The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged Morocco
In Translation: The case against democratic transition

Conservatism – as in a propensity for caution in politics, not necessarily the Islamist or traditionalist kind – is making a comeback of sorts in the Arab world. The devastated post-“Spring” landscape of the region, the conflict and chronic instability many countries face (Syria, Yemen, Libya) and the reassertion of authoritarianism in two countries that went through major upheavals (Egypt, Bahrain) and those that avoided them (Algeria, Morocco, in a different ways most GCC countries) has made many citizens very weary of contesting the powers-that-be with the same enthusiasm they might have in 2011. It is certainly a sentiment I come across often in Morocco, where I live.

Parliamentary elections will take place in Morocco on 7 October, and in anticipation the normally sleepy national political debate is heating up. The party that leads the outgoing government, the Justice and Development Party (PJD by its French acronym), is making much of both its modest record and is promising to take on the regime more forcefully if re-elected. The question of whether or not Morocco has experienced an authoritarian comeback in the last few years – a kind of revenge against the protest movement of 2011, civil society and political parties has taken place; it might be most aptly described by that favourite academic non-sequitur, "semi-authoritarian" – is heatedly discussed. The PJD and some of its allies, having spent (in the eyes of their critics) timidly nibbling on whatever crumbs of power that the regime of King Mohammed VI would allow them, is promoting to assert itself in the name of democracy.

Moroccans often see their country as something as an exception, distant from the violence of the Mashreq and unique because its monarchy has ancient roots. Like Egypt, it sees itself as a rare genuine state in a region of “tribes with flags”. It has its own political lexicon, in which the word “Makhzen” is central. The Makhzen is the regime, le pouvoir, al-sulta. These concepts are familiar across the region and elsewhere, but Morocco’s claims a uniqueness derived it being rooted in history. Makhzen means warehouse in Arabic, but it is also the origin of the French or English word “magazine” in an old (now largely deprecated) sense: the commissary or munitions depot of an army. In pre-colonal times, the sultan's army of "bled al-makhzen" (the land of the warehouse) collected tributes from unruly tribes in bled al-siba (the land of dissent). The Makhzen is not the monarchy, or at least not alone; it is also used to denote network of influence in public administration and in business that gravitates around the king. It is in a sense a storehouse of accumulated power, a method of redistribution and a network of influence. It is a slippery term, used to denote both “deep state” in a modern sense as well a perhaps invented, or at least exaggerated, historical pedigree the imbues it with a pseudo-legitimacy.

The Makhzen is a given in Moroccan politics, so the term around which of the pre-electoral debate has recently centered is a less often used one: tahakoum(التحكم), which literary means “control” but here denotes the exercise of parallel rule. (In this translation, I decided to leave it in transliterated Arabic.) In the article below, Mohammed Jabroun, a member of the PJD and academic, argues against his own party’s leadership that presenting itself as the best hope for democracy against the reactionary Makhzen is a sterile debate. He posits that this binary should be overcome, and with it the myth of “democratic transition” that the state and political actors officially adhere to – a democratic transition that can never be achieved, and thus creates tensions in society and among the political class, in which parties promising to lead the way to democracy have their credibility eroded by their compromise with the Makhzen. The article caused a stir in PJD circles and beyond, and Jabroun was decried as defeatist at best and echoing the regime’s tired clichés of reconciling “tradition and modernity” at worse.

Jabroun’s argument has its weakness, not least reducing tahakoum to the symbolic and political role of the monarchy and the Makhzen and ignoring their more materialist aspects: corruption and state capture. Still, at this juncture in the region’s history – one of revolutionary fatigue, reactionary backlash and a context of worldwide democratic retrenchment – it echoes a malaise about the failure to overcome authoritarianism in the region and disappointment with the Arab Spring’s meager harvest.

P.S. - a reader alerts me of an excellent response to Jabroun, here.

Many thanks to our friends at Industry Arabic for enabling us to provide this feature. Please check them out if you need translation services.


The PJD, confronting “tahakoum,” and the need to abandon the idea of democratic transition

Mohammed Jabroun, al-Youm 24, 14 August 2016

For weeks, Morocco has been witnessing profound discussion and concern among its political actors about the return of “tahakoum” to political life and the future of the democratic transition, which entered into a new phase after the Arab Spring began in 2011. This is occurring ahead of the parliamentary elections due to be held on 7 October of this year. Although the other national parties all have an interest in this issue to varying degrees, the Justice and Development Party (Parti de la justice et du développement or PJD) shows far greater interest than the rest, to the extent that mounting a resistance to tahakoum has become is an existential battle for the party — or something close to it. You can hardly find anyone among the leadership who dares oppose the trend.
In terms of democratic principles, there is more than one sensible and valid reason lending legitimacy to the positions of the Moroccan national parties – including the PJD – in rejecting tahakoum and its mechanisms. Not least of these is the ideology of the party itself, which was founded on the idea of seeking power through elections. But applying this principle at this place and time in Morocco and amid the current regional and international circumstances poses several challenges and questions which, as a whole, make the idea of confronting tahakoum seem like a less than a rational approach, especially for the PJD, which is assumed to have a kind of authenticity in the political discourse.

