Morocco’s Moment of Reform?

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Keen observers of Morocco have long argued that the gradual democratization of the rules of the political game will not materialize without bottom-up pressure from ordinary Moroccans. It is public outrage over corruption and political systems oriented around power and privilege that have served everywhere as a catalyst for systemic change. Despite the popularity of the monarchy in Morocco, there has been a growing mismatch between the public’s aspirations for development and democracy and ruling elites’ insistence that the existing institutional architecture is needed to accommodate gradual reforms while maintaining stability.

In the absence of a credible opposition willing to challenge the monarchy’s prerogatives, it seemed only a severe crisis of governance or external shock could force democratic change onto the policy agenda. That moment finally came with the stunning overthrow of the strongmen of neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. Those dramatic events gave birth to the February 20 protest movement. Despite its relative failure to mobilize large numbers of Moroccans, the protesters—a loose coalition of leftists, liberals and Islamists—injected a new nervousness in the corridors of power. The monarchy quickly grasped that the strength of the leaderless movement did not come from its numbers but from the legitimacy of their demands.

King Mohammed VI’s March 9 speech, in which he outlined parameters for constitutional change, was a direct reaction to the rise of new opposition forces. In an attempt to seize the initiative, he promised wide-ranging reforms, including an elected government and independent judiciary. He announced the formation of an ad-hoc committee entrusted with revising the constitution. The king’s preemptive moves, coming so quickly after the initial protests, helped in stealing some of the opposition’s momentum.

Indeed, the last two months have seen the February 20 movement lose some steam, limiting its ability to reach the levels of popular mobilization seen in Egypt, Yemen or Bahrain. In addition, public perception of the protesters has shifted as the movement struggles to articulate a workable vision for political change while shaking off suspicions it has been hijacked by radical Islamist forces. The horrendous terrorist attack in Marrakesh on April 28—in which 17 were killed—only intensified the uncertainty surrounding the movement and heightened anxiety that social and political agitation could end up benefiting violent Salafi movements.

These fears accentuated with the revolts of Salafi prisoners in May and the hardening of the February 20 demands, as reflected in their calls for cancelling the king’s popular Mawazine Festival (featuring Shakira) and direct attacks on Morocco’s notorious intelligence services (DST) for running secret detention facilities. The protesters’ targeting of the DST came at an inopportune moment, as the agency’s reputation for effectiveness was boosted with its swift arrests of the perpetrators of the Marrakesh attack. The February 20 refusal to back down elicited a violent response from the state’s security services, leading to demonstrations on May 29 in which dozens injured and one killed—the pro-democracy movement’s first “martyr.”

With King Mohammed’s June 17 speech outlining long-awaited constitutional revisions, February 20 finds itself at a difficult crossroads, trying—and struggling—to devise a response to one of the few Arab regimes that has demonstrated a flexible and apparently effective approach to the Arab revolts. Its lack of charismatic leadership and raucous decision-making process have also given the impression of a movement lacking in organizational discipline and riddled with ideological contradictions.

On the eve of the king’s speech, the balance of power between the regime and the protesters had clearly changed from the early months of 2011. In a move that kept labor unions and other syndicates off the streets, the government doubled subsidies, raised public sector salaries, increased minimum wage, recruited 4,300 graduates in the public sector, and cancelled farmers’ debt. Unlike the zero-sum political games of other Arab states facing turmoil, the Moroccan regime skillfully portrayed the promise of top-down reform as a win-win compromise between the old authoritarian constitution and the parliamentary monarchy model demonstrators have been calling for.

