With the US-Africa Leaders Summit in full swing, much of the analysis on Morocco holds up the kingdom as a model for cautious, but essentially successful reform in the Middle East. Such analysis serves to underpin both United States and European policy, which is currently designed to support and maintain, rather than challenge, the kingdom’s political order. Critically examining Morocco’s record, however, shows that its reformist image is mostly undeserved, and its position as a potential regional model unearned.
The Moroccan monarchy’s response to popular demonstrations in late 2010 and early 2011 was essentially two-pronged. First, it violently dismantled protest camps in the Western Sahara and used extensive force against the activist February 20 movement. Second, it organized a referendum (under conditions that, having witnessed the voting process, I believe were questionable) on a new national constitution.
The palace has successfully presented the adoption of the new constitution in July 2011 as a sign of its commitment to reform and even partial democratizing of the country. In reality, the reforms were limited in letter and even more so in practice. In fact, the regime remains a repressive authoritarian monarchy—facing serious allegations of human rights violations—and presides over an unequal social and economic order.
Even by regional standards, political power in Morocco is unusually highly concentrated. While the constitution did devolve some modest legislative power, the intelligence services and military are still closely controlled by King Mohammed VI who also chairs a council of state that must endorse all legislation even before it goes to parliament and furthermore may dissolve parliament, call elections, and dismiss government ministers.
The king also operates a secretive royal council comprised of his closest advisers, which appears to function as the country’s real policy and decision-making body. Prominent among its members are royal adviser Fadel Benyaich, adviser Fouad Ali El Himma, and the head of the external intelligence service (DGED) Yassine Mansouri. All three are former classmates of the king.
Meanwhile economic policy has been mainly designed by, and in the interests of, a narrow ruling class often referred to as the Makhzen. Recent economic reforms to cut public subsidies may have been supported by the rating agencies (and the IMF which just announced another $5 billion precautionary credit line) but will do little to alleviate poverty, which despite some improvements in the cities is still widespread in rural areas.
Details of the monarchy’s business interests are closely guarded but they are certainly extensive. The king’s wealth is substantial and the royal family holds the majority stake in the National Investment Company (SNI), which has been repeatedly accused of corruption.
King Mohammed VI’s father, Hassan II, ran a security regime that openly engaged in arbitrary detentions, the repression of dissents, and assassinations of its own citizens. Despite differences in style, at its core the regime today operates in much the same way.
The state now uses anti-terrorism discourse and laws as a cover, but international human rights organizations have documented that it still imprisons and prosecutes journalists, disappears political opponents, and crushes peaceful protests. Criticism of the king is illegal.
The regime also operates secret prisons and engages in the systematic torture of political dissidents, especially from its Sahrawi population. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the US State Department have detailed the extraction and use of torture-tainted confessions.
Most significant of all Morocco is still maintaining a military occupation of Western Sahara, a territory larger than the United Kingdom. The regime invaded and annexed Western Sahara in 1975, drove tens of thousands of its inhabitants into refugee camps in Algeria, and holds the land in violation of international law. Within Western Sahara, a harsh security order is maintained to suppress the Sahrawi population while Moroccan settlement is promoted by subsidy.
In this context one might ask why Morocco enjoys the reputation it does. The answer, in part, lies in its operation of a sophisticated public relations machine, including a multi-million dollar lobbying mission in Washington.
For the United States, Morocco is seen as a valued strategic ally in a “historic and proud partnership,” in the words of Senator John Kerry on July 29. The kingdom is willing to accommodate almost any counter-terrorism demands that are made of it and regularly purchases US arms, with recent transactions including twenty-four F-16s, $1 billion of refurbishment for its 200 Abrams M1A1 tanks, military radar systems, and Sidewinder missiles. For Western Europe, it is a key trading partner.
Those relationships are underwritten and partly justified by the view of Morocco as a haven of regime stability, moderation, regional reform. The West should thoroughly reassess these underlying assumptions about Morocco’s ruling regime—and subsequently the strategic and diplomatic relationships with the kingdom. This is particularly important for the United States and France, where relations with the kingdom are strongest and influence highest.
Morocco is no regional beacon. Its Human Development Index ranking remains the worst in North Africa, and it leads the way on both income inequality and illiteracy. Its record on political reform, democratization, and human rights is not impressive and certainly not comparable with Tunisia’s. A more suitable comparison for its record could be found in the GCC monarchies that are rarely presented in the same positive light.
Holding the kingdom up as an example for the region is misguided and could be damaging to popular democratic forces within North African societies, which are already benighted. Such movements could be discouraged by international acceptance of authoritarian behavior, and the potential remains for long-term popular resentment of US policy that is seen as implicitly encouraging a violation of principles surrounding human rights and good governance.
Instead, the United States should use the opportunity created by the US-Africa Leaders Summit to critically assess Morocco’s ruling regime and pressure it to begin real reforms, especially on human rights and its conduct in Western Sahara. The consequences of ignoring this imperative could result in increased public resentment towards the United States (at best) and increased extremism (at worst) as avenues for civil discourse and political engagement remain impeded.
Tom Stevenson is an independent journalist based in Cairo. He regularly reports for the Financial Times and France 24.