Illusions of Change in Morocco

The Cairo Review of Global Affairs 

For those stricken with thirst in a desert, even brackish water will taste sweet.

Herein lays the strategy of Morocco’s monarchical regime—“regime” here meaning the palace, its security organs, and major players from the sprawling elite network known as the makhzen. Nearly six years after the Arab Spring, this autocracy has made the ultimate gamble: can it indefinitely maintain the vast distance between its democratic promises versus the authoritarian status quo? So long as it contrasts Moroccan stability against collapsing states like Libya and Syria, broadcasts new pledges for future reform, and conducts exercises like this October’s parliamentary elections, so its thinking goes, then the world will applaud Morocco.

To be sure, this ploy is working wonders with foreigners. Western journalists frequently praise the kingdom as a “model” of democratic reform. American think tankers see its monarchy as the region’s most progressive, not least because it cooperates with Washington’s security and economic interests. Yet the problem is the primary threat to any nondemocratic regime is hardly the outside world. It is its own society. Revolutions occur when a popular mass no longer finds its government credible, and would rather accept the uncertainty of a new political order than suffer from the constraints of the old one. And today, there exist two reasons to worry that Moroccans themselves are not buying their regime’s insistence that all is well.

First, the core structure of Moroccan politics has not changed since the Arab Spring, which instigated the historic 20 February Movement, several thousand street protests, and, ultimately constitutional amendments. Yet though now the official government is formed by parliament, all resemblances to constitutional monarchies stop here. This is still a near-absolutist kingship, but for a unique reason. In most other Arab monarchies, autocratic royals either lack religious authority or attempt to claim Islamic credentials based upon their political leadership. In Morocco, by contrast,the head of the Alaouite Dynasty is seen as Commander of the Faithful, embodying the will of the Muslim community—and from that fount of legitimacy flows incontestable political power.

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