The new constitution provides for an “elected” prime minister drawn from the ranks of the largest party in parliament. With the king’s consent, he has the authority to appoint and fire ministers as well as dissolve parliament. Under the proposed reforms, parliament—which had long been relatively weak—now has the potential to play a more assertive role. The exercise of parliamentary oversight of the executive branch is strengthened by lowering the threshold for launching investigations (just one-fifth of its members) and introducing a censure motion against cabinet ministers (one-third). The new constitution also sets into motion a decentralization process, whereby more power is devolved to elected regional councils. On the flip side, the constitution maintains the king’s dominant position in Moroccan politics. He remains the country’s supreme religious and military authority. In matters of security—it is up to the king to decide what exactly that means—he, rather than the prime minister, will have the authority to convene the cabinet. In other words, the king will continue to have veto power over all major decisions.

Despite its failure to significantly limit the king’s powers, the new constitution provides a margin of political maneuverability that did not previously exist. The key question, then, is whether Morocco’s established political parties will use it. The success of the king’s reforms—thus far unrealized—will depend on the ability, or more likely the willingness, of parties and civil society organizations to maintain pressure on the monarchy and push the envelope further. Here, there is little reason to be optimistic. The parties’ responses to the king’s original March 9 speech were disappointing, as evidenced in their timid proposals for constitutional reform.

With few exceptions, none of the parties dared discuss the provisions outlining the king’s religious (article 19), “sacred” (article 23), and legislative (article 29) powers. Even the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD), arguably the country’s only credible opposition actor, adhered strictly to the framework that the king laid out in his two major speeches. It should come as no surprise, then, that the political class assured the public that the proposed constitution exceeded their demands and expectations.

It is perhaps unrealistic—and at odds with much of political history—to expect King Mohammed, however benevolent, to voluntarily diminish his own relevance as monarch. Certainly, he can be blamed for falling short of February 20’s expectations, but the legal opposition, including Islamists and leftists alike, bears responsibility for failing to push harder. Of course, it is difficult to determine the origins of the problem. Political parties, after all, were legalized and allowed to participate in elections because they accepted the king’s legitimacy and prerogatives. They operate in an environment where speech criticizing the king—who the constitution considers “inviolable”—is criminalized.

Many Moroccans hold out hope that the youth wings of the established parties succeed in challenging (and perhaps dislodging) their compromised leadership of patronage-driven elites and politicians. Whatever its tangible successes or failures, the effects of the February 20 movement are undeniable. The movement has helped bring to the fore a new dynamic of young political activists mobilizing against entrenched power structures and calling for greater democracy and representation not just in Morocco as a whole but also within the political parties and organizations of which they are a part.

There is now, then, an unprecedented opportunity for both sides. The new constitution empowers the parliament and the political parties to play a more assertive role—if they choose to play it. The threat of revolt and instability—as well as their own indigenous protest movement—give them bargaining power vis-à-vis the king. Importantly, the constitution’s provisions also allow the king to use his unlimited prerogative to block real changes. What he does, and chooses not to do, is critical. As unlikely as it now seems, the best-case scenario is that the king follows the spirit rather than the letter of the new constitution, respects the will of his people, and resists the urge to intervene in affairs of the elected government. Constitutions matter, but what matters more is what people do with them.

This is where Morocco’s friends in the West come in. The time for prioritizing economic liberalization at the expense of democratic reform is over. While Morocco may be more “progressive” than most its neighbors, it is still a state that relies on political restrictions and repression, albeit with a subtler touch. The United States and the European Union should stop heaping praise on Morocco for being a model of reform it hasn’t yet become. American and EU policy must be re-oriented to focus on a number of critical priorities: freedom of association and speech, constraining the powers of the king and the makhzen (royal court), and strengthening the role of elected institutions, such as parliament. Meanwhile, economic aid, as the new European Neighborhood Policy states, must be linked to the idea of “more for more” with “precise benchmarks and a clearer sequencing of actions.”

King Mohamed has declared his commitment to substantive reform and democratization. It is only fair that the United States and Europe hold him to his own promises. The stakes are considerable. If constitutional reforms lead to separation of powers, independence of the legislature and judiciary, and a monarchy that removes itself from day-to-day rule, the regional implications could indeed be significant. Then—and only then—should Morocco be considered a “model.”