When King Mohammed VI succeeded the late Hassan II in the summer of 1999, expectations soared. The young king’s investiture seemed to be the final step in a series of political changes that would set Morocco on the road to democracy. Along with a new bicameral legislature and an opposition government led by the much-revered socialist Abderrahmane Youssoufi, the change in regime raised hopes that Morocco was at last moving away from authoritarianism. Such hopes were bolstered by Mohammed’s early actions, which clearly set him apart from his father. The new king permitted the unconditional return of several opposition figures, notably Abraham Serfaty, who was stripped of his citizenship after questioning Morocco’s claim over the Western Sahara. At home, he lifted the ban on comedian Ahmed Snoussi, whose sardonic critiques of the system went too far for King Hassan’s taste. More recently, the king freed Islamist sheikh Abdeslam Yassine after more than a decade of house arrest.

But the most important indicator that Mohammed would chart his own course came when he fired the omnipotent interior minister Driss Basri in October 1999. The speed of Basri’s firing surprised Moroccans and foreign observers alike, and heralded a sense that a new era of greater freedom had begun. Indeed, the early reign of Mohammed VI has been unlike that of any of his predecessors. He has dispensed with the royal protocol that suggests he keep physical distance from ordinary Moroccans, preferring instead to minister to the poor, the disabled and the dispossessed. With the royal seal of approval, activists began to tackle formerly taboo topics like sexual trafficking in women and children. His subjects have received these changes enthusiastically. Dubbed “the king of the poor” or simply “M6,” Mohammed has fundamentally altered perceptions of the monarchy. In some ways, his image is like that of Britain’s late Princess Diana: an advocate for the underdog, who brings the monarchy closer to the people and gives the office of king a human face.

Yet despite all of the progress that occurred during Mohammed’s first year on the throne, the last few months have witnessed a substantial reversal. The permanent ban imposed on three upstart publications and the government’s harsh crackdown on human rights demonstrators are more reminiscent of Morocco under Hassan’s rule than the heady first months under his son. This sudden reversal of fortune reveals the superficiality of recent political reforms, and shows the necessity of drawing a distinction between political liberalization and true democratization. Morocco has unquestionably seen improvements in civil liberties in the past several years, notably with regard to freedom of expression and association, but the expansion of political liberties has lagged far behind. In spite of the impressive array of democratic-looking institutions — a bicameral parliament, multiparty electoral competition and an opposition government — no significant power has devolved outside the regime.

Liberalization or Democratization?

The Moroccan political system, with its awkward combination of moderate civil liberties and continued political authoritarianism, is not unique. It is an authoritarian sub-type — pseudodemocracy — that has emerged in the wake of the vaunted “third wave” of democracy. [1] Born of a global environment hostile toward overt authoritarianism, pseudodemocratic regimes hide classic authoritarian behavior behind a democratic façade.

Authoritarian leaders — who are fully cognizant of the importance now imputed to democracy worldwide — have devised methods of creating democratic-looking institutions that will satisfy their foreign patrons, but have little appreciable effect on their domestic political power. These regimes can call themselves “democratic” because political liberalization is conflated with political democratization. The two are emphatically not the same. Regimes will often liberalize — relaxing restrictions on individual rights and associational life and creating legislatures, multiparty systems and ostensibly independent judiciaries, but without devolving power outside the ruling bloc — when confronted with social upheaval or demands for change. But unless the democratically styled institutions can effect political change independent of the regime, no move toward greater democracy has taken place.

Moroccan institutions are certainly more liberal than before. But none of the changes under the late King Hassan or King Mohammed has affected the king’s prerogatives — the monarchy retains supra-institutional power. There is no mechanism for removing the king from office, short of revolution. His power is not subject to modification by the mass public or elected officials. It would be incorrect, then, to characterize Morocco’s recent political evolution as democratization. To the contrary, many of these “democratic” changes have instead solidified the monarchy’s position as the “first among institutions.” [2]

Catalysts for Change

When Morocco switched from a unicameral to a bicameral legislature in 1996 and swore in an opposition government in 1998, many Moroccans and international observers considered the changes proof of democratization. Since the early 1990s, the king had been calling for alternance — or alternation in power — recognizing that the longer he kept the left in the opposition, the stronger they would become. By bringing the left into government, the king sought to strip them of their mystique, and to prevent the formation of a unified front between the legal opposition and the burgeoning Islamist movement. The opposition, however, declined to participate in Hassan’s plans for alternance in 1993, for several reasons.

