Morocco: The king faces the temptation to repress

CDDRL consulting professor Hicham Ben Abdallah wrote a new piece for the French daily Libération on the state of the democratic movement in Morocco as it enters a defining period this summer.

As the Arab Spring meets the Moroccan summer, the movement for democratic reform in our country finds itself in a rare moment when constitutional issues are in the forefront, demanding immediate attention, while the political and social forces that shape the fundamental context, and will determine ultimate outcomes, remain in motion and cannot be forgotten. With the February 20th movement evolving into a series of rolling demonstrations, and the regime drawing other political forces into a process of constitutional reform guided by a royally-appointed consultative commission (CCRC), the major players continue to circle each other, testing their strengths and weaknesses. The movement wants to see how far it can go with militant non-violence, reinforced by the regional momentum of reform; the regime wants to see how well it can contain the pressure with a mixture of co-optation and repression, and is also drawing on an emerging regional pushback against reform demands.

For the moment, the regime has established an agenda: By the end of June, a consultative commission will report to the King, who will then prepare a revised constitution to be presented to the voters in a referendum. The King’s speech regarding this commission was initially greeted as a very positive response to popular pressure, but observers are now wary that this process is quickly being diverted into familiar channels of cosmetic change. 

The regime has put itself in a conundrum: Either you have a real campaign with open, democratic debate around this commission and the proposed reforms – in which case there will be serious dissent and the results will be unpredictable; or, you have a carefully managed and restricted theater of discussion with a familiar cast of characters and a predictable happy ending. 

What seems to be developing is more like the latter – an opaque process, in which traditional party and union leaders (most of whom withheld or hedged their support of the movement), presided over by a royal advisor, will formulate reform proposals that will be further edited by the king before being submitted to a popular vote. From such a process, it will not be difficult to come up with some “good enough” constitutional revisions that are likely to win approval in a quick referendum, as well as international praise. This would gain the regime some instant credibility for democratic reform, and might give it an excuse to brand any further extra-electoral mobilization as “undemocratic.” Since this process would also produce low participation, a weak turnout, and increased disappointment, those extra-electoral demonstrations would be a virtual certainty.

It is not hard to understand why movement activists have declined to participate in such a tightly-managed “consultative” process, though their participation could have transformed it into a useful forum. The constitutional issues in play are extremely relevant in the Moroccan context, as the demonstrators themselves have made clear, with, for example, their frequent references to the articles pertaining to the commanderie des croyants. Clearly, the heart of the matter, and the real test of constitutional reform, will be whether and how the powers and prerogatives of the monarchy are, for the first time, precisely and carefully delimited. This includes, not only the powers of the monarch relative to the different branches of government, but also a wide range of traditionally extra-legal, patrimonial prerogatives, such as the power to issue royal decrees, which should now be delimited within a constitutional framework.

Authoritarianism is not an office but a system, embedded in a widely-dispersed network of institutions and practices. Hicham Ben Abdallah

But, although no real reform will advance without resolving this question of monarchical privilege, the kind of political change that people are now seeking goes beyond the fate of any single institution. Authoritarianism is not an office but a system, embedded in a widely-dispersed network of institutions and practices. Nowhere else is this clearer, for example, than when we consider the issues surrounding elections. Until now, we have tolerated “transparent” elections that are, in fact, structurally rigged, through gerrymandering, the complexity of the electoral code, and the tacit agreement of parties, to prevent an inconvenient majority. At the least, we need to strengthen the electoral code, and give the electoral commissions total independence from the Ministry of the Interior. If we also think about the independence and integrity of municipal and regional governments, the judiciary, the police, schools and universities, and even economic entities, we see the breadth of the changes that are implied in a thorough process of democratization. The persistence and complexity of the political effort necessary to advance that process and make it self-sustaining is clear. Democracy is a process, not a result, and it would be naive to think that a statute, or a referendum, or a demonstration could make it happen.

