The lesson Arab autocrats seemed to learn from Egypt and Tunisia was almost the exact opposite of what democracy advocates were hoping for. Instead of using less force, leaders across the region have been using more of it, reaching unusual levels of brutality. Shocking reports of mass rape and torture have emerged in Syria and Libya, where thousands have been killed. In Bahrain, a close U.S. ally and home of the Navy’s Fifth Fleet, thousands have been arrested or dismissed from their jobs. Indeed, the “Arab spring” has turned into what political scientist Gregory Gause colorfully calls the “winter of Arab discontent.”
In a season of growing disillusion—and disastrous televised speeches—the king of Morocco’s June 17 national address stood out. It wasn’t a great speech, and it fell well short of protesters’ demands. But it was a substantive engagement with the opposition. The 47-year-old monarch did not demean his own people or place the blame on foreign conspirators. Instead, he announced a new constitution—one that has the potential to reshape the country’s politics. While retaining effective veto power over major decisions, he pledged to empower elected institutions. The prime minister, drawn from the ranks of the largest party in parliament, would have the authority to appoint and fire ministers, as well as to dissolve parliament.
Morocco is offering the rest of the Arab world a different “model.” And it is one that other monarchs will be watching closely. It is not a model of true democratic transition toward British-style “constitutional monarchy,” as Moroccan Prime Minister Abbas al-Fasi recently claimed. There is little evidence to suggest King Mohammed VI is ready to merely reign and not rule. The Moroccan monarchy has a long history of failing to deliver on its promises of reform.