This July, while interning for l’Organisation Marocaine Des Droits de l’Homme (OMDH)/Moroccan Human Rights Organization, I saw the streets of Rabat, Morocco adorned with red and green. The Moroccan national flag was displayed at every street corner, and pictures of King Mohammed VI were hung in every restaurant. The country was preparing to celebrate Throne Day, the ten-year anniversary of King Mohammed VI’s ascension to the throne.
In addition to its symbolic significance, the anniversary celebrated ten years of progressive reform: the democratization and increased respect for human rights evident throughout the reign of the young king. During his first few days in office, Mohammed VI released prominent political prisoners jailed by his predecessor, his father Hassan II. In 2004, he established the Equity and Reconciliation Commission to investigate and publicly broadcast human rights violations committed under his father’s rule. A year before, he reformed the Mudawana (Family Code) to improve women’s status by granting them equal rights in family life. This reformed Family Code stipulates that, among other things, a man requires his wife’s consent to secure a divorce. The king showed his sincere interest in the new code, taking only one wife and marrying her in public, both unprecedented steps for a Moroccan king. His wife appears with him at political events, seeming to symbolize “at the highest level the major role for women in the fulfilment of our country,” according to liberal newspaper La Gazette du Maroc.
Yet, Morocco remains far from democratic, as its pervasive election fraud and corrupt legislature indicate. Political liberalization, in terms of meaningful opposition to the state and substantial alternation of power, remains elusive, as does true inclusion of minority groups like women and homosexuals. Morocco’s slow progress seems surprising, given that the king himself, who wields absolute constitutional power, is attempting to reform society.
The problems Morocco faces are not unlike those affecting other Arab Muslim nations. This correlation gives dangerous rise to claims that reforms imposed from above will always be limited in their effect in countries where Islam is constitutionally institutionalized. Yet, in the case of Morocco, this claim seems myopic. The more salient obstacle to reform is that the political elites below the king remain conservative and uninterested in actually altering the balance of power.
CONSTITUTIONAL ISLAM AND ITS IMPLICATIONS ON HUMAN RIGHTS
Despite the king’s effort, freedom of expression and the status of women remain threatened in Morocco. According to the nation’s constitution, Morocco is a “sovereign Muslim state.” Islam is the foundation for the state and, more importantly, the monarchy—the King is perceived as a descendant of the Prophet and as such has absolute constitutional power. The constitution states that he is “commander of the believers” and guarantor of the territorial integrity of the state. These three elements—the king, Islam, and the territorial integrity of the king’s state—are constitutionally sacred and immune to public debate.
This fact permanently threatens freedom of expression and government accountability in Morocco. While Mohammed VI has loosened press controls, the three sacred elements remain off-limits, as institutionalized in the new Press Code of 2002. Following the enactment of this Code, many publications deemed overly critical of the king were banned or suspended, and many journalists prosecuted and imprisoned. In recent years, journalists who commented on the country’s ongoing war with Algeria met the same fate, as the war, fought over the separatist Western Sahara region, compromises the country’s territorial integrity. Even in the wake of Throne Day, magazines Tel Quel and Nichane were banned for publishing an opinion poll on Mohamed VI’s reign—to which 91 percent of those surveyed responded favorably. Minister of Communications Khalid Naciri summarized the constitutional line by explaining, “The monarchy cannot be the object of debate, even through a poll.” Despite the king’s liberal intentions, constitutional constraints always limit how much criticism of the state and freedom of expression is permitted in Morocco.
Additionally, the king’s reforms and remarks in favor of enhanced roles for women have yet to translate outside of the palace. Access to education and healthcare for rural girls, according to Fatiha Layadi, a member of the Moroccan parliament, remains low, leading to underrepresentation and disenfranchisement; only 37 women serve in parliament and there is only a single female mayor in the entire country. The subjugation of women in Morocco, shown in part by the literacy gap between genders, reflects a persistent feature of Arab-Muslim societies. Whether this correlation reflects causation is subject to significant debate, but the religious conservatism in Moroccan society regarding gender equality is undeniable—despite the king’s example and the reformed Family Code, the old practices of a husband’s divorcing his wife without consent, polygamy, and unequal inheritance remain the norm in many households, according to the International Federation for Human Rights. Even the Family Code was met with heavy opposition in parliament and had to be forced through by royal decree. According to the aforementioned banned surveys, almost one in two Moroccans feel the king went too far in his attempts to liberate women.
Homosexuality is another area where the primacy of Islam in Moroccan society prevents realization of human rights. Homosexuality remains firmly closeted because it is not recognized by Islam. Homosexuals remain outlawed from society, and, as I witnessed first hand, many battle depression and suicidal impulses as a result. A good friend of mine confessed to me of being called into a meeting at work once his homosexuality was revealed, and being presented two options—resignation or dismissal. The fact that this occurred at a French call centre where no Arabic was spoken and the aesthetics were glaringly European shows how deeply entrenched Islam—and resulting obstacles to human rights—is in society, and this entrenchment begins in the constitution.
ELUSIVE DEMOCRATIZATION: THE ROLE OF THE CONSTITUTION
In addition to realization of respect for human rights, democracy in Morocco remains in its embryonic stages. One reason is because the constitution renders the role of the legislature—and the people’s vote as a result—inconsequential. The parliament’s role as a legislature is extremely weak compared to the king’s. The king issues royal directives which set the agenda for each semi-annual parliamentary session, and he has the power to override any laws which he feels do not conform to these directives – as he did the old Family Code. The king also names the Prime Minister and cabinet, and sets the government agenda with royal directives as well. In summary, “the parliament has no role in the nomination of the government and must settle for discussing the governmental program which reflects the royal directives to the government.” To illustrate the extent to which the king’s own legislative authority overshadows parliamentary powers, most members of parliament don’t even bother to show up when the body is in session.
