It feels strange visiting a country like Morocco and listening to people extol the virtues of a political system my country waged a revolution against. Morocco has a king, and he’s a real one too, not some kind of a figurehead. But I went there, I listened, and after almost ten years of visiting Middle Eastern countries wracked by tyranny, terrorism, botched revolutions, and wars, I was perhaps a bit more willing to hear what they had to say than I might have been a decade ago.
A monarchy is a tough sell for Americans. The founders of our country fought against that system of government with force of arms. The very idea of a king is offensive to most of us on some level. It’s in our cultural and political DNA.
Yet Morocco has been an American ally and friend since 1786. Our alliance is not a wafer thin transactional one like it is with Saudi Arabia. It’s real. Morocco is a major non-NATO ally. So from a strict national interest perspective, there’s nothing complicated about our friendship with Morocco.
But what about politically? The Shah of Iran was a monarch, and look what our friendship with him got us: shouts of “Death to America” on the streets of Tehran during the 1979 revolution that are still repeated even today by Iran’s tyrannical government.
Monarchies are by definition not democratic. They are, however, more stable than anything else in the Middle East and North Africa at the moment. Elliot Abrams, in an essay for Commentary called “Dictators Go, Monarchs Stay ,” describes a meeting he had with former Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2005 when the Bush Administration was scheduling elections in Iraq. “The Iraqis were incapable of democracy, [Mubarak] argued; you don’t understand them like I do; they need a general to rule them.”
But now the “big men” in the “fake republics,” as Abrams described them, have almost all been overthrown while the monarchs remain. The kings on their thrones have staying power and they are not come-latelies. They have tradition on their side, at least.
Morocco’s King Mohammad VI is said to be a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammad. I asked some people in the capital Rabat if that’s really true. Everybody said yes. I asked how they know it’s true. The answer was always the same. “We just know.” Is it true? I’ve no idea. But everyone seems to think it is, or at least says that it is, and in any case the Alaoui family has ruled the country without interruption for hundreds of years.
The previous king, Mohammad’s father Hassan II, ruled more or less as an absolute monarch, and his ministry of the interior ran what basically amounted to a police state. The so-called Years of Lead , from the 1960s to the 1980s, were characterized by heavy state repression against opposition movements of both the left and the right, some of which were heavily armed. I don’t know if the word “lead” in that description refers to the use of ammunition or to just the general heaviness of the era. It works either way.
The lead years were rough. The lead years were brutal. The lead years made Morocco a sadly typical country in the Middle East and North Africa at the time.
Then in 2004, Mohammad VI, five years after ascending the throne, established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission—the Instance Equité et Réconciliation—theonly one in the world I’m aware of that didn’t follow on the heels of a regime change. Victims of internal repression by Hassan II were rehabilitated and compensated. The young king encouraged everyone to let it all out, to voice their complaints and their grievances, to do so in public and even to scream if they wanted—and he encouraged them to do so against his own father.
Yet two million mourners attended King Hassan’s funeral. One man in Rabat explained the psychology to me this way: “He was a really tough daddy. But he was daddy.”
Monarchs still exist in the modern world, but they are not modern. They’re relics from feudal times. They probably won’t exist anywhere a century from now except as honorary figures like the king of Belgium—whose name (Albert II) I had to look up.
But real kings with real power still govern in 2013, and one of them is in Morocco. And since the region’s biggest problems right now are terrorism, tyranny, and war, there are a few questions aside from the obvious that we ought to be asking. First, is a monarchical autocracy better or worse than an autocracy run by a military dictatorship, a theocracy, or a police state? Second, is the monarch in question contributing to his country’s political modernization and liberalization—which of course greases the skids to his eventual marginalization—or not? If the answer to that second question is yes, here’s a third: Is a slow transition to political liberalism better or worse than the kind of destabilizing transformation that follows revolutions?
Here’s a more general question: if you can’t have both, would you rather have liberalism without democracy, or democracy without liberalism? (I’m using the word liberalism here in the broad and general sense, not in the parochial American sense that describes only the center-left wing of the Democratic Party. Both American parties are more or less liberal.)
