Arab democracy? How Morocco's grand experiment went wrong

Heralded as a 'third way' amid the uprisings and crackdowns of the Arab Spring, Morocco introduced a new constitution and other reforms.

Abdeljalil Bounhar/AP
A Moroccan man casts his ballot at a polling station for the parliamentary elections, in Rabat, Morocco, on Friday, Oct. 7, 2016. Amid worries about jobs and extremism, the ruling PJD – a moderate Islamist party – slightly increased its share of seats in parliament.

Morocco, held up as a model for reform in the wake of the Arab Spring, is slipping back into autocracy. Though a new constitution was passed in 2011, ongoing economic marginalization, a lack of transparency, and abuses by security forces have driven citizens to the streets for the first time in five years.

Observers and rights activists say that the government has responded by stifling speech and press freedoms and using the long reach of its security services to prevent a new protest movement from gaining steam.

They have concluded that for Arab autocracies, it's not enough to change the laws on paper without reforming the institutions which enact those laws – institutions that remain unaccountable, lacking in transparency, and used to enforce the monarch's will.

“Morocco is frequently held up as a success, that the government did the right thing. A new constitution is huge, but it is a constitution on paper. The reforms are only as good as they are implemented,” says Sarah Yerkes, a Morocco expert and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“They were superficial and were there to show people that the king was doing something, and it worked for a while," she says. "But it is clear that it was not enough.”

A 'Third Way'

When the Arab Spring protests shook Morocco in 2011, instead of using force to crack down on dissent, as in Syria or Bahrain, or allowing a toppling of the government as in Egypt, the country's monarchy chose a third way: implementing immediate democratic and constitutional reforms to quell growing anger in the streets.

King Mohammed VI implemented a liberal constitution empowering the parliament and prime minister, and surrendering a handful of his own powers – including the ability to dissolve the parliament.

The constitution was overwhelmingly approved, with reportedly 98 percent of voters in favor, and elections were held later that year – allowing the opposition Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) to sweep into government.

While the liberal reforms were hailed in the region and by some Western observers as a wise response to popular dissent, evidence indicates that five years later the democratic reforms have had little impact.

Lack of government accountability

Unemployment still stands around 10 percent, while youth unemployment is double that at 20 percent – reaching as high as 39 percent in urban areas.

Since the reforms, freedom of speech has been stifled. The Moroccan state has prohibited the use of encrypted communications such as Skype, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp voice calls on the grounds of protecting telecommunications companies from unfair competition. Authorities lifted the ban on encrypted voice messaging apps ahead of the UN climate change conference Cop22 in Marrakesh in November. It has not been made clear if the lifting of the ban was a temporary or permanent move.

Despite passing a much-hyped new press law removing prison terms for journalists who insult the monarchy or religion, an unchanged article in the country’s penal code still penalizes citizens for up to five year prison terms for such “offenses” as “shaking the loyalty that citizens owe to the state and the institutions of the Moroccan people.”

The Moroccan state has had a series of high-profile arrests of journalists and human rights activists. In June, the judiciary began a trial of seven leading human rights activists for training citizen journalists through a mobile phone app.

It was in this atmosphere of eroding freedoms and distrust with the state that protests erupted in October after fish wholesaler Mouhcine Fikri was crushed to death in a truck during an attempt to retrieve over $11,000 worth of swordfish confiscated by authorities.

Thousands hit the streets in Mr. Fikri’s hometown of Al Hoceima, in the traditionally marginalized Rif region. Protests spread to the capital Rabat – all focusing their ire at the deep state, or makhzen – the collection of security apparatuses, government agencies, and elites acting on behalf of the monarchy.

“It is quite telling that five years on from the 2011 protests there is a sense that authorities have yet to deliver on accountability for these abuses,” says Sirine Rached, North Africa researcher at Amnesty International. “Despite all the trumpeting and pomp around reforms since 2011, provisions on free expression have not been improved.”

Transforming power

The protests exposed Morocco’s much-praised reforms as largely a façade that only changed the way the state operated on the surface, observers say. 

In order for true reform in autocracies and monarchies to take hold, experts and advocates say there needs to be a reform of the deep state – the judiciary, security services, and other government agencies – to prevent the palace from using them to enforce its will. 

Without the reform of the state itself, experts say regimes such as Morocco can easily undermine their own democratic reforms and allow for extensive patronage networks and corruption that maintain support for the monarchy while limiting economic opportunities for its citizens.

“The nature of power has not been transformed. The monarchy retains tremendous power, more so than before the uprising,” says Abdeslam Maghraoui, a Morocco expert and professor of political science at Duke University. “You need to reform the political power, not just the constitution.”

Not a formula for long-term stability

The Moroccan state has stayed one step ahead of citizens calling for deeper reforms by co-opting major organized political forces, making them invested partners in the makhzen.

By allowing the PJD to form the government and win successive elections, the Moroccan regime has ensured that the Islamists – the largest organized political group in the country – would continue to be partners with the state and unwilling to challenge the status quo.

So when protests broke out in Al Hoceima over the fishmonger’s death, the PJD issued a statement to its followers urging them “not to respond in any way to any protest.” Leftist and national groups, disorganized and divided over their role in post-2011 Morocco, were also largely no-shows.

The Moroccan regime has even enlisted the support of salafists, clerics, and other Islamic figures – allowing them a free space to preach, as long as they advocate continued support for the monarch and denounce those looking to change the balance of power in the country.

This has left activists and protesters without an organization or body to push the regime for institutional reform.

While the reform has succeeded in keeping the pressure for full reform at bay in the near-term, observers say it is not a long-term formula for stability for Morocco – or any other Arab state looking to take a page from its playbook.

“You can only keep people quiet if you deliver on some of the things you promised to deliver on,” Ms. Yerkes said. “In the long run, you end up with an angry public that feels dissatisfied that feels like Tunisians in 2011 – like they have nothing to lose.”

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