Friday, May 11, 2012

The Myth of Moroccan Democracy

By: Jill Ricotta

The Myth of Moroccan Democracy

Marrakech, Morocco, August 2011

Last September I was sitting in a classroom in Ifrane, Morocco listening to a debate amongst students at Al Akhwayan University.  I had only been in Morocco for a few weeks and although I knew a decent amount about the protests there during the Arab Spring
, I hadn’t yet reached an in depth understanding of the political situation in the country. But here I was, in a Middle Eastern Politics class, with a Moroccan substitute teacher initiating a discussion of Morocco and its future. He started with a story that summed up how I, and others, felt about the current situation perfectly. He said that a student in another class was upset about the way she was questioned at an airport. She complained that she was pulled out of line because she was Moroccan. He argued that airport security probably wanted to ask her what was wrong with Morocco? Why isn’t Morocco up in arms like the rest of the Arab world? Why aren’t we seeing more inspiring images of protest out of Casablanca and Rabat?

It took me until just before I left the country in December to truly understand the answer to that question. It is easy to forget that Morocco is an actual monarchy. Not like the toothless ones in Europe, but a real king with absolute power. Sure there’s a parliament, but it means absolutely nothing. And just like my time in Mubarak’s Egypt, I noticed the cult of personality is definitely alive and well. Pictures of Mohammed VI, the current king, are everywhere you look, usually accompanied by a picture of his father, the late Hassan II. And the most amazing this thing is people generally seem to like the king. At least that’s what they’ll tell you, despite the ridiculous amount of money the king spends on usual royal amenities: palaces all over the country, lavish parties, expensive cars, etc.

King Mohammed VI
Image courtesy of

To be fair, there were protests during the Arab Spring that put some pressure on the king, who responded with promises for constitutional reform. And he delivered with the most superficial reforms imaginable. Now the king can no longer appoint the prime minister from whomever he pleases, but instead has to accept the person that the majority party puts forward. But he can still dismiss the prime minister for any reason at any time.

This utter lack of democracy still amazes me. I remember being on a trip to the Tafilalt Oasis, looking out over a local village, when we heard the news that the PJD (Party of Justice and Development), the Islamist party, had actually won. I looked at my Moroccan friend who was completely shocked. Yes, everyone knew that the PJD was the most popular party and was going to win, but nobody thought that the King would actually let them.

Why are Moroccans still backing the king? Well not everyone is. The February 20th Movement is still out protesting the regime. And there are many Moroccan intellectuals who don’t support the regime. But unlike some of the other movements in the Arab world the average Moroccan doesn’t seem ready to take on the king and the monarchy that has been in power since 1631. Part of this could be the dismal state of Morocco’s education system. 48% of Moroccans overall (and 60% of women) are illiterate. There are still many people (usually Amazigh/Berber) that live in the High and Middle Atlas mountains in immense poverty, with very little access to education or clean water; much less Internet tools like Facebook and Twitter that helped mobilize other populations in the region. The richest 10% of the population (usually related to or inside the inner circle of the king) have 33% of the country’s wealth. How are these people supposed to make a connection with the February 20th Movement and fight for their rights when they can’t even read the signs on the road or feed their children? Particularly when those that protest the king often end up tortured and/or imprisoned.

So, I refuse to back Hilary Clinton’s comment that Morocco “is a model for others who are also seeking to have their own democratic reforms.” Morocco is moving towards democracy at a sloth-like rate, initiated only when the people start to protest. Is that what we want for the region? Is this what the Arab world should aspire to? A country where events like the one pictured below are a common occurrence?

Image courtesy of the

If any nation is a model for the region it is Tunisia, which achieved a revolution through peaceful means, followed by free and democratic elections, all within the same year. Sure Tunisia has experienced some instability but overall it has the region’s best chance of becoming the model of which Clinton speaks. Let’s not pretend that Mohammed VI is serious about reform or that Morocco is just months away from achieving true democracy. Whether the Moroccan people can or want to go back out into the streets and demand a real revolution is completely dependent on them. But as of now, Moroccan democracy is nothing but a myth. 

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