Morocco's monarchical Micawberism
King Mohamed VI of Morocco silences the doom-mongerers and softens his stance on democratisation and political reform, notes Gamal Nkrumah
The first major Moroccan monarchical nationwide televised statement since the Arab Spring was subdued but deadly serious. The spirit of comity and royal courteousness is unlikely to last long if a popular pro-democracy uprising on the scale of those that occurred in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Yemen erupts.
However, if the royal composure does continue in face of increasing demands for democratic reforms, it will strengthen the political clout of Morocco's King Mohamed VI and tighten his grip over his country. So far the king has not flinched and his compatriots have not cringed.
The Arab monarchies are drawn into an ever closer embrace. To a large extent it is a relationship of common interests, a marriage of convenience. Morocco and Saudi Arabia are very different political entities. Morocco is a 400-year-old dynasty and the current king acceded the throne in 1999 after the death of his dictatorial father king Hassan II.
On the face of it the two kingdoms have a few things in common such as the religious authority of the monarch and his sanctimonious role. However, the authorities in Rabat, the royal Moroccan capital feigned surprise when the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) last month invited Morocco to officially join the oil-rich monarchies together with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Morocco was a reluctant GCC candidate because it has its eye on European-style institutions.
For Morocco, the message from the metaphor of being courted by rival suitors is clear. Europe is eager to extend its reach into Africa. Saudi Arabia, at the helm of the Arab oil-fuelled supertanker, wants to consolidate the conservative club of Arab royalty. It is up to Morocco to decide which suitor will prevail in Morocco's quest for economic upliftment, what role it will play in its voyage to the panacea, and to what extent it wants to pay for the ride.
The first sign of a softening in the royal attitude came as it emerged that the king vowed that "Morocco's new style of government would reflect the will of the people through the ballot box." The king insisted on sweeping constitutional reforms that pleased his Western allies -- and were no doubt drawn up with their able assistance. United States State Department spokesman PJ Crawley applauded Mohamed VI as "a reformer responding to his people's aspirations". The pro-democracy activists, however, complained that the constitutional reforms propounded by King Mohamed VI were not enough, and were merely cosmetic.
What Morocco so desperately needs is stimulus and not rectitude. Though the drive may still seem quixotic to many Morocco-watchers, the Moroccan monarch has in recent months unveiled a series of measures that aim to provide his people with greater citizenship rights, civil liberties, better infrastructure and higher living standards. The king is reasonably comfortable with his retinue of experienced technocrats running the day-to-day affairs of the Arab world's westernmost kingdom.
The oil-rich Gulf Arab states are the biggest benefactors of the impoverished kingdom, with a burgeoning population of 34 million people, 60 per cent of them under 20 years of age. Western powers, including the former colonial master France and Morocco's chief political ally the United States of America have been surprisingly reluctant to cough up proper grants or direct lending to help shore up Morocco's battered public finances. The kingdom is economically dependent on earnings from tourism and remittances from Moroccan workers abroad. The poverty-stricken majority of Moroccans insist on greater social justice.
Now the Moroccan monarch appears belatedly to be drawing the logical consequences of such demands for better employment opportunities and social welfare provision. This awareness came across loud and clear in his speech this week in which he promised to improve social, political and economic conditions in the kingdom. Many observers saw this as an unprecedented step forward. Morocco in their reckoning could emerge as the ultimate emerging market of the Arab Maghreb.
King Mohamed VI's posture could pose a challenge for him later in his reign. Morocco cannot afford to pretend to be a Middle Eastern autocracy. Moroccans yearn to be a budding Mediterranean democracy. The country is firmly on African soil, but it has long aspired to merge into the European continent. Its Arab credentials are questionable as the majority of the Moroccan people are non-Arab Amazigh even though Arabic is the official language.
Sceptics will be watching to see whether the king sticks to his word. The draft constitution proposed by Mohamed VI "provides for the promotion of all linguistic and cultural expression in Morocco," the king assured his Amazigh subjects.
One telling moment was when he referred to economic reforms that are seen as more important than the cultural rights of country's ethnic groups. Even as political reforms are slow to reach Rabat, financial reform is even slower.
But the tougher test for him is to frame radical democratic policies. The problem is that the king's ideas are ultimately static in content while his opponents are fast growing impatient with the slow pace of change. The reason for the U-turn is the ideological light in which the reform plans were cast. Morocco is not immune to the Arab uprisings sweeping North Africa and the Middle East.
Key advisors to the king believe that it is better now to press on with what are marketed as the radical democratisation changes proposed by the king than to wait for the Arab Spring to catch up with Morocco. Conceivably this could work with the king's blessing. The king has moved to the left, though cautiously, to avoid renewed accusations of flip-flopping.
As always it is in the changing detail that the devil resides. Resource-poor Morocco is reluctant to proceed on the road to ruination that some other Arab states are taking. The exodus of Moroccans seeking better employment opportunities in greener pastures across the Mediterranean continues to be a major irritant with Europe.
The challenge now for Morocco is that while rightly wanting to build on what has already been achieved, it retains the distinctive features of its own parochial monarchical system. The Moroccans' devotion to their monarchy is not matched by a constitutional monarchical system that meets European standards.
Morocco is still uncertain how far removed from the Saudi Arabian model it should become and conversely how close to the Spanish model it must be.
It remains to be seen exactly how the legislation the king proposes will now change the country's political system. However, it is clear enough that many crucial parts of the Old Guard are on the chopping block. What matters is the direction of change.
This turns the king's original democratisation thrust on its head. The pace the Moroccan opposition parties and pro-democracy activists aimed for was always excessive as far as the king and his entourage were concerned. King Mohamed VI pledged that he intended to carry out a ground-breaking institutional restructuring. His subjects are waiting patiently to see what he will do and how he will go about executing change and instituting reforms.
"Something will turn up" Charles Dickens had the incessant optimist Wilkins Micawber postulate in the Victorian's classic David Copperfield. At times it has seemed as if Micawberism has defined the response of the Moroccan monarchy to the Arab Spring. Fearing the impact of the spread of the Arab pro-democracy uprisings, the king is forced to pledge reform. There is nothing wrong with this strategy if Rabat truly believes that it is capable of instituting radical democratic changes. But whether this belief is justified is another matter. In the past, the king has promised political reform. But this has proved wide off the mark.