The solution for Morocco: the reformed monarchy

The following interview with Prince Moulay Hicham, consulting professor at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at the Freeman-Spogli Institute, on the ongoing events of the “Arab Spring” was published in the May 15 issue of the French newsmagazine, "L’Express."

After his death, will Osama Bin Laden become a myth?

For the West perhaps, but not for Arabs. Bin Laden’s influence has been in decline since 2004, when people realized that most of his victims were Muslims.

You have never stopped making the case for the democratization of the Arab world. It got to the point, in 1995, that Hassan II banned you from the palace for several months. How do you explain the wave of protests that we see today, from the Gulf to the Atlantic, sparing no country?

Aside from the conjunctural factors, there are some underlying reasons. To begin with, there is the character of the regimes that exists. Some are completely closed, while others have a façade of openness. All of a sudden, the structures of mediation — parties, unions, associations, etc. — that were supposed to represent civil society were completely discredited. At the end of the day, we were left with the dominant elites, alienated and cut off from the rest of the country, relying on the security apparatus. Also, in reality, the economic opening imposed by globalization and promoted by international financial institutions only profited the elites. In the absence of any serious policy of redistribution, GDP growth was accompanied up by an increase in poverty and social insecurity that made life more precarious even for the middle classes. Finally, we cannot ignore the demographic evolution of these countries. The transition from the extended family to the nuclear family, and the entrance of women into active public life on a greater scale considerably changed the social landscape. At the same time, widespread access to new means of communication broke the spell of the state’s monopoly on information, and brought more and more people into contact with the wider world. Even before the rise of new media technologies, the arrival of Al-Jazeera in the living rooms of the region had created a revolution!

And what was the trigger?

The sense of insult. The sense that one’s dignity was being insulted. This notion of dignity is essential to understanding what is happening right now. Until now, the prevailing concepts, especially that of national honor, were elements of a collective attitude. Dignity is a demand of the individual. I will add that the WikiLeaks revelations played a role in laying bare the disdain in which the governments held their citizens.

This revolt led to a set of demands that were democratic, and virtually never religious, even if Islamist movements tried to hop aboard the train.  Why?

Because this is a movement of the citizen! Its young organizers are challenging at once the authoritarianism of the regimes and the ideological discourse of the Islamists. They want neither despotism nor theocracy. They belong to a globalized, post-ideological generation, which privileges the autonomy of the subject and the individual. They refuse the identity gambit, Islamist or not, and aspire to universal values. We are in the full enthusiasm of the 1848 “springtime of the peoples,” with the romantic twist of May ’68. It remains to be seen if these young protesters will be able to transform their efforts into something that has a more concrete political content. Right now, we are entering into the kind of trench warfare between the besieged regimes and the democratic movements.

How do you understand the evolution of the situation in Tunisia and Egypt?  Are you optimistic?

The two situations are not identical. I’m optimistic regarding the transition to democracy in Tunisia, and more circumspect regarding Egypt. In Egypt, the army was always the spine of the regime. Under the pressure of the street, it broke from the head of state, but it remains very much in business, and will, in my opinion, hold onto its role as kingmaker for a long time. The temptation to reconstitute a party that would restore an order from the bits and pieces of the old regime – bringing together Islamists, businessmen, former dissidents, etc.— to the detriment of the reformers, is very real.

Do you think the regime in Syria will fall in turn?

Yes, if the revolt persists, and widens so much that the regime would be obliged to call on the army, which might hesitate to fire on the people. Right now, it’s the Republican Guard, controlled by the Alaouite minority, with the support of paramilitary groups, which is carrying out the repression. But it’s not clear that they would be able to stand against a general uprising. This is the problem that all the closed regimes face, once they’re confronted with an insurrection.

In the monarchies, the demonstrators don’t demand that the sovereign “leave,” but that the system be reformed. Could it be that Kings are more legitimate and republican dictators? The monarchy is at once an institution of arbitration and the symbol of national identity. For the most part, the populations of these countries accept this concept. But, eventually, this could cease to be the case, if these monarchies do not respond to their peoples’ aspiration for change. Right now, they — especially the divine-right monarchies — are struggling to find a response to this urgency.