First, the opposition bloc (or Koutla) refused to sit in a government emanating from the 1993 legislative elections. These elections, marred by widespread corruption and regime interference, yielded a parliamentary arrangement that differed greatly from the popular vote. [3] At the time, Morocco had a unicameral legislature in which two thirds of the representatives (222) were directly elected and one-third (111) were indirectly chosen. Although the center-right parties received only slightly more seats than the opposition parties in the direct elections (116 versus 99), they captured over five times more seats than the opposition in the indirect elections that followed (79 versus 15).

To form a governmental majority, the Koutla would have had to ally with one of the center-right parties, whom they considered to be fully complicit with the regime in creating a poisonous, corrupt political atmosphere. Instead, the opposition preferred to wait for real alternance, issued from the ballot boxes rather than from the king. The opposition further refused to accede to King Hassan’s demand that he appoint the prime minister (who would not necessarily come from the parliamentary majority) and the ministers of justice, interior, Islamic affairs and foreign affairs. But the king’s retention of Interior Minister Driss Basri was, in the opposition’s view, the most egregious affront to the prospects for alternance, since they held Basri personally responsible for rigging the municipal and legislative elections against the Koutla. For the time being, then, the opposition had scuttled the king’s plans for alternance.

Then several important international and domestic developments dramatically raised the stakes in the game for both the king and the opposition. As the bloody civil war between Islamists and the military worsened in neighboring Algeria, Islamist activity in Morocco became increasingly more difficult to ignore. Violent clashes between Islamist and leftist students on university campuses broke out repeatedly, causing concern about the inroads such organizations had made among the general population. A series of bloody attacks blamed on Islamists culminated in the August 1994 fatal shooting of two Spanish tourists vacationing in Marrakesh.

A second catalyst for change was the deteriorating Moroccan economy and the resulting social unrest. In 1996, Morocco had suffered seven years of severe drought out of fifteen. Drought underscored the dependence of the Moroccan economy on agriculture and the dependence of Moroccan agriculture on beneficial meteorological conditions. [4] While some improvements in irrigation had been made, most of the country was not prepared to deal with scant rainfall. Drought forced the rural populations into the cities to look for work, compounding the high unemployment rate. As of 1995, over 50 percent of the Moroccan population had migrated into urban areas, exacerbating already miserable living conditions in poorer neighborhoods. The clash between urban dwellers and rural “intruders” added another layer of hostility to an explosive socioeconomic mix, where the disparities between rich and poor became more blatant with each passing day.

Because of the deteriorating economic, political and social situation in Morocco, two important opposition figures returned to Morocco from France to convince the opposition to forge ahead — unilaterally, if necessary — to effect change. On April 10, 1995, Abderrahmane Youssoufi, the leader of the opposition Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP), ended his 18 months of self-imposed exile that began after the 1993 elections, and resumed his role as party chief. Two months later, one of the leaders of the Moroccan national resistance movement during the French protectorate period, Mohamed “Fqih” Basri (whom King Hassan had called a “renegade,” and who had been sentenced to death four separate times), came home after 29 years of exile. The Fqih and other “radicals” had established the National Union of Popular Forces (UNFP) in 1959, after splitting with Morocco’s founding nationalist party, Istiqlal; the UNFP later spawned the USFP. Their return signaled to the regime that the opposition would abandon their confrontational stance and move toward greater cooperation.

Just months later, the king was hospitalized with bronchial pneumonia during an October visit to the US. At once, the rarely discussed succession issue became a topic of much concern. Would the king leave a legacy of authoritarianism for his heir Mohammed, or a legacy of greater democracy?

Institutional Safeguards

During his Throne Day speech of March 3, 1996, the king confirmed that Morocco would move from a unicameral to a bicameral legislature, pending approval by popular referendum. In the new system, the entire lower house would be directly elected to allow for greater popular participation in politics, while the senators in the upper house would be indirectly elected by municipal councils, union representatives and business councils. Hassan II reiterated his preference for alternance, specifically that the opposition would head a new government. This time, the opposition did not reject his proposals outright. All but a few small parties pronounced themselves in favor of the constitutional revision, and on September 13, 99.56 percent of the voters agreed.

Elections for the new bicameral parliament began in November 1997, starting with the lower house. Of the 325 directly elected seats being contested, the opposition Koutla bloc secured 102 slots, or 31 percent. The Wifaq bloc, composed of the rightist-loyalist parties, was next with 100 seats (31 percent) and the newly created center bloc (made up mostly of parties previously aligned with the right) came in third, with 97 seats (30 percent). Five other parties, including the first Islamist party, split the remaining 26 seats. In spite of promises that the regime would not interfere with the election results, there were credible reports of widespread vote-buying and race-rigging. [5] To protest the falsified elections, two elected USFP legislators even refused their seats, saying that their victories did not reflect the popular vote.

