Morocco is Failing to Take Off

Morocco is Failing to Take Off


When Mohammed VI took power in 1999, great hopes were raised both inside and outside Morocco. Five years later, discontent and disappointment are growing more quickly than the promised reforms.


Five years after King Mohammed VI came to power, it is now time to ask whether Morocco has reached the level of political, economic and human development the young monarch promised after taking the throne. Problems inherent to the power structure itself, as well as the effects of the Casablanca bombings of 2003, have prevented headway with the democratic reforms undertaken in the latter part of the reign of Hassan II and demonstrated the fragility of those introduced until now. In the long term, the extraordinary slowness of the reforms, or a simple lack of them, can only add trouble to already complex Spanish-Moroccan relations.


Compared with the reign of King Hassan II, Morocco under his successor has enjoyed greater freedom of expression and public debate, within limits strictly established by the Palace. On the one hand, certain aspects of issues that were once taboo can now be discussed openly. These include human rights, the role of the monarchy, political Islam, corruption and the Western Sahara. On the other hand, any criticisms of the monarchy as an institution, deviations from the official discourse on the ‘Moroccanness’ of Western Sahara, possible offences to religion or supposed threats to State security lead directly to imprisonment and/or fines. Journalistic self-censorship is conditioned by unofficial guidelines and the need for public financing through government subsidies and advertising contracts.

Some in the West see Morocco as a model for the Arab world, both because of the stability of the system guaranteed by the Alawi monarchy and of some of the steps that have been taken towards liberalization. Others, however, take the view that the very nature of the power structure is the main obstacle facing Moroccan democrats. These differences in opinion are due, among other reasons, to the fact that various different societies coexist in Morocco, each with its back turned towards the others. The Morocco of the makhzen (the clientelistic political and administrative structure on which power rests), a small minority which is the usual interlocutor with Westerners, has very little to do with the majority of Moroccans. It is the latter who must continually struggle with economic and social problems that are aggravated by the lack of transparency in public affairs and the abuse of authority that is widespread among the various levels of bureaucracy and the armed forces.

The question is whether what was presented as a double transition (from one regime to another and the relative opening up of the political system) has appreciably helped improve the life of the average Moroccan. The first answer can be found in the UNPD human development rankings. In 1999 Morocco ranked 126th out of a total of 174 countries –one of the worst results of the Arab world, if Sudan, Yemen, Mauritania and Djibouti are excluded–. In 2004 it ranks 125th out of a list of 177 (Spain is 20th.) This scant improvement is not encouraging, given the promises made five years ago.

A New Concept of Authority… But without Reforming the Monarchy?
The initial desire expressed by King Mohammed VI to undertake major reforms was greeted with optimism by many, including some of those who opposed the regime of Hassan II. This was interpreted as a desire on the part of the new monarch to distance himself from the legacy of authoritarianism and abuses left by his father, although towards the end of his 38-year-long reign the latter had commenced a slow and vague process towards democratising the country.

However, the control the Palace tries to exercise over all significant affairs tends to paralyze the other institutions of the State. The lack of coordination of the rescue operations following the Alhucemas earthquake in February of this year and the delay in getting international aid to those affected were a further instance of the fear on the part of (theoretically competent) local authorities to act without royal consent. No one wants to appear to overshadow the importance of the king’s wishes and presence.

Officially, Morocco is a constitutional monarchy. The reality is that the system, consolidated over decades, ensures that the king remains at the pinnacle of power. Either directly or indirectly, it is the king who governs the country. The Constitution enshrines him as the “highest representative of the nation” (Article 19). In addition to being Head of State, he is the “Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Armed Forces” (Article 30) and presides over the Council of Ministers (Article 25). The king exercises not only temporal authority but also spiritual authority as amir al mu’minin or ‘Commander of the Faithful’. In this respect, Morocco is a unique case in the Muslim world, with its highest political authority also claiming a spiritual dimension.

