The Moroccan King’s “Political Earthquake”: Old Medicine in New Bottles?

Moroccan politics in 2017 reached a new low with deepening socioeconomic malaise, struggling governmental policies, and demands for accountability for the Rif crisis in the northeast and other recurring protests. The traumatic common feeling of hogra, a sense of powerlessness and deprivation of dignity, has increased since the death of two miners on December 24 in the impoverished eastern city of Jerada. This incident ignited new protests against injustice and marginalization and accentuated the open-ended unrest besetting the country for the last few years, since it first experienced its own wave of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.

At present, Moroccan authorities seem to have exhausted their security and legal tools for containing the crises. Their public communications battle and allegations of “a foreign conspiracy” were outperformed by effective social media counter-efforts by activists and members of the diaspora in Europe. Several local and international human rights groups have condemned the arrest of more than 400 people, including 54 political prisoners held in Oukacha prison in Casablanca, for their suspected involvement in protests in May 2017. The years-long protests triggered by the Rif crisis, and subsequent controversial legal measures taken against Nacer Zefzafi and other Riffian activists in the city of Hoceima, have exposed the failure of the government in addressing the demands of a robust uprising. The protests also deepened widespread social malaise due to economic marginalization, lack of development, and other injustices endured by local Amazigh communities. Consequently, 200 world politicians and intellectuals, including Noam Chomsky and 18 members of the European Parliament and 18 members of the Moroccan Parliament, signed a petition calling for the release of prisoners.

The past year also witnessed fading hopes for the “New Era” associated with Mohammed VI’s reign as he positioned himself as “king of the poor” from 1999 to 2003. Morocco ranked 96 among the 176 nations surveyed with a score of 37 out of 100 in Transparency International’s 2016 index. Effectively, the year’s dynamics exposed the failures of the government, the security apparatus, political parties, and the entire political system. The king’s laid-back approach to the Rif crisis and his long trips abroad have energized critical voices and demands for leadership and accountability, and subsequently impacted his popularity. The popular discourse in various protests across the country has sometimes shifted from the loyalist slogan “Allah, al-watan, al-malik” (God, the nation, the king) to “Allah, al-watan, al-shaab” “God, the nation, the people.” As one analyst put it, “the ruling ‘elite’ can no longer cover up a system riddled with mediocracy, incompetence and impunity without facing a popular backlash. These new realities coupled with an absence of a credible and popular political leadership have put the Palace in the eye of the storm.”

King Mohammed VI initiated what amounts to a corrective revision of the regime from within, while distancing himself from the mediocre performance of scores of ministers and government administrators. He initiated three waves of dismissals from public office in the aftermath of an unprecedented political prosecution he coined as a “political earthquake.”1 In his 18th Throne Day speech delivered on July 31, 2017, he underscored the need for accountability by public servants and vowed to clean his country’s political house. Morocco’s development potential remains captive to widespread corruption, nepotism, and wasta (the use of connections for personal benefit) along with excessive red tape. In October 2017, the king delivered a pointed speech at the parliament insisting on “the situation to be addressed, mistakes corrected and shortcomings remedied.” He also expressed determination to implement his plan of jihaouiya (regionalization), a quasi-federation system that promotes local development. The monarch envisions this regionalization as “far-reaching changes in state structures as well as a practical approach to local governance.” However, the question remains: Will his strategy pave the way for tangible reforms and promising governmental accountability, or is it a skillful act of blame politics and scapegoating in a battle of control between certain strong men at the Royal Palace and nonconformist government administrators and opposition leaders?

Distress Signals and the King’s Plan of Reform

The declining socioeconomic situation, high unemployment, and governmental corruption have turned the table against the hierarchy of the Makhzen, which is comprised of the secretive royal court elite, influential figures of the ministry of interior, and top leaders of the military. Mohammed VI drew a line in the sand proposing two clear-cut options for these public servants: either fulfill their obligations fully or leave office. He reminded his 34-million Moroccan audience of the imperatives of the 2011 constitution, since Article 1 affirms a direct link between assuming public office and accountability. Furthermore, he argued against the Moroccan political parties—both his allies and the opposition—for losing public trust and weakening political participation. He also criticized elected officials for undermining public trust and hastening the decline of electoral participation among the youth.

