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The Reformer in Rabat

Is Morocco’s King Mohammed VI the savviest ruler in the Arab world?

When I mentioned to friends in France that I was about to go to Morocco to write an article on King Mohammed VI -- for Foreign Policy, bien sur -- their eyes fairly glistened. The French adore Morocco, and a remarkable number of them seem to have lived there at some point. Unlike Algeria, Morocco was treated as a colony rather than an integral part of France, and it parted relatively quietly at independence in 1956. The experience left Moroccans with little in the way of virulent anti-colonial feeling. Mohammed V, grandfather of the current king, chose a pro-Western, free-market path; and the country's dependence on tourism, as well its own cultural diversity, has ensured a very friendly welcome to outsiders.

Morocco, in fact, has a remarkable gift for not attracting unwelcome attention to itself. While the Arab world has been turned upside-down over the last 18 months, Morocco experienced a brief moment at the barricades and then embarked on a process of political reform. The daily digest of translated Arab-language news I receive almost never includes anything from Morocco. An "event" in Morocco means, say, a music festival. And Morocco does not meddle in other people's problems. For a country of more than 35 million people, it has very little influence on its neighborhood. Morocco's foreign policy consists chiefly of hanging on to the disputed territory of the Sahara. If Turkey's policy is "zero problems with neighbors," Morocco's is "zero problems with anyone."

The question is: Can it last? Will Morocco remain a happy outlier in the tumultuous Arab Spring? I have spent the last 10 days talking to government officials, politicians, activists, academics, and businessmen. I have heard a lot about "Moroccan exceptionalism" and about "the third way" between revolution and inertia. And I hope it's true; I hope Morocco proves to be the one country in the Arab world that liberalizes without a violent convulsion. I will have much more to say about this down the road, but for the moment I would just say that I'm not altogether convinced.

Liberalization-from-above was the great paradigm of "modernization theory," popularized by Samuel Huntington and Seymour Martin Lipset 50 years ago. Forward-looking autocrats like Ayub Khan in Pakistan or Augusto Pinochet in Chile would use their powers to promote growth and development, at which point an emergent middle class would demand political rights, leading to a political transition. Something like that has happened in some places, notably in East Asia. In the Arab world, however, autocrats retarded development and dangled the prospect of liberalization in order to keep their opponents off balance. The Arab Spring exploded this incrementalist narrative: a citizenry whose patience had long since been exhausted by false promises overthrew, or tried to overthrow, their cynical and corrupt leaders. It has been a potent reminder that democracy is normally something not given but taken.

Not in Morocco, however. I've been struck by how defenders of the current order vehemently insist that the mass demonstrations of early 2011, known as "the February 20 Movement," did not force the King's hand but simply accelerated pre-existing plans to rewrite a new constitution. There is very little evidence, however, that the king had any such plans as of January 2011. A likelier explanation is that he hoped to continue "modernizing" without surrendering his near-absolute hold on power, perhaps until Moroccans were "ready" for democracy. But to acknowledge this is to concede that the gains of the last year were, in fact, seized from below rather granted from above. And once you have done that, you have begun to erode the model of a benevolent monarch voluntarily empowering his citizens. Worse still, you have encouraged the citizens to demand more.

Even if the king's hand was forced, he nevertheless may have blunted popular anger by making genuine concessions, of the sort that no other head of state in the Arab world has had the courage to make. The demonstrations of the spring did, in fact, subside in the aftermath of an extraordinary televised speech March 9 in which the King promised real change, and the promulgation in June of the new constitution. And even February 20 activists concede that Moroccans' genuine reverence for the monarchy curbed the force and reach of the protests. Morocco's government, headed by the moderately Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD), is now trying to work out a new modus operandi with the palace.

Nor was the new constitution simply an astute political move. Despite its flaws and a good deal of remaining ambivalence, the new constitution makes the prime minister "chief of government" (as opposed to an instrument of the palace), stipulates the competence of the government to decide policy in virtually all domestic areas (though not in defense or national security), and clarifies that only the parliament has the standing to create law (though the king retains the right to issue decrees within his own sphere, which includes the regulation of religion and the military). The document enumerates a comprehensive list of individual rights, such as are found in most European constitutions, and commits Morocco to the protection of human rights "as they are universally understood."

Many of my conversations in Morocco revolved around the question of how the constitution has been implemented since the PJD government was elected last November. There is a widespread feeling that the new government, led by Abdelilah Benkirane, a wily populist, suffers from a timidity bred by years of cautious accommodation with the makhzen, as Morocco's wider network of power and privilege is known. The party has yet to pass any of the organic laws required to put the constitution into effect, or to seriously challenge the king's traditional powers. Party members complain that the palace has blocked their efforts. The king wants to keep appointing the heads of 37 public bodies, including the office of phosphates -- Morocco's chief export by far -- and television and radio. The government wants to whittle the number down to half a dozen. It's an important test of wills.

But it may also be beside the point. Politics in Morocco, as elsewhere in the Arab world, has long been an elite game. The reforms that Mohammed VI has instituted since assuming the throne in 1999 have succeeded in persuading a significant part of the Moroccan elite, including intellectuals, that he is the key to the country's future. But the elite game has ended: The young and the disenfranchised have stopped accepting the bleak future that stretched before them. In this regard, the new constitutional dispensation feels like the answer to a question February 20 didn't ask. The protestors steered clear of the king, though it's hard to say if out of fear or reverence, but they did angrily question the role of the éminences grises of the palace, especially of Mounir Majidi, who both serves as the king's secretary and oversees his colossal wealth. (Mohammed VI is richer than any monarch without oil and richer than many with oil, including the Emir of Qatar.) When the crowds denounced corruption and privilege, they were thinking, if not of the king himself -- that would be lèse-majesté -- than certainly of the makhzen.

Morocco is a very poor country (a little better off than Egypt, a good deal worse off than Tunisia), and the Benkirane government will probably not be able to do much to change that. The resentment that gave rise to February 20 will continue to fester. Moroccans may increasingly find themselves balancing their reverence for the king with their frustration at their lot. And they won't keep blaming the government, rather than the palace, forever. Both are sorely in need of patience; but it's not clear how much they will have, or deserve.

Chris Jackson/Getty Images

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