As Egypt and Tunisia grab the recent headlines, Morocco has gotten little attention in Western media. We read little or see less on global TV news channels about the country, which has been one of the quietest and most stable Arab countries since the start of the “Arab Spring.” Morocco has done better politically and economically than its neighbors in North African nations. This is largely due to speedy reforms implemented by the King Mohamed VI, and the fact that the protest movement did not call for the overthrow of the regime unlike in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. Yet despite these factors, problems such as high unemployment, looming economic reforms, and increased repression and police brutality, risk to make things worse for the country.
King Mohamed VI took power in 1999 at the age of 35 after the death of his father, Hassan II. Unlike his authoritarian father who ruled Morocco with an iron fist, Mohamed VI is less repressive and more liberal. His reaction to protests led by groups like the February 20 Movement was for the most part non-violent. Many agree that if Hassan II were still alive, it is likely that he would have tried to brutally suppress the demonstrations, and we could have witnessed similar scenes of chaos happening on Moroccan streets, as the ones that happened in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
Seeing how things quickly deteriorated for other North African leaders, the king reacted swiftly to appease the demands of the population. In a televised speech given March 9, 2011, the king acknowledged the grievances of the public and announced to reform the constitution, and give more power to an elected parliament. At the same time, the country increased its public spending with subsidies for food and fuel to appease the population. Despite a boycott by the Moroccan opposition, the referendum on the draft constitution was passed by 98.2 percent according to the interior minister.
A factor that worked to the king’s favor is that he is still rather well liked among the population. James Gelvin states in his book, The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know, that “protesters demonstrating in in February 2011 throughout Morocco demanded constitutional changes that would limit the powers of the monarchy; they did not demand the establishment of a republic.” The protesters did not call for the monarch’s removal, instead they were demanding reforms to lessen the monarchy’s power, more respect for human rights, and more jobs for the youth.
Laws that protect free speech and free press are included in a new constitution, but critics say that the language is vague and contradictory. Despite these new guarantees, journalists and artists still face imprisonment or harassment if they criticize the king, or if they expose corruption. At the same time police are increasingly using brutal tactics to break up protests, something that was relatively absent since the start of the demonstrations in 2011. The rapper Mouad Belghouat is serving a one year sentence for one of his songs which deals with police corruption. In its 2013 World Report, Human Rights Watch claims that those who campaign on behalf the Saharawi cause, demanding an end to discrimination or calling for autonomy, also face repression and imprisonment.
The approval of the new constitution, as well as the parliamentary victory by the Islamist Justice and Development party has contributed to Morocco’s stability. Yet the effects of a drought and the economic crisis in Europe, has negatively affected Morocco’s GDP and exports. Tackling the depressed economy and creating jobs will be one of the main tasks for the parliament.
Morocco has been spared from violent protests and riots that have plagued other North African nations, but that does not mean that things will remain this way indefinitely. A new updated constitution and an Islamist majority in parliament are a sign of political improvements, but many think that these changes are only cosmetic, and that the king still holds too much executive authority. With a combination of an underperforming economy, high unemployment, upcoming subsidies reforms that will mostly affect the middle class, and a rise in police brutality, things could still take a turn south for the otherwise stable country.