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June 22, 2006 Edition 23

The long haul in Morocco
Anouar Boukhars

Steps toward meaningful political reform in the Arab world have stalled, blocked by official changes of heart about the merit of representative democracy in stemming the tide of rising popular disaffection and Islamist jihadism. To be sure, support for democratic principles by the region's rulers has always been ambivalent at best. It is hard to believe that any absolute monarch or president-for-life would willingly agree to implement genuine change that would necessarily entail free and fair elections and constitutional reforms that dilute executive power and empower legislative and judicial branches of government. Even King Mohamed VI of Morocco, well known for his penchant for reforms and repeated rhetorical calls for embracing modernity and democracy, has shown no real taste for the diffusion of power, the structural base of any democratic polity. Despite evidence of democratization and the king's stated noble motivations, the Moroccan political system lacks any meaningful framework of checks and balances.

Articles in this edition
Lessons from four elections - Jonathan Steele
The long haul in Morocco - Anouar Boukhars
Pushing Islamists to the center - Hassan A. Barari
No "one size fits all" - Deborah Amos
Morocco is still a quasi-absolute monarchy governed with a mixture of enlightened authoritarianism and relative parliamentary politics. Mohamed VI's endeavors to invent a new ruling bargain that breaks with his father's authoritarian reign yet perpetuates the dominance of the monarchy have succeeded in creating an image of Morocco as a modern and progressive constitutional monarchy. Domestically, however, the king has failed to deliver, leaving a large number of Moroccans impatient for the real political and economic reforms they hoped for when he assumed the throne in 1999. The current generation of young adults still complains of the same old practices of privilege, nepotism and cronyism that have plagued the Moroccan government for decades. Even the much-trumpeted official anti-corruption campaigns have met resistance in the inefficient and corrupt government bureaucracies. The powerlessness of elected institutions has created a suspicion of change and widespread political apathy captured by numerous surveys that show only a small minority of Moroccans trust politicians.

Today, Morocco is at a crossroads: The king can either prolong his father's authoritarian rule in a new guise at his own peril, or he can spearhead serious political reforms, anchored in human development and substantial democratic change. The country desperately needs the cultivation of a genuine nation of law that functions transparently, accountably and independently from the whims of the ruling establishment. This does not mean that the monarchy would necessarily lose its commanding influence. On the contrary, the king can still retain his prestigious role as a national symbol, enterprising power broker and honest arbiter in a democratic system bound by institutional checks and balances and constitutional responsibility of power.

Mohammed VI can be a powerful force for change if he could translate his rhetorical promises and vague endorsements of reform into concrete programs that could open the way for more power diffusion and compromise within the confines of well charted principles of political participation and a mutually agreed-on set of values endorsed by all nonviolent elements of the political spectrum. If constructed in good faith, a comprehensive and negotiated reform plan that openly embraces all segments of the population committed to democratic principles, including religious tolerance, women's equality and political pluralism, could go a long way toward ensuring a sustainable democratic outcome.

It is in the monarchy's best interests to support such a constructive negotiation framework among the regime loyalists, socialists, conservatives, Islamists and other non-violent opposition groups. It is equally important that the ruling establishment reaches out to the Islamists in all their diversity and resists the temptation to use existing institutional constraints to manipulate and de-legitimize the mainstream Islamist movements who have already agreed to abide by the rules of the political game. There is increasing concern that a number of shanty-town populations will swing over to radical Islamists who reject the democratic process altogether, if the moderate Islamists of the Party of Justice and Development (PJD) prove incapable of participating in the system without being thwarted and discredited by it.

To meet the needs of a predominantly young and restless population, the monarchy needs to reform itself within a framework of laws and plural democratic values. The political parties are in desperate need of reforms as well. They are internally fragmented and unable to forge far-reaching opposition alliances for political transformation. Their aging leadership is perceived as too pliant, complacent and no longer capable of connecting with voters' everyday concerns. There were some recent tentative moves by the small parties of the left to regroup into one bloc called the Rally of the Democratic Left but even this attempt failed to entice the main socialist party into joining the merger. It is imperative for the parties of the left and right to regroup to achieve a working majority.

As Morocco gears up for the 2007 parliamentary elections, its political system faces two major challenges. One is related to the growing apathy and disillusionment of average Moroccans with politicians, the other has to do with political and human rights that are still lagging behind, despite the significant improvement in the status of women and the cultural rights of Berbers. The year 2007 thus represents an opportunity for the creation of a national pact that could help strengthen reforms already in motion and regain the confidence of the electorate.- Published 22/6/2005 © bitterlemons-international.org


Anouar Boukhars is assistant professor of political science and international studies at McDaniel College in Maryland.

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