In September 2015, the Moroccan government prevented Swedish retailer IKEA from opening a newly completed store outside of Casablanca. The project, which cost millions of dollars and was to employ hundreds, had been in the works for more than a year, and many middle class Moroccans were looking forward to the do-it-yourself European box store. The arbitrary decision came after rumors spread that the Swedish government intended to recognize the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in the disputed Western Sahara and was suddenly reversed six months later.
What explains these erratic and unpopular decisions? The recent behavior of Morocco’s government suggests that it has not yet overcome the structural flaws of many autocratic regimes. The constitutional reforms that seemed to have allowed the country to move past the protests of 2011 have not generated fundamental changes. Instead, the past five years witnessed the development of an increasingly erratic governing style ill-equipped to deal with the country’s serious political, economic and social challenges. Above all, the reforms have failed to generate mechanisms of accountability that might check the power of the monarchy and rationalize policy-making.
The wide range of grievances expressed during the heyday of the 2011 uprisings remain unresolved. The most unaddressed of all is the predatory involvement of the King’s entourage in the economy, widespread corruption, economic inequalities and misappropriation of public funds. The Moroccan government and the palace have continued to engage in a “politics of ignoring.” Such issues are banned from the media, and placed determinedly outside the realm of legitimate political discourse. Nonetheless, in an era of pervasive social media it is difficult to keep knowledge from a mobilized public.
This has resulted in a series of unpopular political decisions that have been seemingly gratuitous and disconnected from local societal dynamics, and that may ultimately prove disastrous for the stability of the country. From granting a royal pardon to a convicted pedophile to canceling a major international soccer tournament under the dubious pretext that the contest would bring an Ebola outbreak, the governments decisions have repeatedly frustrated large parts of the population for no obvious political gains. In the last few months for instance, the government has intensified its repressive campaigns against pro-democracy activists, particularly investigative journalists and human rights campaigners accused of “undermining state security” or “failing to report foreign funding.” It has also used heavy-handed tactics against traditionally supportive constituents, such as the medical community, and is planning to reinstitute French as the main language of education – a policy deemed unacceptable by many conservatives in the country.
The apparent mismatch between governmental policies and public opinion is the result of the structurally unequal distribution of power and political prestige in Morocco. On the one hand, the King is able to use his considerable financial and political prerogatives to conduct ambitious infrastructure projects such as the Noor Project, the world’s largest solar plant inaugurated in February 2016 or the transformation of the capital city’s riverfront. These projects reflect positively on the monarch, perpetuating the palace’s image as the only effective institution in the country. On the other, the elected government is not only forced to accept these decisions – as well as the budgetary constraints that accompany them – but it is also blamed for all the unpopular decisions needed for everyday governance such as pensions reforms, the end of subsidies of staple products or the reform of the medical and educational sectors.
While the new constitutional text adopted few months after the start of the Arab uprisings in 2011 shields the palace from criticism by making the person of the king “inviolable,” the government is left in the uncomfortable position of bearing the responsibility of everyday governance without the freedom to shape the country’s strategic policies. As a result, the elected government, constrained both by the palace and the preferences of its constituents, is unable to develop coherent domestic strategies and often forced to improvise ad hoc policies that fail to address the country’s structural challenges.
Without the practical application of the democratic ideals enshrined in the new constitution, the country may find itself unable to address the challenges of its future.
Merouan Mekouar is an assistant professor in the department of social science at York University, Toronto. He is the author of “Protest and Mass Mobilization: Authoritarian Collapse and Political Change in North Africa” (Routledge, 2016).