Does the ouster of the regime of Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali in Tunisia herald a similar revolution, or perhaps just evolution, in Morocco? Similar evolution maybe not, but changes most probably.
The Tunisian example was a wake-up call for a country, Morocco, whose social problems are even deeper than those of its neighbor to the east. Despite a relatively robust level of economic growth rate during the last 10 years and greater investments in infrastructure, both inequality and poverty rates are still unhealthily high in Morocco. While Tunisia ranked 81 in the last human development index ranking, Morocco stands at a much lower 114. Youth unemployment in urban areas is higher in Morocco than it is in Tunisia. Riots have broken out periodically during the last four years with a whole city, Sidi Ifni, erupting in June 2008.
While it is hard to disentangle the causes of the Ben Ali regime’s downfall, it is safe to say that the near absence of credible social intermediaries led to an unsustainable build-up in pressure that brought about the social, and ultimately the political, explosion that we recently witnessed. There were no sufficiently independent political parties, workers unions, and media or NGOs to channel the anger of the Tunisian people.
One reason why Morocco has not witnessed a Tunisia-like people’s revolution is that despite its social ills, the country still has these security valves. The key word here is “still.” Morocco is considered freer than most other Arab countries. But the kingdom’s independent political and social forces that allow for the modicum of political and civil liberties that Moroccans enjoy are increasingly being battered by the behavior of a hegemonic monarchy.
This process has been dubbed the phenomenon of “Benalization.” Until recently, Ben Ali’s Tunisia seemed to be stable and enjoyed Western support, mainly from the U.S. and France, despite its egregious record on human rights, its harsh authoritarianism and the predatory economic habits of the Tunisian elite. As a consequence, the power elites in Morocco read a particular message in this: Why, they wondered, liberalize when all that was asked of them was to fight Islamists, open up their national markets to Western companies, and promote the rights of women?
Two recent evolutions in Morocco illustrate this trend in “Benalization”: the advent of the Authenticity and Modernity Party and the monarchy’s predatory economic practices. The Authenticity and Modernity Party was formed in August 2008 by Fouad Ali al-Himma, a former deputy interior minister and a close friend of the king, Mohammad VI. One of the State Department cables on Morocco published by WikiLeaks shows how the palace ordered the Interior Ministry to intervene in favor of candidates from the Authenticity and Modernity Party, to the detriment of candidates from the Islamist party, the Party of Justice and Development. While far from exerting the same type of total control over the political scene as Ben Ali’s ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally, Himma’s Authenticity and Modernity Party is on its way to dominating Moroccan politics by exploiting state resources and relying on palace support.
The monarchy’s business voracity bears a striking resemblance to the Ben Ali family’s tight grip on the Tunisian economy. Under the pretext of forming powerful conglomerates to protect the Moroccan economy in an ultra-competitive global environment, the king’s businessmen have gone on an expansion spree. Siger, King Mohammad’s holding company, controls the biggest bank, the biggest insurance company and one of the three telecom operators.
Here again the leaked State Department cables shed a disturbing light on the king’s business practices. The chief executive officer of ONA, another of the king’s holding companies, is quoted as telling American diplomats that “major investment decisions are made by three individuals: Fouad al-Himma, the former deputy interior minister who now heads the Party of Authenticity and Modernity, Mohammad Mounir al-Majidi, who is the head of the king’s private secretariat, and the king himself.”
In the same cable, “one of Morocco’s leading business entrepreneurs” laments “that major institutions and processes of the Moroccan state are being used by the palace to coerce and solicit bribes in the country’s real-estate sector.”
Even more worrying, the king’s business deals sometimes undermine the monarchy’s legitimacy. Being the commander of the faithful is the much vaunted pillar of the king’s legitimacy. It is said to unify Morocco under the same religious authority that keeps the Islamists in check. Yet recent revelations show how the king has invested in casinos in Macao and in Morocco proper, namely in Al-Jadida. He also invested in the brewing company, Brasseries du Maroc. This is hardly likely to ingratiate him to conservative Muslims.
These political blunders worry the social groups usually allied with the monarchy. They expose a lack of acumen that might endanger the country’s stability, especially in light of what happened in Tunisia. Preventing a revolution is a matter of survival for the Tunisian or Moroccan elites. If the people revolt in Morocco, the chances that the country will end up with a much bloodier and more protracted revolutionary period are high given the depth of social and economic inequalities. Accordingly, there is a greater incentive today to reignite an incremental but credible democratization process, leading to a true democratic constitutional monarchy.
By Aboubakr Jamai