When King Mohammed VI succeeded his father Hassan II in July 1999, he instantly became a symbol of hope for a democratic Morocco. Unlike his father, whose 38-year rule was tarnished by human rights violations, corruption and a discredited political system, Mohammed VI — lauded in the Moroccan and foreign media as the “king of the poor” — personified modesty, social justice and moderation. But the young king owes his popularity largely to his distance from the spoils and arbitrariness of Hassan’s rule, not to any coherent program of reforms. Despite multiple gestures indicating departure from his father’s autocratic style, Mohammed VI remains a prisoner of an authoritarian system in crisis that he is unable to change after almost two years on the throne. This may explain December’s abrupt rollbacks of the greater press and civil society freedoms that characterized the new king’s early rule.

Enthusiasm for Mohammed VI’s rule has waned. Democracy advocates are raising questions about the prospects for serious political reform without systemic changes. Average Moroccans wonder if rampant injustice and corruption can be eliminated as long as the “steel masks” — the old guard of advisers, dignitaries and generals who became so powerful under Hassan II — sit at the king’s side. But neither the pro-democracy political parties, completely alienated from the people, nor the Islamists, who have no credible modernization or democratization plans, have the capacity to challenge the authoritarian system. Morocco’s political crisis transcends the problems usually associated with processes of liberalization and democratization.  In transitional polities, liberalization and democratization are commonly a matter of making a secular authority more accountable to its citizens. Morocco’s crisis, however, reflects the ambiguous foundations of formal political authority itself.

The Makhzen: Nexus of Power

King Hassan’s 38 years of “enlightened” despotic rule have left a legacy that inhibits change. The most important institutional and ideological component of Hassan’s legacy is the makhzenian system he crafted.

For three centuries, the makhzen [1] provided the administrative structure, legal framework and military manpower to extend Moroccan sultans’ authority over self-governing tribes. The French colonial protectorate of 1912 interrupted the uncertain process of modern state formation by marginalizing the sultan as the effective political agent of nation-building. The French also accelerated state formation by modernizing the extractive and coercive capacity of the makhzen institution. Although the royal court — with its own traditions, religious authority and rituals of power — was initially distinct from the modern administrative structure established by the French, the difference abruptly disappeared after Morocco gained independence in 1956. With the acquiescence of the nationalist parties, the sultan, now a modern king, emerged as the symbol for national liberation and became, constitutionally, the supreme arbitrator, legislator and guarantor of political legitimacy.

From 1961 to 1999, King Hassan II reigned over Morocco exactly as if he were running a medieval absolutist state. Suddenly endowed with the power of a modern bureaucracy, he was accountable to no one but God and commanded total obedience. In the Moroccan constitution, ministers, senators, magistrates and governors enjoy certain prerogatives but wield no real power independently from the king. Hassan II publicly called high government and state officials khudama’ (loyal servants to the throne) and treated them as such — not as agents or representatives of modern political institutions with formal political authority. [2] This dual political system allows the Moroccan monarch to claim constitutional legitimacy, while preserving his traditional authority based on a unique combination of the Sunni notion of bay’a and the Shi’i notion of the imam. In the Moroccan context, bay’a refers both to the act of delegating power to a new sultan or king and to the annual, symbolic renewal of allegiance (tajdid al-wala’). In principle, the renewal of bay’a is predicated on the protection of basic individual and collective rights within the community. In practice, the religious scholars and other dignitaries who are supposed to represent the community in the renewal of allegiance are beholden to the king, and cannot independently represent the community’s interests. [3]

A System in Crisis

The monarchy’s strategy of using modern institutions to preserve medieval political authority required tactics of repression, corruption and cooptation. From 1961 to roughly 1991, King Hassan’s rule was rudely punctuated by a dozen mass political trials and the violent suppression of major urban and rural insurrections. In one 1977 political trial, judges subservient to the king handed down the equivalent of 30 centuries of prison terms. In the unofficial “prison-morgue” of Tazmamart, built in 1972 to warehouse the king’s worst enemies, 30 of the original 58 “special guests” were left to die slowly in despicable conditions. Published testimonies by survivors (released in 1991 after a major campaign in France) describe scenes of detainment reminiscent of the Dark Ages. [4] Since Hassan II’s death in July 1999, some 6,000 claimants have filed for compensation as victims of torture.

