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

Terms of Engagement

Baby Steps

With the slow but steady consolidation of militias and the success of moderate democratic parties, despite all odds, it seems like Libya might be on the right path.

I get a lot of news about Libya from the Libya Herald, a plucky English-language newspaper which started up earlier this year. One of my favorite leads, from the midst of the elections last week, read, "Though deploring the abduction of Libya's Olympic committee president, the British foreign secretary William Hague has hailed the progress that Libya has made since the revolution as ‘inspiring.'"

That's Libya in a nutshell: Baby steps towards democracy against a backdrop of vigilante justice. Both those who advocated the NATO bombing campaign which led to the overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi, and those who opposed it, can now find grounds for vindication. It's early days, and no one can foretell Libya's future. But the surprisingly solid victory last week of a coalition led by Mahmoud Jibril, a moderate, American-educated businessman, has been enthralling for Libyans, and deeply encouraging to the anxious Westerners who have been monitoring the process.

The common refrain among critics of the NATO campaign was, "We don't know who they are." Islamists figured prominently in the Libyan militias; Abdul Hakim Belhaj, a former leader of the militant Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, led rebel forces in Tripoli. But now we do know who they are. Jibril's National Forces Alliance roundly defeated the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Construction Party, taking almost six times as many votes, for example, in Benghazi, a Brotherhood stronghold. Belhaj's al-Watan Party was routed in Tripoli. (The outcome may change as independent candidates choose to affiliate themselves with various parties.)

There are many explanations for the Islamists' poor performance. The National Democratic Institute, a democracy promotion group, conducted focus groups in Libya this spring in which, according to Carlo Binda, the country director, "people almost universally said that anyone using Islam as a political device can't be trusted" -- because all Libyans profess Islam. Diederick Vandewalle, a Libya scholar who has been in the country during the elections, says that "the last thing anyone wants is a powerful leader who is going to be  a reincarnation of Qaddafi." Libyans, that is, have had it with ideology. After 42 years of planned chaos, Libyans just want a normal country.

A secondary fear among critics of the air campaign was that Libya, long held together by authoritarian rule, will break up along the east-west axis that defined the rebellion against Qaddafi. A group called the Cyrenaica Transitional Council (CTC), based in Benghazi, had been demanding autonomy for the east. But after the election, Jibril pointedly praised the federalists as "patriots," and invited them to join the coalition he is seeking to assemble. The CTC's leaders have responded warmly, and have spoken of dissolving their organization. The group may also have noticed that its demonstrations provoked yet larger counter-demonstrations in Benghazi and Tripoli. Libyans, it seems, want to be Libyans.

But if the election constituted a rebuke to Islamists and separatists, it had no such effect on the hundreds of militias which have operated with impunity since they overthrew Qaddafi. In the midst of the balloting, two journalists from the western town of Misrata were foolhardy enough to visit Bani Walid, a southern city where Qaddafi forces made their last stand. They were kidnapped and held for trial. Several hundred members of the feared Misrata militia advanced towards Bani Walid with their heavy artillery in tow. The issue was only resolved when the Misrata forces agreed to give up some Qaddafi loyalists whom they had imprisoned -- which perhaps was the kidnapper's goal.

If, as Max Weber said, a state is defined by its monopoly of violence, Libya is very far from being a state. A recent report by Amnesty International estimates that militias hold about 7,000 prisoners in informal jails. The militias continue to fight one another, to exact revenge on real or imagined Qaddafi sympathizers, to torture innocent civilians, and to contemptuously disregard the authority of the state. "Unless urgent action is taken to establish the rule of law and respect for human rights," the report concludes, "there is a very real risk that the patterns of abuse that inspired the ‘17 February Revolution' will be reproduced and entrenched."

Others I spoke to think this picture is overdrawn. A senior U.S. government official bridled at the Wild West analogy, and said that the security atmosphere has improved significantly over the last six months. Vandewalle pointed out that the brigade that had taken over the Tripoli airport last month had been successfully disarmed (by another militia), and said, "There's little doubt in my mind that they're going to get those militias under control; it's just a matter of where and when." What is clear is that integrating the militias, who number over 100,000 fighters, into the Libyan security forces will be the single greatest challenge facing the new government. In recent months, the transitional government tried to do just that by hiring ex-militias to provide security, largely through a force called the Supreme Security Committees (SSC). But Libya scholar Frederic Wehrey recently wrote that "Many Libyans have feared the SSC as unruly thugs" whose loyalty is still pledged to their militia commander. 

That's a huge problem, but it's one that could be whittled down through a combination of political legitimacy and money. A new government which Libyans believed in -- unlike the transitional government which often looked hapless -- will put pressure on the militias to cooperate, and to re-formulate themselves as political entities, as, for example, the Sadrists have done in Iraq. It's striking that after being thoroughly trounced Belhaj calmly accepted the outcome; the party's spokesman acknowledged, "We've got to reevaluate our performance."

Money can pay for programs of disarmament, training, and employment. And Libya, fortunately, has money. Oil production has inched close to the pre-war level of 1.77 million barrels per day, and the International Monetary Fund estimates that national revenue this year will reach about $45 billion -- this in a country with just 6.7 million people. Rosy projections of oil revenue in post-war Iraq were upended by sabotage and terrorism, but so far Libya's oil infrastructure, though desperately in need of modernization, has not been damaged.

The bottom line is that it's hardly ridiculous to feel hopeful about Libya's prospects. The seriousness with which Libyans took their elections almost universally impressed observers. Moreover, Libyans are generally well disposed towards the United States thanks to the Obama administration's role in the NATO bombing. A Brooking Institution report even quoted an ex-jihadi as saying, "Our view is starting to change of the West. If we hated the Americans 100 percent, today it is less than 50 percent." I'd call that progress.

Libya offers a rare exception to the bad news emanating from the Arab world in recent months. Oil revenue and a small population certainly help, but there also may be a perverse source of good fortune. Egypt is a country with strong institutions, which was supposed to improve the prospects of a democratic transition; but those institutions, including the military and the judiciary, are now obstructing the popular will and perhaps leading to a crisis. Thanks to Qaddafi's megalomaniac rule, Libya is a country of no institutions; and so no powerful bloc can stand athwart the political process. It would be a charming irony if Qaddafi's most pernicious legacy turned out to be Libya's hidden advantage.