Morocco: the picture is not that rosy

When asked in an interview about the nature of the Moroccan regime, King Mohammed VI replied that it is a democratic executive monarchy–an oxymoronic definition that reflects the quandary of a monarchy that would like to pose as progressive without relinquishing its powers.

Since his accession to the throne, Mohammed VI has made gestures suggesting a democratic-minded monarch. He permitted the return of Abraham Serfaty, an exiled arch-opponent of his late father, Hassan II. He released Abdeslam Yassine, the leader of one of the most popular Islamist movements in the country, after ten years under house arrest. He fired Driss Basri, the minister of interior considered Hassan II’s right hand. He also organized elections that were only marginally contested as unfair. He improved the legal status of women by passing a new family code. He set up a commission in charge of investigating past human right abuses and compensating their victims.

Does all that amount to a robust democratization process? Not so fast. At closer examination, the picture is not that rosy. To assess the true contribution of Mohammed VI’s reign to political liberalization, we must recall the political overtures to the opposition and the human rights initiatives taken by his father.

The late king acted not so much out of a sudden embrace of democratic principles as out of an urgent sense of self-preservation. Two developments concurred to nudge his regime toward more liberalization. In the beginning of the 1980s, Morocco went through a major economic crisis that led to the intervention of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. As a result, new reforms were introduced that altered the social contract between the monarchy and major sectors of society. The rise to prominence of the business community meant heightened pressure on the regime to ensure the rule of law–a first step toward democratization.

On the other hand, the end of the Cold War deprived the monarchy of a major geopolitical asset. Like the majority of the regimes in the region, it had "monetized" its support for one of the two contending blocs; for Morocco, this meant the West. After 1989, this "rent" disappeared, with a major impact on Moroccan internal politics.

Before 1989, the regime would repress at will dissenting voices without major consequences on the international arena. After 1989, things got complicated for Hassan II. In the beginning of the 1990s, the European Parliament refused to grant an aid package to Morocco because of its awful human rights record. This wake-up call led Hassan II to take major decisions. He announced an amnesty for political prisoners, began negotiating with the opposition its participation in the government, and even set up a consultative commission on human rights that compensated some of the victims of past abuses. He heeded the demands of women’s rights organizations to modernize the family law by introducing changes to it as early as 1993.

This chain of events is particularly relevant in order to contextualize Mohammed VI’s reforms. In light of what Hassan II initiated, especially during the 1990s, Mohammed VI’s actions are, at best, more a continuation than a clean break. Actually, whether Mohammed VI’s monarchy has taken the path of democratization is more than ever open to question.

Although less rigged than previous ones, the legislative and municipal elections that took place in 2002 and 2003 were "tailored" to generate a political map that would protect the absolutist character of the monarchy. The Islamist party that was allowed to run already in 1997 by Hassan II was forced to limit its candidates to only 30 percent of the districts in the legislative elections and less than 18 percent of the districts in the municipal ones. Moreover, the Ministry of Interior vetoed the participation of the Islamist leaders, deemed to be the more vocal in their criticism of the monarchy’s governance. Real doubts remain about the transparency of these elections especially because until today the detailed results, voting-post by voting-post, have not been made public.

On the human rights front, while the Equity and Reconciliation Commission was auditioning the victims of past abuses, the Moroccan police, as documented in reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, were torturing suspected Islamist terrorists in a new secret detention center located a few miles from the king’s palace in Rabat.

The judiciary remains as dependent as ever on the executive. After the 2003 Casablanca terrorist attacks, the police arrested more than 2,000 people. More than 1,000 of them were found guilty after one of the most botched judicial procedures ever witnessed in Morocco. The outrage was such that less than a year later the king felt obliged to pardon a large number of the convicted. A pardon was even extended to one man who was found guilty of being a suicide bomber and who allegedly escaped the police.

Another troubling evolution is the rampant corruption that, according to Transparency International, has worsened since 2000. Mohammed VI’s democratic credentials have also been blemished by an unprecedented economic voracity. He controls more than 30 percent of the Casablanca Stock Market’s capitalization. His companies hold virtual monopolies of such sensitive products as milk, sugar and edible oil. As a result, the business community has waged an open rebellion. The president of its main representative body, Hassan Chami, criticized the monarchy’s governance in the harshest terms last summer. If they carefully avoid criticizing the king directly, Moroccan businessmen have nevertheless grown impatient with his governance lapses and the mediocrity of his entourage.

Freedom of the press has also been attacked. In a recent development, the regime resorted to judicial harassment. Many independent publications were prosecuted and sentenced to pay huge fines and damages, putting their survival at risk. Last week, the Ministry of Interior backhandedly staged a demonstration against Le Journal Hebdomadaire, falsely accusing it of having published the prophet cartoons. The national 2M TV ran a story inciting hatred and violence against the magazine. This intolerance toward independent voices belies the ostensible intention of democratizing the country.

To conclude, we can say that while we can see the ingredients of democratization in Moroccan civil society, the monarchy’s intentions nevertheless remain unclear.