To his close allies and collaborators, King Hassan distributed high administrative and government positions, immense state-subsidized benefits and services and hundreds of farms and companies recovered from the French in the early 1970s. [5] In the makhzen system, the ideal khadim (a king’s personal servant) displays two qualities: loyalty and discretion. Discretion means that the king’s subordinate is not to shine by doing heroic deeds that bestow upon him independent power and legitimacy. He should not scandalize the public by amassing astronomical wealth (though most who did this under Hassan were not punished). Lastly, a prominent servant of the makhzen is expected to engage in corruption, but without leaving a trace. Beyond these basic requirements, a king’s servant, from the highest to the lowest levels of the state hierarchy, is left to operate his sector of the public domain like a personal fiefdom. A current anti-corruption campaign has revealed widespread financial fraud and embezzlement in banking, social security, agricultural credits, public housing, state contracts, public companies, municipal councils and international aid projects, such as one program to provide school lunches for needy children. In all corruption cases, however, there is never any evidence to prosecute those senior officials who profited most.

Finally, King Hassan used cooptation to buy out influential non-violent adversaries and reward occasional supporters within the political elite. The multi-party electoral system in Morocco operated essentially as a mechanism to select, control and reproduce a docile, corruptible and dependent political elite. Cooptation had three guises: a quota system used to distribute electoral seats to maintain a balance among political parties, the bribing of thousands of voters (sometimes right in front of voting stations) and the use of influential connections — whether political, tribal, familial or regional — to attain elected office through dubious means. The Moroccan political elite competes for a few hundred seats in the parliament and some 25,000 seats on municipal councils. This complex mechanism of political cooptation was conceived and sustained by Driss Basri, Hassan’s notorious minister of the interior in charge of domestic security and political repression.

While King Hassan’s despotism succeeded in manufacturing an international image of “enlightened moderation,” competitive pluralism and relative political stability, its social consequences were severe. Four decades after independence, more than half of Morocco’s 29 million people are illiterate, Nineteen percent of Moroccans live in abject poverty and 21 percent of the working-age urban population is unemployed, including some 100,000 university graduates. Women and rural populations are the most afflicted by poverty in Morocco. Seventy percent of illiterates are women. Eighty percent of villages have no access to paved roads, running water or electricity, and 93 percent have yet to obtain basic health care facilities.

King of Reform?

When King Mohammed succeeded his father in July 1999, he was aware of the people’s high expectations. He made several gestures to signal the beginning of a kinder, gentler era. In his first speeches, he defended women’s rights, arguing for their full participation in public life. He spoke against poverty, institutionalized injustice and corruption. He called for a new concept of authority based on accountability, human rights and individual freedom. He funded social programs to help the urban poor and led several campaigns to relieve rural poverty following two years of drought. In his first official tour of major Moroccan cities, he embraced youths, the elderly and the handicapped. He visited the neglected northern provinces, including the Rif region, which his father had last visited over 40 years ago to suppress a rebellion. He dismissed Basri, his father’s interior minister since 1979. He allowed prominent political exiles back into the country and established an independent commission to compensate victims of human rights violations. Perhaps more importantly, Mohammed VI’s rule created a climate of political liberalization that has allowed Moroccans to speak more freely and air their grievances publicly, after 38 years of tight control under King Hassan.