Given the insignificant role of elected officials in parliament, Moroccans do not view their elections as legitimate. Voter turnout has steadily decreased since the democratization push began 2002, and reached a record low 37 per cent in 2007 parliamentary elections. Political ideology does not motivate most voters; outside of the cities, votes are sold or tied to tribal concerns. According to OMDH observations, in June 2009 local elections in Laayoune, a town near Rabat, for example, voters would take a photo of their completed ballot to show to illegal agents working on behalf of party lists, who would pay them compensation based on which party they voted for. Since the legislature has no role in Moroccan politics, voters are more concerned with getting food on the table than expressing political preferences.
ELUSIVE DEMOCRATIZATION: THE ROLE OF THE STATE AND ITS POLITICAL LEADERS
However, while the constitution remains an inhibiting factor, the problem lies as much in behaviour of the Moroccan state and its politicians as in its constitution. Corrupt politicians in Morocco are as much to blame for the weakness of the legislature and hollowness of elections as the constitution is, as they are unable to mobilize the population and lack clear political direction. Candidates seek parliamentary status for financial benefits and other perks, such as legal immunity. OMDH observers reported that “the political dimension of the campaign remained weak throughout” the June 2009 local elections; in Rabat, many heads of party lists did not even publish platforms, resorting instead to propaganda about personalities of rival list heads. List heads had trouble finding enough candidates to fill their lists, and thus had to bribe people to occupy vacant spots. Voters realize the corruption of the candidates, and do not trust their government as a result; in the banned surveys, one responder answered that it is “better that the power be in the king’s hands than in those of the corrupt elected officials, who look after only their own interests.”
While Mohammed VI has zealously pursued social and economic reforms, “the same appetite for reforms challenging the king’s authority has been lacking,” according to Maati Monjib, a professor at the Université de Rabat who recently spoke at Columbia. Monjib argues that Morocco today resembles “an absolute monarchy” much more than the democracy “to which it rhetorically aspires.” The palace has not attempted any constitutional reforms which would limit the royal mandate; it is instead actively intervening in politics to ensure the balance of power does not shift despite new reforms. Less than a year ago, the king’s close friend and Deputy Interior Minister Fouad Ali El Himma created the Party for Authenticity and Modernity (PAM).
Because of its perceived royal sponsorship, and the thin role of ideology in the formation of political loyalties as explained, many deputies from left and right flocked to this party in search of parliamentary status, knowing PAM’s ties to the palace would ensure its victory in the 2009 elections, which they did. Opposition parties see the PAM as a return to the old practices of Hassan II, whose palace created and sponsored loyal parties which would dominate elections and ensure parliamentary acquiescence to the king’s objectives. Prime Minister Abbas El Fassi has even stated publicly that he is implementing the “king’s program.” Even despite its constitutional leverage, the state is ensuring its control over the government and legislature in Morocco.
Most importantly, the state’s methods to consolidate its power—press censorship and intervention in judicial matters—have often come at the expense of Islamist opposition. This reveals political, rather than religious motives, and debunks the argument about constitutional Islam as the biggest detriment to democracy in Morocco. Most cases of press censorship have targeted those who criticize the state and its decisions rather than those who publish subversive material regarding Islam. Mohammed VI has allowed freer press—OMDH notes that “a new media generation is appearing in Morocco and the field of free expression has considerably extended”—and forced through moderate reforms like the Family Code. However, he draws the line at criticism of the state. His concern is a political one rather than a religious one; his goal is to consolidate his own power, rather than consolidate adherence to Islam in society.
Furthermore, in the wake of terrorist attacks in Casablanca in 2003 and 2007, many Islamist politicians, mainly from the moderate Islamist Party of Justice and Development, were arrested on dubious charges of complicity in terrorist plots and jailed based on circumstantial evidence. Other human rights abuses in the name of stopping terrorism—like illegal detention, torture, violent dispersion of peaceful protests—were committed against those accused of being Islamic radicals but in reality moderates who posed a political threat to the regime. The state’s agenda is to prevent dissent and consolidate its power amidst reforms and political violence which could destabilize the regime; this process has come at the expense of the religious extremism embodied in the constitution.
CONSTITUTIONAL ISLAM EXONERATED
The prevalence of Islam in society cannot alone be blamed for all of Morocco’s slow progress to reform, though certain human rights violations can certainly find their origins there, as in the case of homosexuality. Islam plays a negative role towards democratization in Morocco insofar as it legitimizes the monarchical constitution, which gives a weak role to the popular voice. However, the actual agents of Moroccan politics are responsible for their situation. The Moroccan state has shown itself unwilling to relinquish its hold on power, both by choosing not to pursue constitutional reform but also by means of consolidation—manipulation of the political parties, press censorship, and infiltration of the judiciary. Its political opponents are often moderate Islamists. The conservative nature of Moroccan leadership, as well as the corruption of its elected officials—both factors unrelated to religion—are the true obstacles to Moroccan liberalization.
If Morocco is truly to progress towards a meaningful multiparty democracy, constitutional reform will be necessary, but so too will a conscious decision by its leadership to give substance to its rhetoric—to stop suppressing alternative sources of information and political parties in order to allow true alternation of power.
In an autocratic state, top-down reform can work to achieve democratization, but only if the autocrat allows his reforms to include himself and his own power.