That dilemma is now a bit softer in Morocco than it was, though, because since 2011 it has been—at least on paper—a constitutional monarchy, a system of government that’s partly democratic and partly autocratic. Wikipedia puts Australia and Great Britain alongside Morocco on its list of constitutional monarchies , but this is misleading. Britain’s political system is far more like that of the United States than it is like Morocco’s. King Mohammad VI is extraordinarily powerful compared with the Queen of England. But it’s equally clear that Mohammad VI is a very different man from his father Hassan II. The political system the son currently presides over is one that his father might scarcely recognize.
Nadia Bernoussi is a professor of constitutional law at the Ecole Nationale d'Administration in Rabat. The king appointed her to the nineteen-person judicial council that drafted a new constitution that was ratified in 2011.
“This was the first time in the history of Morocco,” she said, “that the process of writing a new constitution was transparent, inclusive, and participatory. Under Hassan II, all the constitutional reform was done by himself with the help of a few specialists from France. It was a solitary authoritarian process. The new king told us, ‘you’re the engineers of the new constitution.’ He also appointed a second committee made up of representatives from the political parties.”
Of the nineteen people on the judicial council, five were women, one was Jewish, one was from the Sahara, one was from the Islamic ulema, one came from the magistracy, five were professors of constitutional law, and the rest were professors of political science. A handful were prisoners during the lead years of Hassan II.
“The majority were in favor of progressive politics, the equality of women and men, and secularism,” she said. “A second committee was represented by thirty three political parties and five trade unions. The parties of the extreme left and the extreme right were not invited.”
I asked her to define those terms for me. What do “extreme left” and “extreme right” mean in the context of Morocco?
“Unreconstructed communists on the left,” she said, “and radical Islamists on the right.”
They stripped the king of a great deal of his power. They did it with his blessing, of course—otherwise they couldn’t have done it.
Mohammad VI has nowhere near as much power, at least on paper, than the amount he inherited. That hardly means he’s a figurehead. Not at all. He is still a real king. He has plenty of legal power, and an extraordinary amount of non-legal political influence. “We could not take away all the king’s power,” she said. “The society isn’t ready and we didn’t have the authority.”
The second committee—the one made up of representatives from the trade unions and political parties—was not as liberal as the king’s hand-picked committee.
“The vision we on the judicial committee had was the dream of an elite,” she said. “The traditional political parties wouldn’t follow us. For instance, our draft of the constitution included freedom of conscience—the freedom to have no religion or to change your religion. I’d have the freedom to become Christian or Jewish. But the conservative parties wouldn’t agree, and freedom of conscience disappeared from the constitution. But we added other provisions that added up to the same thing—freedom of thinking and freedom from discrimination.”
You can read the constitutional changes yourself right here . Morocco’s constitutional changes look a whole lot better than Egypt’s . Mohammad VI is a more liberal man than Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammad Morsi, and the constitutions were drafted under each man’s direction. Yet Morsi was elected and Mohammad VI was born into the job. So here’s an awkward question for Westerners: Is Morocco’s constitution more liberal than Egypt’s despite the fact that the king wasn’t elected or partly because of the fact that an unelected head of state appointed the draft committee himself?
Morocco’s constitution is a startling document, and not just because the king lost some of his legal power at his own acquiescence. There are other things in there, too, things that are all but unthinkable in most Arab countries right now. For instance, Morocco is legally and formally described as “a sovereign Muslim state, committed to the ideals of openness, moderation, tolerance and dialogue to foster mutual understanding among all civilizations.” And then there is this: Morocco is defined—correctly, I should add—as “a nation whose unity is based on the fully endorsed diversity of its constituents: Arabic, Amazigh, Hassani, Sub-Saharan, African, Andalusian, Jewish and Mediterranean.” [Emphasis added.]
