The Arab Spring, which almost no one anticipated, continues to confound. Nobody knows how long the protests will last, or how many dictatorships masquerading as Arab “republics” or “kingdoms” will be toppled before the passions are exhausted. But academics and policymakers are already compiling lists of “lessons learned.” Among the most fascinating so far, observes Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, is that, while no Arab regime has been immune to the unrest engulfing the region, Middle Eastern monarchies are proving more resistant than the Arab-nationalist republics. According to the “shoe-thrower’s index,” a scale designed by The Economist that attempts to predict the likely survivors among the Arab League’s 22 member states, the monarchies — most of them conservative — almost all outrank their ostensibly democratically elected, citizen-based alternatives headed by strongmen. “The fake republics are goners; the monarchies have a fighting chance,” Elliott Abrams, who advised George W. Bush on Middle East policy and democratic movements, wrote in late March on National Review Online.
Why should that be so? Why do monarchies — be they sultanates, emirates, or other sorts of kingdoms — several of which were created by Britain or other colonial powers less than a century ago, tend to be perceived as more legitimate by their citizens than the often more secular-appearing Arab-nationalist “republics”?
Experts disagree. But religion, or more specifically the perception of religious legitimacy, almost surely accounts for at least part of the discrepancy. The case of Morocco is particularly striking. As a ruler who claims to be a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed through the line of Ali and Fatima, Mohammed’s daughter, and as heir to the oldest kingdom in the Middle East, King Mohammed VI has enjoyed religious legitimacy that the region’s other autocrats can only envy.
Long before the Arab Spring uprisings, Mohammed VI used this lineage as a powerful weapon against what prior to the protests had been the primary challenge to so many Middle Eastern regimes: the effort by militant Islamists to attain power and greater influence by portraying him and other Islamic monarchs as “un-Islamic.”
Mohammed VI’s lineage claims have proven a tool of legitimacy powerful enough to help his family survive both colonial rule under the French and independence in 1956. Robert Satloff, a scholar who heads the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says that in that traditional country, “when Moroccans line up to kiss [the king’s] ring,” they are pledging fealty not just to a political leader “but to the ‘Amir al-Mu’minin,’ the ‘commander of the faithful.’” (This was the title of the second of the first four Muslim leaders after the Prophet Mohammed.) Mohammed VI is, in the words of the act of allegiance made by members of the political and religious establishment, the “representative of God on earth,” and therefore, says Ahmed Benchemsi, a bold young Moroccan journalist who is now a visiting scholar at Stanford, “he cannot be challenged.” In the rest of the Sunni Arab Middle East, only King Abdullah II of Jordan, who is said to be a 43rd-generation descendant of Mohammed, has as much Islamic legitimacy.
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, by contrast, does not claim descent from Mohammed, though both Mohammed and Islam itself were born on land he rules. Although in less than 300 years his family has conquered and unified its vast kingdom in the name of Islam not once but three times, King Abdullah’s religious credentials have always rested on the extraordinary alliance between his family, the Sauds, and the fundamentalist sheikh Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who preached religious reform, purity, and a strict-literalist interpretation of the Koran. Since the kingdom owes its existence to this merger and to the continuing enforcement of the most rigid observance, the Sauds have challenged policies dictated by Wahhabism’s religious zealots only when the interests of the state have absolutely demanded it.
When young Saudi reformers threatened to stage a protest in March to demand constitutional reform, the king fell back partly on religion to prevent public gatherings. Demonstrations, proclaimed the government’s spokesmen, were “un-Islamic.” Taking no chances, the king had already announced that he would reward what was, in effect, the continued quiescence and submission of his 25 million citizens with some $130 billion in extra “subsidies” — larger government salaries and pensions, half a million new houses. He also promised to hold municipal elections (without women voters, of course) whose winners would “share” power with the royals, a vague formulation designed to give the ruling family maximum flexibility. (Such elections had already been held, in 2005; further ones, scheduled for 2009, were postponed. The councils, in any case, have had little power.) As added insurance, Abdullah also expanded his security forces by 60,000 and increased the budget for the much-hated religious police.
Like the Saudi king, some other Arab monarchs have so far proven adept at staving off demands for change. As protests over skyrocketing food and living costs and high unemployment spread to the hilly streets of the Jordanian capital of Amman, King Abdullah unveiled a $125 million package of subsidies for fuel, sugar, and other products. He also fired his cabinet: traditionally a crowd-pleasing move, and an efficient way to shift blame.
But Morocco may be different. Despite King Mohammed’s vast personal wealth and that of his entourage — the subject of a WikiLeaks diplomatic cable made public last December, in which a former U.S. ambassador complained of the “appalling greed” of some of the king’s men — Morocco, which lacks oil and ranks among the poorest states in North Africa, cannot buy off reformists as easily as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and other Gulf kingdoms with small populations and large numbers of stateless guest workers (who tend not to make demands for greater political representation). Al-Jazeera, the powerful Qatari television network, has spread the reformist gospel everywhere (except, of course, in Qatar, which provides the network’s budget). It has been such a tireless cheerleader for the protests in Tunisia and Egypt that jubilant demonstrators have vowed in interviews to erect monuments and rename streets in the network’s name. Morocco’s government shut down Al-Jazeera’s office in Rabat last October.
