For Morocco, the Arab Spring wasn’t such a turbulent event. In comparison to states further along the North African coast like Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, the Moroccan Constitutional Monarchy proved well adapted to anticipate and ride the swelling wave of democracy. Morocco’s adaptability and relatively graceful response to the Arab Spring could be attributed to several factors, though singling out one decisive factor in its stability is far from easy.
First and most conspicuously is King Mohammed VI. Among leaders in the Arab world, the Moroccan King enjoys consistently high approval ratings and is admired by the vast majority of the country’s inhabitants. Until 2011, the Constitution of Morocco enshrined the King as a sacred figure with a religious duty to guide the faithful of his Kingdom. The cult of personality that surrounds him is also evident in the photos of him that hang in nearly every Moroccan household, business, and public space: the photos include regal-looking portraits taken in his throne room as well as more playful images of the King hunting and riding a jet ski. The benign rule of the King and his legitimacy in the eyes of his people went a long way to making him a credible leader of the country’s reform process. Also, the Moroccan King is well known for being able to successfully co-opt protest movements, steering them into constructive avenues of governance and civil society. And finally, the King retains a tremendous amount of control over the political system and public opinion because Morocco’s democratic and parliamentary institutions are so hobbled by his power and the sheer number of political parties that exist. This means that the system is responsive to him above all other actors or leaders, and that he is able to bend and not break the system when significant events like the Arab Spring occur.
Another plausible explanation of Morocco’s stable and managed transition can be understood by walking down the well-worn path of the Resource Curse hypothesis and taking a brief look at a less-successful Arab Spring transition. Morocco has an economy built on agriculture and tourism, unlike that of Libya. When various armed actors in Libya (the LNA, ISIS, the PFG, etc.) wish to become relevant to the political process, they simply make a menacing move in the direction of the country’s oil infrastructure and can gain traction on the national stage. Morocco has no such monolithic, easily-captured, or lucrative industry and therefore avoids the perils obvious in the Libyan context.
Finally, Morocco likely benefits from the cautionary tale of its neighbor and erstwhile rival Algeria. The punishing civil war in the 1990s between Islamist groups and Algeria’s military/political establishment served as a cautionary tale. Commentators on the Arab Spring have frequently posited that the experience of war in the 1990s was enough to deter any Algerian Spring. It is not a stretch to imagine that the Moroccan street has also taken into account the lesson of Algeria’s civil war and the danger of bitterly splitting society along the lines of Islamism and Secularism. Furthermore, the governing class in Morocco have long understood the importance of a “release valve” for the political pressure that builds in its less-than democratic system, and the country’s Islamist parties play a role in this dynamic.
Instead, King Mohammad VI initiated reforms to the country’s constitution in a concessionary fashion as a response to the Arab Spring. A draft of the amendments was released on June 17th, 2011 and a referendum was held July 1st which upheld the proposed changes. Generally speaking, the amendments entailed devolving powers from the monarchy to elected officials and elevating Amazigh to the status of an official language. The next phase of the reform process was the Parliamentary election held on November 25th.
Winning a plurality of seats in the 2011 election, the Monarchist-Islamist PJD was able to name its leader, Abdelilah Benkirane, as Prime Minister (prior to the constitutional reform, the King would have had the power to name the Prime Minister, usually opting for a technocrat). This was significant for several reasons to Moroccan democratic politics. The victory of the PJD represents the first time that an Islamist party has gained a majority of the seats in the Moroccan Parliament and the first time that an Islamist party has been able put forward their leader as Prime Minister.
For instance, in the 2002 parliamentary elections, the PJD was predicted to have strong support, however the party decided not to field candidates in many of the districts that it would have been allowed to run in. The logic was that the 2002 election was considered very close to the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001, thus a sweeping victory by the Islamists might reflect badly on Morocco in the eyes of the Western world. Moreover, when the election results were in, the King exercised his power to appoint the PM, not from any of the top parties in the election, but by his own discretion. The bombings in 2003 of various foreign-owned, Western-themed, or Jewish cultural sites in Casablanca also precipitated a response in Parliament when various MPs condemned the PJD and called for it to banned.
Having a Prime Minister and the plurality of seats in parliament, the PJD has made history in Morocco. But this also has a bearing on one of the principal dynamics of the Arab World: Secularism and Islamism in political life. The fault lines of the Post-Arab Spring Sunni world seem principally to be organized around this dynamic.