You probably won’t be surprised to hear it, but there is something potentially very important going on that isn’t getting the attention it deserves. It’s happening in Morocco, where King Muhammad VI recently began to lay out the key provisions of a new constitution–something he first promised several months ago in response to popular protests as the Arab spring swept across his Kingdom.
In some ways, this is not surprising. The young Moroccan King has always seemed to understand the need for reform and has pursued it, albeit haltingly, even before the Arab spring and the public demonstrations in Morocco began. Indeed, the limited reforms the King had already introduced were almost certainly a key reason that popular unrest in Morocco never reached anything like that seen in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain, Syria or elsewhere.
The new constitution would create a very different political system in Morocco—and one very different from the autocratic regimes that have dominated the Muslim Middle East for so long. It would create a popularly elected parliament with a prime minister chosen by the parliament, not by the King, as is the norm in the Arab world. The parliament would have authority for Morocco’s economy, its domestic politics and most aspects of the regulation of its civil society. The King would remain pre-eminent in the national security sphere creating a system somewhat analogous to the French polity.
What’s so important about what the Moroccan King has done is that he is forging a different model of change in the Arab world—one often talked about but so far honored entirely in the breach rather than the observance. For decades, Arab autocrats have promised change and done little. Even today, as we see from Libya to Bahrain and Syria to Yemen, many of the region’s rulers are reacting to the demands for change from their people with repression. Egypt and Tunisia (and arguably Libya) have demonstrated that repression can only work for so long in holding power for the autocrats, and when repression fails it typically produces revolution…and failed states, civil war and other forms of disorder. Revolutions themselves are extremely dangerous and unpredictable events. We should all wish the Egyptians and Tunisians well, and do as much as we can to help them, but we should not be wishing for more revolutions as the right solution for others in the Arab world.
Reform—real, meaningful, deliberate, but gradual and controlled change—has always been the better answer to the woes of the Arab world. So far, we have not yet seen a model of real reform in the Muslim Middle East, one that was determined and far-reaching. The King of Morocco is now designing just such a model. There is still a long road to be tread in Morocco and we will all have to wait to see if the King holds to the bold vision he has laid out. But if he does, it will produce a very different kind of Arab state, one that may just be comfortable for its ruling elite AND address the legitimate demands of its people. If so, it will be the model of what meaningful, gradual, peaceful change in the Arab world could and should look like. And if that is the case, it will transform not just Morocco, but the entire region exactly as we and the people of the region hope.