Describing Morocco as having a partially Jewish identity is not just a sop to Western observers. Anti-Semitism exists in Morocco, for sure, but it’s not as strong as it is elsewhere in the Arab world. Thousands of Jews still live there, just as they do in Tunisia, and they’ve been there for more than a thousand years. Jewish contribution to Moroccan culture is just a fact. Only a liar or ignoramus could deny that.
But there’s a big difference between the Jewish community of Tunisia and the Jewish community of Morocco aside from the fact that Morocco’s is bigger. Jewish schools in Tunisia are only for Jews. But Jews run schools in Morocco that are attended mostly by Muslim children. Morocco’s Jews run some of the best schools in the country, and everyone knows it. Upper and middle class families want their children to go to the Jewish schools even if they aren’t Jewish, just as many middle class American families send their children to Catholic schools even if they aren’t religious at all, let alone Catholic. Morocco’s Jewish schools are extremely competitive. Nothing even remotely like them exists in any other Arab country. I was surprised to learn this. Moroccans were surprised and slightly annoyed that I was surprised.
Israelis are also welcome in Morocco. They can and regularly do travel there on their own passports. They don’t have to visit on second passports while hiding their identity as they do in most Arab countries. It’s no longer even a secret that Morocco has friendly behind-the-scenes relations with Israel much like Jordan did before the peace treaty was signed by King Hussein in 1994. This state of affairs is almost certainly because Mohammad VI has a more moderate view of the Arab-Israeli conflict than the population at large, though I should point out that I detected a complete lack of hysteria about Israel among the Moroccan elitists I spoke to, something I can’t say about any other Arab country, period, not even Tunisia.
“Our intention,” Bernoussi said, “was not to hobble the monarchy, but to clearly set out the responsibilities for each branch of the government. Because the context we were working in was the Arab Spring that’s sweeping the region and all of its dangers. We didn’t want to hobble the monarchy because we looked to the monarchy to ensure the changes we were making wouldn’t get lost. The monarchy is the only institution that everybody has confidence in.”
“What do the Islamists think of the king?” I said.
“I don’t really know,” she said, “but my friends in Tunisia and Egypt say to me how lucky I am because we have someone who can balance everything out. My Tunisian friends on both the left and the right say this.”
The king and the government have separate powers now, separate areas of responsibility. Mohammad VI handles strategic sovereign questions—war, peace, and the like—while the government deals with the public—the economy, the budget, urban issues, and so on. In other words, the king takes care of Morocco and the government takes care of Moroccans.
“The king hasn’t retired from the government,” she said. “What changed is that the parliament has entered the government. Because before we didn’t have a real parliament. The king can’t make laws by himself anymore. He can’t issue executive orders.”
“But what if he did it anyway?” I said.
“Then we would have a serious political crisis.”
Moroccan journalist Abderrahman Aadaoui laughed when I asked him if he needs a license from the government to practice his profession. “Of course not,” he said, as if my question was bizarre. But journalists in plenty of Arab countries do need a license. They are heavily regulated by the dictators they write about. Not sufficiently toeing the party line? Say goodbye to your license and income, perhaps your family and home, and maybe even your life.
Aadaoui graduated with a degree in English literature from University Mohammad V in 1985 and he works today as the moderator of a weekly political show called “Issues and Opinion” on Moroccan TV.
I asked him about red lines in the media. Surely they must exist. All Arab countries have red lines. They aren’t the same everywhere, but they exist everywhere. And of course they exist in Morocco, as well.
The red lines are these: You can’t bang on the king. You can’t bang on Islam. And you can’t question the territorial integrity of Morocco—meaning you can’t say the still-disputed Western Sahara region belongs to the Polisario, a guerrilla army backed by the Soviet Union that tried to take over the region after the Spanish imperialists left.
Theoretically Moroccan journalists can say whatever they want about anything else, including the parliament and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“But Moroccans can even cross those lines now to an extent,” Aadaoui said. “They can write about the king and argue about Islam.”
“Can you say terrible things about the king?” I said.