On the nature of tahakoum:

Tahakoum is the intervention of anti-democratic forces in political life through various means with the aim of creating a “two-faced authority” which reproduces and modernizes authoritarian rule through the façade of democracy. This intervention, because of its recurrence in Morocco’s modern political landscape, has become conventional, and has been a cornerstone of most of the electoral and political milestones that Morocco has passed through since independence. From this perspective, tahakoum is one of the consequences of the forced political modernization upon which Morocco embarked at the time of independence amid conflict between the monarchy and the parties of the nationalist movement.
Although tahakoum in the current political lexicon is a term that describes actions and practices and intentionally omits discussion of the actors that stand behind it — for reasons that people interpret in various ways — it is undeniable that these actors are inseparable from the monarchy and the Makhzen apparatus which oversees them. They consist of the Ministry of Interior and its extensions in public administration; the partisan political field; and the various security agencies. Despite the novelty of this term in Moroccan political language and its connection with the experience of the PJD, the phenomenon it refers to is old, and its import has been expressed through other terms that carry same meaning currently in circulation. The most prominent of these terms and expressions are the “secret party”, the “party of the interior”, the “shadow government”, the Makhzen, and the “deep state”.
As a practice, tahakoum in its first inception emerged primarily from the regime, and reflected the failure of the Moroccan political elite to build a modern political system which could establish a strategic partnership between the nationalist movement and the monarchy — a partnership preserving the effective continuity of the Makhzen and the king as ruler on one hand, while on the other hand allowing the nationalist movement to exercise power.
From another standpoint — alongside authoritarian practices — this failure resulted from a lack of democracy. The parties of the nationalist movement, which found themselves cut off from power in the wake of independence, found that democracy was necessary to express their legitimate aspirations to wield power and confront absolute monarchy. Indeed, tahakoum in this sense is the objective antithesis of democracy and democratic transition. The extension and expansion of tahakoum clearly means a retreat of democracy, and aborting the hopes of a democratic transition. On the other hand, the resumption of the democratic process and the accumulation of its procedures means a retreat of the forces behind tahakoum. Moroccan political life from independence until today has been characterized by dispute and abortive negotiation between the two sides of this binary (tahakoum/democracy), although the victory has always gone to the forces of tahakoum for many reasons, which cannot be dealt with at length here.

The possibility of overcoming tahakoum:

Based on the above, overcoming the problem of tahakoum and entering a democratic era for both the regime and the political parties, appears nearly impossible under the premise of “democratic transition.” Over nearly 60 years, the nationalist movement and various Moroccan political factions have not succeeded in achieving major qualitative political progress within its framework, despite the serious sacrifices they have made. Whenever the dialogue of democratic transition is opened for one reason or another, or because of some domestic or foreign event (uprisings, coups, severe crises), it is quickly closed again at the soonest favorable opportunity when this reason is lifted. Perhaps the current generation remembers the reasons and circumstances for why the last initiative in this direction was aborted, with the “alternance” government of (1998-2002).[^1] Tahakoum in this sense is another expression of the Moroccan political character, which time has not succeeded in weakening or curtailing, and which many manifestations of the Moroccan nationalist movement have failed to include within and base their programs upon.
In this political assessment of the toll of the conflict and the dispute between tahakoum and democracy in Moroccan history, the discussion steers us to a central question: in independent Morocco, has the Moroccan political mind succeeded in developing a theoretical framework for a modern political system in line with the Moroccan character in its various dimensions? Were the nationalist movement and the monarchy aware of the sensibility and the strategy they were dealing with politically after independence? And from this question stem a number of other questions: Is the theory of democratic transition – as a theoretical basis for the national democratic parties’ political struggle – correct? And is it still valid as a way of framing the party-based political initiative? Is using confrontation with tahakoum as a banner for the current political phase a sound approach, taking into account the essence of tahakoum and the Moroccan character in its political-historical dimensions? Or does it indirectly serve the forces of tahakoum — whether they are aware of it or not — and facilitate their methods of shutting down democratic dialogue?
This conceptualization and analysis and its resulting questions leads us culturally and politically right back to the very beginning — that is, the moment of independence, which was the moment of an “innocent” search for a political partnership between the monarchy and the nationalist movement. It also restores our hope of getting out of the deadlock. Thirdly, it allows us to consider the possibility of building a political system consonant with Morocco’s political and traditional character and which is neither an absolute monarchy nor a parliamentary monarchy. This is what the first generation of the nationalist movement failed to do.
In answer to the central question posed above, it can be said with great assurance, based on the principles and experience of Moroccan political life, that both the monarchy and the nationalist movement have failed to build a modern political system in line with the elements of Morocco’s character. The relationship between them has remained tense, reflecting a clear contrast in their visions regarding the nature of Morocco’s modern governing system and its future status, during the period between independence and the Arab Spring (2011). The political discussions that Morocco saw on the sidelines of the constitutional consultations that defined them in the past have reflected some of this drastic contrast. The monarchy, through its extended apparatus, has always tried to put the brakes on democratic aspirations, while the democratic parties have run counter to it and tried to expand the margin of democracy.
This failure is not explained by traditional political factors such as conflicts of interest and ambitions. It goes back to deep reasons related to the cultural reference points that framed the modernization efforts after independence. It therefore reflects, in our view, a clear failure to manage Morocco’s character within the context of building a modern nation-state between one faction seeking political conservatism, characterized to a large extent as reactionary in its political concepts (the Makhzen), and a party striving for modernity and modernization, characterized to a large extent as progressive in its concepts (the parties of the nationalist movement). In this context we can reference two highly significant ideological documents: L’Idéologie arabe contemporaine (1967) by Abdullah Laroui and Naqd al-Dhati (Self Critique) (1949-52) by Allal al-Fassi.[^2] Both were foundational to a progressive political ideology completely at odds with the desires of the conservative Makhzen. It should be noted that this discussion began before independence.
This polarity, based on a misunderstanding of Morocco’s character and a poor use of it in political life, is rooted in the severe cultural divisions which Moroccan political culture suffered in the wake of independence, when Moroccan political actors were split between three primary movements: the progressive movement (the National Union of Popular Forces), a Salafi movement (the Istiqlal Party)[^3] and the traditionalist movement (the Makhzen). This prevented the emergence of unified concepts for the reference points and nature of the appropriate political system for Moroccans at the time the modern nation-state was constructed.
Accordingly, the concept of “political transition” is the main manifestation of this failure. In large part it reflects the ruptures of Moroccan political thought over the last 60 years. When it was based on a progressive concept or “Salafism” (the Salafism of Allal al-Fassi), it did not take into account the extensive role played by tradition in Morocco. This made it into a point of contention and not an answer in terms of politics or struggle at a particular stage.
Consequently, building a modern political system in Morocco and finally getting past the bilateral democracy/tahakoum deadlock and making a break with the history of conflict does not require and will not be achieved by once again reviving the idea of “democratic transition.” It requires a creative synthesis between political tradition and modernity that preserves the effective presence of the monarchy and allows citizens to participate in power through their representatives.

