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The Friendly Fist

The Burkina Faso newspaper San Finna put it this way: “There are three things one doesn’t joke about in Morocco: Islam, the monarchy and the integrity of the territory,” meaning the former Western Sahara and its absorption into Morocco. These are the three “red lines” of official discourse, the crossing of which can lead to interrogation, hefty fines or even a prison sentence. Shortly after coming to power in 1999, the new king Mohammed VI famously declared that nothing was off limits in public discourse except the legitimacy of the royal family, which is considered to be a sacred institution.

Another “red line” is the nature of the military and police apparatus that props up the regime: its mafia-like qualities, its involvement in the drug trade and other contraband activities, the corruption of its top officials, and the crimes against humanity they may have committed on the way to their present status as untouchables. None of this is technically off limits, but given the ubiquity of the police and their lack of accountability to civil society, it perhaps isn’t wise to get too close to the problem. It is better to speak in whispers and innuendo than to name names.

Another interesting question is just how much power the king has relative to his top security officials. The previous king, Hassan II, was universally respected even by his political adversaries for his wily intelligence and mastery of the realities of power. This isn’t true for his son Mohammed VI. He is loved where his father was feared, but this cuts both ways. He has disappointed those who might have hoped, in the first years of his reign, that he would go further and faster to open Morocco to democracy and the rule of law. He is widely credited with good intentions, and a sincere desire for a more just society. Indeed, in newspapers and in cafes, things are discussed freely today that no one would have dared talk about in the dark days of his father. But with one or two exceptions, the torturers and tyrants of the past are still there, still in positions of power, as untouchable as ever. The difference is that while Hassan II was known to be in control of every nuance and detail, there are those who wonder if his son is any more than a figurehead.

For a foreigner, the ubiquity of the king can be both annoying and frightening. On the very day of my arrival in Morocco, I noticed billboards throughout Tangier with huge photos of the king. Was this a personality cult, I wondered? What possible reason did the king have to impose himself in this way? Later I learned that this wasn’t typical, that such billboards were only put up on special occasions: either for Throne Day, the yearly celebration of the king’s ascension to power; or in this case, to mark an official visit to the city. Yet on every day of the year, in every place of business, however humble, one finds a photo of the king displayed prominently. There are many different kinds. Some are formal portraits in a white djelleba, the national garment, or in a Western business suit or a military uniform. Others are more candid shots showing the king in what looks like Rasta headgear, or on the telephone, or sipping tea at a reception. Some are old photos of his father Hassan II, or even his grandfather. I’m told that photo studios keep albums of these photos, so that shopkeepers can pick out the one that suits their taste. Indeed, many Moroccans feel genuine reverence for the king and display his portrait without prompting, even in their homes. But there’s no getting around the fact that it’s a requirement. A shopkeeper who neglected to display a portrait would be called out.

With the exception of two courageous newsweeklies, Tel Quel and Le Journal, both in French, nearly all journalistic outlets in Morocco are either part of the state apparatus, or attached to one of the recognized political parties. To play the power game in Morocco, a political party must recognize the centrality of the king, and all the major parties have done so, whether socialist or nationalist or Islamist. As a result, their newspapers are full of the king. The sight of a dozen newspapers on a rack, all with the king on the front page, is the rule rather than the exception. Quite often he is shown accompanied by military officers, to emphasize that the military is his personal domain. Or he is shown in his role as Commander of the Faithful, officiating at a religious ceremony. Or he is receiving a foreign delegation, or having his hand kissed by politicians, intellectuals or common citizens. Whenever he issues a declaration or gives a speech, the newspapers run it in full.

Morocco has an elected parliament, but in practice its powers are limited to consultation. The king defines the priorities of the Moroccan state. When he wants legislation to move forward, it does, as happened with the broadening of women’s rights in 2004. It might be technically possible for legislators to push through major reforms on their own, but in practice this never happens. When the Socialists became the largest party in parliament after a long period in the political wilderness, hopes were high that the game had changed. The government now included individuals who had been political prisoners in earlier times. But the Socialists lacked an absolute majority, and were unable to form a coalition with other parties. The king stepped in, exercising his right to name the prime minister. He chose a technocrat, Driss Jettou, who is widely seen as ineffective. Disappointment is widespread, and the Socialists are now seen as political players like anyone else. Their closeness to power has tainted them, and their popular standing has fallen, to the benefit of the Islamist party, the Party of Justice and Development or PJD.

