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Is Morocco a “Liberalizing Autocracy”?

In light of the constitutional reform proposal of King Mohammed VI, perhaps it would be useful to take a look at this recent article about Jordan, by Morten Valbjørn in Foreign Policy, which calls Jordan a “liberalizing autocracy” gifted at creating the illusion of change.

    “Indeed, by some measures Jordan is today less free than in 1989, when its much-claimed democratic transition began. This does not, however, mean that Jor­dan’s ‘transition to nowhere’ should be framed as an example of ‘failure of demo­cra­tization.’ Instead, Jordan should be seen as an example of a ‘libe­ra­li­zing autocracy’: always ap­pearing as being in the midst of a promising reform process, but still always an auto­cracy. Those in real power are not accountable to their citi­zens and they do not aim to gi­ve up or even share their power. They are only following Lampe­du­sa’s old advice that ‘if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ Such liberalizing autocracies should not be perceived as be­ing a transitory state on the road toward democracy, but rather as a distinct and quite resilient kind of authoritarian regime.”

What techniques does a nation like Jordan (or Morocco) use to appear to be liberalizing while in fact changing nothing? One is the transfer of liberalizing functions outside the state to NGOs, which have no political power and can be easily controlled.

    “Liberalization in such autocracies typically focuses on areas of special concern to international audiences which do not touch the heart of power. One of these areas is the field of civil-society…. The King has several times emphasized the importance of a dynamic civil-society and has cal­led on his fellow Jordanians to get involved in the more than 2,000 NGOs. However, this ‘civil-society promoting’ policy is supplemented by a number of subtle techniques which ensure that NGOs will not turn into a significant political force. These include the ‘Law of Societies,’ which states that NGOs must obtain licenses from the authorities and are moreover not allowed to be political or to ‘contradict with the public order.’ […] If the de­li­be­rately vaguely-stated requirements are not fulfilled, it is possible to dissolve an NGO or put it under administration. […] Finally, so-called Royal NGOs, wealthy associations sponsored by members of the royal family, make up nearly 60 percent of Jordan’s civil society, crowding out more indepen­dent NGOs.”

Sound familiar? This is the story of Mohammed VI’s twelve years of reign in Morocco. But what of the constitutional reforms he just proposed? That’s a real change in the balance of power, right?

    “The powers of the King are defined by the con­stitution and the citizens are entitled with basic rights. However, the con­­stitution is not only written by but also for the regime. Thus, the King is given extensive powers without being accoun­table and a nominal recognition of fundamental civil liberties is often balanced by various exceptions. The King has famously stated that the ‘sky is the limit’ when it comes to the level of freedom of expression…. In reality, there are ‘red li­nes’ regarding criticism of the King, the royal court, ‘friendly nations,’ or sta­te­ments that may hurt Jordan’s international repu­ta­tion. […]
    A reflection of how it often makes more sense speaking of ‘rule by law’ than ‘rule of law’ is the Jordanian election system. On the one hand, Jordan has since 1989 — with a few exceptions — regu­lar­ly held both local and parliamentary-elections…. While being (almost) spared for simple fraud, these elections have on the other hand been regulated by means of a highly con­tro­ver­sial elec­­tion law. Due to the voting-procedure and the distribution of constituencies, the elections are ac­cu­sed of favoring ‘independent’ candidates over political parties, [and] rural tribal areas over more regi­me-critical urban ones….

See my discussion from 2007 of the Moroccan parliamentary elections, which resulted in a Parliament so fragmented that no political party, or even a coalition of like-minded parties, could muster the political strength to act independently of the Palace. At the time it was widely assumed that this was intentional, the result of political manipulations dating back to the days of Driss Basri, and perfected in 2007 by “king’s friend” Fouad Ali Al Himma, who as Deputy Interior Minister tinkered with the election laws before being elected to Parliament himself! — where he formed the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), now Morocco’s largest political party.

Incidentally, in rereading the piece just now, I found this eerily prescient suggestion of what it would take to see real political change in Morocco:

    “Could groups at the left end of Morocco’s political spectrum, like the PSU or the Marxist-Leninist Annahj Addimocrati, ignore their differences with Islamists like Al Adl Wal Ihsane and the Mustapha Ramid faction of the PJD, to work together on their common goal of constitutional reform? Such a marriage of refuseniks would be fascinating if it happened, but of course it won’t.”

At the time it seemed frankly crazy, but that’s what is happening now, thanks to the February 20 Movement. Anyway, back to Jordan:

    “Although the par­lia­ment, according to the King, is ‘a main pillar of political work in Jordan’ and it nominally consti­tu­tes the legislative power, it does not hold any political significance and it is marked by surprisingly little political debate. Real politics takes place in the royal court, whereas the par­lia­ment is pri­ma­ri­ly an instrument for the distribution of patronage among loyal supporters of the regime. Thus, 80 percent of Jordanians think that their MPs primarily serve their own financial interests and only 4 percent state that the primary function of the parliament is to legislate and to check the government. […]
    “As real power and politics are situated in the royal court, the role of the government is prima­rily to implement decisions taken elsewhere. Usually the prime minister and his team are reshuffled once a year as part of a never-ending elite-circulation, where members of the elite re­vol­ve between the royal court, the government and the parliament. In this way, the emergence of [an] alternative basis of power with [its] own client-networks is avoided. Their loyalty is at the same time maintained as they remain within the inner-circles with the pri­vi­le­ges this implies.”

How well these words fit Morocco — which perhaps not incidentally, the West has traditionally grouped with Jordan as one of the “moderate, reforming” Arab states — along with Tunisia and Egypt!

So how will constitutional reform play out in Morocco? If everything else sounds familiar, maybe this will, too:

    “[It] becomes clear why Jordan is not an example of a ‘failure of demo­crati­za­ti­on’: democratization was never the real intention, so nothing has failed. Rather, the Jordanian story should be grasped as the ‘success of (a par­ti­cular upgraded form of) autho­ri­ta­ria­nism.’ The Hashemite regime has managed not only to stay firmly seated without any significant opposition, but Jordan has also been suc­cessful in leaving the impression among inter­natio­nal donors… and the US pre­sident apparently, that the coun­try is on the ‘right track’ toward democracy. […]
    “This ‘success’ does how­ever come at a price. It has given rise to a political culture marked by politi­cal apathy, wide­spre­ad cynicism to the official reform-lingo and a disillusion about the possi­bi­li­ty of making changes through the official political institutions. […] Against this back­ground, it is natural to question if Jordan is on the right track….”


Comment from jobsfrance Belgique
Time: June 22, 2011, 06:47

The new constitution need time to be effective there’s a lot of good changes and i ‘m proud of it

Comment from Rocket
Time: November 30, 2011, 11:53

Dear readers,
Like I guess all of you I am too interested in what is happening in Moroccan’s political situation today. Just today I wrote to blogs about the elections of last week and about the political party that won (JDP) and the new prime Minister. I welcome you to have a look! Salam!

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