The PJD and the need to reconsider the idea of democratic transition

The question that poses itself in this analytical context is: Do the nationalist movement parties, including the PJD, understand this cultural impasse that Moroccan politics has reached, and are they ready to bring about the necessary intellectual shift it demands? None of this seems likely in reality; however, for many reasons the PJD is qualified to do some of this.
The sweeping attack that a number of the nationalist parties have carried out against tahakoum, led by the PJD, confirms that Morocco is gradually approaching the moment where democratic dialogue will be shut down and that what Morocco has suffered over the last 60 years has not changed anything in the political class’s understanding of the tahakoum/democratic binary. The PJD in this respect, for instance, is similar to a number of nationalist movement parties that have entered this conflict. It has exhausted its reformist energies in its battle and is on the way to reviving the same traditional battle which caused Morocco to miss an excellent opportunity for progress and revival. (Prime Minister and PJD leader) Abdelilah Benkirane is the latest parallel to Allal al-Fassi, (historic USFP leader Abdelrahim) Bouabid, and (former USFP leader and Prime Minister Abdelrahman) Youssoufi and so on. It is likely that if tensions continue in this direction, it will result in the same price for the PJD that was paid by its predecessors in the same battle. The party leadership’s statements about the methods and tentacles of tahakoum and their militancy in confronting it do not indicate a new or qualitative understanding of the phenomenon of tahakoum, and it does not establish a new phase of political action in the kingdom. Naturally, the question that occurs to more than one reader after this analysis is: Is there a way to overcome the chronic political deadlock and then escape the pressure of the idea of tahakoum? And is there any role for the PJD in this regard?
Yes there is. I think that the opportunity to overcome this chronic deadlock exists. It is possible for the PJD to participate forcefully in overcoming it. Perhaps the first position/opener that needs to be offered as an avenue to settling this problem for good is a reconsideration of the idea of democratic transition, which has framed the political struggle for the Moroccan nationalist movement from independence up until today, with the bulk of these parties’ concepts just an echo of that idea.
Moroccan party politics today demands the shuttering of the debate about the nature of the political system, and at the heart this debate lies the question of the distribution of power between elected and monarchical institutions. It is not possible for this resolution to ignore the realities of recent history and Morocco’s historical character. Today, it is no longer comprehensible for the national Moroccan parties to continue with their original ideology, which was established by the circumstances of independence. Today, it is necessary to invent new political ideas that move beyond the “democratic transition” quandary to political, developmental and economic challenges in a real and responsible partnership with the monarchy. No doubt in such a transition, tahakoum would lose its political and strategic value and would be made into a mere political obstacle with no political benefit to be derived from it.
Abandoning the idea of democratic transition would lead to qualitative changes in Moroccan political thought. On one hand, it would confer political and democratic legitimacy upon the political system, and would make the historical and religious dimensions of Morocco’s character (the ruling monarchy) into another manifestation of its individuality and uniqueness. On the other hand, the Moroccan political system would consciously escape the political instability which reverberates through the continuous discussion of the transition project.