But these gestures remain largely symbolic. After close to two years on the throne, the king has effected no systemic change. Notwithstanding his genuine modesty and concern for the poor and powerless, King Mohammed VI has appointed no serious team of reformers and announced no discernible program of reforms. Three important signs confirm the new king’s inability to reform the authoritarian system he has inherited. His initiatives seem impulsive and ad hoc rather than guided by a clear reformist strategy. He bypasses due process and formal decision-making institutions, diluting his professed aim to establish the rule of law. Third, King Mohammed’s personal initiatives reproduce, in a different form, the old image of the benevolent despot. The medieval mechanisms of exercising political authority in Morocco are still in place.

Mohammed VI Stays the Course

Manifestations of the old makhzen, even in arenas where the new king made bold gestures, are unmistakable. Despite solemn pronouncements of relaxed controls on freedom of expression, censorship is still practiced. During Mohammed VI’s first year alone, eight local and international newspapers have been censored for publishing stories on corruption within the armed forces and high administrative circles for questioning Morocco’s policy in the disputed Western Saharan territories. [6] In December 2000, the government, with the tacit agreement of the king, banned three weekly publications — Le Journal, Assahifa and Demain — for publishing allegations that socialist leaders had plotted with General Mohammed Oufkir in the failed 1972 coup attempt. The editors received permission to launch new publications only after judicial delays, international pressure and a hunger strike by Le Journal’s editor, Aboubakr Jamaï. Moroccans can still receive exorbitant fines and jail sentences for desecrating Morocco’s three “sacred institutions”: Islam, the nation and the monarchy. Protecting “sacred institutions” has become an excuse for avoiding sensitive debates and for insulating influential officials, private interests and powerful institutions from criticism. Technically, a Moroccan citizen can go to jail for raising questions about the fairness or efficiency of the shari’a as the basis of a modern civil code, for criticizing the secrecy surrounding the military budget or for demanding accountability from the monarchy.

Although King Mohammed calls for the rule of law, he has made major decisions that bypass formal procedures and institutions. When he dismissed the unpopular minister of the interior and appointed a new one in November 1999, the prime minister was not consulted about the new appointee and was not informed of the decision. He learned of the major change to his own cabinet through informal channels while traveling abroad. In another case, the king pardoned journalists who had been sentenced to prison for libeling the foreign minister last June. Although well-intended, his decision sidestepped formal appeal procedures and reaffirmed his absolute power above the judiciary.

In addition to these glaring examples, the king routinely resorts to unilateral decisions, appointments and policymaking that conflict with his aim to create a modern state ruled by law.

King Mohammed’s most solid and successful record lies in the area of human rights. However, there are still outstanding concerns. The Moroccan state has not officially admitted responsibility for past human rights violations. Information regarding the number, dates, places and conditions of disappearances is censored. Those responsible for torture and killings have not been brought to trial. A notorious executioner, Mahmoud Archane, now head of a political party and a Parliament representative, publicly boasts that he tortured enemies of the monarchy. In politically charged trials, like that of an Air Force captain who denounced corruption in the military, international norms of due process are totally disregarded. The security services routinely use excessive force to disperse peaceful demonstrators. Less publicized and more alarming are the daily violations of human rights that plague average citizens in their everyday encounters with administrative, security and judicial authorities. A youth with no powerful connections to protect him may be forced to sign a police report and spend months in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. A victim of a traffic accident may never receive compensation because of a twisted police report in favor of the party at fault. A divorced woman may have to share her children’s allowances with a court clerk whose cooperation is necessary to enforce verdicts. These violations go largely unreported and poignantly reflect the continuity of the makhzen‘s authority in Morocco.

“Give Time a Chance”

To be sure, the new king’s tasks are not easy and there is no single obvious solution to Morocco’s crisis of authority. Mohammed VI has no reliable institutional partners with whom to pursue necessary political reforms, and he faces two formidable adversaries if he attempts to lead the democratization and modernization fights alone.