Indeed, beyond any set of legal or institutional changes, there is the more fundamental question of political culture. It requires, not just elections, but engagement -- the ongoing participation of millions of citizens in all the difficult decisions required to remake their society and their lives. But the legacy of decades of authoritarianism includes passivity, resignation, fear, and cynicism -- as well as, in Morocco, illiteracy. It includes a political framework in which parties become part of a spoils system, inured to their dependence on the monarchy, and reluctant to embrace a reform that would cut those ties. These implicit but powerful elements of authoritarianism provide the most stubborn obstacles to a thoroughgoing, self-sustaining process of democratization. The world is full of countries with perfect constitutions, passive, fearful citizens, and compliant political parties.

The educated, energetic, internet-savvy youth who inspired the February 20th movement, like their comrades across the region, have largely overcome this legacy for themselves, but have barely begun to bring with them the large swaths of Moroccans who are traditionalist, religious, culturally conservative, and -- not without reason -- afraid of making their lives any worse. To attract and mobilize these people, to help them become active citizens rather than passive subjects, requires setting another agenda, proposing a new social project—something visionary enough to inspire them, and programmatic enough to give them hope that their lives can be, not just different, but better. Do that, and the law will follow.

It has been understandably difficult to articulate such a project in a movement that has been a mixture of different social and political tendencies. But to advance, the movement must become more than a front de réfus. It has to adapt to a political space in Morocco that is more open than in many other Arab countries, and a target for its demands that is more difficult to define. The movement has tapped into the enormous desire for change among the populace, but has not yet been able to craft coalitions that will mobilize a broad constituency or develop a politically effective program and strategy.

For its part, the regime has not yet articulated a new vision of its own, adequate to the challenges we face. It is likely to find that the aura of history and tradition is no longer sufficient to sustain its own front de réfusbricolé from the sticks and carrots of the security apparatus and the usual suspects among the political parties, against the forces of change. 

The relations between movement and regime are still dominated by suspicion and fear, and this creates a very dangerous situation. We have to realize that, whatever the results of the consultative commission and referendum, they will almost certainly be overtaken by ongoing political events. Constitutional reform might turn a page, but it will begin another chapter. Either it will be substantive, and therefore become the condition and support of a continuing process of democratization that affects all the institutions of society, or it will be restricted and superficial, and quickly become an excuse for increased repression and a provocation to renewed militancy.

Particularly troubling in this regard is the regime’s seeming turn, already, to a strategy of harsher repression. It’s as if the regime believes not only that a single constitutional reform constitutes the process of democratization, but also that the mere promise of one puts an end to it. Beating people out of streets and squares, mass arrests, and drive-by attacks by police on motorcycles will do more to undermine the support of the government, and the monarchy, than would a sympathetic understanding of the need for a change that is comprehensive and social, not narrow and legal.

Whether the result of a momentary ascendancy of our own forces sécuritaires, or of the fear of lobbies with vested interests, or of the influence of some of our Arab brethren, who seem to think the Arab Spring can be choked off in mid-bloom by a strong enough dose of the herbicide of repression, such a harsh turn is dangerous and self-defeating. Throughout the region, the appeal of monarchy as a unifying and stabilizing force has been real, but it is also fragile, and requires its own careful and constant tending, or it may quickly wither. In February, the demonstrators in Bahrain were not calling for the ouster of the King or the end of the monarchy. Does anybody think they will be as reticent the next time they take to the streets? Does anybody think there will not be a next time? No “club of Kings” will protect a monarchy from the rage of people who have been beaten by the King’s clubs.

Bleeding wounds leave a harsher and longer-lasting impression than cast ballots. It would be wise for all political actors in Morocco to build on their own strengths rather than on their own or others’ weaknesses, to meet their political opponents with respect rather than fear, as compatriots and citizens rather than as enemies, and to prepare, as best they can, for a complex project of reform that will reach beyond the central squares of major cities, and will not be over in a month, or two months, or on anyone’s timetable. The Arab Spring is entering a long, but let’s hope not too hot, Moroccan summer.