Morocco is a country with an enormous imbalance in the relative power of the monarchy, the State and the three branches of government. The king and his palace entourage continue to wield almost absolute de facto power over matters affecting Moroccan society as a whole. Despite promising statements and image campaigns since Mohammed VI’s accession to the throne, a monarchical structure that is genuinely compatible with a state based on the true rule of law has not yet been forged. Constant interference by the centres of power close to the king in the normal workings of State institutions, particularly the government, is slowing the economic and human development of the country while also generating a greater social discontent. The continued existence of the so-called ‘sovereignty ministries’ (justice, foreign affairs, home affairs and Islamic affairs), directly controlled by the Palace, reduces the effectiveness and credibility of the work carried out by the duly elected government.

The Rule of Law and Corruption
One of the main achievements that the West attributes to Mohammed VI is the reform of the family legal code, or mudawwana, in January of this year. After being blocked for a long time by the most conservative sectors, fearful of the demise of the traditional family and respectable behaviour, the newly-worded draft bill proposed by the crown won unanimous parliamentary approval. Among other changes, the new law raises the legal age for women to marry from 15 to 18; establishes the right to divorce by mutual consent; subjects polygamy and the repudiation of wives to judicial control; establishes that the family is the shared responsibility of husband and wife; ends the woman’s obligation to obey her husband and eliminates the need for a woman to have a legal guardian in order to get married. In many respects it is one of the most progressive family laws guaranteeing women’s rights in force anywhere in the Arab world. It was possible to have it approved with no opposition from the Islamists thanks to the change in political climate following the Casablanca bombings, which put the religious groups on the defensive and silenced their protests, since they feared being associated with those responsible for the attacks.

Although the new mudawwana is a highly positive step (in addition to having a high visibility value in the West), there are a number of reasons why applying it will be no easy task, beginning with the lack of familiarity with the reforms on the part of the judicial authorities. It is not clear that judges are committed to the spirit of the new code, which itself allows them considerable margin to apply the most conservative religious interpretations. Moreover, under the new code, family matters are no longer heard by the courts of first instance but by newly created family courts, only 70 of which are planned to be set up in the entire country, leaving large rural zones unattended. But the most serious problem remains the lack of awareness among women, partly a consequence of widespread illiteracy. According to the UNPD, in 2002 the literacy rate was only 50.7% among adults over the age of 15. This rate stood at less than 38.3% among women nation-wide, while in rural areas, where nearly half the population lives, it was less than 18%. Defenders of the reforms are also concerned that corruption in the judiciary could offset the positive effects of the new code.

Corruption in Morocco remains widespread throughout the system, whether at the level of politicals, the economy, the courts or the civil service. Long decades in which corruption was officially either tolerated or even used to co-opt some and reward or punish others, has spawned a widespread culture of corruption that permeates society as a whole. Official anti-corruption campaigns, begun in 1999, are not achieving their goals, judging by reports and surveys at the national and international level. Transparency International’s annual corruption perceptions report for 1999 ranked Morocco 45th out of 99 countries. The 2004 report ranked it considerably lower: 77th out of 146 countries. Influence trafficking, bribes and the abuse of power, combined with endless bureaucratic procedures and the difficulty of determining which authorities have the capacity to make decisions, are obstacles facing local and foreign investors, hindering economic growth and fomenting distrust of authority.

Palace approval is a prerequisite for investments of any considerable size. The powerful interests of the monarchy in the business world (as the country’s largest entrepreneur and biggest owner of agricultural operations, particularly through the family-owned industrial and financial holding Omnium Nord Africain –ONA–, which generates a significant percentage of Morocco’s gross domestic product) do not help to increase the transparency of the system. Political pressure prevents the implementation of the existing anti-corruption legislation, which had previously been toughened under the government of Abderrahman Youssoufi. Furthermore, there is a widely held perception that official anti-corruption campaigns tend to stop short of senior officials and authorities.