With no clear majority seated in the lower house, attention turned to the indirectly elected upper house. These senators would be chosen by electors from the municipal and provincial councils, as well as by representatives from various professions and unions. In the December 1997 elections, which were also scarred by extensive bribery, the Koutla parties fared even worse than in the lower house contests, winning only 44 out of a possible 243 non-union seats (18 percent). The centrist parties seated 90 senators (37 percent), and the rightist bloc seated 76 (31 percent). These results confirmed the tripartite left-center-right division that emerged from the local and lower house elections. They also ensured that the opposition could not hold power without entering into the coalition they had foresworn after the 1993 elections.

To what extent did this institutional modification bring Morocco closer to democracy? The new chamber did increase the number of participants in government at the national level, and the directly elected lower house more accurately reflected the popular will. But the structural conservative bias of the unicameral legislature was not eliminated. Instead, it was simply shifted from a one-third minority in a unicameral legislature to an entire house in a bicameral configuration. The upper house mimics the previous one-third minority in every way, except that it is even more powerful. Morocco’s upper house has been granted the constitutional right to censure the government, like only two other upper chambers (Italy and South Africa) in the world.

The structural bias becomes even clearer when one recalls that in this period the king wanted to bring the opposition into government without ceding control over policymaking to them. As Moroccan political reporter Fouad Nejjar states, bicameralism was instituted “to counterbalance the action of the opposition insofar as it enters into the government within the framework of alternance. A ‘leftist’ executive would then have to compromise with an upper chamber capable of checking it.” [6] With such an institutional safeguard in place, the king’s power-sharing plan was almost risk-free. The opposition could be brought into government, thus satisfying domestic demands for alternance (however instituted) and signaling to the outside world that Morocco was on the path to democracy. Meanwhile, the senate would offer a powerful check on both the government and the lower house’s power, severely limiting the opposition’s ability to deviate from extant policy orientations. The Moroccan parliament is a classic pseudodemocratic institution: It enhances the power of the regime rather than limiting it.

The Opposition Government

On February 4, 1998, King Hassan nominated Youssoufi as the first leftist prime minister since independence. Yet because of the parliamentary seat distribution, Youssoufi was forced to form a coalition government with the centrist and smaller parties. To accommodate his partners, Youssoufi appointed a cabinet of 31 ministers and nine secretaries of state from seven different parties. But the most controversial members of the Youssoufi government were those appointed by King Hassan: the ministers of Islamic affairs, foreign affairs, justice and interior. Driss Basri would continue as interior minister, ostensibly because his responsibility for the Western Sahara portfolio made him indispensable.

Ironically, Youssoufi and the Koutla wound up with a worse arrangement than the one they had summarily rejected after the 1993 elections. The prime minister — even this socialist one — would be appointed by the king, who also reserved the right to appoint the ministers of interior, justice, foreign affairs and Islamic affairs. The reviled Basri, whose presence in the post-1993 cabinet was the primary reason that the opposition declined to join, seemed more invincible than ever. Rather than contending with an unicameral legislature in which only one third of the legislators were indirectly elected, the opposition now had to deal with an entire chamber of indirectly elected senators who could force the government’s dissolution.

The Youssoufi government’s margin for maneuver was further constrained by the regime’s insistence that the government maintain the sacrosanct grands équilibres macro-économiques, or neoliberal economic policies, prescribed by the IMF and World Bank and supported by the palace. The implementation of these economic principles necessarily required the USFP and its leftist allies to abandon their socialist campaign promises, much to the dismay of their party bases. Nevertheless, most Moroccans greeted Youssoufi’s appointment with great joy and expectation. His “opposition” credentials were impeccable, having been persecuted by the regime for his leftist political beliefs. Given his long history of resistance, many argued, it was unlikely that Youssoufi would be coopted.

These hopes soon faded. Neither the government’s program nor its budget differed much from those of previous governments. As time wore on and the government showed itself to be largely incapable of implementing even symbolic change, expectations turned to bitterness and disenchantment. Calls for a cabinet reshuffling at least, or Youssoufi’s resignation at most, abounded. Critics inside and outside the prime minister’s party accused the government of selling out. At the time of Hassan’s death in July of 1999, the king — who had sentenced Youssoufi to death several decades earlier — was the prime minister’s primary advocate.