In conclusion:

The PJD, as a qualitatively new current in Moroccan political life, has the cultural and political credentials to carry out this revolution in Moroccan political thought. It has come close at several moments, but events in the Moroccan political scene in recent months and the tactics they necessitated pushed it away from this goal. The exaggerated discussion of tahakoum among the PJD is indeed not without strategic or reformist depth. The ambition of this party since its return to political life in 1996 has been to reconcile with the monarchy and avoid conflict with it.
The aim of this discussion is to alert the PJD leadership, led by their secretary-general Abdelilah Benkirane, to the danger they have courted in recent months with their constant talk of confronting tahakoum, although this runs counter to their primary beliefs. Tahakoum is more than a party or a figure — it is a political phenomenon linked to the monarchy with its own objective rationale. We have tried in the above to clarify some of this rationale. Consequently, it is not possible to eliminate this phenomenon except by addressing its underlying causes. In particular, it is necessary to abandon the premise of “democratic transition” and help ensure stability by crafting an authentic and exceptional political system.

[^1]: The government of “alternance” headed by historical opposition leader Abdelrahman Youssoufi marked the first time that an opposition party democratically arrived in power in the Arab world. It was negotiated between Hassan II (who knew he only had a few years to live and wanted to prepare a safe transition to his son) and the USFP in the mid-1990s.

[^2]: Abdallah Laroui is Morocco’s pre-eminent modern historian and an intellectual who had great access to both Hassan II and the Moroccan political class more generally. Allal al-Fassi was conservative intellectual, a leader of the Moroccan nationalist movement and the founder of the Istiqlal party, which together with its more progressive offshoot, the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP), dominated the country’s political life after independence.

[^3]: The author refers to the Istiqlal as Salafi in part because its leader, Allal al-Fassi, was inspired by the Salafi renewal led by Mohammed Abdou and Rachid Reda in Egypt, especially in the interwar period. It should not be seen as equivalent to contemporary Salafism, and the Istiqlal Party, while conservative, is neither Salafi nor Islamist in the tradition of the Muslim Brothers (the PJD is closer to this).

Morocco: how state corruption works

There is an excellent, multifaceted investigation of corruption involving licenses attributed by the state for the use of quarries in state lands that has recently been published in Lakome, the independent Moroccan news website. As editor Aboubakr Jamai explains in a  companion editorial piece, the investigations details how members of the royal cabinet, their relatives, and other well-connected people have had privileged access to sand and other quarries, often through companies that barely have a legal existence, pay no taxes, and operate in very shadowy circumstances.

The corruption surrounding access to quarries has long been a commonly known fact about Morocco, a country with a long coastline and where sand quarrying in particular often takes place in an often unregulated away — something environmentalists have long complained about, since the quarrying takes place at times in what should be protected areas (the beautiful Atlantic beaches near Tangier and Asilah in the north are a case in point). But Lakome's investigation takes one rather banal type of corruption and paints a picture of such "state capture" takes place. You can probably imagine the same things happen for, say, touya wood felling in the Middle Atlas or fishing licenses that often go to senior army officers. 

This is precisely the type of in-depth investigative journalism that is so rare in the Arab world — using even inadequate public data to understand how one particular type of corruption works, which can tell you a lot not only about where money flows (and doesn't flow — the municipalities where these quarries are losing out on revenue that could go to facilities for locals) but also about how power flows. And it's not a pretty picture for a monarchy that boasts of being headed by a "king of the poor." 

✚ General Patton, Hassan II's Vizier

General Patton, Hassan II's Vizier

Moroccans will appreciate this little nugget unearthed by Michael Collins Dunn here:

Patton's attitudes toward the local Arab population were not particularly enlightened, and I may write about that later, but he seems to have enjoyed his interaction with royalty. He noted that when the Sultan gave him the Grand Cross of Morocco, it was an award "he had never seen a Frenchman wear"; when he had a display of weapons for the Sultan and invited him to ride in his armored car, he noted that "he insisted that I sit beside him ... the first time a Sultan has ever let any foreigner sit beside him." (Patton Papers II, 151). The Sultan had never let the French sit next to him? How would Patton know this? But clearly he felt flattered. He noted of the same occasion that the Prince (the future Hassan II) "told me that when he is Sultan, I am to be his Grand Vizier and we will go everywhere in  a tank."
Ridiculous P.R. for Mohammed VI

Ridiculous P.R. for Mohammed VI

Read this piece and wonder how 1) this guy gets published anywhere and 2) how he could have worked as a political advisor at the US Embassy in Rabat. Oh, hold on, I know the answer to #2: because this kind of brown-nosing sounds very much like US policy towards Morocco. Some choice samples:

The new King is known to be very close to his people and always ready to answer their needs.