To that point: In Morocco, where Mohammed VI named a commission to consider the reform of institutions, the religious powers of the king are today widely debated. The youth who organized the February 20th movement and the following demonstrations are calling into question the article of the constitution that emphasizes the sacred character of the person of the king. They are also questioning his role as commander of the faithful. How far must this reform go?

“Sacrality” is not compatible with democracy. One can understand that the person of the king should be inviolable, because he is the representative of the nation. One can preserve the role of “commander of the faithful,” if it is understood as having a moral dimension --somewhat like the Queen of England is the head of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith. But it’s necessary to give up the idea of the sacred character of the person of the king. If one keeps that notion, which was copied from French absolutism, in the midst of an institutional arrangement that is otherwise democratic, everything will be skewed. In the end, that won’t work.

Can the commission named by Mohamed VI go so far as to propose the suppression of the sacrality of the person who of the king?

I think that the Moroccan monarchy has understood the depth of the challenge, even if it has barely responded to it.  The commission is advisory. It’s the king who will decide.

In Morocco today, the ultraleft is part of the February 20 Movement, demanding the election of a constituent assembly…

That’s unrealistic. That would mean the end of the regime. Historically, constituent assemblies consummated the end of a regime.

Fundamentally, must it move towards a Spanish-style monarchy, as some demand? Or should we rather have a constitution in which the king would more or less have the powers of the French president, with a two-headed executive, as one sometimes hears in Morocco?

In France, the Head of State and the Prime Minister are both determined by popular sovereignty. In Morocco, there are two sources of legitimacy – that of ballots, and that of tradition. One can’t transpose the logic of the philosophy of cohabitation with that of a protected space. We have to turn the page, and do it without ambiguity. Morocco should draw on the experiences of the European monarchies, while preserving its own traditions and culture.

Do you think the reform will go that far?

Either the reform will stop short, because it doesn’t go far enough, and the contestation will continue. Or the king will choose to take the process to its conclusion. But in that case he risks to be brought to account, particularly for the choices of his entourage. Because the regime has waited too long, and time is pressing, there is a risk that everything will have to be done all at once. It’s an enormous challenge, without precedent. To reform the constitution is not only to define the equilibrium of power and give a moral dimension to the “commander of the faithful,” it is also to make sure that all the activities of state are inscribed in a legal and rational framework.

Is the challenge the same for the other Arab monarchies?

The problem is practically the same in Jordan, with the added fragility that derives from the institution’s lack of historical depth. In the Gulf, a process will take longer because civil society is not as well developed. Oil rents also allow problems to be postponed. That being said, in Bahrain, the monarchy, by choosing one side rather than another, is playing a dangerous game. And in Kuwait, they have already known ten years of repetitive crises.

How do you evaluate the West’s attitude toward the “Arab Spring”?

Westerners are blinded by the Islamist bogeyman. But France, in particular, which should rejoice to see young Arabs coming into the street in the name of its own values, seems to me turned in on itself and completely confounded. The United States is more pragmatic. It is acting in accordance with its strategic interests, case by case.

Is it true that you were one of the consultants who, in 2009, participated in crafting Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo?

Among others, I was consulted. Unlike other American presidents, Obama knows and understands the region. But when he made that speech he was not as well aware as his predecessors had been of the constraints of the American system – particularly the strength, in the United States, of the pro-Israel lobby.

How does one become the advocate of the democratic opening of the Arab monarchies when one is the nephew of Hassan II?

From studying abroad, undoubtedly an opening to the world. And an interest, acquired very early, in social problems…

But you remain a monarchist?

Yes. I remain convinced that a change in the framework of a reformed monarchy represents the least costly solution for Morocco. I would be lying if I were to claim that biology had nothing to do with this conviction.

The stands that you’ve taken have caused you several difficulties with your Uncle Hassan II. Then with your cousin Mohammed VI…

With Mohammed VI above all, insofar as his entourage brings more influence to bear than did that of Hassan II, I have been hassled, and made the object of campaigns against me…

How are your relations with him today?

During the last ten years, I was in the royal palace once. I have only seen the king two or three times, in the context of family reunions. The memories of the shared childhood and youth remain. The sense also of belonging to the same family. This is a constitutive element of my identity.