When I was in Morocco this summer, I heard a great deal about "Moroccan exceptionalism." Historian Abdallah Laroui has described Morocco as "an island" cut off from its neighbors by sea, sand, and mountains, making it subject to its own laws of development. For the last four centuries, Morocco has been ruled by the Alaoui dynasty, which claims direct descent from the Prophet Mohammed. Moroccans, it is said, revere the monarchy as an almost divine institution, and they expect the current Alaoui king, Mohammed VI, to be an active, engaged monarch, to lead the country and serve as the arbiter among its diverse interests, classes, tribes, and regions. The king, in turn, wants to rule, but not dominate, I was told, which is why he agreed last year to promulgate a new constitution sharply limiting his powers. Morocco, in short, isn't like Tunisia or Egypt or Libya or the other countries turned upside down and inside out by the Arab Spring. It has, instead, embarked on "a third path of reform with stability," as Mustapha El Khalfi, the government's spokesman and its communications minister, told me.
Has it? Nearly everywhere else in the Arab world since the upheaval began in the last days of 2010, power has been seized after a traumatic convulsion, or the ruler has stood his ground by crushing a popular opposition. Absolute rulers, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, do not normally surrender their power without a fight. So Morocco's "third path" would constitute a rare, and precious, form of incremental democratization. If it worked.
It's true that the country has not only a new constitution but a new prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, and a new government, which is feeling its way, albeit very haltingly, toward a new modus operandi with the king. No one really knows, however, whether the king and his palace aides are prepared to let the new government succeed or whether the mild Islamists of the ruling Party of Justice and Development are prepared to challenge entrenched royal prerogative.
One morning I took myself on a tour of the 19th-century royal palace complex in the capital city of Rabat. Visitors cannot penetrate the interior. (Moroccans cannot even linger within the outer walls.) As I was walking along the facade past a great tiled doorway, a security official emerged to say, "You cannot walk any farther." I smiled and said that I didn't see a line. "No," he said gravely, "there is no line." That is today's Morocco: There are still limits, and you may not know until you've transgressed them.
ON MARCH 9, 2011, King Mohammed VI delivered an extraordinary televised address to the Moroccan people. Moroccans are quite accustomed to seeing their king on TV because the lead item on the news almost every evening is the king, in djellaba and fez, inaugurating a new maternity hospital, or mosque, or anti-poverty initiative. The King Mohammed shown incessantly to Moroccans is at once deeply humble and all powerful. That March evening, however, the high artifice of the king's ceremonial appearances gave way to something startlingly real. For two weeks, protests had spread to the streets of every major city and town of Morocco.
Until then, the king's nearly 12-year reign had been remarkably placid. He had never before conceded to the force of events, much less events in the street. And now, plainly, he was. Seated at a desk before the elaborate throne in his Rabat palace, solemnly dressed in a gray suit and flanked by his son and brother, the king promised "a new charter between the throne and the people." The new constitution he proposed would guarantee "rule of law," an independent judiciary, and an enhanced role for the prime minister. It would dramatically reduce the king's power and increase that of the elected government. The next day, the king appointed an 18-member constitutional commission to put his vision into effect.
Until that moment, King Mohammed VI had been regarded as one of the new-generation leaders of the Middle East, but not a particularly bold or distinguished one. He had assumed the throne at age 35 upon the 1999 death of his father, King Hassan II, and he had largely put an end to the jailing and torture of political opponents that his father had practiced almost as a matter of habit. But he had come to be seen as a complacent steward of the status quo. A 2009 Brookings Institution report on the king's 10th anniversary described an atmosphere of "political stagnation." Absent major reforms, it concluded, "the Morocco of King Mohammed VI will soon come to resemble nothing so much as a blast from the past."
While the TV news showed a dedicated young monarch mingling with ordinary citizens and vowing reform in their name -- "the king of the poor," as he was known -- the country's GDP per capita put it well behind Tunisia and Jordan, and barely ahead of Egypt. The adult literacy rate was still an abysmal 56 percent in 2010, and far lower for women. Unemployment was so endemic among the young that close to 90 percent of young women and 40 percent of young men who were not in school were either unemployed or out of the labor force, according to the World Bank. Outsiders saw Morocco as a folkloric paradise with a beguiling history and charming restaurants; for most citizens it was a dead end.