Morocco's Moderate Revolution

Unlike their Arab brothers and sisters in Tunisia and Egypt, Moroccan protesters are asking for modest amounts of change. For now.

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.

But the most important reason is that, over the last 12 years, King Muhammad has successfully co-opted many positive forces for change in Morocco. The family law reform, for instance, which was proposed by feminist activists, had been languishing in parliament for years until he threw his support behind it. The Equity and Reconciliation commission, established in 2004 to document thousands of cases of torture and abuse during the Years of Lead gave him an opportunity to distance himself from his father's brutal reign. And he regularly offers financial support, through one of his numerous charitable foundations, to civil-society projects that have acquired prominence and popularity, thus getting credit for some of their achievements. As a result, Moroccans often blame the rampant corruption in all state institutions on the cabinet, even though each and every member of it is appointed by and accountable to the king.

Still, many Moroccans are fully aware that the king's absolute power -- as stipulated in the current constitution -- has resulted in an unbalanced model of governance. Parliament's role is mainly to rubber-stamp royal decrees. Judges routinely hand down prison sentences against independent journalists who dare to even mildly criticize the king. WikiLeaks cables have shown that the Omnium Nord-Africain, a private financial and industrial group in which the king holds a large stake, is involved in nearly every major real estate project in Morocco. And, as a January 2005 cover story by Driss Ksikes and Khalid Trikti in Tel Quel magazine revealed, King Muhammad costs the Moroccan taxpayer $270 million per year, which is more than the queen of England costs the British taxpayer.

All this is why the Feb. 20 movement has made it clear that it wants a king who reigns, but does not rule. The reaction to these demands has been quite strong. Although the king remained silent, government ministers and their proxies tried to discredit the protesters by calling them foreign agents. (This trick has been used in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and now Libya.) The day before the protests, the official news agency of Morocco released a statement saying that they had been canceled -- an attempt to limit turnout.

Still, all the marches took place as scheduled, and the Feb. 20 protesters stayed on message: They want an evolution to a parliamentary monarchy. But, as we have seen in Bahrain, this does not mean that they will not ask for something more tomorrow --something more revolutionary. It is patently clear, based on the steadfastness of the protesters and the regime's virulent campaign against them, that both sides know this. Already, Moroccans of all walks of life are choosing between these two camps. It is now up to the king to make clear where he stands: change or status quo.

But, in a speech given Monday to announce his new Economic and Social Council, the king made no reference to the Feb. 20 movement or to the protests. Instead, he highlighted the need to "revamp the economy, boost competitiveness, promote productive investment, and encourage public involvement." He also stressed his desire to "forge ahead with the Moroccan model" in which "new reforms will shore up the current process, thus reflecting the deep, mutual understanding and cohesion between the throne and the loyal Moroccan people." Tellingly, however, the words "parliamentary monarchy" did not pass his lips.



Lords of the Realm

The wealthy, unaccountable monarchs of the Persian Gulf have long thought themselves exempt from Middle East turmoil. No longer.

As the history of the ruling dynasties of the Gulf monarchies seemingly begins its final chapter, or -- in Bahrain's case -- final weeks, it's worth pausing to consider where these families came from, how they ruled, and who's who. So here's a short guide to keeping your al-Khalifas straight from your al-Sauds, and avoid mixing up your al-Maktoums and your al-Thanis.

Of the current rulers, most had ancestors who were British creations. The 19th-century empire had been grappling with expensive far-flung colonies and preferred to make its new Persian Gulf dominions low-cost protectorates by signing peace treaties with whichever clan happened to be on top at the time. Britain provided signatory sheikhs with protection from all threats (including internal insurrection) in return for pledges to keep vital shipping lanes to India free from pirates. By the end of 1971, Britain had left the Gulf, but not before putting a new sultan on the Omani throne the year before, swapping Abu Dhabi's ruler in 1966, and extricating Kuwait from Iraqi annexation in 1961. The al-Saud dynasty of the Arabian interior -- a fierce Bedouin tribe from the unforgiving Nejd region -- were, as an exception, largely disconnected from British interests. But by 1933, with the founding of the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO), their fortunes became increasingly tied to Western interests as they filled out the political vacuum of the oil-rich peninsula.

