The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Referendum day in Morocco

I spent the day today in the small town of Benslimane, about 70km from Rabat, and in the capital itself visiting polling stations, talking to officials and activists as Morocco held a referendum for a new constitution. I can't say I learnt anything new: it was clear the referendum was going to result in a resounding yes (we'll get preliminary results tonight or tomorrow) and what will be more important is the turnout. 

A referendum in an absolute monarchy where the king advocates the text of the new constitution is not about the text itself. It is about the authority of the king, and the referendum is ultimately about his legitimacy and his regime's power to mobilize supporters and nudge the general public. It can't really be said that the referendum was held in a democratic environment, even if there does not appear to be widespread systematic fraud, since the state was mobilized to push for a yes vote: the ministry of religious affairs instructed imams to support the change, political parties used public funds to campaign for it, and although opponents of the constitution were allowed to campaign (facing occasional police crackdowns) they faced counter-protests of super-excited youths, some of which carried violent attacks against activists. I saw this with my own eyes yesterday in Rabat's Bab al-Had district yesterday — it was not as ugly as some of the baltaguia deployed in Egypt, but it certainly created a climate of apprehension. Some of those mobilized were paid (activists say by the ministry of interior, but it could be more subtle than that — for instance people who want to ingratiate themselves to the authorities), but some were caught up in the excitement that the person of the king, which Morocco's modern political culture venerates as semi-sacred, had called on them to defend the new constitution. I heard tales, particularly at the end of the day, of people being mobilized to vote by their local moqaddem — the kind of auxiliaries to the Ministry of Interior that exist in every street block in Morocco, people with their ears close to the ground (they know all the neighborhood gossip) and the power to be a petty annoyance in your everyday life. In other words, on an issue of public debate, the state entirely backed one side of a debate it should have been a neutral actor in.

Most average people probably give the king the benefit of the doubt. The problem in this kind of political culture is never with the king — he tries hard! he's surrounded by liars and thieves! he's the only honest one! the politicians are complete nullities! — and always with the Makhzen, the political-economic-security elite that in one configuration or another has ruled the country since time eternal. Since the 1960s, the co-optation, intimidation, and assassination of alternative centers of political leadership in Morocco has left the Makhzen firmly in charge. Hassan II, the clever tyrant who ruled Morocco until his death in 1999, put in place a system where corruption greased the wheels of this vast mechanism. His son, Muhammad VI, is no tyrant — but he has restructured rather than dismantled this system and fundamentally showed no sign of letting go of his core powers. This has been explicitly clear since 2008 (in a royal speech) at least, if not before. The new constitution (which, in the details, is largely dependent on a number of laws that have still to be written and passed) makes that clear. It essentially delegates some of the king's powers, but does not shift these powers from him to other institutions, nor really create a separation of powers. It allows him to conditionally lend these powers to the prime minister. 

One interesting thing about the new constitution is that while it creates many new institutions to improve the technocratic, managerial aspects of the state it does not actually address the way power really flows in the country. For instance, royal counsellors who are critical decision makers and policy architects are mentioned nowhere. Nor is the baya (allegiance) ceremony that senior officials, military leaders, religious figures and others must renew annually — a ritual as old as the Alawite dynasty itself. None of the Makhzen's informal nature is codified in it. The constitution represents in part a technocratic state, and in part a (praiseworthy and positive) public commitment to individual liberties, gender equality and cultural diversity. But what eludes it is any real sense of where authority lies, aside that all roads — directly and indirectly — still lead to the king, which of course in practice does not mean himself personally but the concentric circles of advisors, childhood friends, business partners and security officials through which his power is diffused.  

Those who defend the Moroccan monarchy often argue that were it not for the king's many initiatives, little would have moved in Morocco since 1999. But the ugly reality is that Muhammad VI inherited a country whose spirit was broken by his father, where timidity, fear and resignation were the rule, and the political class was largely tamed. When I hear people complain about politicians' lack of courage or imagination, I feel disgust: I think of Mehdi Ben Barka who was kidnapped and probably dissolved in an acid bath in 1965, of activists who spent the best years of their lives in prison in the 1970s and 1980s, of the willful creation of pseudo-parties of corrupt notables and strongmen that populate the political scene (and that this constitution at least somewhat restrain, since the practice of "political nomadism" is now constitutionally banned) and the micromanagement of political (even inside parties!) that has routinely taken place since the 1970s.

In the last decade, Morocco saw the emergence of a new generation of political consciousness that eschewed political parties. It mostly manifested itself in NGOs and the media. The latter, in particular, has suffered tremendously in the last few years due to serial mega-fines against editors and other means of intimidation (as well as the banning of some titles). Many of these new voices hoped that the king's apparent embrace of change meant that a gradual core change to the system was possible. They were realistic optimists. Some of this trend continues to hold sway, but it has lost much of its vitality in recent years. Those most hopeful about change have become not just cynical, but angry. Others have just become resigned.

At least that was the situation on 13 January 2011. The next day, when Tunisia's Ben Ali fell, on Facebook, on university campuses, discussion began on change actually being possible. By 11 February, when Egypt's Mubarak fell, that discussion turned into the most vibrant new political movement Morocco has seen in decades. It is diffuse. It is leaderless. It gathers liberals, ultra-leftists and Islamists. It has lost some members due to the king's new constitution, and will likely now enter a period of gestation to figure out what to do next. But it wants to continue. I'll tell the story of the February 20 movement some other day — it's fascinating. What is important is that many voices — even conservative, pro-monarchy ones — in Morocco express that the movement has become a necessity. The monarchy, the regime, needs to be pushed. The situation it had created over the last few decades had sapped political will for change. But something now has changed.

What it reminds me of, in part, is the Kifaya movement in Egypt in 2005. No one would have predicted then it would have ended up inspiring the 2011 uprising. The Moroccan regime is much smarter, more dynamic, more resourceful and more legitimate than Mubarak's was in its twilight, and I am not predicting its demise. But I can predict that the February 20 movement will eventually metastasize into something important that will resonate with more and more of an awakened public. This is just a beginning.