The proliferation of corruption contributes to increased Islamism, which fosters alternative networks of trust founded not on the rule of law but on the hope of becoming a member of a morally superior collective. In Morocco, as elsewhere in the Arab world, Islamists reach places where the State fails to provide goods and services –those which are ‘sidetracked’ on the way–. At the same time, the refusal to allow Islamists greater participation in public management has spared them involvement in publicly exposed corruption scandals, enabling them to maintain an image of incorruptibility and piety. There can be no genuine political aperture in Morocco until Islamists are allowed, slowly but surely, greater participation in politics. This is not because they have the solution for the country’s problems, but because they are nearer to the common people than the traditional parties and may be a key element in controlling the most fundamentalist minority, including the Salafi groups that preach the use of violence.

Aperture of the Political System
Compared with his father, Mohammed VI has allowed greater freedom of expression and debate of public affairs. Unlike his father, however, the present king is more exposed to criticism of the poor functioning of a system in which he remains the key player. This is particularly worrying when popular expectations have been raised but improvements have yet to be seen. The role of ‘royal shield’, played under Hassan II by the former Minister of the Interior, Driss Basri, was ended by Mohammed VI, but the new king’s entourage has so far failed to show the decisiveness needed to reform the role of the monarchy and include new players in the collective decision-making process.

On assuming the throne, Mohammed VI was confident that his democratising efforts, backed by the interest they aroused internationally, would be strengthened if he gave key government posts to former school friends. Five years later, what was hoped would be the ‘reformist generation’ has failed to live up to expectations. Their interests appear to centre more on business than on the laborious task of governing the country. It is striking that none of the king’s close companions has stood out as a reformist, either in political or social affairs.

After the legislative elections of 2002, the king decided to appoint as prime minister a technocrat free of party affiliations, Driss Jettu, to the surprise and irritation of some political groups that had participated in the elections. This was interpreted as evidence of the king’s dissatisfaction with the political parties for their lack of a programme for the country, as well as an attempt to shift greater responsibility for political decision-making to the government. Two years later it appears that the king has withdrawn his support of the government, due to the ‘incompetence’ of most of its members (El País, 9 June 2004), who complain sotto voce of interference in their areas of competence by the king’s friends. In recent months, there has been a growing impression that Mohammed VI is relying more and more on the ‘old guard’ of his father’s days in a bid to regain greater control over the affairs of State, particularly internal security.

Morocco is atypical in the Arab world in that it has a multi-party system of long standing. However, the Palace’s interference in, and manipulation of, their affairs (including the willingness of their leaders to be co-opted) has made them incapable of successfully channelling and structuring political participation. Without a sweeping regeneration of the traditional political parties in Morocco it does not seem possible that the king’s stated desire of creating a modern State will come to fruition. Regionalisation is another of Morocco’s unresolved problems. The system, which remains extremely centralised despite the efforts at decentralisation and regionalisation undertaken in the last decade, is reluctant to set in motion a process that would truly recognise the plurality of peoples, cultures and languages that make up Morocco.

Back to the Old Ways?
The five synchronised terrorist bombings that shook Casablanca on 16 May 2003 were a hard blow for Morocco, as they confirmed the growing social radicalisation in the country. The ‘Moroccan exception’, according to which Morocco appeared to be safe from religious fanaticism and terrorist violence, became a thing of the past. The most alarming thing for the authorities was the discovery that all the terrorists were Moroccans, slum-dwellers from the outskirts of Casablanca. Only a few days after the attacks, which killed 45 people, parliament hastily passed anti-terrorist legislation that defined terrorism in such a broad and vague way that even peaceful political activities could be liable to punishment. It also gave the authorities sweeping powers to make arrests, and hand out long prison sentences or the death penalty.

According to various human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Federation for Human Rights, there has been a significant erosion of civil and political rights since the bomb attacks. Their reports speak of an increasing number of illegal arrests, torture during questioning, manipulation of evidence, arbitrary proceedings, absence of witnesses, lack of incriminating evidence and denial of the right to self-defence. The Ministry of the Interior has adopted a hard-line approach, despite criticism of abuses, in the belief that failure to do so would be interpreted by the most radical fundamentalists as evidence of government weakness. This could be the beginning of the road back to the methods and excesses of power of times past. Another attack on Moroccan soil would probably accelerate this process.