. . .

Other young Moroccans used to see him surfing or jet skiing in the most frequented beaches in Rabat or Tetouan with no bodyguards and again that was an opportunity for him to listen directly to people’s needs and problems.

. . .

I was driving once and all cars stopped at the red light. My wife surprised and almost speechless asked me “Isn’t that the King?” Yes, that was the King Mohammed waiting for the green light like the rest of the other people. This of course gained him more respect and love.

My own take on Morocco's Mohammed VI here.

Long reads — special Morocco edition

Morocco - Marrakech: Mystery

I did not put out Long Reads like last week. Will try to make this new feature work.

But I've accumulated a few links to long pieces of journalism and think tank reports on Morocco, and having generally felt guilty that I don't write about Morocco as much as I should (for instance, the UN recently stated that torture in Morocco "is systematic in Morocco for cases involving anti-government demonstrators and those accused of terrorism", belying the idea of a radical improvement under Mohammed VI.) I thought I'd highlight them here. 

1. Averting a Moroccan revolution

Amin Alsaden, in a report for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, writes about the "The Monarchy’s Preemptive Spatial Tactics and the Quest for Stability" — that's a mouthful! It focuses on the built environment and its role in the monarchy's discourse on "tradition and modernity"

The 2011 protests show clearly, however, that a large swath of the population is anything but content. Seen against the backdrop of proliferating new infrastructure and building projects, the protests indicate that the “success” of the Moroccan path to regime reform may be in peril if it cannot deliver on social issues.

This potential failure needs to be juxta- posed with contemporary popular senti- ment that favours stability. Many Moroc- cans are convinced that they are better off with the current regime rather than ending up with total chaos and an unknown future – a view that can be attributed to their ob- servation of regional events, such as the Syrian uprising. This implies a decrease in internal pressure on the monarchy to live up to its promises, at least for the time being.

2. The Reform of the King

James Traub, writing in Foreign Policy, strikes a markedly more skeptical tone than he did last August:

Morocco has, in short, the same social, economic, and demographic problems that led to mass protests elsewhere in the Arab world. Still, the king's supporters persist in believing that February 20 was no more than a flash in the pan: The people wanted reform, and the king gave it to them. But the people who took to the streets wanted jobs, a better life, and an end to the corrupt bargains struck by members of the makhzen. And it's unlikely that the Benkirane government will be able to deliver those things. "Moroccans believed in Benkirane," says Salem. "But once they see that nothing concrete has changed, the movement will return."

You have to wonder how long the protesters will continue to make a special exemption for the king. February 20 tore away the curtain of propriety that had protected the monarchy. The world of privilege that has wrapped itself around the king like so many layers of glittering nacre has now been exposed to the public. For years, the king benefited from a profound cognitive dissonance: The palace is rotten, but the monarchy is benevolent. That, as Tazi, the opposition businessman, puts it, is the "Freudian way" of dealing with criticism of the father in Morocco's deeply paternalistic society. But the patriarchy is losing its moral force; people will no longer accept what they used to accept.

Constitutional reform, by itself, will not be enough. Morocco cannot become a democracy as long as it has both a government and a feudal court that claims not to govern and therefore is unaccountable to the public. Morocco may be exceptional, but it cannot be amphibious. Hicham, the king's cousin who is a public advocate for a democratic Morocco from his exile in the United States, says that he has come to the unhappy conclusion that incremental reform will not succeed. "The monarchy cannot open up without blowing open," he says. It might survive, but it would have to, as he says, "kill the makhzen." You can have a country governed by deference and awe, or a country governed by equal citizens. There is no third way.

The piece was accompanied with a slideshow highlighting wealth disparities. Journalists are often taken in with the charm of Morocco and the polish of regime spokesmen. Glad to see James correct his earlier take.

3. Not enough change in Morocco

This excellent piece in Le Monde Diplomatique (subs.) this month, by Aurel and Pierre Daum, starts off in the backwaters where, over the last year, multiple riots and social protests have taken place. It focuses on the Rif in particular:

Did they ever refer to the king? “Never directly,” said Jawad S, 26, a technician we met with 10 of his friends at a café in Ait Bouayach, on the Monday after the regular Sunday protest in which 200 men took part. (A few female unemployed graduates later demonstrated outside the courthouse in Al-Hoceima where a friend was being tried, but they stood apart on the pavement.) “We don’t want to get rid of the king,” said Jawad. “We just want one like they have in Spain or the Netherlands.” (In fact the monarch in the Netherlands has been Queen Beatrice since 1980.) They were prepared to keep the king as long as he “stops interfering in the economy” (meaning that his immense wealth — derived from the shares he automatically gets in big state companies — should be fairly distributed). They have all read at least extracts from Le Roi Prédateur (The Predator King) by Catherine Graciet and Eric Laurent (banned in Morocco but available on the internet), which exposes the financial affairs of the king and his entourage.