In his speech, King Mohammed VI called on the Court of Auditors to assess the implementation of public projects across the country under the supervision of Driss Jettou, a former prime minister and a technocrat loyal to the Palace. One dossier with timely significance was the implementation of “Hoceima: Manarat al-Moutawassit,” a $665-million development project for the city of Hoceima, introduced by the government in October 2015 with the aim of restoring the infrastructure and building a hospital and several educational establishments. However, there were some alarming findings; the Moroccan cabinet’s statement said that, “there has been a significant delay in the launch of projects and the vast majority of them have not been launched at all, with the absence of concrete initiatives by some of the actors involved in their actual launch.”

Furthermore, the Court of Auditors submitted five reports to the king that revealed a variety of acts of embezzlement and misuse of public funds for partisan gains. For instance, the first and second reports probed how state money had been channeled into financing campaigns of certain political parties’ candidates or individual campaigns in the municipal elections held September 4, 2015. The third report examined cases of fiscal abuse by some political parties. The fourth and fifth reports focused on the exploitation of state funds in financing certain campaigns in the legislative election of October 7, 2017. The findings of these five reports led to the king’s decision to fire several ministers and 180 officials across the hierarchy of both the central government and local authorities.

The Double-Edged “Hit List”

The appearance of certain powerful names on the so-called “hit list” revealed the Makhzen’s strategy of excluding and reprimanding “bad apples” in times of crisis. It was clearly a moment for political purging. The ramifications of the Rif crisis have shaped a new era in which all national institutions are targets of criticism. Ironically, the subsequent waves of dismissals from public office have pointed to the significance of the king’s wrath—a well-feared stigma in Morocco’s political culture—as well as two levels of blame. The first directs a more punitive action against political figures by banning them from public office for life. This dishonorable list included Rachid Belmokhtar, former minister of national education; Lahcen Haddad, former minister of tourism; Lahcen Sekkouri, former minister of youth and sports; Mohamed Amine Sbihi, former minister of education and culture; and Hakima El Haïté, former secretary of state in charge of the environment. This explicit verdict of political death against those who previously were favorably selected and bestowed with the honor of serving the monarchy indicates the Royal Palace’s tendency toward fast-track prosecution and exposing incompetence and corruption.

The second level refers to the removal of a number of ministers and undersecretaries in the current and previous governments that were led by Saad Eddine El Othmani (2016-present) and Abdelilah Benkirane (2011-2016). The list included Mohamed Hassad, minister of national education, and former minister of the interior; El Houssaine El Ouardi, minister of health in two successive governments; Nabil Benabdellah, minister of housing in two consecutive governments; and Larbi Bencheikh, secretary of state in charge of vocational training.

Most of these second-level dismissals remain controversial while the Royal Palace has not publicized specific charges or incriminating evidence against the former officials beyond expressing the king’s “disappointment” in their performance. Some interpretations have pointed to latent political goals to weaken certain political parties, such as the Progress and Socialism Party led by Nabil Benabdellah. It is noteworthy that former health minister El Houssaine El Ouardi is said to have been one of the effective health officials in Morocco’s history who improved mental health institutions after closing the inhuman Bouya Omar, a shrine-turned-detention house for mentally ill patients, and decreased the prices of more than 3,600 medicines under the RAMED program, a national health coverage plan.

Genuine Accountability or Buffer Politics?

Morocco’s contentious politics in 2017 accentuated demands and expectations of reform by the government; however, they also raised new questions about Mohammed VI’s accountability. Almost seven years after the turbulent 2011 uprising led by activists from the February 20th Movement, public discourse has shifted from protesting against some top royal advisors, namely Fouad Ali El Himma, who is also a close confidant of the king, to alluding to the monarch’s political impotence, regarding the Rif crisis in particular. There has been a pattern of struggling public policies and counterproductive use of the military and security apparatus in addressing popular demands. In August 2017, the Royal Palace ended the militarization of the Rif protests and pulled out most of the military and police, which were heavily deployed in Hoceima.

