Morocco’s King Mohammed VI: 10 Years and Counting

On July 30, 2009 members of parliament, regional governors, ulema, business elites and notables from all corners of the kingdom gathered at the Royal Palace in Tangier to celebrate the tenth anniversary of King Mohammed VI’s ascendance to the throne. His father Hassan II reigned with a brutal hand for close to 40 years, using repression to consolidate his power base and valuing stability over human development.

Before his death, however, King Hassan decided to

reconcile with the historic opposition.

He launched a series of political reforms in hopes of ensuring a smooth transition of power to his son. Constitutional reforms in 1992 and 1996 granted greater oversight powers to the parliament and the prime minister. The nomination by Hassan II in 1998 of Prime Minister Abderrahmane Youssoufi – culled from the historical opposition – appeared to put the nation on the path to democracy. Press freedom reached heights never before seen in Morocco and freedom of association also continued to expand, enduring into the beginning of King Mohammed’s reign.

In his first years in office, King Mohammed took actions signaling a break with the old ways of Morocco’s past and a commitment to an open, democratically ruled and prosperous society. He sacked the longtime interior minister, Driss Basri, believed to be responsible for some of Morocco’s most egregious human rights violations; launched an free-trade agreement with the United States, have drawn increased foreign direct investment and sought to establish Morocco as a major player in the Mediterranean economic area, in which it now boasts a major port project (Tangier MED) and plans to build a new Renault factory.

While the king’s vision and support for these projects has been crucial to their success, the same appetite for reforms challenging the king’s authority or economic privileges has been lacking. Today, just over ten years after Morocco’s experiment with political liberalization began, Morocco resembles an absolute monarchy much more than the democracy to which it rhetorically aspires.

The Elusive Political Liberalization

Despite the new spirit King Mohammed’s reign has breathed into politics and economics, it is not clear that much has changed in the basic balance of power. The palace has refused any attempt at constitutional reforms that would empower parliament by limiting the royal mandate, which stretches to nearly all facets of society. Even new development initiatives, such as the royally backed National Initiative for Human Development (INDH), remain controlled by the Interior Minister and funds are frequently distributed by palace-appointed regional governors to loyal civil society startup organizations.

The absence of any plausible separation of powers has solidified an environment in which government accountability is hard to achieve. In recent years, journalists deemed overly critical of the king have been taken to court and given jail time or disproportionately high fines, forcing some to leave the country and others to close their publications. Just this week, issues of Tel Quel and Nichane were banned for publishing an opinion poll on the monarchy. In a telling defense of the ban, government spokesman, Khalid Naciri, proclaimed that “the monarchy cannot be the object of debate, even through a poll.”

Decades of co-optation have led to an increasingly apathetic and controlled political class. Despite the implementation of reserved seats for women, parliament still functions as a boys club for supporting royal projects. The legislative agenda is set by the king’s advisors and current Prime Minister Abbas El Fassi has even stated publicly that he is implementing the “king’s program" – dispelling any illusions as to the significance of party platforms or ideology.

Politics are popularly viewed as a game, or theatre, where the space to maneuver is so constricted that outcomes rarely affect the circumstances of ordinary Moroccans. King Mohammed deserves credit for adamantly supporting a more transparent electoral process. Nonetheless, vote-buying and manipulation remain rampant, thus calling into question whether those who do vote are expressing their political preferences, or just making sure they can get dinner on the table. As a result of the political stagnation, a large majority of citizens have decided not to participate in elections. In the 2007 parliamentary balloting, only 37% of the registered voters turned out, and one-fifth of those who voted cast spoiled ballots.

Finally, there is the impact of terrorism and political violence. The Casablanca terrorist attacks on May 16, 2003 had a dramatic impact on the country’s political situation. They helped spur a resurgence of the security forces and sparked, in effect, a limited return to practices which marked the years of Hassan II: illegal detention, torture and repression of the Islamist opposition.

Old Wine in New Bottles?

With the creation of the new Party for Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), real democracy in Morocco seems more elusive than ever. Founded less than a year ago by the king’s close friend and former Deputy Interior Minister, Fouad Ali El Himma, the PAM’s perceived royal sponsorship attracted parliamentary deputies left and right. The new party went from boasting just three deputies to leading the largest parliamentary group in a matter of months. With its first-place finish in the June ’09 local elections, the party is positioning itself as a long-term stability buffer for the palace, capable of securing a majority in parliament and marginalizing other parties.

The influence peddling, misuse of intelligence services and local administration forces, invocation of royal mandate, and outright manipulation used by the PAM (with regime support) to isolate the Islamist opposition following local elections should be enough to make even the most optimistic observer worried. Mustapha El Mansouri, the former parliamentary coalition partner of El Himma and president of the Chamber of Representatives, even recently lashed out, “The PAM is an instrument for the return of the country to the years of lead.”

The creation of the PAM appears dubious indeed to Morocco’s true opposition parties. For them, this new party embodies a return to the preeminence of the partis administratifs – or loyal, co-opted parties – which used their favor with the palace to dominate elections from the 1970s to 1990s. In fact, unless major constitutional reforms are undertaken to redistribute power to elected institutions, the Morocco of King Mohammed VI will soon come to resemble nothing so much as a blast from the past.