The bad news for Moroccans is that Mohammed VI is no Juan Carlos.

Update: One more different type of long-read — this exhaustive testimony by Moroccan blogger Larbi of the protests that took place in Casablanca last month and subsequent trial and conviction of participants.

All the King's Islamists

All the King's Islamists

Maati Monjib in SADA, on an anti-corruption campaign launched by the palace apparently mostly for the purpose of embarrassing the prime minister, who was not consulted, and as a form of revenge for the PJD's own anti-corruption campaign. This is reminiscent of the "campagne d'assainissement" of the 1990s by then-PM Driss Basri:

The PJD’s powerful election campaign focused on what it deemed financial corruption, political corruption, and the rentier economy which benefits the ruling elite—including those close to the monarchy. During the first weeks of the new Islamist government, which the press mocked as “half-bearded,” some ministers wanted to uphold their campaign promises to expose some of the rentier economy practices which are at the heart of the traditional political system. This alarmed the influential elite—including some representatives of the parties loyal to the palace within the ruling coalition—who considered their Islamist colleagues’ behavior to be populist. Then the Islamist Minister of Justice Mustafa Ramid, a PJD hawk whose appointment set off the first crisis between Benkirane and the palace, made the risky decision to open investigations against two figures close to the monarchy: the former minister of finance Salaheddine Mezouar and the current treasurer Noureddine Bensouda, citing financial documents published by the press as sufficient evidence of their corruption. This move clearly upset relations between the palace and the PJD.

In this atmosphere, and in an attempt to allay fears of a witch hunt, Benkirane told Al Jazeera “God has pardoned what is past” (Qur’an 5:95), thinking that this would alleviate the royal pressure on him. But Benkirane did not take into account that the palace would turn his statement against him, and show its own will to fight corruption by arresting dozens of police and customs officials. Benkirane, who sought a moderate, conciliatory stance, was instead blasted by pro-regime media for his inaction in confronting corruption—all the while, of course, praising the monarchy’s own move.

The irony here is that fighting genuine, large-scale corruption in Morocco isn’t really on the agenda of either the palace or the government: it is so deeply entrenched in the state that an actual attempt to uproot it could uproot the regime itself.

Benchemsi: the history of Morocco's #feb20

Ahmed Benchemsi, the former editor of the popular French-language weekly Tel Quel, has written a valuable essay retelling the story of the emergence of the February 20 movement in Morocco and its subsequent fading as the monarchy regained the initiative. He concludes:

At the time of writing (March 2012), the freshly appointed Benkirane cabinet still enjoys a honeymoon with the people. This may last a few more months, maybe a year. But then what? The sources of the 2011 revolt are still in place. Corruption, a major factor for discontent, is at peak level. Morocco’s position on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index has been worsening for years, going from 52nd in 2002 to 80th in 2011. Unemployment is also higher than ever, especially among university graduates (the official rate is 19% in 2011). Given the depth of these problems and the profound structural reforms that they require, the odds are small that Mr. Benkirane and his government assuage popular anger quickly enough.

With months passing and the economy degrading, in the absence of democratic freedoms developed enough to act like a safety valve, serious street protesting is likely to resume. The question is by whom the next round of popular anger will be channeled; and if so, whether or not this will be done properly to seize the momentum and maintain it while exerting efficient—and this time, focused—pressure on the Makhzen. The PJD cannot play that mobilizing role anymore, now that it has been closely associated to the Makhzen. The remaining activists movements that can do the channeling are Al Adl Wal Ihsan or, maybe, a reformed Feb20-like coalition—provided Morocco’s democratic and secular activists learn lessons from the 2011 fiasco and manage to build a real grassroots movement with an identified and appealing agenda.

I'm not sure I agree with his take that the emergency of a coherent liberal movement will be enough to change things (it will need to be broader than strictly liberal). Benchemsi is a figurehead of secularism in Morocco, a cause he advocated with his magazine with some success but that remains fairly alien to most Moroccans, whether among the educated middle class or the rural poor. The question in Morocco may be how to articulate an idea of reformist secularism that is not, as Tel Quel sometimes was, hostile to traditional values. He has written here a good first draft of the history of the radicals' role in the emergency of this movement (and more broadly the movement for democratic change in Morocco), but a chapter on its mainstreaming still awaits.

Pelham: How Morocco Dodged the Arab Spring

At least for now, says Nick Pelham in the NYRblog:

But while Benkirane’s government has for the time being stayed any prospect of a broader upheaval, Morocco is not yet out of the woods. The carping, which Benkirane’s election initially silenced, has returned with renewed vigor as Moroccans ask themselves whether their new constitution was merely cosmetic. Most recently, this view has been confirmed in a battle over who gets to make senior government appointments. Unsurprisingly, the King seems to have won.

