When I was living in Morocco in 2007, I often noticed that foreign journalists were completely confounded by the country. And understandably so, because, depending on whom they talked to, the country was either on the verge of full democratization or about to have a Russian-style revolution. Elections were going to bring about an Islamist tsunami or the leftist coalition would surprise everyone by its strong showing. The recent family law reforms had brought in real change for women or it did not matter because the judges were not applying the new law anyway. The Equity and Reconciliation commission was proof that the infamous Years of Lead -- a period during the 1960s to 1980s characterized by widespread extralegal detentions and torture -- were being reckoned with or that the victims of abuse had been unwittingly co-opted by a wily government. The Francophone elite was fleecing the country or it was the country's only chance of moving forward in an era of globalization. The king's right-hand man had quit his post and run for a parliamentary seat because he had fallen out of favor in the palace or he had quit because he was going to be appointed prime minister.
The truth was, nobody knew.
Nobody could know, because no one who wanted to write these overview pieces was prepared for the simple truth, which is that it is not possible to summarize the incredible complexity of Morocco, a country of 31 million, in just one article. And yet they tried, and the result was usually an article that reiterated what was by then a well-established narrative: Morocco is a country "where modernity collides with religious traditions," where "tensions between feminists and conservatives" remain high, where national challenges include "poverty, illiteracy and corruption," but where the "reform-minded king" was working to keep it a "liberal beacon" in the Arab world. Women -- or, more accurately, their clothing choices -- always merited a mention. They wore "long, flowing headscarves" or they "would not look out of place in New York or Paris," and it was usually clear which ones had earned the writer's sympathies. These sentence fragments could be rearranged in any number of ways, like magnetic pieces on a refrigerator door, to produce newspaper or magazine articles about Morocco. And in all the time I've spent reading them, they made about as much sense to me as refrigerator poetry.
Now it is four years later, and the country is still confounding foreign analysts. The tide of change that has swept across the region -- bringing down Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak -- has begun to affect Morocco. Simultaneous marches took place in nearly all regions of the kingdom on Feb. 20, modeled on protests that have taken place elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East. Early estimates put the number of protesters at 37,000. But, in contrast with protesters in other countries, the Moroccans who started the Feb. 20 movement for change have not called for the king's overthrow. Instead, their focus has been on meaningful constitutional reform, which limits the powers of the king and affirms the independence of the legislative, judiciary, and executive branches. And, despite looting incidents that took place after the protests, the demonstrations throughout the country seem to have been generally peaceful and free of violent rhetoric.
There are three reasons why the movement for change is focusing on a parliamentary monarchy rather than a republic. One is that the institution of the monarchy is well established: Morocco has had native, hereditary rulers, of one sort or another, for nearly 1,200 years. Even when the French colonized the country, Muhammad V, then sultan of Morocco and grandfather of the present monarch, managed to hold on to his throne and, after a brief period of exile, return as a liberator. Since the era of independence, the monarchy has only consolidated more power in its hands. The constitution adopted in 1962, for instance, gave the king the power to act as head of state, appointing and dismissing government ministers at his discretion.
The second reason for these evolutionary -- rather than revolutionary -- demands is that King Muhammad, at 47, is relatively young. He has been in power for 12 years, which, in comparison with long-serving autocrats like Mubarak or Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi, makes him seem like a newcomer. Furthermore, he and his wife often grace the pages of society magazines and present, both to the country and to the outside world, a glamorous image that stands in sharp contrast to the gloomy one adopted by his father, King Hassan.