Articles, favorable and not, continually assess Morocco’s strategic responses to the Arab Uprisings, which King Mohammed VI took on head first by quickly promoting a new Constitution (2011); holding elections for a new Parliament to be led by the party with the most seats, in this case the Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party (PJD); and speaking out often about the need for more citizen participation in the affairs of government. He has also reiterated his commitment to better education outcomes, more equitable economic development, and greater personal and institutional freedoms (e.g., for the media and the judiciary).
Those who defend the regime say this process began with the installation in the late 1990s of an opposition leader as Prime Minister and awareness 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 of change on the birthing pains of a parliamentary democracy, where every current has the ability to prolong debate and question ministers.
Critics of the regime, both Moroccan and otherwise, are of two minds—either the government has been co-opted and still remains too friendly to the royal palace, slowing down needed reforms, or it is a conspiracy in which a slow pace maintains stability and reforms that threaten existing power centers are stalled. They point to the level of human rights abuses, negative government responses to criticism at home and abroad, and lack of large-scale job creation as indicators of failures.
The reality fluctuates 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.” Realistically, the question is: what can Morocco do and what is the reality behind its moderate and mostly successful leadership in the region?
A difficult yet necessary point 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 issues have led to bloggers being jailed, newspapers being fined and harassed, and strong criticism levied by government spokespersons.
How does Morocco’s handling of these core topics contribute to understanding the debate around the country’s progress?
Let’s begin with the monarchy. The King still is the symbolic and real leader in military, political, and religious affairs. But the new constitution gave real powers to the Parliament, which is still evolving as an institutional force. Intense debate and discourse take place, and the media follows and stokes partisans on all sides of the issues. So while Parliament might only get a grade of C+ or C-, it is far more decisive than similar bodies in any of its neighbors.
Which brings us to the Sahara. Morocco remains steadfast in its claim to the South, committing billions of dollars to its development in the next 10 years. Some observers note a level of heightened security, some even call it excessive, when it comes to dealing with outsiders such as human rights organizations, left-wing European politicians, and NGOs with similar orientations. This is a difficult challenge for the government, which is working to balance safeguarding freedoms of speech and assembly with progress in implementing regionalization.
Islam is a special category in Morocco’s heritage. As a descendent of the Prophet Muhammed, the King has special obligations towards the religion. In response to critics who challenge the King’s religious role, one could ask: Would they prefer an Iranian or Saudi-style religious domain? The King’s promotion of Maliki Islam’s moderate principles throughout Africa and elsewhere, 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 and mourchidates training programs to counter violent 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 on which he is treading.
Morocco has much to offer, not as a model, but as a workshop in which democratic and social development challenges are being articulated, refined, and implemented. How it succeeds, in light of both external and internal obstacles, depends largely on the King’s ability to inspire Parliament and the Moroccan people to adopt progressive steps that enhance and enable the future. If Parliament takes advantage of the constitution and gradually builds an institutional foundation for government, and political parties mature as issue-driven entities, Morocco will succeed where others are failing.