The bombings did not succeed in isolating Morocco at the international level. This is clear from official statistics on the number of tourist entries, which has already recovered from the initial impact of the attacks (although another attack, particularly if directed against the tourist sector, could turn the situation around). The most damaging effect of these bombings is that they led to an abrupt halt in the democratisation process begun a few years ago. Defenders of the status quo within the government and the bureaucracy who fear the loss of their privileges have found the ideal excuse to avoid making significant changes to the system, starting with the role of the monarchy. Despite efforts to democratise the Ministry of the Interior by defining its powers and insisting on accountability, the increase in radical fundamentalism and the terrorist attacks have led it once again to take on security and social control as its main functions.

The political analyst Mohammed Tozy says that the Casablanca bombings made Morocco one of a number of countries now hostage to terrorism. If we consider the terrorist crimes committed around the world over the last five years, it can be seen that Morocco has, furthermore, clearly become an exporter of international terrorism. This is not likely to change in the immediate future.

Social Radicalisation
Morocco has traditionally cultivated the image of a moderate country in the Arab and Muslim worlds, particularly after the explosion of violence in neighbouring Algeria in the early 1990s. Hassan II made great efforts to present himself as a monarch who combined tradition with modernity, for which he enjoyed the support of important monarchist lobbies in Europe and the United States. His son has followed the same line (although tradition and ceremony do not appear to attract him much). However, facts and surveys show that the social reality does not neatly fit this image. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center in March of this year, 45% of Moroccans had a favourable view of Osama bin Laden, versus 42% who had an unfavourable one. Clearly, US and Israeli policies in the Middle East, and their consequences, have had a radicalising effect in Morocco, although the breeding ground for these reactions already existed.

According to a report dated 10 August 2004 in the Moroccan daily Al Ahdath Al Maghribia, based on a report by the Territorial Surveillance Office (DST), the number of extremists has multiplied by 70 since 1996, from around 40 individuals to approximately 3,000 at present. Accurate or not, these figures make it clear that the problem is reaching alarming proportions in a country in which a third of the population is less than 15 years old and there is a serious lack of opportunities for social betterment.

The wave of solidarity on the part of Western governments following the Casablanca bombings could lead to uncritical support of the monarchy, despite its failure to implement democratic reforms (or even despite steps backwards), due to fear of destabilising the monarchy if too much pressure is applied on this point. This is where the attacks may cause the greatest long-term damage. The support Morocco needs for its struggle against terrorism should not become a blank cheque to commit abuses and paralyse the reform process. Experience shows that exclusion has never put the brakes on radicalism.

King Mohammed VI still enjoys some of the popular support he obtained with the initial reforms and promises made when he came to the throne, though not to the same degree as five years ago. Disillusionment is spreading throughout the country, despite the makhzen wanting to hide it. The sympathy initially won by the ‘king of the poor’ is not infinite in a country whose per capita GDP has dropped from 1,260 dollars in 1997 to 1,218 dollars in 2002. The lack of progress in the areas that the king identified as priorities (unemployment, poverty, illiteracy, healthcare, etc.) is most often blamed on an inefficient government and a corrupt makhzen, rather than on an unwillingness to tackle problems on the part of the king. However, the risk the monarchy runs is that the longer it takes for the promised changes to materialize, the worse its reputation will become, with all the dangers of destabilisation that this entails. This situation could get much worse if there is another prolonged drought (agriculture accounts for 15%-20% of GDP, occupying about 40% of the working population). Droughts normally produce an exodus of the rural population to the shanty towns around the major cities, fertile ground for terrorist networks to recruit desperate and angry youths.

A challenge facing the Moroccan regime is to help the country’s inhabitants realise that they are citizens, that they have a responsible part to play in the political process and that their leaders and representatives should be held accountable. It is striking that the turnout for the legislative elections in 2002 was just 51%; in urban areas it was barely 30%.

