There is no such thing as a Moroccan exception

Development Policy22 Mar 2011Ghassan Dahhan

The assumption that Morocco is a beacon of stability in a sea of regional hotbeds rests on the wrong premise. Support for the king is higher than that enjoyed by many other leaders in the region, but this support should by no means be taken for granted.

There has been a lot of speculation lately about the scope of the unrest in the Arab world. While Lybia is on the brink of war, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Algeria and even Saudi Arabia are all frequently cited as revolutionary hotbeds that are likely to be the next dominos to fall. Surprisingly, there is one important country often missing in such lists – Morocco. There seems to be a general consensus among political risk analysts that Morocco is an island of freedom and tolerance in comparison to most other Arab regimes in the region, and that therefore a ‘Tunisia-style uprising’ or a situation similar to that in Bahrain is unlikely to unfold.

Popular king

As opposed to Bahrain’s ruler, whose support revolves traditionally around the Sunni minority of the country’s population, Morocco’s king Mohammed VI enjoys broad support from different segments of the Moroccan population, defying social, religious or ethnic divides. So far, nobody in Morocco is calling for the ousting of Mohammed VI from power, as opposed to the revolutionary movements in Egypt and Tunisia, who saw the removal of their leaders as a part of the solution. And in comparison to most other Arab states, Moroccan citizens do live in relative freedom. As a consequence, many analysts and policy makers believe that the foundation for a revolt in Morocco is less apparent than for example in Egypt, Tunisia or Yemen, and that therefore Morocco will remain largely unaffected by the regional unrest. However, this projection is based on an all too rosy depiction of the current political situation. If the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt turn out to be successful in bringing about real democracy, Morocco’s project of political reform is likely to fall behind other countries in the region. Until recently, king Mohammed’s undemocratic rule was in part obscured by his popular support. Political liberalisation did therefore not come at a high price. Many Moroccans believed that economically and politically Morocco was on the right track, and that the king should be allowed more time to complete his policy of bringing about economic prosperity and political freedom. However, the recent upheavals in the Arab world have done away with the notion that change will come with time.

No rosy picture

The patience of Moroccans is being put to the test as the socio-economic situation remains deplorable; the literacy rate still bungles around 56 percent (which is the lowest in the Arab world), and the country continues to suffer under huge economic inequality (which happens to be the highest in the Arab world). In 2009 Morocco ranked 114th on the Human Development Index (compared to Tunisia at 81). In addition, corruption is widespread. The Moroccan government will have to start more serious efforts aimed at improving the conditions of Moroccan citizens, while fighting corruption in the government. This is easier said than done, as nearly everyone around the king’s inner circle benefits from the current political system, and more importantly, they are very powerful and would likely try to thwart any move that could hurt their vested interests. King Mohammed is therefore facing a dilemma: a continuation of the status quo could put him on a par with other leaders in the region, whereas change could cost him support from Morocco’s powerful elite. Protest Recently, the king has announced he would undertake ‘comprehensive constitutional reforms’ which provide for the largest political party in parliament to select the prime minister. Yet this measure is not likely to temper the demands for change. The political power that the constitution allocates to the prime minister is too limited to achieve any meaningful change. Shortly after the king had promised to reform the political system, a number of peaceful protesters in Casablanca were beaten up by the police, thereby fuelling public scepticism about the Moroccan government’s commitment to change. The king himself called the protesters ‘demagogues’. As the Moroccan government seems to be indisposed to make serious efforts to meet the protesters’ demands, the risk that now looms on the horizon is that disenfranchised groups – predominantly young people, some marginalised ethnic minorities and a number of religious groups – will seek political change without government consent, thereby putting them at loggerheads with the state and its monarchist backers. The use of force by the government, as seen last week in Casablanca, is likely only to exacerbate these tensions.

No beacon of stability

The assumption that Morocco is a beacon of stability in a sea of regional hotbeds rests on the wrong premise. Support for the king is indeed higher than that enjoyed by many other leaders in the region, but this support should by no means be taken for granted. More and more Moroccans have started to believe in the need for concrete change of the system and that now is the time to do so. And Moroccans are learning from the Egyptian and Tunisian experience that political meekness is not likely to induce the government to take steps towards meeting the people’s demand for change.