Morocco’s non-revolution (1)

[the first part of some of my notes from a recent research trip to Morocco]

The ‘Arab spring’ has not left Kingdom of Morocco untouched. Protesters across the country demand more limits on royal power and less corruption and clientelism around the palace. Few challenge the monarchy itself, but a wide range of forces demand a system where the king ‘reigns, but does not govern’. King Mohammed VI launched a process of constitutional reforms in an attempt to shore up the monarchy’s legitimacy and be seen as responding to the demands of the ‘Arab spring’. Morocco might not face a revolution, but the road ahead for Morocco might still be quite bumpy.

The political system

Morocco’s political system is a strange-ish hybrid. One the one hand it has a dominant monarchy with strong executive powers. The monarchy dominates political and economic life. The king reigns and governs. Yet, Morocco also has a multi-party system, holds regular elections which are judged as relatively free and fair, and has alternating governments. The parties that win most votes at the election are invited to head the government. But while elections lead to changes of government, the winning parties do not really govern. They might be in government, but they don’t govern; and whereas the political pendulum is swinging once in a while, political power did not.

Such a system is clearly more diffuse and open than the consolidated single-party rule of Ben Ali in Tunisia or Mubarak in Egypt, let alone that of Gaddafi. It also allows the population to let political steam off by voting for various political alternatives. Yet, the system also led to a gradual discreditation of parties. Whereas people voted for alternative parties, they in fact did not get alternative governments. Rather than becoming vehicles for change, the parties were easily co-opted by the system through perks, rents and posts.

The result of such a system is increasing apathy, low election turnout and anti-makhzen (establishment) frustration.  Morocco might have had many parties, but it only had one political actor (a half-joke in Russia says that whether Medvedev stays on as president after 2012 depends on one single vote, that of Vladimir Putin). As a Moroccan journalists puts it: ‘Our parties ceased to pursue power. They are only pursuing posts, since only one person has power in this country – the king’.  The country is ruled by a ‘shadow government’ of advisors to the king, not by the ministers. (Again this closely resembles the Russian political system during Putin’s presidency where real power lied in the Presidential administration, not the government).

Commander of the Faithful

Any conversation on politics in Morocco reveals relatively quickly attitudes to the royal house. Those who refer to the monarch as the ‘king’ are more critical than those who refer to the monarch as ‘His Majesty’. But even loyalists start to have questions. A member of the currently ‘ruling’ Istiklal party says that ‘His Majesty initiates and launches all the ‘grand chantiers’, such as motorways or high-speed-rail. He always brings the good news. The achievements are of the king, and all the failures – are because of the government. That’s a problem.’ Whereas the king is always seen inaugurating something and getting the credit, the ministers are seen as bad and corrupt.

The king is clearly not a Ben Ali style dictator. The monarchy as an institution, and we the king as a person are genuinely popular. The royal house is over 300 years old, descends from the prophet and the King is Amir al Muminin, ie commander of the faithful. This is a role that is hard to pin down, but seems to have real meaning in the Moroccan political culture.

The Monarchy has for decades played skilfully on two stages as a centrist force for good. One stage catered to a traditional Islamic audience, and the other to a modernist one. As a local expert puts it the ‘crown has a double legitimacy: it constantly alternates between showing its modernist face and then its Islamic face’. For decades the monarchy controlled the middle ground, sometimes playing to one audience and sometimes to the other, alternating between Islamic legitimacy and modernising legitimacy. One the one hand, the king is the driver of modernising projects, openness to tourists (the number of tourist in Morocco rose from 2.2 million in 2002 to 8 million in 2008), free trade with the EU, moderate emancipation of women. This buys him the support of the urban middle classes, the establishment and, quite importantly, the EU and the US. Yet, he is also supportive of pretty rigid religious policies. In Morocco one cannot even change sects (turning from a Sunni into a Shia, for example), let alone change religion or be openly atheist, without fear of reprisals from the state.

Gouvernant ou commerҫant

The monarchy might have played well on two scenes for decades, but playing a third role might have been one too many. In addition to being commander of the faithful and the de facto head of government, the king and his entourage are also the most important business actors in the country. The political system might have been more pluralist than in Tunisia and Egypt, and even if economic power is also slightly more diffused, the system reproduces the model of convergence of economic power, cronyism and rent-seeking around the palace so common in the Middle East.

For years discussing or questioning the affairs of the king in the media was an absolute taboo. The king was untouchable. Those who dared touch the king could be exiled, imprisoned or fined at best. But the toppling of Ben Ali in Tunisia opened the gates to a flood of questions and debates about the king. This debate is still prudent. Newspapers do not venture into discussing specific business ventures, yet they question whether the king should be as involved in business as he is. An expert from Casablanca puts in stark terms: ‘The king should decide if he wants to govern or do business. If he wants to do politics, he should not be doing business.’ Certainly the issue is not related just to the king. Like in any centralised system there is always a whole bunch of family members, advisors or friends who are extremely successful businessmen.

This is of course superimposed on a stark background of social inequalities.  For the last decade Morocco had healthy economic growth, but little redistribution. The government seems obsessed with infrastructure spending. In Casablanca and Rabat new and modern tram lines are built that seems more majestic than the tram system in cities like Brussels or Budapest. The government invests EUR 2 billion in a high-speed rail. Yet for all for all its relative openness and projects aimed at economic modernisation, the country has a stark illiteracy rate of 45%, compared to Egypt’s 34%, Tunisia’s 23% or Algeria’s 24%. Morocco’s levels of illiteracy are lower than those of Sudan, Haiti and Rwanda, though its GDP/per capita 2 to 4 times larger, according to UN data. Besides illiteracy, the underpinning of the system are also shaky. Social and economic inequalities in Rabat’s sprawling posh suburbs are bigger than those of Tunis, as are Casablanca’s slums. Abdelillah Benkirane, the leader of the Islamist Party of Justice and Development, sumed it up in the following way: ‘our ministers are richer than yours (in Europe), and our rich live better than yours’. This sounds like a good populist punchline, but reflects a widespread feeling.