The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Of the sacredness of the Moroccan king

From an excellent essay on the Moroccan monarchy's response to the Arab Spring [PDF], by Ahmed Benchemsi – this passage deals with the new constitution approved in July, heralded by the regime as democratic and abandoning the position that the king is beyond reproach:

Perhaps the first thing to come in for harmonization should be the constitution’s Arabic and French versions. On at least one crucial mat- ter, they differ. This is the question of the king’s “sacredness.” The official line is that this antiquated feature has been abandoned for the sake of modernization. Yet that is far from clear, and may depend on whether you read the constitution from the standpoint of a cosmopolitan, French-speaking opinion leader, or from that of the average, Arabic-speaking Moroccan. The article that previously stated (in both languages) “The person of the King is inviolable and sacred” now states two different things depending on the language used. In French, Article 46 of the new basic law reads: “La personne du Roi est inviolable, et respect Lui est du (The King’s person is inviolable, and respect is owed to Him).

But in Arabic, it reads: “The King’s person is inviolable, and ihtiram [respect] and tawqeer are owed to him.” Ihtiram wa tawqeer is an ancient expression used to signify the privileged status of those who claim descent from Muhammad himself—a group that includes the members of Morocco’s 350-year-old Alaouite dynasty. Though dictionary definitions of tawqeer vary, the most commonly found are “reverence,” “veneration,” “adoration,” and “obeisance.” Some thesauruses also propose “augustness,” “exaltation,” and “glorification.” To be fair, “respect” can be found among the alternate translations, but if tawqeer is simply meant as another word for ihtiram, one wonders what they are doing in the same sentence. More important, why would one of them—the bolder and more dramatic—be quietly left out when the Western public is watching? Has Morocco’s king really renounced his “sacred” charac- ter—no trivial thing in a country where many superstitiously worship “saints” and “descendants of the Prophet”—or has he merely rephrased it, resorting to an ancient formula that stems from deeply archaic roots? What then of “modernization”?

As if to underline the relevance of these questions, on 30 July 2011, a month after the purportedly sacredness-free constitution was adopted, the annual allegiance ceremony went forward as it has for many years.6 The king sat mounted on a thoroughbred before the royal palace in the city of Tétouan. Thousands of white-clad local officials bowed to him, as servants wearing red shashia caps (the traditional headgear of slaves) shouted “Our Lord bestows his blessing on you!” Then the entire cabi- net and general staff lined up to kiss His Majesty’s hand as television cameras beamed the scene live to every corner of the Kingdom. Ver- sions of this pharaonic performance are repeated regularly throughout the year at various royal reviews and ribbon-cuttings, complete with adoring crowds, bowing servants, and hand-kissing officials, all united in devotion to a monarch blessed with divine potency. Who shall tell the average Moroccan that his sovereign is not sacred anymore? 

Well worth reading in its entirety, as it deals with many important subject. It concludes:

By laying down an elaborate constitutional smokescreen, the monar- chy may have outfoxed its opponents. Yet its victory is likely to prove short-lived. A strong-enough wind will disperse any smokescreen. In 2011, a high wind blowing in from elsewhere in the region swept the country before turning into a soft breeze. The next time, the wind may come from within Morocco’s borders, and a struggling economy plus a lack of democratic political outlets may intensify its effects. From what- ever quarter this wind arises, moreover, it will likely find embers still hot enough to be stirred again to flame. The upheavals of 2011, whatever may have been their problems and however uncertain may be their effects, have shown that time is not on the side of the Arab world’s autocracies. However smart its leaders may be, Morocco’s autocracy is no exception.