Prospering in the post-imperial, latter part of the 20th century, the various dynasties of the Gulf consolidated their grips on power by establishing extensive social contracts or "ruling bargains" with their citizenry. By receiving a portion of the oil wealth in the form of subsidies, housing, welfare, and easy public-sector employment, the bulk of the indigenous population forwent political participation, while the masses of imported foreign workers enjoyed better salaries than at home, could be deported at any time, and could never aspire to citizenship. With this setup, the dynasties were able to shift quietly from their former role as time-honored tribal leaders to their present-day role as autocrats presiding over closed, censorious societies and police states with appalling human rights records and few structural differences from dictators elsewhere in the pre-2011 Arab world.

In many ways, with political parties mostly forbidden in the Gulf, the ever-expanding dynasties have become akin to large parties in a single-party system. With hundreds of members, and in Saudi Arabia's case many thousands, they occupy most key government and business positions and are able -- through shell companies -- to take cuts in most substantial domestic enterprises and joint ventures with foreign companies. All receive annual "stipends" from the ruler himself, ranging from about $140,000 for lowly members of the Bahraini ruling family to far more substantial sums for members of the more affluent Abu Dhabi and Qatar dynasties. Much of this wealth -- which future governments should try to recover given that it was derived from the region's oil -- has been secreted abroad, funding substantial properties in Western capitals and other destinations, both for leisure use and for setting up bolt-holes should the Gulf become unstable. Moreover, as proved time and again, the dynasties are often above the law, with it proving all but impossible to prosecute successfully senior members of ruling families in their home countries.

The al-Saud family, presiding over the largest of the Gulf states, deserves the most attention. Given its guardianship of the two holy shrines of Mecca and Medina, and a historic alliance with the Wahhabi movement, it has always maintained a conservative edge. This has been a blessing and a curse for the family, for while it has been able to draw on greater religious legitimacy than its neighbors, it has also made it difficult to enact meaningful social reforms. The current king -- Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud -- has stated that he is in favor of women driving and has even set up a coeducational university. But he faces opposition every step of the way. Another difficulty for the family is the looming succession crisis. The crown prince -- Sultan bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud -- is 83 years old and nearly as aged as the king. The powerful Nayef bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud -- the kingdom's minister for interior -- is 77, and the long-serving governor of Riyadh -- Salman bin Abdel Aziz Al Saud -- is 71. Very soon the dynasty will have to decide how to shift away from appointing the sons of Saudi Arabia's original patriarch, and move on to the next generation. There are several contenders, including Sultan's son, Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud -- a former ambassador to the United States; Nayef's son and effective deputy Mohammed bin Nayef al-Saud; and Mohammed bin Fahd al-Saud -- a son of the former king, Fahd bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud.

The United Arab Emirates is an equally complex case. Made up seven different emirates bound together in a loose confederation, each has its own monarchy, but with Abu Dhabi commanding the bulk of the UAE's oil wealth, that emirate's leaders have always been synonymous with the UAE's presidency. The al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi have historically been quite cautious and conservative rulers, preferring to keep family matters as private as possible and position themselves as "honest brokers" in trying to fix disputes elsewhere in the UAE. Their patriarch -- Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan -- was ruler up until 2004, when he was succeeded peacefully by his eldest son, Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan. Khalifa rules as a figurehead, having been described in a recent WikiLeaks cable signed by the U.S. ambassador as a "distant and uncharismatic personage." The real power rests with Khalifa's crown prince and younger half-brother, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. Mohammed has five younger full brothers, including the UAE's minister for foreign affairs, and these represent the future of the regime. Dubai's ruler, Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, serves as the UAE's prime minister and minister of defense. But these are meaningless positions, and his role in Dubai's spectacular economic collapse will ensure he plays little part in future UAE-wide politics. The rulers of the smaller emirates have minimal influence and have ended up as subsidized vassals. Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah, deserves special mention as an educated and well-respected figure. (That said, Sharjah has been the scene of some horrific human rights violations in recent years.)