He smiled and laughed. “Well, it depends,” he said. “What do you mean by terrible? You can talk about his fortune, his wealth. People are talking about that right now. You can talk about his personal life. There used to be a red line, a wall, that has been destroyed. The word wall is better than line. Like the Berlin Wall, every day someone takes another brick out of it.”
“As far as liberty,” he continued, “Morocco has recently gone from zero percent to 95 percent. But we don’t have total freedom. Once in a while somebody goes to jail. And people ask, how come during the reign of Hassan II nobody went to jail? The reason is because no one wrote about anything controversial. Those were real red lines back in that day. No one had the right to write anything about the king except what was official, the things he was doing. Now people take the initiative and write about the king.”
Moroccan journalists do get arrested sometimes, and not only for crossing those red lines. For instance, in 2011 Rachid Niny, a controversial newspaper publisher, was jailed for a year  for supposedly publishing “disinformation” about Morocco’s intelligence agency.
Because of incidents of that sort, and because of the red lines, Freedom House ranks  Morocco’s press as “not free” even while listing Morocco as a “partly free” country.
Aadaoui thinks that’s grossly unfair.
“Freedom House,” he said, “is critical of Moroccan press freedom because they were expecting 100 percent freedom. They shouldn’t make judgments about the current era without taking into consideration what we had before. There was enormous oppression. We weren’t allowed to say one single word. I left during King Hassan’s reign. I went to the United States. And when I came back, Morocco was a different country. You had to have lived in the period before to enjoy what we have now.”
I can understand his frustration, but that doesn’t make Freedom House wrong. The ranking doesn’t by itself reveal that Morocco is more free than it used to be, but it’s nevertheless the case that the media isn’t yet free. The rating is accurate even if Aadaoui is right that the press is more free than it used to be.
Aadaoui sees a glass that’s half full while Freedom House sees a glass that’s half empty. They’re both right. They even agree with each other. Neither disputes the fact that half the glass is filled with water while the other is nothing but air.
He and I discussed the society as well as the media. Morocco is an inherently conservative place. Change occurs gradually and very carefully over very long stretches of time. That’s how it has always been there. That’s one of the reasons Morocco still has a king with actual power long after its European neighbors across the Mediterranean got rid of the theirs.
But this is the 21st century, and no culture is static.
“The modern political parties talk about separating religion from government,” he said. “This is new. But you should understand something. You see all this modernity around you.” I did, indeed, see a modern-looking country around me. “We’re modern in the street, but we are conservative when we go home. We have two faces. A man may watch a pornographic movie outside, but if he’s home with his wife and he sees a kiss on the TV he might change the channel. This is Morocco.”
“Can you explain that?” I said.
“Modernity is new here,” he said. “We got some of it from French and Spanish colonialism, and from America. After the French and Spanish left, modernity stayed. There will always be a debate between modernity and conservatism, but the new generation can be as modern as they want to be. They’re on Facebook and Twitter. They know only one thing. They are separating from the past. In twenty or thirty years, I think, we will no longer have two personalities. The duality we have here will fade. But people my age live in both worlds at the same time. And you find both points of view in the media. Some newspapers are strictly modernist and constantly attack the conservatives. One newspaper has pictures of women on what’s called the ‘hot page.’ It’s almost pornographic.”
“The women are wearing, what, swimsuits?” I said.
“Not even swimsuits!” he said. “You don’t see this in other Arab countries.”
“Which side does the king come down on in the argument between the modernists and conservatives?” I said.
“He isn’t supposed to take sides because he represents all the people,” Aadaoui said, “but he’s young and he encourages the modernist current. He says Morocco can’t abandon its roots or religion, but he insists all the time on modernity. It is a key word in his speeches.”
Morocco began its process of liberalization before the Arab Spring started. Hassan II ruled the country iron-fist style, but it was actually he—not Mohammad VI—who began the process. His son just stepped on the accelerator.
