While Morocco faces many of the same demographic, economic, and political challenges as its neighbors, it has managed to avoid the violent upheavals witnessed in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt. The relative calm in Morocco is not due to a lack of citizen engagement or mobilization; a passionate and determined opposition, the February 20th movement, has staged weekly protests in the past year, including a boycott of the November 2011 parliamentary elections. Just last month, several unemployed university graduates set themselves on fire near a ministry of education building in Rabat, the capital, to protest their lack of jobs and opportunity. One of them later died from his burns. During a recent visit to Morocco, however, I heard again and again from people that “Morocco is different” from its neighbors. Moroccans point to their long history as a nation, the steadying role of King Mohammed VI, their own brand of moderate Islam, and their business and social ties to Europe. But no matter how influential any of these factors might be (and that’s debatable), none provides immunity from the rising tide of dissatisfaction caused by unemployment, corruption, and the widening gap between the rich and poor.
Unlike other leaders in the region, King Mohammed VI managed to get out in front of the wave of uprisings spilling across the Arab world last spring when, after weeks of country-wide protests, he promised constitutional reforms. In a referendum in July 2011, 72 percent of Moroccans turned out to vote in the referendum, and 98 percent of them approved it. The king said that the reforms would give more authority to the parliament and the prime minister, and would increase the participation of political parties, but pro-democracy advocates say it does not go far enough. The king still names the prime minister (though the minister must be a member of the ruling party), approves the cabinet, and can dissolve the government at any time. During my visit, I heard some people grumble about a “shadow government” that continues to hold real power in the country. This shortfall in political reform has prompted some analysts to predict that Morocco is moving towards a more violent movement for political change.
The constitutional reforms also amended the status of the king. He is no longer considered sacred, but rather inviolable and “respect to him is due.” However, the recent arrest and conviction of a young man for insulting the king shows clearly the red lines that still exist. And this is just the latest in a string of arrests of bloggers and social media activists, despite the fact that laws governing freedom of expression have relaxed in recent years. Moroccans appear willing to wait for gradual reform, scared as they are of the violence that has wracked Libya and Syria, but the continued crackdown on freedom of speech bodes poorly for evolutionary change.
More than a year after the Arab uprisings began, Moroccans complain that little has changed in the fundamental balance of power in their country, but they also look warily at the violent, disruptive uprisings in neighboring countries. The country so far has evaded the grinding clashes between establishment and pro-democracy forces. Nonetheless, it is not immune, and the king would do well to continue leading his nation down the path towards greater political, social, and economic openness.