Kuwait's al-Sabah family has historically been the least autocratic of the Gulf dynasties, having operated a parliament -- on and off -- for several decades. This relative openness is not out of choice, however, as it is best explained by Kuwait's relatively early independence, which came at a time when the merchant classes were still powerful and had to be consulted by the ruling family. The emir, Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, was formerly Kuwait's prime minister and minister for foreign affairs, and is generally well liked, though perhaps regarded as unable to control members of the family underneath him. The crown prince is the emir's brother, Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, while the current prime minister, also a royal, is Nasser Mohammed al-Ahmed al-Sabah.

Qatar's ruling al-Thani dynasty is small and dynamic. With massive gas reserves it is in the best position of all the monarchies, able to distribute wealth freely to its small citizen base. Moreover, with an "active neutral" foreign policy and as guardians of the hard-hitting Al Jazeera network, it has been able to claim credit with protesters across the Arab world. Four people matter within the family: the emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani; his crown prince and son, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani; his powerful prime minister, Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani; and his much-feted wife, Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, who oversees the flush Qatar Foundation and many of the emirate's high-profile education projects.

Oman's Al-Bu Said dynasty is the most difficult to understand. Having ousted his father with British help in 1970, the current sultan, Qaboos bin Said Al-Bu Said, is childless and without heirs. As with Saudi Arabia, a succession crisis looms as Qaboos is now 70. Also complicating matters, Qaboos has historically kept relatives out of government, fearing parallel power bases. As such, there is much speculation about who may come next. According to primogeniture, it should be one of the sons of his late uncle, Tariq bin Taimur Al-Bu Said, who was Oman's only-ever prime minister in the early 1970s.

Finally, the smallest and most embattled of the Gulf dynasties, the al-Khalifa of Bahrain, have always had the hardest job. With much less oil wealth than their neighbors, they have been unable to subsidize their population as effectively and have been dogged by accusations of torture and human rights abuses. Moreover, the majority of the population is Shiite, while the ruling elite are all Sunni. This has added a sectarian tinge to Bahrain's problems, as most Shiite have been excluded from significant positions and have complained that the al-Khalifa have been trying to alter the demographic makeup of Bahrain by offering passports to expatriate Sunnis. Only three people really matter in Bahrain: the self-proclaimed king since 2002 and ruler since 1999, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa; his crown prince, Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa; and the much-disliked uncle of the king, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who has been Bahrain's prime minister for 40 years. Of the three, Crown Prince Salman is seen as the most moderate. Unsurprisingly, therefore, he has been pushed to the fore in negotiating with protesters. But given the small size of the Bahraini ruling family, any portrayal of one member as more moderate than another is meaningless, as all operate within the very core of the regime.

Now that the al-Khalifa have sanctioned the use of live ammunition, rubber bullets, and tear gas on the population, and were quick to deploy tanks and mercenary troops, it's unlikely that the protesters will give up until they achieve full regime change. At the very least, the long-serving prime minister will have to go, and a genuine constitutional monarchy set up. Given Bahrain's historic role as a political and cultural hub in the region, its protesters are already having a demonstration effect on disgruntled citizens in the other Gulf monarchies. Qatar remains fairly secure given the masses of distributed wealth, while Kuwait -- courtesy of its parliament -- should have enough of a safety valve to avoid full-blown riots. This is ironic, as for many years its stumbling parliament was derided by its more autocratic neighbors.

Saudi Arabia and Oman, however, have large numbers of poor, disenfranchised nationals, many of whom will now see a future without dynasties, palaces, and subsidies. They will likely take action. Even in the UAE, where there are hundreds of thousands of nationals living in modest conditions in the northern emirates, plus up to a hundred-thousand stateless "bidoon" people, there are protests planned against their Abu Dhabi masters.