The socialist-led democratic coalition that has directed the government since April 1998 bears the stigma of its origins. The government led by Prime Minister Abderrahmane Youssoufi came to power through an alternance ordered by King Hassan — not through free, transparent legislative elections. This is not the only problem. The “democratic” political parties have been totally discredited by decades of fruitless opposition, and participation in the corrupt and tightly controlled electoral game. Since the makhzen allocated these parties representation by quotas to maintain a certain balance in the parliament and the municipalities, it is difficult to assess the parties’ real strength. Judging by the low rates of participation in recent elections, the high numbers of null or void votes and the growing influence of Islamists in universities, professional associations and poor quarters, the current democratic coalition probably does not represent more than 10 percent of the electorate.

Since 1998, the poor performance of the pro-democracy parties in government has further eroded their political legitimacy. Power transformed the democratic leadership from advocates of a modern form of political authority into a demoralized, incoherent crisis management team. In the social domain, none of the major problems have lessened. In the economic domain, administrative corruption and bureaucratic red tape still scare away domestic and foreign investors. In the political domain, none of the promised or expected reforms has taken place. There has been no constitutional reform, no new penal code, civil code, electoral code, labor law or bill of rights. A new press code is currently under preparation. According to press reports, however, it appears to be more restrictive than the old one. Fifty of the 80 articles in the proposed press code deal with restrictions and libel punishable by harsh prison sentences. [7]

To justify its failures, the socialist-led government resorted to repeating clichés of French politics that have no meaning whatsoever in the Moroccan context. The government’s spokesman enthusiastically exclaimed “donnons du temps au temps!” (give time a chance) when critics accused the Youssoufi team of political immobility. The slogan was used by French President Mitterand to placate his leftist critics. “La majorite plurielle,” a concept that allowed the French socialists a comfortable parliamentary majority within a Socialist-Green-Communist coalition, became a handy term for rationalizing Morocco’s fractious government recruited from seven ideologically incompatible political parties. During a government-sponsored campaign to reform the personal status code (the mudawana) in favor of women, the slogan was “nous partageons la terre, partageons ses fruits” (we share the earth, let’s share its bounty). Whatever the slogan’s original appeal, it was simply lost when translated into colloquial Moroccan. The slogan had the same embarrassing effect of a poorly translated joke. The Youssoufi government attempted to renew contact with the masses during a large demonstration of solidarity with the Palestinian intifada last fall. But the marchers seized the opportunity to express their anger at the government’s failure to reform. Mahmoud Archane, an ex-makhzen executioner, tried to march but was chased by demonstrators into a police station. The prime minister himself was harassed and forced to retire behind the parliament walls. These two “sanctuaries,” the police station and the parliament, eloquently symbolize the crisis of political authority in Morocco.

With such maladroit allies, Mohammed VI does not need adversaries, but he has at least two. The king’s most obvious adversaries are the Islamists. They resist any modern alternative to the existing authoritarian system even as they chastise its social ills. The king’s less obvious, and more dangerous, adversaries are the entrenched interests within the administration, the public sector, the military and the security apparatus. These groups benefit the most from the perpetuation of authoritarian rule.

Islamist Adversaries

The Islamists have gained ground owing to the social and political failures of alternance, and could constitute a major obstacle to King Mohammed’s reforms. Abdeslam Yassine, leader of al-‘Adl wa al-Ihsan (Justice and Charity), the largest and most outspoken Islamist movement in Morocco, is no democrat and no serious modernizer. To be sure, Yassine and his followers speak against social injustice, official corruption and political decay. Yet they provide no plausible program of democratization to replace the makhzen‘s domination. Yassine himself does not believe in democratic principles and procedures. He is certain that Morocco’s social problems and authoritarian political system would simply disappear if Moroccans were to return to Islamic teachings and follow a virtuous leader. For Yassine, absolutist rule is acceptable as long as the absolutist leader respects and applies a strict, religious moral code. For the challenge of modernity, Yassine has a very simple solution: Islamize it. That means that Muslims don’t have to take the ethical, social, political and existential risks that an Islamic epistemological revolution would most naturally involve. According to Yassine’s perspective, Muslims can borrow Western scientific thinking and technology, while preserving an Islamic moral framework and social order. This solution appears to be eminently practical. Let the West take the risks of modernity; Muslims will convert the West’s best philosophers, scientists, artists and astronauts, and then claim their knowledge as “Islamic.” Hence, Muslims can prove that no matter how much the powerful, materialist West prospers, the West needs Islamic moral order and spiritual comfort. Reflecting a shortcoming of the Islamist movements in general, Yassine is too preoccupied with social issues, and his politics are too clouded by religious dogma to generate alternative forms of modern power and knowledge.

