The Arab Spring and Monarchies: Could Morocco Lead the Way?

One year ago, on July 1st 2011, Moroccans went to the polls to vote on a constitutional reform proposed by their ruler, King Mohammed VI. Although not making headlines as often as its neighbors who also experienced uprisings, Morocco has undoubtedly entered a transitional period, albeit one that is influenced by its monarchical system of government. It appears that the consequences of the Arab Spring differ depending on the forms of government and political systems in place. While protesters have toppled governments in republics like Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, the Arab monarchies such as Morocco, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia have remained intact. And as other monarchies contemplate what sort of reforms to undertake – as in Jordan and Kuwait, for example – Morocco has already embarked on democratic processes.

Although Morocco followed the pattern of the Arab Spring uprisings, its experience is nonetheless unique and worth exploring. In contrast to the demands of the Tunisians, Egyptians, Yemenis, and Libyans, Moroccans demanded reform instead of regime change. Whether the resulting reforms are a sufficient foundation for democracy and satisfactory to the populace remains to be seen.

Key Conclusions

A year after the adoption of the new constitution, the political situation in Morocco is still unfolding as the Islamist party is trying to govern under a monarchical system, while the main opposition party, the PAM, has been empowered by the new constitution. Morocco is without a doubt entering an important period in its history. Reforms were and still are necessary in order to bring an end to the years of tyranny Moroccans are unfortunately too familiar with. Whether this constitutional reform will be the only royal act towards change or the first of many reforms is the central question. This could be a major precedent towards establishing an exemplary Arab democratic state or a breakdown indicative of the monarchy’s unwavering control.

Morocco’s importance lies not only in the fact that the country is a close ally of the US and the West, but the Moroccan reforms could serve as an example for other countries with an Islamist party in power. Despite the major differences in, for example, the role of the army in Egypt, the Salafi presence in Tunisia, or the lack of security in Libya, a positive experience emanating from Morocco would be beneficial and be a good example for others to follow.


Egyptians wanted the fall of Mubarak; Tunisians the fall of Ben Ali and his family-dominated regime; and Yemenis wanted an end to Saleh’s 33 years in power. Moroccans, on the other hand, have demanded reforms of the system.

Responding to the repression and oppression they have lived under since 1961, and inspired by the millions of people in the region who were brave enough to speak up, Moroccans took to the streets last year in protest. Along with the rest of the Arab population, people were angered by the overwhelming social inequality, corruption, unemployment, lack of basic freedoms, and most importantly, the makhzen – a Moroccan term used to describe the elitist group of individuals close to the establishment and monarchy who run the country. These shared frustrations sparked collaboration, ultimately tearing down the barrier of fear.

The mass protest movement was led by a youth group called the February 20th Movement for Change, named after the date planned for the first nation-wide protest. Armed with nothing but the will to change the face and fate of their country, desperate citizens tired of the status quo took to the streets in all major cities every Sunday and quickly grew to numbers in the thousands.

On March 9th 2011, King Mohammed VI responded to these protests by announcing the formation of a commission tasked with drafting a new constitution to be put to a referendum. According to the king, the new constitution would “consolidate the rule of law … promote all types of human rights … strengthen the principle of separation of powers …” It would also choose the prime minister from the party who wins the majority of legislative elections – a right previously belonging exclusively to the king. Though some were in favor of the king’s reform plan, his speech did not completely satisfy popular demands.

Political analysts as well as critics of the monarchy, such as Ahmed Benchemsi, currently a visiting scholar at Stanford University, reacted to the speech by saying: “Yes, Mohammed VI’s March 9 speech was indeed historic. But no, it is not because it announced a major constitutional reform.” In other words, the king’s speech was historic in context but not in content. Leaders of the February 20th Movement similarly deemed the king’s attempt to meet the needs of the protesters insufficient. They pointed out that the commission drafting the new constitution was chosen by the king himself, making it unrepresentative of the people it should be protecting. However, despite criticism, on July 1st Moroccans – both at home and abroad – voted on the newly drafted constitution. It passed with an overwhelming majority of 98% in favor of the change. Then, in response to the continuing protests and the calls for a new government, the prime minister at the time, Abbas al-Fassi, called for early legislative elections to take place immediately after the referendum.