There are those who say that the king and his advisers have engineered this situation on purpose, playing the various political forces off one another to ensure that none becomes strong enough to stand alone. This was clearly the strategy of his father Hassan II, who encouraged Islamic conservatives as a counterweight to socialism and Nasserism, a secular Arab nationalism promoted by Egyptian ruler Gamal Abdel Nasser. Mohammed VI also continues his father’s strategy of cooptation, pardoning former dissidents and inviting them into the government as ministers or advisers. Today, the entire political spectrum accepts the supremacy of the king, from the mainstream left to Islamic conservatives: everyone, that is, but what many consider to be the most popular force in Morocco, the banned-but-tolerated Islamist movement Al Adl Wal Ihsane, or Justice and Spirituality.

Legislative elections are coming up in 2007, for the first time in five years. Early signs indicate that the Islamist PJD will be the big winner. The PJD has never participated in government before, at first because they were not an authorized party, and later because they refused to take on the responsibilities of power without the authority. They have argued that to carry out their program, constitutional reforms are a necessary first step, to give parliament greater power at the expense of the king. A private poll leaked to the independent newsmagazine Le Journal last spring indicated that if the elections were held right away, the PJD would win 47% of the vote, outpacing their nearest rival by 30 points! This focused the attention of the political class on the real possibility that Islamists would soon govern Morocco. This time, their leader declared, they are ready. They will assume power and push for the constitutional reforms they have long championed.

Article 19 of the Moroccan Constitution declares:

    The King, Commander of the Faithful, supreme representative of the Nation, symbol of its unity, guarantor of the continuity and perpetuity of the State, watches over Islam and the Constitution. He is the protector of the rights and liberties of the citizens, of social groupings and communities. He guarantees the independence of the Nation and the territorial integrity of the Kingdom within its true borders.

Read a certain way, this gives the king an almost limitless authority. He is the one indispensable Moroccan. Apparently the nation would fly into pieces without him, a feeling that is actually fairly widespread at the popular level. After all, they have the negative example of Algeria to think about, a nation that is only just recovering from a brutal civil war that lasted fifteen years. No one wants this to happen in Morocco. Even those who feared Hassan II more than they loved him, tend to credit him with fifty years of relative peace since independence. Meanwhile, Mohammed VI is also Commander of the Faithful, a religious title akin to the British monarch’s leadership of the Church of England. Islam is the official state religion, as stated elsewhere in the Constitution, and the king is its guide. He appoints the Minister of Islamic Affairs who oversees the appointment of imams, chooses the topic for Friday sermons, and designs the Islamic Studies curriculum used in public schools.

The king has yet more titles and functions under the Constitution. He is the head of the Armed Forces and controls its budget. He appoints the Minister of the Interior and is the ultimate overseer of the police, including the secret police. He is the head of the committee that chooses judges, and all judgments are made in his name. Along with his family, he is Morocco’s biggest landowner, with at least one palace and often two or more in every city. They control vast agricultural estates and many of the nation’s largest businesses. Their wealth has been estimated at between $4 billion and $20 billion. This sort of thing is impossible to discuss openly in Morocco, because it is not symbolic power, it is raw power of the sort that can provoke unrest. As a result I have never seen a detailed listing of royal wealth, and can only guess at the percentage of the nation’s assets in the king’s hands. Suffice it to say that if he were a soccer player, he would be Beckham, Ronaldinho and Zidane all at once, as well as the coach and the referees, and the owner of the team.

I’ve hinted that at least some ordinary Moroccans are happy enough with this state of affairs. It’s easier to feel close to Mohammed VI than to his father, because he is young, has the popular touch, and radiates sincerity. People feel that he is a man who tries to do the right thing. Indeed, next to any other figure on the Moroccan political scene, he looks good. The political leaders are venal and incompetent. The aging generals are cruel and corrupt. The king is a point of balance that many Moroccans feel is essential. They understand that their country is evolving toward democracy, but they don’t feel it is ready to jump in with both feet. They want the king to continue his stewardship a while longer. They are convinced that he doesn’t love power for its own sake. They are hoping he will hand over power slowly, so that with a younger generation of leaders, Morocco will be ready for citizen rule. The figure often mentioned is twenty years.

