There are 31 active political parties in Morocco, but the most powerful — those with the most seats in Parliament — are Islamist. “Moderate, to be sure,” Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote on July 12, “but Islamist still.”
The Justice and Development Party, an Islamist faction known by the French acronym PJD, now holds more seats in Parliament than any other group. But Morocco’s hard-liners aren’t yet pushing for the country’s protests — minor by recent Middle Eastern standards — to explode into revolution. Adl wal-Ihsan, a more militant Islamist party, even abandoned a wave of protests in February of this year.
But whether change comes swiftly or by inches, Morocco’s modernist monarch has managed to remain above the fray by offering piecemeal changes.
Mohammed VI already enjoys a reputation as the unlikeliest and least heavy-handed of monarchs. Among his first moves upon ascending to the throne in 1999 was the release of dissidents who had languished in jails — some for daring to speak against the “makhzen,” a behind-the-scenes system of royal privilege in which ultimate authority rested in the throne and those quasi-apparatchiks who surrounded it.
Mohammed’s father Hassan II’s years in power were oppressive enough to generate a scornful nickname: “The years of lead.” He famously put down a riot in Casablanca in 1965 by deploying his interior minister with helicopters and machine guns. History remembers him as brutal, even as university historians recall violent unrest during Morocco’s first decades as an independent nation.
Mohammed VI acted far more deftly last year in facing the first bubblings of national unrest since the 1970s, identifying a solution that gave most of his subjects a government they could live with.
The Arab Spring has brought vastly different results to different Muslim countries. Some regimes tumbled, like Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Yemen and Syria — the latter with more viciousness — are still actively putting down rebellions. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Sudan have so far withstood the protest movement relatively unchanged.
Kings and sultans in Morocco, Jordan and Oman have managed to stay put by offering government reforms. Mohammed VI’s position as the only monarch in that group in North Africa makes his situation unique.
Depending on which expert is asked, the king ranks as either the sixth or seventh wealthiest monarch on earth. His accumulated riches are four times that of England’s Queen Elizabeth II, and have largely come from his control of a holding company that exercises tight control over real estate and development deals across Morocco. The king’s other holding companies — one of which is cheekily named “siger,” the backward spelling of “regis” — are also believed to manage much of the nation’s food supply and much of its banking enterprises, although hard numbers are as elusive as steam from mint tea.