Of the Middle East’s eight ruling monarchies, Morocco and Jordan are peculiar. Lacking the hydrocarbon wealth of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, they carry the reputation instead as moderate kingdoms being guided toward democracy by reform-minded, Western-oriented kings.
For decades they have allowed elected parliaments, legal opposition and vibrant civil societies. During the Arab Spring, they responded to popular protests with reforms rather than repression. For some observers, then, these are oases of stability and enlightenment whose politics mirror Europe’s historical journey toward constitutional monarchy.
In truth, Morocco and Jordan look good only because the rest of the Middle East looks so bad. It doesn’t take much to appear enlightened when stacked against such regional monarchies as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which in terms of civil and political freedom rate comparably with dictatorships such as North Korea and Turkmenistan.
Morocco and Jordan are indeed stable, but no more so than any other country that is not war-ravaged Syria, Libya, Yemen or Iraq. When plucked from this regional neighborhood and its depressingly low benchmarks, Morocco and Jordan appear as something different – smart authoritarian regimes. They know how to manipulate Western concerns about human rights while inventing new ways to preserve power.
Yet recently, the Moroccan and Jordanian monarchies have adopted a remarkable new strategy: They are no longer hiding their absolutism. For decades, these regimes paraded around halfhearted political reforms whose democratic rhetoric obscured the fundamental reality of royal autocracy. Seldom mentioned or insinuated were the facts that kings wielded vast executive powers, commanded large military and security forces, and could squash opposition through legal and financial means.
Now, Morocco and Jordan have toned down reformism and presented a new bottom line to their societies and the world: Ruling monarchism is here to stay. It may be anachronistic, but is still the best bet for stable, functional governments.
This strategy manifests most visibly in electoral politics. Since 2011, Morocco and Jordan have each held two parliamentary elections. All were certified by international observers as clean and competitive, because they mostly were. Unlike most other autocracies in the world, these regimes need their elections to meet Western standards of fairness. Why? They want to show that when put into action, democracy simply does not work because the parties and parliaments elected by popular will are too incompetent and incapable to be entrusted with power. These societies are not ready for democratization, so better to let wise kings run the show.
In Morocco, this new strategy has neutralized the leading Islamist party — Justice and Development (PJD) — which surprisingly won the 2011 elections. Morocco’s monarchy usually dilutes opposition through legal warfare (such as bankrupting critics) or else co-optation into its powerful network of loyal elites, the makhzen. With the PJD, the palace let the Islamists and Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane form a government, but with directives to implement fiscal austerity and other unpopular measures that triggered public backlash.
The monarchy also kept the PJD-led government in the dark on basic issues of domestic security and foreign relations, forcing Benkirane to toe the line when engaging the public. Tellingly, when popular protests exploded in the fall after police negligence caused a fisherman’s death, many targeted the PJD.
After the PJD won again, in the 2016 elections, royal maneuverings ensured that no successful coalition government would form. What sealed its fate was the intransigence of the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), a palace creation that came a close second, and smaller parties swallowed by the makhzen.
For five months, the PJD twisted in the wind, unable to govern but also unwilling to resign, and increasingly alienating a Moroccan public tired of watching spectacles in the name of democratic process. In March, the monarchy finally dismissed Benkirane, quickly resulting in a new government that revealed a humiliated opposition. Despite winning the election and fielding the prime minister, the PJD has fewer ministerial positions than its coalition partners.
Jordan’s strategy involves keeping alive the entire parliamentary system. The parliaments made by the 2013 and 2016 elections are products of royal engineering, designed to discourage the Jordanian public from trusting elected officials. Despite changes, Jordan’s electoral system still features gerrymandered districts and byzantine voting structures that allow conservative independents and patronage-seeking elites to dominate the legislature.
Official parties that could provide an alternative receive little state support. Palace-sanctioned financial and legal campaigns have also gutted the Muslim Brotherhood and its once-formidable Islamic Action Front party. Further, despite long-standing promises, the parliament still cannot form the government (which remains royally appointed), or even formulate the budget.
As a result, Jordan’s squabbling parliament makes headlines more for its gun battles and sexist insulting than meaningful debates about social and economic issues that matter to voters, such as the unemployment crisis. Opinion polls show that most Jordanians have little to no faith in parliament, would never join political parties and hold the highest confidence in the institutions synonymous with royal power – the military and security forces.
Few also opposed constitutional amendments passed in 2016, which openly strengthened the king’s hegemony by formalizing his ability to appoint the highest judges, military command and security chiefs. This marked a dramatic reversal from political reforms offered during the Arab Spring, which promised to devolve royal power and usher in parliamentary democracy.
The Moroccan and Jordanian monarchies are flaunting their nondemocratic model after decades of obfuscating it behind the veil of reform. These are no longer “facade democracies,” because they are dropping the facade. Royal autocracy is something to be valued, even cherished, as the conduit to stable and functional governance. Worryingly, few seem to care. The PJD won little public sympathy during its royal tribulations, while most Jordanians shrugged their shoulders at last year’s constitutional amendments. Count these as two more successes for the swell of authoritarianism buffeting the world, and the counterrevolution against the Arab Spring.
Sean Yom is an associate professor of political science at Temple University.