On the other hand, there are those who are desperate, and can’t afford to wait. More than half of Moroccans are under 25. More than half are illiterate. Up to 80% live in what we would consider poverty, while a tiny percentage are rich. Those in between, the small business people and independent professionals who are the leaven of advanced societies, are a small and fragile group. As a result, Morocco suffers from a shortage of people who are equipped to participate in civic affairs, or serve as the watchdogs of human rights. The uneducated masses vote for demagogues who promise them bread and circuses, or buy their votes outright. Very few identify actively with a political party. “They’re all corrupt” is a sentiment even more common in Morocco than in the West.

To what extent is the king responsible for this? Is his power a symptom or a cause? Is he the only thing holding a scattered nation together, or is he a bad example, an obstacle on the road to democracy? Does his dominance of Moroccan life at every level, from the state visit to the photo in the corner grocery, mean there is no room for leadership from anyone else? One of my friends did an internship at the School of Medicine in Fez, which unlike most Moroccan institutions is governed autonomously. He was struck by the initiative and self-confidence of the people there. An official told him that their administration is nearly unique in Morocco for its independence. He added that Moroccan officials tend to see their jobs in terms of personal gain, rather than as a way of serving the common good. He blamed this ultimately on the monarchy, because in a system where power is concentrated in one man, no one else is accountable.

The less educated and less fortunate can be more blunt. They see their society as a place where the strong eat the weak. Those with a small amount of power abuse those who have none. Welfare officials have been known to cut off the payments to a certain percentage of mothers each year, so they can keep the money for themselves. Bankers steal the ideas of the poor who apply for state-sponsored loans, so they can steer those same loans to their families. Those with the most power, such as generals and ministers, are the most ruthless profiteers. Once I was walking with a young mechanic whose dream was to open a shop of his own. When I asked him why he didn’t borrow some money from his family and give it a try, he said there were too many obstacles. “Only the rich can make money in Morocco.” When I pointed out that the king is the richest of all, he grew angry. “The king is the biggest thief.”

Some young people feel it is shameful that Morocco has a king. They see the monarchy as an oppressive system that keeps its people in ignorance. They resent seeing the king’s face on every bill and coin. They want to imitate France and Poland, Cuba and Iran, which threw off their tyrants and kings. They talk of revolution, of Che Guevara. For the record, Che is far more popular among Moroccan youth than Osama bin Laden. But ultimately, those young people don’t seek a bloody revolution. The model they are looking for is Gandhi, if only they knew him. They speak of patience, of not provoking a cycle of violence. They speak of being the generation that must sacrifice so their children will know justice.

This energy will be felt in the upcoming legislative elections. Because Moroccans have already tried everything else, the Islamists in the PJD will get their chance to govern. They will push for limits to the power of the king, and the king will push back, attempting to outflank them. If the Islamists’ time in office delivers only crackdowns on bars and discos, rather than a fundamental change in the political process, it could be the last chance Moroccans give their politicians. After that, the deluge…?


Comment from Nadia Lamlili
Time: December 3, 2006, 06:23

Bonjour eatbees,

Je viens de lire ton comment sur my bloglog. Merci pour tes encouragements. Ta traduction en anglais est impreccable. Et je te remercie vivement pour l’effort que tu déploies pour faire connaître les projets de réforme du Maroc à l’international. Keep in touch!

Comment from eatbees
Time: December 3, 2006, 14:27

Merci Nadia de ton passage qui me fait grand plaisir. J’ai compris après que c’était un peu bête, laisser mon comment là où tu ne passes pas souvent, mais je me patientais jusqu’à ce que tu tombes dessous. J’espère faire de ce blog de plus en plus un lieu de rencontre et de débat pour tous les Maghrébins et autres qui s’intéressent à la démocratie et la justice partout au monde—c’est à nous tous à construire et à pratiquer—d’ailleurs j’ai rêvé depuis l’enfance de vivre dans un monde de paix et sans frontières, mais on a toujours beaucoup de chemin à faire et je ne suis pas immortel!

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