The question remains whether the political and symbolic verdicts the king bestowed on former government officials match the gravity of their misdeeds or implies some ego politics on the part of men of power at the Palace. After the general elections of October 2016, the animosity between Fouad Ali El Himma and Prime Minister-elect Benkirane and his allies indicated a pattern of commonly perceived political vendettas and ego-driven battles. The Makhzen has been unenthusiastic about a full-fledged process of democratization and political representation. Instead, it has favored piecemeal concessions and has trapped the monarchy in a reactive mood of crisis management—rather than developing a proactive strategy of well-informed public policies. The Makhzen-driven political system has often put loyalty before competence.

Mohammed VI’s political earthquake may usher a new era of pragmatism and reform determinism, which is widely heralded as a true democratic exercise, a historic decision, and a new dawn for Moroccans. Such views are not unfamiliar in Morocco, where glorifying the king’s statements and gestures is part of the superficial political correctness. It is not a farfetched assumption that the main challenge of Morocco’s political system now is a self-made problem: the trap of loyalty and conformity as a precursor to trust and public service. Loyalty-based public service has nurtured an elitist culture among the self-perceived khuddam al-dawla (servants of the state, in reference to the monarchy), making them feel that they will not be held accountable for their behaviors. It has also kept the door open for nepotism, cronyism, and corruption. Morocco’s loyalty-based politics have often led to groupthink at the top and, subsequently, undermined the potential of existing political parties. One illustrative example is the shift of certain opposition parties, like the Socialist Union of the Popular Forces Party and the Independence Party, from challenging various governments under the late King Hassan II in the seventies and eighties to conforming and moving in the orbit of the Makhzen—with the hope of assuming ministerial portfolios in the current government.

The king’s highly acclaimed political earthquake implied a well-calculated move to help save his own legitimacy during the protest movement in the Rif—Hirak—and other outstanding socioeconomic challenges. He reiterated his expectations of reform and pursuit of accountability, including bold solutions, even if that means going into uncharted territory.

Still, there is skepticism among Moroccan intellectuals who have cautioned against any naïve interpretation of the trajectory of the king’s political earthquake. Some of them contest the utility of the dismissals, arguing that they “affected only the interchangeable, substitutable parts for the power, which have no political significance but whose dismissal makes noise as such.” Others have suggested a subtle correlation between the popular protest in the Rif and the king’s new measures in the same year with the aim of preserving the power of the Makhzen, the self-appointed prime defender of the monarchy. In an unprecedented move after the adoption of the new constitution of 2011, Mohammed VI relied on the provisions of Article 47, which give him the right “to terminate the functions of one or more members of the government who make their individual or collective resignation.” However, one critic pointed to possible manipulation of his constitutional right “which allows him to dismiss government officials to protect his people’s interests. But, did we have to wait for Hirak to happen to trigger a political earthquake? Were leaders of Hirak right?”

From Elite Politics to Popular Expectations

There has been a noticeable shift in Mohammed VI’s political discourse in 2017, from defending his government and justifying top-down politics to laying out the political and moral foundation of the bottom-up call for change and expected reform. He opted for a new objective: “a new massîra—a march for the achievement of human and social development; a march for equality and social justice for all Moroccans.” This call for an economic massîra comes 42 years after the original political massîra, known as the Green March of 1975 to claim the Western Sahara. It implies a combined advocacy of patriotism and pragmatism, as a strategic necessity during a period of low credibility, while criticizing the gap between Morocco’s expected growth and lack of positive performance and popular content.

This evaluative outlook implies strategic renewal of the monarchical discourse and maintenance of Mohammed VI’s legitimacy vis-à-vis the growing wedge between the state and the majority of disgruntled Moroccans. He has also tapped into the symbolic recognition of those who find themselves at the receiving end of governmental abuse and irresponsibility. He equated the obstruction or delay of certain development projects or social programs to national treason.

Morocco’s declared reform has been built on two parallel visions: structural reform and government accountability. However, its real promise will depend not on repositioning the powerful Makhzen’s agents at a low point of their performance or channeling popular outcry, but on whether Mohammed VI will succeed in maintaining the momentum of reform and prove his true allegiance to the expectations of a poor nation. Above all, the implementation of the grandiose plan of regionalization will depend on two dilemmas: how to restructure power relations between the capital and distant provinces, and whether the Makhzen will accept relinquishing some of its control—either in security terms or in the classical narrative of defending the monarchy.

1 Source is in Arabic.