The Sahara Imbroglio
The Western Sahara conflict is about to end its third decade and with the passing of time it has only festered more. The failure of the United Nations Settlement Plan of 1991, of the Houston Agreements of 1997 and of the more recent Baker II Plan of 2003, is mainly due to the fact that each time the process gets underway, one of the parties –Morocco– has tried to change the rules already negotiated and agreed to under international supervision. On the one hand, Rabat has military control over the territory; on the other, it knows that, for the time being, its Western allies will not force it to meet the obligations it has accepted.

Underlying this strategy of gaining time is the fear among Moroccan leaders of losing any referendum on self-determination, even one based on the census theoretically most favourable to their interests, approved by the Baker II Plan. The former UN mediator, James Baker himself, said on American PBS television, ‘the Moroccans have talked about being willing to offer autonomy [to the territory] but they’ve never been willing to put a proposal on the table’.

For all these years the Western Sahara conflict has meant –and continues to mean– a huge drain on Morocco’s public finances. It has also frustrated all attempts at integration in the Maghreb. But for Morocco, the worst effect of this conflict is that, having been raised in the official rhetoric to the level of a holy cause, it has inhibited the economic, political, social and, ultimately, democratic development of the country.

The solution to this conflict requires ‘the courage of leaders capable of putting the general interest before their own selfish or chauvinist ones’, as Bernabé López García rightly observed (El País, 7 September 2004). This is true of all the leaders of the parties in conflict at the regional level, but decisive support is also required from outside to force one or both sides to do things they would prefer not to, when necessary. There will be no lasting solution of any kind to this conflict as long as Morocco maintains its present centralist and authoritarian power structure.

It is understandable that the Sahrawis view the promises of the Moroccan authorities with distrust. For them to continue to contribute actively and constructively to the negotiations that sooner or later will have to be restarted to solve this conflict, they must receive solid guarantees from the countries belonging to the so-called ‘Group of Friends’, set up by the United Nations to prepare draft resolutions aimed at solving the Western Sahara conflict: France, Russia, Spain, the UK and the US. Here, Spain can play an important role, given the declared wish of the government of Rodríguez Zapatero to conduct ‘active diplomacy’ to solve the dispute. Should the government opt for active partiality, favouring one of the parties, with no change in the complacent and obstructionist mindset of the authorities of our southern neighbour, there will be a serious risk of it losing both credibility and influence.


Today Morocco is a country lacking the decision to undertake reforms. The problems it faces are well known and there is a broad consensus within the country regarding the diagnosis. However, no one dares take the necessary steps to solve them. The monarch, despite his great powers and his desire to reform and develop the country, lacks institutions capable of reforming themselves and developing the country. Nor does he have around him a circle of individuals with a clear agenda for democratic reform. The traditional political parties have operated for some time now as lobbies pursuing their own interests and have lost all capacity to mobilise and inspire society. A long history of rigged elections has made competition for votes something of secondary interest in the strategy of the country’s political parties.

The challenges facing the regime are, in part, of its own making. At the international level, it has applied almost all of its diplomatic resources to an unimaginative, irredentist position on the Western Sahara conflict, which it continues to use at home to legitimate the system. Domestically, there are many challenges. On the one hand, the lack of economic and social development is directly linked to rampant, widespread corruption and political pressures that obstruct the proper working of the rule of law; on the other, the threat of fundamentalist radicalisation is not unrelated to official policy which, in recent decades, has tolerated the spread of an intolerant version of Islam imported from the Arabian Peninsula.

To expect such threats to fade away without tackling their root causes (with the support of international partners, including Spain) is ingenuous and will necessarily have destabilising effects on the system itself. If this happens, the system will eventually be forced to resort to ‘national causes’ to divert attention and face up to its growing discredit. In light of this undesirable but possible outcome, now is the time for Spain to act.

Haizam Amirah Fernández
Senior Analyst, Mediterranean and Arab World, Elcano Royal Institute