I was visiting Morocco as a guest of the government-funded Moroccan American Center for Policy when the protests erupted in Tunis that led to Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s ouster. Many of the Moroccans who told me they were thrilled by Tunisia’s uprising quickly added that they did not want to oust their own king. While reformist writers and several other intellectuals said they were intensely dissatisfied with both the endemic corruption in their country and the slow pace and superficiality of King Mohammed’s reforms, the protests in Rabat were ostensibly aimed at accelerating and intensifying those changes, not at replacing or even delegitimizing the king. This, I was repeatedly told, was because Mohammed VI had begun modernizing the state’s government long before the scent of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution wafted across its borders.
Reform, in fact, began almost as soon as the king ascended the throne in 1999. In a speech to the nation, he pledged to fight poverty and corruption and to improve Morocco’s dismal human-rights record. This he has done. In the last decade, Morocco has also made impressive progress in reducing poverty. According to a recent study by Lahcen Achy, a resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, less than 9 percent of Morocco’s population is now considered poor — that is, living on less than $2 a day — compared with 16.2 percent a decade ago: a drop in the poverty rate of more than 40 percent. Despite this poverty reduction, Achy concludes, Morocco still faces “high illiteracy, inequality, volatile economic growth, informal and vulnerable jobs, and uncertain levels of future remittances.”
Thanks to the king’s reforms, political space has dramatically opened. Some 35,000 non-governmental organizations are now registered, and about a third of this still relatively poor country, whose per capita GDP is roughly $2,770, has access to the Internet. Investment in infrastructure has increased dramatically. Political parties, though weak, are permitted to function, even the Justice and Development party — Morocco’s largest opposition group, an Islamist party in the mold of Turkey’s ruling AKP party. It won 46 of the Moroccan parliament’s 325 seats in 2007.
Mohammed VI has also pressed for greater rights for women, usually a taboo for Islamists. Because of the king’s implementation in 2004 of a new family code, called the mudawana, some of his most enthusiastic supporters are women. “The code was nothing short of revolutionary, and it was fiercely opposed by the Islamist parties,” says Mbarka Bouaida, one of the youngest female parliamentarians. In assuring women the right to divorce, apply for passports, and refuse polygamy; prohibiting the marriage of those under the age of 18; and establishing a right of equal inheritance (in violation of fundamentalist interpretations of the Koran), the code “broke new and important legal ground,” she says.
The king’s creation of a truth-and-reconciliation commission to study and expose torture and other human-rights violations during the rule of his father, Hassan II, was also courageous. Though the commission has been criticized for its inability to name names or punish those responsible for abuses, Ahmed Herzenni, president of the government’s human-rights council, says that 23,000 Moroccans have gotten compensation for having had their civil rights violated. Some 9,000 files have been studied, and only 66 cases remain “unresolved.”
Over time, Herzenni says, the king’s powers have continued to decline and the elected parliament’s to increase; but, he adds, Morocco’s political parties were still too weak and inexperienced to govern. The king’s unwillingness to relinquish the powers inherent in his status as “commander of the faithful” was nonetheless justified, he says, since “history has proven that there is no alternative to the king,” and “monarchy is vital to stability in Morocco.” (Herzenni himself spent twelve years in prison under King Hassan II for his leftist activism.)
But a sizeable portion of the country’s youthful protesters seem to disagree. On February 20, tens of thousands of Moroccans turned out on the streets in over 50 cities, demanding, among other things, a truly democratic constitution and, in effect, the diminution of royal power. For the first time in the history of Moroccan protests, many of them were not holding pictures of the king. Mohammed VI responded with a pledge of even deeper reform and with what seems to be a move toward the creation of a genuine constitutional monarchy, similar to that of, say, Spain. He promised his citizens the “rule of law,” an “independent judiciary,” separation of powers, and an “elected government that reflects the will of the people, through the ballot box.”
But Ahmed Benchemsi and other critics smell deceit. In an online article for Stanford University that was translated from an essay in Le Monde, he noted that the king, in his speech, had clearly indicated that those “immutable values of sacred character” would not be debated. The phrase, Benchemsi wrote, was a reference to the current constitution’s articles 19 and 23, which designate the king as commander of the faithful and assert that he is “sacred.” Another article of the constitution gives him the right to issue dahirs, or royal decrees that cannot be challenged. Benchemsi argued that this suggests that the 47-year-old Mohammed VI does not intend to become the Arab world’s first Juan Carlos, much less Queen Elizabeth. Even after the promised reforms, Benchemsi wrote, the king would be able to do “absolutely anything he wants, and no one is granted the slightest power to stop him — all of this in the name of Islam.”
Thus the king’s sacredness, which has heretofore been a pillar of legitimacy for the Moroccan system, is becoming a potential vulnerability in this seemingly most stable of regimes. For the moment, Moroccans seem to want to stick with the king, whatever his failings. In the longer run, they may prove unwilling to replace his religious legitimacy with the rigged elections, repressive security services, and rubber-stamp judiciaries that have been the hallmark of the ostensibly secular Arab-nationalist regimes of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Those institutions themselves will have to have real power before they can be credible. Benchemsi is confident that one day they will be: Once the “democratic Pandora’s box is open,” he says, it “will not be closed again.”
– Judith Miller is a journalist, an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the author of God Has 99 Names: Reporting from a Militant Middle East.