Morocco’s modernity has been nurtured by a monarchy, the oldest ruling monarchy in the Arab world. The royal family has typically enjoyed popular support and has proven to be more stable and willing to embrace change than the various self-styled “revolutionary” regimes that have emerged in the Middle East since the period of independence. The monarchy is central to understanding Morocco’s apparent progressiveness, particularly in contrast to the rest of the Arab world.
Morocco’s King is also known under the title “Amir al-Mu’minin,” or “Commander of the Believers,” and, in a sense, he is the Caliph (religious leader), for he holds temporal as well as religious authority. This power stems from the claim that the Moroccan royal family belongs to the Alaouite dynasty and descends directly from the Prophet Mohammed. In practical terms, this means that the monarch acts as the protector of the Maliki rite (one of the four main juridical schools of Islam, which prevails in North Africa) with a view toward tolerance of other faiths and against extremism.
The monarchy has rooted itself in the Moroccan social fabric as it was established 12 centuries ago. This has given it a solid foundation from which to embrace the social and economic values that the West typically associates with modernity. The current King is Mohammed VI and he was installed in 1999.
Mohammed VI has perpetuated the policies of his father and predecessor, Hassan II, who established close ties to Europe and the United States. The current monarch has also encouraged social and economic reforms during his decade in power that have acted as a shock absorber in the face of the revolts and demands for sociopolitical change seen in many parts of the Arab world in 2011.
The current monarch has encouraged social and economic reforms that have acted as a shock absorber in the face of the revolts and demands for sociopolitical change seen in many parts of the Arab world in 2011.
Over the past decade, the monarchy has enabled the emergence of associations which bring together recent and unemployed university graduates in order to help them find work. These associations operate like unions and they have often protested in front of parliament, serving as an outlet to express anger. In many Arab countries this kind of social anger absorption has usually been performed by Islamic associations and movements.
Islamic movements also exist in Morocco, but unlike elsewhere, they do not hold a monopoly on “protest” and anger as they have to compete with secular associations that have been officially permitted by the State. This level of free association is typically viewed with suspicion in Arab regimes, but it shows that while the monarchy rules Morocco in a less liberal way than would a Western democracy, political culture is distant from the authoritarianism that has characterized most Arab regimes.
Even in the turmoil of the “Arab Spring,” Moroccans (especially those who formed the so-called “February 20” movement) demanded a drastic reduction in the King’s powers, motivated by the desire for reforms. But they did not demand an end to the monarchy or even that Mohammad VI step down. Mohammad VI responded by holding a constitutional referendum in June 2011 to bring his rule closer in line to that of a constitutional monarchy.
The referendum has limited the powers of the monarchy, which lost its authority to restrict the number of seats that a given political party might occupy in parliament, as this could have been used to minimize the influence of “uncomfortable” parties such as those inspired by the Islamists of the “Justice and Development” leaning. And most significantly, rather than being appointed by the monarch, the Prime Minister is the leader of the party that earns the most votes.
The constitutional reforms – which also formally recognized the Tamazight (Berber) language – left the King’s status as Amir al-Mu’minin, meaning his decisions are still deemed infallible, and as such cannot be criticized. Moreover, the reforms did not curtail the King’s power to issue royal decrees, or limit his authority over the interior, foreign affairs, defense, and Islamic matters. The King also retained his power to dissolve both Houses of Parliament.
Moroccans have developed a sense of political participation, which raises optimism that changes in society and politics will come about in an evolutionary rather than revolutionary way.
Nevertheless, the reforms granted more powers to parliament and its electoral success, suggesting that Moroccans are enthusiastic about achieving change through the ballot box. The almost 77 percent turnout at the referendum indicated that, even as many of their fellow Arab States struggled to make democratic mechanisms work, Moroccans have developed a sense of political participation, which raises optimism that changes in society and politics will come about in an evolutionary rather than revolutionary way.
Even if, as some critics have accused, the referendum was “cosmetic” and not all that different from two such processes used by Hassan II in the 1960s to promulgate constitutional changes that ultimately left the status quo intact, the last 20 years have seen important reforms that have established a level of modernity that does not exist in other parts of the Arab world. Certainly, reforms such as the Family Code (Mudawana), the Anti-Corruption Decree, the Right to Work, the Right to Health, or even the specialized Road Behavior Code are unique in the Maghreb.
These reforms suggest that the country has been on a course toward democratization and liberalization for some time; it has not approached democracy overnight. The government has long been keen to improve the conditions for business, while simultaneously pursuing social progress, improving healthcare and access to water and education, and strengthening civil society.
Morocco has also held talks with the United States to set up a free trade area, making Morocco an even more progressive nation.
Judicial, economic, and social reforms have been geared toward making the country more competitive in this context as well. Morocco has also held talks with the United States to set up a free trade area, making Morocco an even more progressive nation.
Civil society has remained Morocco’s true strength. The social fabric is rich with cooperatives, associations, and groups, such as – but not limited to – the Makhzin that favor the interaction of the people with politics. Women enjoy rights that are unheard of in other Arab countries. They can divorce, travel alone, and live independently.
Agriculture remains a strong sector and there is adequate infrastructure, while the mining and extractive industries are growing, and industrial sectors are expanding as many car manufacturers have set up assembly facilities in the country. Even in more advanced areas, Morocco has been conducting research on renewable energy. In essence, it is as if Morocco, more than other Arab countries, has been able to shed a sort of inferiority complex that enables it to integrate with the rest of the world at a deeper level.