Ahmed Benchemsi, visiting scholar at the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies’ Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), delivered a talk on Thursday titled, “The Illusion of Democracy: How Morocco’s Absolute Monarchy Managed the Arab Spring.”
Benchemsi, who joined CDDRL earlier this year, is a Moroccan journalist who has written extensively on King Mohammed VI and the Moroccan monarchy. He served as publisher and editor of Morocco’s two best-selling weeklies, French-language TelQuel and Arabic-language Nishan.
“Ahmed has set precedents for dealing with issues that aren’t normally dealt with, and it won’t surprise you to know that this was not greeted by unmitigated enthusiasm by the Moroccan authorities,” said CDDRL Senior Fellow Larry Diamond in his introduction to the talk.
The talk addressed King Mohammed VI’s reforms in light of the protests that have spread across the Middle East and North Africa since the start of the year. In a response markedly different than what happened in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and Syria, Morocco’s monarch proposed a new constitution in late June. The reformist constitution passed in July, garnering 98.5 percent support.
Benchemsi presented articles from the new constitution, as well as the largely positive response of Western diplomats and the media.
“It looks like major concessions! Even if it’s not democracy, we can call it at least fair power-sharing; so yes, in this light, Morocco may well be this exception that [Secretary of State] Clinton so highly commends–or not,” Benchemsi said.
He went on to detail the discrepancies between appearances and reality in Moroccan politics, starting with a video showing corruption in the referendum votes. He also reintroduced some of the new constitution’s articles, drawing attention to what he called “tricks in the text.”
One of these “tricks” was a difference in the French and Arabic versions of the article declaring the King’s status.
“The article sends a double message to Francophone cosmopolitan opinion-makers and Arabophone average Moroccan citizens,” Benchemsi said. The difference was an additional word in the Arabic version implying the sanctity of the King.
“The constitution has a great façade, but is misleading,” Benchemsi said, pointing out other issues with the constitution, including an article protecting the economy from monopolies, trading of privileges and abuse of dominant positions.
“King Mohammed is the number one banker, grocer, landowner and farmer in Morocco,” he said, citing that the royal holdings include the largest private conglomerate in Morocco, a company with total revenue reaching 8 percent of the nation’s GDP.
The division of power in the new constitution, guaranteeing the independence of the judicial branch from the legislative and the executive was also deemed a trick.
“The king is the legislative branch,” Benchemsi said. “He is the executive branch and he is the judicial branch. This is the definition of absolute power and this is what we still have in Morocco.”
Benchemsi outlined reasons why the “illusion” of the democratic monarchy works, both internationally and domestically.
“Since the Arab Spring erupted, what we’ve been hearing is about violent crackdowns and bloody onslaught,” he said. “In comparison with all that, mild management of the Arab Spring from the Moroccan palace looks reasonable.”
He also mentioned the stability and reliability of the Moroccan regime as a U.S. ally as a consideration for the United States and Western countries.
Looking forward into the country’s future, Benchemsi characterized the upcoming elections as “business as usual,” mentioning the degrading economy, declining government resources and unemployment rates as potential factors for the regime’s destabilization.
“The Moroccan monarchy somehow outfoxed its opponents… but by nature smokescreens disperse when the winds start to blow again,” he said.
These winds, which include the possibility of revolution in neighboring Algeria, economic factors and the situation in Syria, led Benchemsi to conclude that the Moroccan monarchy may not last in its current state.
“I think it’s a fair assumption to make that the clock is ticking against Arab autocracies and Morocco is no exception,” he said.
Approximately 60 scholars attended the talk, which was part of a weekly seminar series held by CDDRL.
Note: This story originally omitted the second part of Benchemsi’s conclusion, that the monarchy would not last in its current state. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.