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.