The palace’s first reaction to a street vendor’s suicide in Tunisia was to give every subject the right to place a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk and sell goods, even goods as mundane as used shoes and nuts. But that didn’t forestall the arrival of street protests earlier this year. On February 20, tens of thousands of people stood in the pouring rain to demand reforms and the dismissal of the government. They took their name “the February 20th Movement,” from the initial day of their protests.
Again, the palace moved swiftly to respond, prompting some wags to observe that the monarchy wants to be charge of everything, including revolutions. “I want this reform,” King Mohammed told his people in a nationwide TV address on March 9, announcing he wanted a new constitution approved by voters. While the new constitution is clearly a more liberal document, there are conservative remnants. Article 46 specifies that “the person of the king is inviolable, and he is to be treated with respect.”
Nonetheless, respect for the king in this country is genuine enough that an overwhelming 98 percent of voters approved the constitution last July. That in turn triggered last month’s fresh elections for parliament, which saw a respectable 45 percent of eligible voters turn up at the polls. They ignored calls by the February 20th protesters to boycott the vote, though a significant number did leave their ballots blank or spoiled.
But despite that, the election clearly represented a step forward for Moroccan civil society. “It shows reform can move forward, and the monarchy is aiding and opening up that process,” says Ahmed Charai, the publisher of the weekly Moroccan newspaper L’Observateur. Even critics of the regime have mixed reactions to the palace-led reforms. Driss Ksikes, a Moroccan playwright who was convicted of “defaming Islam” in 2007 for writing a book about Moroccan jokes, says he now expects the Islamist party to team up with other conservative forces to form a government. “That would mean somewhat less corruption and more budgetary discipline,” he says. However, accompanying that, he expects a slightly stricter interpretation of sharia law, which already forms the basis of Morocco’s legal system. But he predicts the February 20th movement will gradually grow in strength, and that liberal forces will rebuild their position and eventually provide a greater challenge to the Islamists.
The Obama administration’s reaction to the Moroccan elections has been sketchy and incomplete, with most officials completely preoccupied with events in less placid nations ranging from Libya to Syria. The State Department’s response was encouraging but perfunctory. It was left to Congress to show concrete support for Morocco’s progress. In December, it agreed to allow U.S. foreign aid to be used for the first time in Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony that was taken over by Morocco in 1975. That move resulted in years of conflict with the Polisario insurgency, which has sought independence for the region. The U.S. move is a sign that it is now beginning to accept Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, so long as the region has clear autonomy in local matters.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the House Foreign Affairs Committee chair, says she is encouraged by the example Morocco is setting on how to implement gradual reform. “It is an important strategic partner, and last month’s elections in Morocco were another important step toward building a more democratic and inclusive country,” she told Congress as the bill expanding aid efforts to Morocco was passed.
No one expects that the road to reform will go smoothly in any Arab nation. But for all of the gloomy predictions that the Arab Spring will create a string of anti-American, radical Islamist regimes, there is some evidence that a more pragmatic, less disruptive future is also possible.