King Hassan’s seemingly bold embrace of alternance now appears to have been a cleverly calculated maneuver. Allowing Youssoufi to lead the government seemed to presage the devolution of political power, and perhaps the emergence of a democratic space. But Youssoufi’s limited mandate paralyzed the new government. Rather than blame the regime for engineering the gridlock, most Moroccans fault the Youssoufi government for its impotence. Clearly, despite the new “democratic” institutions, the monarch is still the final arbiter of power in Morocco.

Working Against Time

Unlike the opposition government, the young Mohammed VI proved capable of rapidly implementing change — firing Basri, softening royal protocols and permitting freer public discourse. Morocco is undoubtedly a more liberal nation under Mohammed than it was under his father. Still, in the year and a half since his ascension, the new king has taken no action to delegate monarchical power to elected officials.

In contrast to the first several months of his reign, Mohammed VI’s Morocco is now rolling back civil liberties. On December 2, 2000, the government announced a permanent ban on two independent weekly publications, Le Journal and Assahifa. Under the bold direction of Aboubakr Jamaï, Le Journal has repeatedly tested the boundaries of what is acceptable for publication. But when he published a letter that Fqih Basri allegedly wrote to Abderrahmane Youssoufi and the late Abderrahim Bouabid in 1974, the government said he had gone too far. [7] The letter showed that the UNFP leadership — notably current Prime Minister Youssoufi — was involved in the 1972 failed coup d’état. To justify the ban, the minister of communications invoked Article 77 of the Moroccan press code, which allows the government to halt publications “attacking the constitutional foundations — political or religious — of the Kingdom.” A third paper, Demain, which published details of drug trafficking activities purportedly taking place with the knowledge of highly placed individuals, suffered the same fate.
Although the contents of Fqih Basri’s letter have generated much buzz of their own accord, the government’s response to the charges has incited even greater debate. The same politicos who repeatedly denounced the regime for invoking the repressive press law to silence their publications while they were in the opposition, who made revocation of that very law part of their campaign platform, have now used Article 77 to mute criticism of themselves. The ban follows on the heels of several seizures of controversial publications and the revocation of the Agence France Presse bureau chief’s credentials. The regime has likewise become much less tolerant of public demonstrations, violently terminating a protest by human rights advocates in December.

There are two possible interpretations of what is happening in Morocco. One interpretation is that the closures reflect a pitched battle underway between a pro-liberalization faction and those opposed to change. The alternative, perhaps more cynical, interpretation is that the sunny projections about the young king’s commitment to democracy were overly optimistic. Those projections generally referred back to one oft-repeated (but unconfirmed) quote attributed to Mohammed that Spain’s reformist king, Juan Carlos — and not his own father — was his role model. In his first months on the throne, perhaps Mohammed was following the pattern of his forebears, purging the court of those with uncertain loyalties and establishing his own style. Whatever the case, time is working against the king, much as it did against Prime Minister Youssoufi. While Mohammed VI enjoys great support from the public, many Moroccans have begun to complain quietly about the lack of progress toward democracy. Morocco is suffering yet another severe drought, driving unemployment closer to the 30 percent mark and adding more fuel to an already smoldering socioeconomic fire. Those with vested interests in maintaining the status quo are trying their utmost to stymie any move toward decentralization. It remains to be seen whether this new king will fulfill the hopes of aspiring Moroccan democrats.


[1] The term pseudodemocracy first appeared in Larry Diamond, Juan J. Linz and Seymour Martin Lipset, “Introduction: What Makes for Democracy,” in Politics in Developing Countries: Comparing Experiences with Democracy, Diamond et al., eds. (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1995), pp. 8-9. See also Diamond, “Is the Third Wave Over?” Journal of Democracy 7 (1996) and Developing Democracy: Toward Consolidation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).
[2] King Hassan II referred to the monarchy as such in his Throne Day speech of March 3, 1992.
[3] See Henry Munson, Jr., “International Election Monitoring: A Critique Based on One Monitor’s Experience in Morocco,” Middle East Report 209 (Winter 1998).
[4] Agriculture accounts for about 20 percent of Morocco’s gross domestic product.
[5] For example, US Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Morocco Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1997 (Washington, DC: Department of State, 1998).
[6] Fouad Nejjar, “Réformes et assainissement sur fond de consensus,” La Vie Economique 3899 (January 3-9, 1997).
[7] The banned issue of Le Journal, including the text of Basri’s letter, is currently available in the Maghreb/Moyen-Orient section of the Reporters Without Borders website: http://www.press-freedom.org/home.html. The article in question from Demain may be found on the Courrier International website: http://www.courrierinternational.com/numeros/528/ 052804901.asp?TYPE=archives.

How to cite this article:

Catherine Sweet "Democratization Without Democracy," Middle East Report 218 (Spring 2001).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This