Egypt, Libya and Syria are hot messes, but Morocco’s king protects his position — for now

David Martosko Executive Editor
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Morocco isn’t just the cinematic home of “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.” It’s a complicated Arab country that should fill Americans with historical curiosity, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring protests. As King Mohammed VI — and the whole nation — prepares to observe the thirteenth anniversary of his ascension to the throne, it’s no stretch to say the whole world is watching.

The Arab world is paying particular attention. Morocco’s monarch serves as military commander-in-chief and defense minister, controlling his nation’s 190,000 permanent and 150,000 reserve soldiers. And that may be the only thing stopping the northern African country from descending, Egypt-like, into Islamist-led tumult.

Egypt’s conversion to what some Americans call a terrorist-state-in-waiting was aided by Hosni Mubarak’s February 2011 decision to transfer control of his country to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces during the revolution that ultimately toppled him. Egypt’s military already controls as much as 40 percent of the national economy, according to one journalist writing for the New York Review of Books.

Despite the strength of Islamist parties in Morocco — they outperformed most expectations in the most recent election and one of their leaders is now prime minister — the powerful throne serves as insulation against a military coup and national conversion to radical Islamist rule. The king had a gut-check moment in February when he transferred some military-related powers to parliament. That came after unrest inside the ranks forced his hand and brought new legal protection for soldiers famously undereducated and subject to institutional corruption.

Among soldiers’ chief complaints was that a forced-retirement age would render too many military careerists unable to collect bribes.

The roots of the Arab Spring ultimately found fertile soil in Morocco, and protests — though small by Egyptian standards — erupted. The 20 February movement, a ragtag youth campaign, joined with the Islamist Al Adl Wa Al Ihssane organization, and within weeks King Mohammed VI announced a commission that would recommend changes to the country’s constitution. He also promised, and delivered, a national referendum vote on its findings.

This was no small thing. Morocco’s monarchy is among the longest continuous power arrangements in the world, dating to 1664. Its claim of direct descent from the prophet Muhammad wields remarkable psychological and spiritual power over Moroccans. The entire nation seems conscious of a previous king’s central role in negotiating independence from France, and then from Spain, in 1956.

And student protesters’ marches in Casablanca, Rabat and other cities generated a daring watershed moment. “It’s the first time in Morocco that the king was openly criticized and they didn’t shoot people,” University of Rabat political historian Maati Monjib told the BBC in November.

In August 2011 the big changes came. The king agreed that the prime minister, not he, should run the powerful government council. He also gave away his power to choose prime ministers at will, guaranteeing instead a Britain-style arrangement placing power in the hands of someone from the Parliament’s leading party.

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.

In post-Arab Spring Morocco, that may not be all bad. Foreign investment in Morocco is climbing. The country’s GDP is growing at 5 percent per year, beating the United States’ 3 percent number.

And economic cooperation with France, once Morocco’s snooty overlord, is moving along on schedule. A new mosque in the southwestern French city of Saint-Étienne opened in late June, named after the Moroccan king. It’s seen as a sign that French government ministers are happy with the nations’ trading partnership.

The U.S., too, has a stake in Mohammad VI’s status quo. His is the only African nation that enjoys a free trade agreement with America. And Washington’s relationship with Rabat is two-thirds as old as Morocco’s centuries-long continuous monarchy: In 1777 Morocco became the very first sovereign nation to officially recognize the American colonies’ independence from England.

When Morocco’s king observes his thirteenth anniversary next week, it will be in the traditional pageantry of the “Bay’ah,” a tribal ceremony practiced in the Muslim world since the seventh century death of the prophet Muhammad. Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper describes it as “the most ostentatious of the monarchy’s traditional displays” in which throngs of government officials line up to “bow three times before him in a show of allegiance and shout, ‘Our Lord bestows his blessing on you!’”

As long as the acclamations come, Mohammad VI will appear to outsiders to have beaten the odds of the Arab Spring. But in the fast-evolving Arab world, it’s anyone’s guess whether his soldiers will stand by him as Islamist revolution percolates inside Parliament.

PJD party chief and prime minister Abdelilah Benkirane believes they will. “In Egypt and Tunisia the army defends democracy,” he told The Economist in March. “In Morocco it’s the king.”

David will travel to Morocco next week to report on the Bay’ah ceremony and the evolving Moroccan politics and culture. Follow him on Twitter.