“I appoint five hundred of the country’s most senior positions,” Benkirane had insisted to me in March. “The king appoints only thirty-seven.” But those thirty-seven are the most important. King Mohammed remains head of the Council of Ministers, the Supreme Security Council, and the Ulama Council, which runs the mosques. He runs the military, the security forces, and the intelligence. The targets of the February 20 protests—including the interior minister at the time, Ali al-Himma—are firmly ensconced as advisers in the King’s shadow government. Tellingly, when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to the kingdom in March she met the King’s foreign affairs adviser ahead of the foreign minister. “The King returns to Morocco, business resumes,” ran the headline in the official newspaper, Le Soir, on June 13, after the King returned from an absence of several weeks in Europe. It was clear who it thought called the shots.

Excellent piece worth reading on the unfinished business from 2011 in Morocco, with vivid reporting from the dark underbelly of the country.

Revisiting the Moroccan exception

I have a new op-ed in today's Guardian (p. 28 for dead-tree readers) about Morocco — specifically looking at the idea of Morocco as a model of how to handle the political demands unleashed by the Arab Spring. Here's how it starts:

There are cautionary tales in the Arab uprisings, as Syria has shown: not every revolution can be as successful as Tunisia's, not every aftermath is rosy. And then there are also questions raised about those places where revolution did not take place. Was it averted because there is wise and popular government, or has some kind of social shock merely been postponed?

Last year Morocco seemed for a while to be following the path of its eastern neighbours. Protests were proliferating, with public participation unseen since the 1970s. King Mohammed VI, whose legitimacy was never targeted by the protests – even if that of his regime was – deftly retook the initiative by proposing, and hurriedly passing, a new constitution. Elections that followed led, for the first time, to victory for the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD by its French acronym), which is now in office. Surely, some observers marvelled, here was a model to follow for countries faced with demands for change, one that offered fewer dangers than revolution?

Many Moroccans were divided on this issue. Libya's civil war and, later, Syria's, frightened many into believing that escalation would be too costly for a country that has neither petroleum riches nor great strategic assets. They knew from experience that the makhzen – the political-economic-security nexus that rules the country behind the scenes – would not yield power easily, and is capable of great repression. It was probably why many hoped that promises of reform were genuine, and were willing to give a new government and chastened makhzen the benefit of the doubt. Such a debate on whether such gradualism is preferable to more risky radical rupture is at the heart of the Arab uprisings, which were an indictment of reform initiatives that never went anywhere.

Read the rest here, which talks about rising socio-economic discontent as illustrated by the Taza protests, the threat of more economic pain from a coming drought, and the slow pace of political change under the new PJD government. And the king's megabucks, of course.

Video: L'Bassline

L'Bassline is a new hip-hop group from Fes in Morocco — this song, Chayllah Systeme (Down with the system - actually "Chayllah is a kind of holy figure, a reference to the untouchable nature of the regime, a rather subtle play on word that I mistook for something else - thanks Aba!) tackles with a lot of politically sensitive subject, including electoral fraud, the new constitution, the Makhzen's economic stranglehold, and more. It's a fantastic test of one's darija comprehension, too.

Previous Fez rap video: http://arb.st/e03P1W.

Morocco, the Gulf and the media

An interesting item at Angry Arab — Aljazeera and Morocco:

"Yassine sent met this:  "So al-Jazeera decided not to air the documentary on Morocco and the 20th of February Movement (nuqta sakhina), which they had been promoting for more than a week. Why not? Again? (In November the same thing happened (back then the al-Jazeera crew was forbidden to go to Tanger and the al-Hoceima area: two centers of the Moroccan uprising).  The Moroccan king recently 'gave' the Qatari emir some 4 5.000 hectares (=450 km²) in the Guelmim area so that the Qatari emir could go hunt there. And also, these two weeks al-Jazeera has been negotiating a possible return to Morocco with the new minister of information. So I guess the negotiations are concluded. Perhaps the documentary was just a card in the negotiation-process. This is Gulf-media"""

The Emir of Qatar has a huge property in Tangier where he spends part of the summer, close to the king's own palace (and the king spends most of his summer in the north, either in Tangier or nearby Tetouan). Jazeera like other media has had trouble with the Moroccan government, but there is little explanation for the cancellation of the broadcast of this documentary (presumably as part the channel's very good series of documentaries on the Arab uprisings).

Incidentally, two members of the February 20 movement who worked for a UAE-based TV channel (Dubai TV) were fired at the request of the minister of information last year. Solidarity among absolute monarchs trumps all.

King Hassan of Morocco and the Queen

I found this video fascinating, and a reminder that, far from what remains prevalent thinking of Morocco, King Hassan was neither particularly sophisticated nor charming (he could be on occasion, perhaps) and little more than a tinpot despot who enriched himself on the back of his country. Not to mention, of course, his disastrous Sahara policy, his human rights abuses, his debasement of politics, etc.