It’s impossible to say how much he’s reforming Morocco because he wants to and how much is because he feels that he has to, but it’s almost certainly a mixture of both. It would be silly to pretend it isn’t happening in the context of the Arab Spring. It is. The Moroccans don’t pretend that it isn’t, so we shouldn’t either. The new constitution didn’t just randomly happen to get written after revolution and war broke out across the Middle East and North Africa.
More than half of the northernmost countries in Africa just overthrew tyrants. The only reason the same thing hasn’t also happened in Algeria is because the country still hasn’t entirely recovered from the civil war of the 1990s when radical Islamists mounted a horrifically savage insurgency that killed more than 100,000 people. I briefly spoke to an Algerian last year who had this to say about why his country is stable: “the government is atrocious, but unlike the Islamists, at least they don’t want to kill me.”
Morocco has no such dynamic. Change was coming one way or another. The government could either get out in front of it and manage some kind of transition or hunker down and hope for the best while political hurricanes flatten the neighbors. Since the country was already reforming anyway, this was not a hard call to make.
One of the first things Mohammad VI did was get rid of his father’s minister of the interior, Driss Basri, the king’s right-hand man during the lead years who seemed to enjoy using the state’s instruments of internal repression to kick the crap out of people. Just four months after Mohammad VI ascended the throne, he shook Basri’s hand, said “thank you for your service,” and sent him into retirement. Basri, along with the entire circle around him, was and remains hated by a large number of people. Most of them, including Basri himself, exiled themselves to France, their names and reputations blackened at home.
Moroccans were stunned when the king fired Basri. So was the foreign diplomatic corps in Rabat. It brought the curtain down hard on the end of an era.
Basri’s political prisoners were let out of jail. Five of them helped draft the country’s new constitution. Others were given permanent jobs in the government. One of them, Driss El Yazami, is the president of the National Human Rights Council. It was established in March of 2011 to address past abuses in Morocco and to police abuses that are still going on.
He was jailed for being a left-wing activist by Hassan II. And now a major part of his job is stamping out the abuse of prisoners and detainees by prison guards and police officers.
“We take complaints from citizens about possible human rights violations,” he said, “and we have the power to intervene on behalf of detained people if we suspect a person’s rights have been violated. We can go right now to prisons and intervene if someone is being mistreated or tortured, but we have to give the prison prior notification.”
Shortly before I arrived in Morocco, the government ratified The Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture. One of the requirements of that protocol is the creation of an organization that has the authority go intervene without prior notification. That hasn’t happened yet, but theoretically Yazami should be given that power.
“How bad are the conditions in Moroccan prisons?” I asked him. He ought to know better than just about anyone.
He didn’t answer my question directly. He put it this way: “No prison anywhere in the world could be described as civilized. Human rights organizations report catastrophic conditions even in Europe.” I assume he meant to say that Moroccan prisons are catastrophically uncivilized while saying, at the same time, hey, don’t judge us, yours and even Europe’s are terrible, too.
“More than forty percent of the people incarcerated here haven’t yet had a trial,” he added. “It has been like that for six years.”
“The Moroccan Spring began a long time ago,” said women’s rights activist Naima Benwakrim. She’s on the National Council for Human Rights and has a master’s degree in Sustainable International Development from Brandeis University. “And the Moroccan Spring accelerated when Mohammad VI succeeded his father on the throne. In his very first speech he announced that the status of women had to conform with modern norms.”
Morocco’s family status law changed to more or less match Tunisia’s, which made women and men equal under the law in 1956. Morocco’s Islamists weren’t happy about it, but they voted for it unanimously in the parliament anyway. The Islamists were reeling from a massive wave of public invective after suicide bombers from Salafia Jihadia killed themselves and 33 others in Casablanca in 2003 . The entire society was roiling with fury at the Islamists, and that was the moment the king decided to put the reform code up for a vote.
“It’s not perfect,” Benwakrim said, “but it’s a huge achievement in our struggle as women to improve our situation. I didn’t expect to ever see this sort of change in my lifetime. We struggled, but we thought we were just laying groundwork for future generations. We were so very happy about this reform because what we got was exactly what was in the action plan that was boycotted by the Islamists.”
