The Moroccan reinvention of mild authoritarianism

3 mai 2012 17 h 41 min 0 comments

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If the Arab spring marks a major change in the view of political governance in the Arab Middle East, Morocco (like Jordan) deserves our attention. These two countries seem to represent the middle ground between a complete preservation of the authoritarian model and a radical systemic change toward a democratic model exclusively based on people’s sovereignty. The success of the Moroccan experience would mean the persistence of benign authoritarianism as a model for the region.

To understand where Morocco is heading today, one has to go back to the events of February 2011. A nascent pro-democracy organization, the February 20 movement, rode the « Arab spring » wave and succeeded on multiple occasions in mobilizing tens of thousands of demonstrators in dozens of cities–an absolute first in Morocco’s recent history. After dismissing the movement as a marginal faddish phenomenon, the regime declared the initiation of a constitutional reform process. In the speech announcing the reform, King Mohammed VI committed to all the institutional principles on which democratic institutions are built: separation of powers, independence of the judiciary, free and fair elections, etc.Fast forward to July 2011. After a dubious reform process, Morocco woke up with a new constitution that is a far cry from instituting democracy. The king still maintains directly or indirectly most of the prerogatives usually held by elected institutions in democratic systems. The monarchy controls the security apparatus, the judiciary system, and the constitutional court. It appoints the CEOs of the most important state agencies and companies and still holds enough levers to seriously influence lawmaking.

How did the regime achieve such a remarkable feat? How did it safeguard almost untouched the authoritarian nature of its rule while eliciting kudos from most of the political parties and from its international partners? How did it organize legislative elections deemed to have been fair and transparent, bringing to power the Party of Justice and Development–the opposition Islamist party?

These achievements all seem to be a testament to the Moroccan miracle. Morocco appears to have achieved through peaceful and almost consensual means what other countries in the region either failed to achieve or achieved through messy and bloody means. At least, that is the story the regime’s supporters would like to believe. But what has been achieved exactly? Democracy? Certainly not. Stability? Maybe, maybe not.

The Moroccan regime withstood the pressure to radically change for many reasons. While authoritarian and corrupt, it never reached the conspicuousness extent of authoritarianism and corruption that characterizes the Ben Ali or Mubarak regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. There are also reasons pertaining to the democracy movement’s own failings. After a promising start that led one of the most popular Islamist movements in the country, Al Adl Wal Ihsan, to declare its support for a « civilian state » as opposed to a religious one, the alliance between the Islamist and progressive wings of the February 20 movement crumbled. The monarchy’s decision to initiate a constitutional reform process was fast, and its decision to use minimal violence against recurring pro-democracy demonstrations won over a big enough portion of public opinion to the notion that change in Morocco would be less costly with a monarchy firmly in command. But one of the most crucial ingredients in the monarchy’s success thus far is the PJD’s decision to subscribe to the limited institutional changes the constitutional reform brought about.

This PJD position was key to the regime’s strategy as it lent it credibility. The PJD’s leadership is generally considered to be « clean »–devoid of corruption and nepotism. Moreover, the party has often been hailed for its robust internal democracy. By joining the « limited reform » approach camp, the PJD essentially relied on two contradictory arguments: that Morocco could descend into anarchy were the changes to be too brutal, in other words too democratic; and that the monarchy’s authoritarianism, with some tweaking, could still be benevolent.

This schizophrenic approach tells the democratic-reformist current in society, « you are fundamentally right but you’re too impatient », while assuaging the pro-monarchy camp. This balancing act is the result of a simple political calculus. The PJD was allowed to win the elections because of the Arab spring and the pressure of the democracy movement, but also because it was perceived as less threatening to the regime’s interests than other Islamist and opposition movements. Had the PJD missed one of these elements, it would have been left gasping for political space.

The PJD victory in the first post-constitutional reform legislative elections in November 2011 supposedly brought even more validation to the democratic credentials of the reforms. After all, an opposition Islamist party won, and parties more or less openly allied with the monarchy lost.

Two caveats are in order here. First, the PJD’s reformist reputation goes only so far. While it espoused part of the February 20 movement’s demand of fighting corruption, it made abundantly clear that it rejected the parliamentarian monarchy system advocated by the democracy movement and supported the persistence of an authoritarian regime, albeit a watered-down one. In other words, the PJD seems still to subscribe to the idea that good governance does not necessarily require democratic institutions. Here we reencounter the perennial myth of the benevolent dictator–a myth the Arab spring was supposed to lay to rest.

Second, even if one subscribes to the idea that the PJD is pursuing a strategy of « democracy by stealth », this approach goes only so far. This strategy is based on the notion that, against the backdrop of the Arab spring, the regime is politically weak enough to allow the PJD to conduct a credible reform agenda. In other words, what the new constitution fails to provide as guarantees of reform, the political situation does–the political situation being the electoral victory and the pressure exerted by the democracy protest movement.

Let’s begin with the PJD’s electoral victory. A closer look at the numbers shows that it did not provide the PJD with the political capital to confront the regime’s entrenched practices. While the PJD won 27 percent of the seats, it is worth recalling that the participation rate was a paltry 45 percent. These numbers look even less impressive in view of the fact that the electoral list on which the participation rate is based comprised only 60 percent of voting age Moroccans. Combined with the balkanizing features of the Moroccan electoral system, these figures put the PJD at the helm of a fractious coalition comprising partners from the outgoing governing coalition–a coalition the PJD campaigned against and that was widely perceived as pro-« ancien regime ». This is not exactly what we might call a strong mandate or a free hand for reform.

What about the protest movement compelling the regime to allow the PJD to conduct serious reforms? It has morphed. The coordinated movement comprised of Islamists and progressives has all but disappeared and been replaced by new, more virulent and confrontational localized protests. Besides, most components of the protest movement blame equally the regime and the PJD for the current stasis.

Yet, so far, this political configuration makes the PJD the optimal partner for the monarchy. The PJD is still credible enough to entertain the idea of reform while not strong enough to challenge the monarchy and endanger its expansive prerogatives. This equilibrium is inherently unstable because what makes the PJD alluring to the monarchy today is exactly what makes it an unreliable partner for the new version of Moroccan authoritarianism. Already, signs of powerlessness and even cluelessness in the PJD government are denting its credibility.

Clearly, the government of Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane is avoiding serious reforms. Since the PJD’s accession to power four months ago, nothing has been proposed let alone done to rationalize an unfair tax system, reform the financial black hole that is the subsidies fund or more generally confront the entrenched economic mafia related to the monarchy. When the effects of the crisis in Europe and the economic fallout of a paltry rainy season hit home, inflaming even more the already incandescent social climate, the PJD fuse might not prove solid enough to protect the Moroccan model of authoritarianism. Another nightmarish scenario for the monarchy would be if the famed internal democracy of the PJD came back with a vengeance. PJD constituencies might balk at their party leaders’ powerlessness and subservience to the regime, and revolt. A new, less compromising breed of PJD leaders might emerge that would push the party into the arms of the democracy movement.

Aboubakr Jamai


Aboubakr Jamai is editor of He is former editor of the Casablanca-based Le Journal Hebdomadaire.

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