Do Kings Have “Special Legitimacy”?
Marc Lynch raises the question, Does Arab Monarchy Matter?
- “What does it mean that no Kings have thus far fallen in the Arab uprisings while four non-monarchical rulers (Ben Ali, Mubarak, Qaddafi and Saleh) have toppled from their (non-royal) thrones and a fifth has plunged his country into a brutal civil war? Is there a monarchical exception in the Arab world? …
- “I am particularly unpersuaded by arguments that the Arab monarchies enjoy a distinctive legitimacy. … It is difficult to reconcile the idea of monarchical legitimacy with the tightly controlled media, carefully cultivated personality cults, and brutally policed ‘red lines’ which generally characterize such regimes. The alleged unique legitimacy of Arab monarchs strikes me as a carefully cultivated and ruthlessly policed political myth which could dissolve as quickly as did the universal adoration for Bashar al-Assad or Moammar Qaddafi when challenged. …
- “The claim for a unique legitimacy among the Arab monarchies is further undermined by the fact that they have in fact experienced significant political dissent over the last two years, to which they responded through fairly typical (albeit unusually well-resourced) combinations of repression and co-optation. … The resources and capabilities of the Arab monarchies may be different from their non-kingly peers, but the challenges facing them from popular mobilization really were not. …
- “To me, the monarchies look like fairly typical Arab authoritarian regimes, surviving because they enjoy greater financial resources, less demanding international allies, and powerful media assets to perpetuate their legitimation myths. And that means that they will not likely be spared should those assets lose value…. The monarchs may be on offense around the region right now, but their defense might not be a strong as it appears.”
It is worth mentioning that Lynch is primarily concerned here with describing the Gulf Arab monarchies, with a few remarks about Jordan. Morocco gets only one mention—”Morocco’s monarch diverted popular mobilization through an early offer of limited political reforms”—and one broader, indirect reference—”Saudi and Qatari support for their less wealthy fellow monarchs seems to be more important to [their] survival…than the intrinsic institutional characteristics of a throne.”
That said, the argument about the special legitimacy of kings is one often heard in Morocco, when explaining why Morocco has known comparatively little unrest since the Arab awakening began. In this view, the king has a unique role to play as a “referee” among competiting forces, and as the guarantor of Moroccan unity. He is the sole force, the saying goes, who is respected by everyone, as the inheritor of a tradition that has been at the center of Moroccan life for centuries. However, the recent controversy over the bay’a, or ceremony of allegiance to the king, might be saying something different. In which case, Lynch’s words should serve as a warning regarding castles built on sand.
As James Traub put it recently in Foreign Policy:
- The reforms that Mohammed VI has instituted since assuming the throne in 1999 have succeeded in persuading a significant part of the Moroccan elite…that he is the key to the country’s future. But the elite game has ended: The young and the disenfranchised have stopped accepting the bleak future that stretched before them. … When the crowds denounced corruption and privilege, they were thinking, if not of the king himself—that would be lèse-majesté—than certainly of the makhzen. … Moroccans may increasingly find themselves balancing their reverence for the king with their frustration at their lot. And they won’t keep blaming the government, rather than the palace, forever.