The policy implications of adopting a philosophy that attempts to both benefit from and reject the risks of modernity are devastating. This was recently illustrated by the unhelpful position of Moroccan Islamic leaders and their sympathizers on women’s rights. In March 2000, the government unveiled a national action plan to give Moroccan women more social, political and legal rights. The plan was launched following the publication of an alarming report on the marginal status of women and its social consequences.

The report’s findings were dramatic, but not surprising. A Moroccan woman dies every six hours in childbirth. 28,000 acts of domestic violence against women were reported between 1984 and 1998. Very few men go to jail or pay fines for these acts because of legal discrimination, police corruption and the absence of appropriate investigation techniques. Despite minor reforms of the mudawana in 1993, polygamy, compulsory marriages, divorce procedures favoring men and general disregard for a husband’s material obligations to his children remain serious problems. In Casablanca, a city of three million people, some 10,000 homeless children fall prey to drug and prostitution rings. (By comparison, Sao Paolo, Brazil, a city of more than 10 million people, has 5,000 homeless children.) Women are poorly represented in formal institutions of government. Among the 650 elected members to the parliament, only four are female. Of the 24,000 local and municipal council members, a mere 83 are women.

The government has proposed a large-scale, state-financed plan to improve the conditions of women in five areas: wider access to education for girls, better reproductive care, political empowerment through quotas for women in the parliament and positions of responsibility, social empowerment through employment and integration into economic activities and reform of the mudawana. The fifth of these areas was the most controversial for the Islamists. It called for restrictions on polygamy, for raising the legal age of marriage from 14 to 18 years of age and for providing women with equal rights of divorce and inheritance. The Islamists rejected the action plan wholesale — not just the clauses pertaining to the shari’a — as a “Zionist and Western plot against a Muslim nation.” On March 12, 2000, Moroccan Islamists staged one of the largest demonstrations since independence, gathering some 200,000 marchers in Casablanca. This show of force intimidated the king and the government. The plan was withdrawn.

The Islamists’ opposition to a modern democratic project that confines religion to the private sphere and enforces the rule of law in the public realm is not particularly threatening to Mohammed VI since he continues to claim sovereignty on the basis of religious legitimacy. Nevertheless, the king’s hands are tied in two ways.

First, the bay’a (allegiance) is questionable as it stands now because those who partake in the act (ahl al-hall wal-‘aqd) are not representative of the community. The notables, dignitaries, religious scholars, political and state officials who swear allegiance are either coopted by the makhzen, or are directly in the service of the palace. Their allegiance is therefore nothing but a ceremonial consecration of existing, unequal power relations. While members of the community are obligated to obey the sovereign, they have no recourse whatsoever to hold the sovereign accountable for their security and wellbeing. It is inevitable that Moroccan Islamists will demand a level playing field. The Islamists’ conception of political representation, however, is based on utopian assumptions about the political community where members and their representatives always behave in the collective interest simply because they are good Muslims. Such a conception is adequate for small, self-reliant communities where social relations are tight, personal reputation matters and the common good is easy to define. This is hardly the case in the complex politics of the modern nation-state where social needs and ideological orientations diverge significantly.

Second, if Mohammed VI attempts to enact reforms while adhering to the shari’a to please the Islamists, as in the case of the mudawana, the outcome will continue to fall short of the necessary changes Morocco requires. Instead of confronting these issues by clarifying the distinction between the monarchy’s role as protector of private religious rights and the role of the state as the guarantor of civil rights, the king and his close advisors are preoccupied with creating a semblance of reform while respecting Morocco’s cultural specificity.

