The Arab Leaders ‘Class of 1999’

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.

Four Arab monarchs ascended the throne between 1999 and 2000, yet only one of them has handled the Arab Spring in a way that has bolstered his popularity. In Syria, Bashar al-Asad, who succeeded his father Hafez in 2000, has plunged the country into civil war in a desperate effort to maintain his authoritarian grasp on power; King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain, who took power from his father in 1999, faces continued protests from a discontented Shi’i majority; and King Abdullah of Jordan, who also came to the throne in 1999, has still not answered persistent calls, in particular from the strong Islamist opposition, for a transition to constitutional monarchy. Among this Class of 1999/2000, King Muhammad VI of Morocco, who took power upon his father King Hassan II’s death in 1999, has been uniquely successful in navigating the instability of the Arab revolutions. He has not only retained power over the state, but has also launched a credible process of genuine reform, which has enjoyed the backing of all major opposition groups. As we approach three years since the start of the Arab uprisings and at a time when Arab states are going through tumultuous and often tormented transitions, particularly Egypt and Libya, as well as Syria, the Moroccan monarch’s success is all the more impressive.

King Muhammad VI’s reform program has long been a priority, as he has repeatedly stressed the need for increased institutionalization and good governance. His creation of the Equity and Reconciliation Commission in 2004 signaled the king’s desire to settle past human rights abuses that took place under his father’s regime in the 1960s-1980s. Furthermore, the passage of a new “modern Family Law” in 2004 granted new rights to women, in terms of both family law and personal status, in addition to institutionalizing rules for child custody and establishing a minimum age of marriage.

Despite these reforms, implementation has proven challenging in a state which Transparency International recently urged to take action against rampant corruption. Further complicating the king’s reform program was the Arab Spring. In February 2011, protests of hundreds of thousands broke out in 53 cities across the nation under the banner of the February 20 Youth Movement, calling for more representative government. King Muhammad VI responded to this outcry not by using disproportionate force or by dismissing the popular demands as unrealistic, but rather by announcing in March “comprehensive constitutional reform.” The reform of the constitution began in 2011, representing its fifth modification since its initial adoption in 1962. The latest set of revisions was made by a group of Moroccan citizens, signaling an effort by the ruling monarch to create a document with support from the grass roots. The resulting document, which was passed in a referendum in summer of 2011, substantially increased the power of the elected government, while also enshrining gender equality and providing legal support for a number of human rights and civil liberties.

Following this constitutional reform, parliamentary elections were held ahead of schedule, in July 2011. The Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD), a traditional opposition party, won a majority of the seats, stressing its commitment to reducing corruption while also voicing enthusiastic support for the constitutional reform. Surprisingly, though Islamists compose the majority party in parliament, Morocco has thus far avoided the types of secular-Islamist clashes witnessed by Tunisia after Al-Nahda successfully came to power. This is in part due to the fact that the PJD has long downplayed its calls for the implementation of sharia, focusing instead on the practical matter of gaining seats in parliament. A less ideologically organized Islamist group is therefore more willing to engage with secularists. Furthermore, King Muhammad VI, positioning himself as “commander of the faithful” and consistently highlighting the importance of “safeguard[ing] the Islamic identity,” has made overtures that have helped to smooth his relationship with his country’s largest opposition movement. The king also has legitimacy in launching initiatives with the country’s religious establishment to promote the moderate strand of Maliki Islamic thought. All of this has helped Morocco achieve an unprecedented level of social peace in such a religiously diverse area of the Middle East; the country’s one percent Christian population and long-standing Jewish community are able to openly practice their faith, although Islam remains the state religion.

With political reform set in place domestically, Morocco’s king has begun to play a larger regional role, his visit to Mali with French President Francois Hollande a recent example. In the Sahel, Morocco can play a more useful role as part of enhanced regional efforts to combat terrorism rather than relying solely on the Algerian security state as the United States and Europe seem to have done. Furthermore, the traditional ties between Morocco and the wealthy nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have helped to boost Morocco’s lagging economy. King Muhammad VI has become an important ally and trusted advisor to key Gulf monarchs, even as full Moroccan membership into the Council seems more distant. Morocco’s role in the international community should only increase in the future, particularly given its unique strategic location at the center of four overlapping circles of influence (the Atlantic, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa).

All of this is not to say that Morocco faces no challenges. Indeed, it faces severe economic difficulties, including a poverty rate of 9 percent and youth unemployment of almost 18 percent. Furthermore, an under performing education system has produced a population with a 67 percent literacy rate. In addition, the underdevelopment of the Western Sahara remains both a major security, economic, and political concern. Another political concern is growing opposition in parliament. Though the Tamarod movement saw great success in Egypt and Tunisia, it has failed to gain traction in Morocco, with its Rabat chapter, the largest, consisting of only 24 members. Nonetheless, Istiqlal, a secular party in parliament,announced in May its intention to quit its current coalition with the ruling PJD largely due to the party’s poor economic management, including its slashing of subsidies. It remains to be seen whether this split in the ruling coalition will affect Morocco’s domestic political stability.

Despite the number of challenges he has faced, King Muhammad VI has been the only member of the Class of 1999/2000 to successfully weather the Arab Spring. His willingness to engage in genuine reforms and his ability to appeal to opposition groups has set him apart. So too has been his encouragement of political and constitutional reforms, which if they continue over time, may drastically reduce his power — an unprecedented development in the region. For now, fighting corruption, ending poverty, and improving education seem to be the priority and are genuinely desired by the Moroccan people. That is why, in his 30 July speech, King Muhammad VI encouraged the government by stating that: “the main goal of economic growth remains the achievement of social justice, which is the bedrock of social cohesion.”