still hard to distinguish: a traditional and a modern one. This makes Morocco a monarchy with a constitution rather than a constitutional monarchy à la UK, Belgium or the constitutional monarchies of Scandinavia.

I identify three modern constitutional stages in Morocco's history: 1) failed constitutionalism (1908–1972), during which the state and the king could be described as one body; 2) limited constitutionalism (1972–1992), during which the king shared powers; and 3) transitory constitutionalism (2011–present), in which the king shares more of his powers without letting go of all of them in an arrangement that could be said to constitute a system of "semi-constitutional monarchy."  

A Moroccan woman casts her vote in Rabat (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
"The right to elect a representative is not bolstered by other rights, or principles of democracy, which makes it unfruitful," says Mohammed Hashas

2          Elections

It follows from the above that the maker(s) of law are not people, but the monarchy, despite the fact that elections have been taking place in the country since the 1960s. Unlike most Arab countries, Morocco has since its independence in 1956, opted for political representation and participation of the people through direct local and legislative elections. This was interrupted – in the 1970s in particular – by various failed military coup d'états against the monarchy. However, the right to elect a representative is not bolstered by other rights or principles of democracy, which makes it unfruitful. This is explained by the points that follow.

3          Civil liberties

Compared with the rest of the Arab world, Moroccans enjoy a remarkable range of freedoms. Unlike the common perception of liberties across the region, the problem is not only women's rights, but all citizens' rights; if all citizens enjoy their rights, women will find it easier than is commonly reported in the media, despite the fact that they are a more vulnerable gender.

While some socio-cultural markers still hinder the enlargement of the range of liberties of thought, it is the right to information and critical education that affect the way the people express their political choices at the ballot box. While the margin of civil liberties is already remarkable, the people are not well-informed. High rates of illiteracy make the liberties enjoyed vulnerable to mis-information, which affects election results and profound political participation when discussing the strategic interests of the country.

4          The rule of law

The country suffers from a severe lack of the application of the principle of the rule of law. Despite its various constitutions, including the current promising one, the state has not managed to match rights with duties as enshrined in the constitution and different laws. Laxity dominates. Lack of accountability, favouritism and deep-rooted corruption in all sectors weakens the country's general aspirations of democracy (as a safeguard of liberties, equality and social justice).

The 20 February movement in Morocco protesting in Rabat (photo: AP)
Morocco's "deep state" rules alongside the king: in July 2011, people took to the streets to demonstrate against the makhzen (the "deep state"), corruption and nepotism and for greater political participation. However, the protests of the 20 February movement were not sustainable enough to force the powers that be in Morocco to make far-reaching democratic concessions

5          The judiciary

Point number 4 implies that the judiciary cannot be free in a context where the rule of law is weak, favouritism is practiced and corruption is dominant. The project to reform the judiciary is still being discussed; civil society protests about the abuse of power have increased, but that is not enough.

6          An organised opposition

Given this bleak picture, what is the opposition doing? The opposition, like the government coalition, is fragmented. Before the Arab Spring, the opposition was led by the Socialist Party (the current al ittihad al ishtiraqi), which has fought for civil liberties, democratisation and constitutional democracy since the late 1950s. It was co-opted and entered a coalition government in 1997, the result of which did not live up to expectations.

From the late 1990s until 2010, the moderate Islamist PJD party emerged as the major voice of opposition to corruption, slow economic growth and slow political institutional change. With the Arab Spring events, the PJD won the elections of 25 November 2011 under a reformed constitution adopted on 1 July 2011. The electoral system does not allow a majority win, which obliges the leading party to enter into coalitions.

The first coalition government failed after less than two years, and a new one was formed. It comprised parties that had been strongly opposed to each other during the election campaigns. It is a coalition to save the face of this transitional phase in the country. As to the opposition, it is now composed mostly of parties that have been in government for decades (hizb al istiqlal and al ittihad al ishtiraqi) or by a new party that has emerged in the last few years (i.e. the PAM), and is viewed with scepticism by the other major parties for its closeness to the monarchy and what its opponents consider to be its hidden undemocratic agenda. Broadly speaking, the opposition has been tested in government before and achieved little; now, its voice in the opposition weighs very little, if anything at all.

Morocco's King Mohammed VI (photo: Getty Images)
"The gloomy turn the so-called 'Arab Spring' has taken in some countries affected by the revolts has furthered the idea that Morocco is an exception in an oasis of turmoil, insecurity, sectarianism and social disunity. Current Moroccan exceptionalism is, however, a double-edged argument in the sense that it can be praise or vilification. To understand this label of exceptionalism, a different question that is more direct can be posed: is Morocco democratising? Or, how is Moroccan democracy?" writes Mohammed Hashas

These general notes demonstrate that Morocco still has a long way to go.

Representative democracy does not seem to have influenced the democratisation of the "deep state" – or the makhzen, as it is known in Moroccan political diction – which permeates all sectors. A highly disproportionate distribution of wealth, high rates of unemployment, a lack of decent housing, remarkable incapacities in public health services, increasing problems in the educational system, a high level of bureaucratisation and high rates of corruption compared with regional and international standards are clear signs that the reforms that have been initiated since 1999 in particular have not yet challenged the "deep state" structures.

At the same time, this does not mean that the head of the state, King Mohammed VI, is not democratic. The paradox in the country is that while the king seems super-active and reformist, it is his entourage, the makhzen, which has gained wealth and power in the decades since the colonial period, that appears unwilling to change power structures and wealth distribution.

The king could be described as the right king in the wrong monarchy – whereby by "the monarchy" here I mean the makhzen. The challenge then is this: how far can Moroccans depend on a reformist king and a corrupt entourage? Will they always be fortunate enough to have such a king? Are strong institutions that abide by the rule of law not the most secure path to take in order to truly realise the idea of Moroccan exceptionalism in the region?

Regional and international affairs certainly affect the process of change in the country. Current failed change in countries like Egypt, stagnation in relations with Algeria, the unsolved issue of Western Sahara, the complexity of the Syrian situation and its regional and international impacts affect the economy of the country and the level of political changes the stakeholders inside the country and outside it may allow.

In the light of these various internal and external challenges, the safest path for smooth democratic change requires that the king continues his reformist projects. The latter need support from civil society and the political parties that are ready to distance themselves from the makhzen for the public good. The road ahead is long and full of challenges.

Mohammed Hashas

© ResetDoc 2014

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/