After the government’s resignation, legislative elections  took place on November 25, 2011. Political groups such as the Independence Party (Istiqlal) or the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP), as well as individuals close to the regime who have been sharing the power for the past few decades, were natural losers in this wave of reform. In peoples’ eyes, they symbolized the need for change. This left two polar opposite parties: the moderate-appearing Islamist Justice and Development Party touting the Turkish model, and known by its French acronym PJD, and the newly-formed (and close to the king) Authenticity and Modernity Party, known by its French acronym PAM.

As in most nations in post-Arab Spring elections, the previously-oppressed Islamist parties were seen as agents of change and ultimately the PJD won 27% of the votes, while the PAM came in fourth with only 12%. For the first time in Moroccan history, the king was forced by the people to choose a prime minister from the winning party – the PJD – as stated in the new constitution, setting Morocco apart from the rest of the monarchies. This was a source of optimism not only for Morocco, but for Arab countries emerging from post-revolutionary period and transitioning towards a democratic state.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Arab monarchies are grappling with the paths to reform as they are in the process of identifying what these reforms will be, as opposed to Morocco, which is already implementing a reform process.

Saudi Arabia has been trying to save the species of Arab monarchies by reinforcing them in the Gulf. The decision to include both Morocco and Jordan in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was consistent with this policy – which, however, failed because of objection by other GCC members.

In Jordan, King Abdullah announced a series of reforms and has already replaced the prime minister three times in the past 18 months. Elections are due this year, although the exact date has not been confirmed. The Islamist parties are boycotting these elections, though King Abdullah recently urged them to take part in the process. The protest movement has certainly been small compared to the mass uprisings across the region, but so far King Abdullah has made some constitutional changes in order to satisfy public demands while keeping the monarchy intact.

Moreover, the complex situation in Syria is dividing the Jordanian elite. Some argue that supporting the Syrian opposition will indirectly help the main opposition groups: the Islamist parties, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. Jordan is fearful of Islamist parties gaining support and momentum ahead of the elections, if they end up taking part in the process. On the other hand, others argue that not supporting the opposition movement in Syria will be a major issue between the Jordanian Kingdom and its friends and allies in the GCC, including Saudi Arabia, who are economically supporting Jordan.

In Bahrain, the crackdown on protesters was the harshest amongst the monarchies, as the Shi’a majority strove to follow the Tunisian and Egyptian examples. The Shiite’s peaceful protests were met with violent oppression, and their revolution lacked support, mainly due to its strategic location; it’s home to the US 5th fleet and a close ally to Saudi Arabia, who quickly provided troops to save the ruling family.

Bahrain is of particularly vital interest to the Saudi monarchy for three main reasons. First of all, a regime change in the country would set a precedent for a Gulf monarchy, which would naturally be a a reason for concern. Second, the Bahraini Shi’a majority could have a strong influence on the eastern part of Saudi Arabia, which is a Shi’a-dominated area where protests have already taken place, and where two people were killed last week. Finally, a collapse of the Bahraini monarchy would be a strategic victory for Saudi Arabia’s rival – Iran – who could then use Bahrain to influence developments in the eastern part of the Saudi kingdom, heavily rich in oil.

Just as troublesome for the Saudi monarchy is the political situation in Kuwait. Kuwait’s Constitutional Court recently declared the February parliamentary elections null and void and replaced the Islamist-dominated Parliament with the previous government-friendly one. The cabinet has submitted its resignation in protest, and opposition members have in turn called the court’s decision “null and void.” Protests took place as thousands of civilians denounced what they considered a “coup.”

An Arab uprising in Kuwait or Bahrain, Saudi Arabia’s backyard, would pose a real threat to the aging Saudi monarchy, as those are rich, close allies to the Saudi family whose stability is a key factor in their ability to rule freely. The Saudi monarchy considers Kuwait a very close ally in the area; they are both members of OPEC and GCC. If Arab monarchies started crumbling as did the Mubarak, Ben-Ali, or Saleh regimes, the Arab Spring could truly become a bigger threat for any leader in the Arab world, and possibly beyond its borders.

Aymane Saidi is currently an intern in the Middle East Program at the International Peace Institute. He is pursuing his MA in International Affairs at Columbia University in New York.

About the photo: Protests in Rabat on September 9, 2011.