Morocco is still in many ways a conservative Muslim society, but the traditions it is conserving aren’t the same as they are everywhere else in the region. The country has a strong moderate Sufi current, and the religion as practiced and understood there has long been influenced by ideas from Sub-Saharan Africa and from Europe, which is only eleven miles away. Plenty of uncovered women are out and about in the streets. I didn’t see a single woman with her face covered the entire time I was there. Female genital mutilation, with an incidence rate somewhere between 78-97 percent in Egypt, doesn’t even exist in Morocco.
And the city of Marrakech elected its first woman mayor four years ago. Fatima Zahra Mansouri from the Authenticity and Modernity Party is the first woman mayor in the country’s history. She speaks perfect French and wouldn’t have seemed out of place in the mayor’s office in Paris.
She does not wear a headscarf. Every time she meets with local Islamists they tell her she should cover herself, but she refuses. She has a standard—and I’m sorry to say, unprintable—response to that demand.
I asked her what’s the hardest thing about her job, and she knew the answer immediately. “The most difficult thing is making unpopular decisions that are necessary for the city’s future. Like making people pay for parking. People hate that, but it’s important! And I don’t like taxes, but the city needs money.”
That’s the kind of answer the mayor of a city in a peaceable and fully developed nation might have. The mayors of Benghazi and Baghdad have far bigger problems on their plate at the moment and likely will for a very long time. When public anger over parking meters become the biggest source of stress for the mayor of Baghdad, we’ll know Iraq has truly and finally changed.
Mansouri and I talked urban issues for a while—I can be a bit of a geek about cities and could have discussed such things with her all day—but she really came to life when I asked my final question.
“What do you wish Americans knew about Morocco that they might not already know?” Most Americans know Morocco is a nice place for tourists, but that’s about it. Most who know a little bit more know that Morocco is a Muslim country with a king, but—again—that’s about it.
“It may be hard for you to understand Morocco politically,” she said. “I often read analyses that are totally wrong, but I can’t blame people for not understanding, because this is a hard place to understand.”
She leaned forward and spoke in English rather than French to make sure I would understand.
“The Moroccan soul is not one of revolution,” she said, “but of evolution. It is our specialty. Transitions are easier here than they are in other places. We don’t have what they have in Tunisia today. We don’t have what they have in Egypt and Syria and Libya today. We have a special system, one with a strong king but one who does not have all the power.”
“We had the French protectorate period,” she continued, “but after independence we built our own institutions. And now we are building democracy. Democracy isn’t something that’s just declared. It has to be built. We have the separation of powers. And we will never tolerate radical Islam because our traditions here have been moderate for ten centuries. Look, Morocco is stable. We have a secular system. We have strong institutions and a growing economy. We are known as the door to Africa. We have so much cultural diversity here and I think we can turn into a model of human development. You have to live here to fully appreciate it. We can’t adopt a Western style of government yet, but we can strike a balance between who and what we are and what we will have to become.”
Nadia Bernoussi, the law professor who helped draft the new constitution, grumbled a bit about how some foreigners see Morocco’s democratic reforms as a sham.
“Well,” I said. “The king wasn’t elected.”
She was taken aback by my bluntness, and I felt slightly rude saying it, but it’s true and every single Westerner in the world who looks at Morocco’s political system notices that and takes it into account. It is the most salient feature of her country’s government from our point of view.
“It’s true that the king isn’t elected,” she said, “but he has a different kind of legitimacy. He has national, historic, and Islamic legitimacy.”
This isn’t the sort of political sentiment Americans like me can relate to, but I did hear something I could understand and appreciate easily. When I asked uncovered Moroccan women if they fear the Islamists, they all said they did not. (In Tunisia and Egypt the uncovered women I know absolutely fear the Islamists.) But even the feminists in Morocco aren’t afraid of the Islamists. And when I asked why, all of them said “because of the king.”
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