Still in Charge: The “Steel Masks”

For different reasons, the power structure is resistant to change as well. Despite the appointment of a handful of young advisors, new governors and honest officials in the public sector, the old guard of the makhzen remains in full control. Major power brokers — the royal court, conservative religious authorities, King Hassan’s influential economic and political counselors, heads of security branches, senior military officers, powerful secretaries of state and some 10,000 mayors, caids, pashas, judges and police chiefs — oppose any reform that threatens their entrenched interests.

The old guard’s interests depend chiefly on their stature within the makhzen hierarchy. Small patrons typically profit from local commercial schemes, dubious housing subsidies and job-related benefits, payoffs from the delivery of permits and services (legal or illegal). Powerful patrons with connections to the royal palace are involved in large-scale business deals in farming, banking, construction, commerce, textiles, tourism, manufacturing and food processing. By virtue of their position, they benefit from state contracts, land concessions, free utilities, reduced taxes, regional monopolies and all manner of tariff protections. With King Hassan’s knowledge and approval, [8] the major power brokers and their families and trusted clients divided Morocco’s agricultural regions and industrial zones among themselves, each taking care of his cronies and chasing away undesirable intruders. It is difficult to imagine how the system can be reformed with these groups still ensconced in power and privilege. The power brokers have become more assertive since October 2000 when human rights groups organized a vigil around the Tazmamart prison and published the names of top officials involved in torture. According to leaks in the foreign press, the “steel masks” are behind the recent harsh repression of Islamists and human rights groups, the detention of a French TV crew and the expulsion of an Agence France Presse bureau chief. On the other hand, Mohammed VI cannot exercise his father’s authority without the cooperation of many of these power brokers.

Against this background, it is clear that prospects for democratic change in Morocco remain weak. It is inappropriate to blame — as the Moroccan elite does — illiteracy, culture or social conditions. The major obstacle to democratization is the inability of the major political players — the king, the political parties and the Islamists — to provide a credible alternative to the authoritarian system put in place by Hassan. These actors are caught up in the traps of authenticity and cultural specificity that makes it difficult to negotiate political modernity. The silent majority of Moroccans, the millions who don’t trust the bankrupt parties and fear Islamic extremists, routinely differentiate religious duty from civil and political rights in their daily lives. A frequent claim of devout and socially conformist Moroccans who visit Western Europe or North America is to find Islam — the formal order, equality, respect and care they encounter in the public sphere, be it an airport or a hospital — in non-Islamic lands. They don’t seem to reject decent public services because the authorities in charge don’t draw their legitimacy from the shari’a. Only makhzen apologists and Islamists worry about those things.


[1] In Moroccan Arabic, makhzen means “storehouse” — the palace quarters where goods offered to or expropriated by the sultan’s representative were stored.
[2] See Guilain Denoeux and Abdeslam Maghraoui, “King Hassan’s Strategy of Political Dualism,” Middle East Policy 5/4 (January 1998).
[3] See Abdeslam Maghraoui, “From Symbolic Legitimacy to Democratic Legitimacy: Monarchic Rule and Political Reform in Morocco,” Journal of Democracy 12/1 (January 2001).
[4] For one example, see the memoirs of Mohammed Raiss, published in the Casablanca daily al-Ittihad al-Ishtiraki, January 23-April 2, 2000.
[5] Will Swearingen, Moroccan Mirages: Agrarian Dreams and Deceptions, 1912-1986 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987).
[6] Patrick Baudouin, Jean-Paul Marthoz and Robert Ménard, “La liberté de la presse menacée au Maroc,” Le Monde, November 21, 2000.
[7] Le Quotidien du Maroc, November 30, 2000.
[8] Rémy Leveau, “Aperçu de l’évolution du systéme politique marocain,” Maghreb-Machrek 4 (1986).

How to cite this article:

Abdeslam Maghraoui "Political Authority in Crisis," Middle East Report 218 (Spring 2001).

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