Morocco Dispatch: No faith in the system

Moroccan Traffic

This was sent in by our intrepid correspondent Abu Ray, whose wrote many dispatches from Iraq a few years back, and now lives in Morocco.

The police officer finally looked up from behind the ancient, hulking Arabic-language typewriter with which he’d been hunting and pecking out the report for what seemed like an hour.

“You know, it would have been much easier for everyone if he’d just sorted things out on the side of the road and left us out of it,” he said with exasperation to my Moroccan friend.

It was a striking admission of the total lack of faith in a system by someone charged to uphold it.

We’d been hours in the police station, answering questions, typing out reports, photocopying documents – something that took extra long because it had to be done at the little teleboutique across the street.

What I should have done, when the moped crashed into my car in a gritty slum of Casablanca as I was executing a u-turn of questionable legality with several other cars into oncoming traffic, was paid the guy off.

The driver of the little Peugeot moto, the kind that can be found careening all over the urban spaces of Morocco, wasn’t hurt, but his sister was tossed off her precarious perch on the back of the bike onto the side of the road where she howled in pain as people gathered and stared.

I stood around awkwardly with a Moroccan friend as we waited for some measure of authority to appear – resisting the urge just to peel out of there and high tail it back to the comfortable neighborhood of Rabat.

Eventually the police showed up, and then an ambulance, which took the woman away while the moped driver and I were questioned.

It was a bizarrely archaic process, with one policeman painstakingly recreating the accident scene on graph paper with a ruler and protractor, noting the locations of the cars and the direction of traffic.

What was new this time around, however, was the traffic law which specified that in any case of injury, drivers lost their licenses and I was instructed to come back to the commissariat the next day for questioning – a feat made a bit harder by the absence of my driver’s license.

Like so many other countries, Morocco is a place that seems to function largely outside of its own legal code. Trying to do anything by the book opens one up to turgid, labyrinthian bureaucracy that takes forever – and most people with even the most rudimentary shred of connections, just bypass it all – or at the very least skip to the head of the long lines.

I spent months begging one of the mobile service providers to put me on an unlimited post-paid system that would let me make all the calls I needed on a monthly bill, rather than cutting me off halfway through the week and forcing me to then add credit. For months I waited for an incredibly slow approval process, crying in frustration to thoroughly unsympathetic customer service representatives over the phone (they don’t believe in face to face contact), before giving up in disgust. The next day I went to the office of the other service provider with a Moroccan friend, who knew the people who worked there, and I had what I couldn’t get on my own for months, in a half an hour.

No one, if they can help it, does it by the book.

So instead of just paying off the poor moto driver and maybe giving his sister a lift to the hospital, I had condemned the police to the laborious job of questioning me, typing up a report, checking with the hospital, and – embarrassingly – calling the embassy to tell them I’d been in an accident.

He asked for my father’s name, mother’s name, then my father’s father’s name and finally my mother’s father and we painstakingly spelled out the unfamiliar foreign names.

There was pause while my friend went out to find a place open during lunch time to make more copies and we stared at each other in the bare, empty office. “Do you do any sports,” he asked. “It’s okay, it’s not for the report, I’m just curious.”

In the end, the man’s sister was fine and released from the hospital the same day, but the police officer still had to type up his report.

“We work 12-14 hours a day, did you know that?” he complained. “It should be us out there demonstrating on Feb. 20.”

It was the one year anniversary of the incredible social explosion in Morocco in which tens of thousands had hit the streets for months calling for an end to business as usual.

And end to a king whose unelected advisors dictate state policy and control half the economy, an end to the pervasive corruption, an end to elections that bring a meaningless rotation of familiar faces, an end to social inequalities that beggar the imagination, an end to an economy that only seems to grow for some and leave millions without jobs.

It’s not that Morocco never had demonstrations before, they just never had everyone on the same page, in the same street at the same time.

Those demonstrations are done for now, as the movement has found out that you can’t keep marching through the streets and chanting slogans forever without coming up with a second act. They’ve also been a victim of a clever power structure that knew when it was time to concede some reforms.

There will be some big ones for the anniversary Sunday, probably, but for now it seems that this phase is over and they have been replaced with smaller, angrier clashes between fed up youths in provincial cities and riot police – a bit reminiscent of neighboring Algeria’s inchoate popular rage.

The year of protests did mean that the elections were the fairest in years and a opposition Islamist party came to power – allowed into power, many would say, as a spooked palace went for the one party that hadn’t been coopted to give the system back some shred of legitimacy.

The main pillar of their platform echoes that of the protesters, taking on corruption and the new justice minister once fought the hopeless task of defending terrorist suspects in the country’s hopelessly rigged courts.

The question remains though if they can really tackle the true sources of corruption which many place close to the untouchable monarch.

Perhaps the new traffic law, with its stiff penalties to deter reckless driving, was their idea, but so far, aside from costing me a day, it appears to have done little to curb traffic patterns that remain blissfully unaware of any kind of rules.

It seems especially doubtful when the people charged with enforcing it prefer the old ways themselves.

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.