Showdown in Morocco: People Against the Makhzen

This text was originally published on Foreign Policy.

The makhzen refers to an ancient institution in Morocco — the extended power apparatus close to the Moroccan monarchy, made up of a network of power and privilege. It allows the King to act as an absolute monarch and the de facto head of the executive. Beneath the give and take of everyday politics, the makhzen has always been the ultimate guarantor of the status quo. For three months, the pro-democracy youth movement, known as “February 20,” has been advocating against that status quo. Protests have not been targeting the monarchy directly, but instead have been urging for reform that would yield a system in which the King reigns but does not rule.

What started as a small group on Facebook earlier this year, has since grown into a nationwide movement made up of a loose coalition of leftists, liberals and members of the conservative Islamist right. Inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings and powered by new media, the movement convinced hundreds of thousands to take to the streets. The demonstrations held week in, week out, were remarkably peaceful. In response, King Mohammed VI promised a package of constitutional reforms to be submitted to a referendum in June. But as protesters, unconvinced by the King’s promise, vow to keep up pressure on the regime, authorities seem increasingly impatient and determined to break up protests violently, paving the way toward escalation and confrontation with the street. The middle class is joining the mass of demonstrators, moving the protests beyond the core of mobilized youth. Their target is the makhzen — which has become a code word for the monarchy’s abuses of power and monopoly over large sectors of the economy.

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Moulay Hicham Launches Think Tank

Moulay Hicham is the cousin of the current king of Morocco, Mohammed VI. It was announced today on the prince’s Facebook fan page, the launch of the Moulay Hicham Foundation for Social Science Research on North Africa and the Middle East. The foundation was long-talked about. It has become background noise over some sectors of Moroccan social media recently, as speculations grew as to whether the sudden resignation of Ahmed Reda Benchemssi [Fr], the head of one of the most popular independent Moroccan weeklies, and his announced departure to the US, was linked to a recruitment by the foundation. Given the repeated show of sympathy expressed in the past by the prince toward the independent (mostly francophone) press, this isn’t unlikely. A recent blurb published [Fr] by the departing journalist confirms somehow what some have been suspecting: the prince, who lives and works in the US (he is currently a Visiting Researcher at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University) is depicted as a private man, followed, and his wife, in a visit to his cardiologist where, the journalist confirms, he is treated as anybody else.

Prince Hicham has been one of the rare members of the royal family (if not the only one on record), apart from the king himself, to make his political views public. He published a couple of political essays in some prominent newspapers like Le Monde Diplomatique among others, and offered interviews to TV channels. He has shown progressive positions in the past which earned him the nickname of the “Red Prince.” But his candid stance and sometimes critique of the Moroccan establishment have also cost him his place among the king’s closest entourage.

In the early 2000s, the prince seemed to be questioning the system of succession, known as primogeniture and suggested its replacement by a council of regency that would include in addition to the king, other male members of the royal family. His statements led his opponents,including very close collaborators of the king himself, to go as far as accusing the prince of plotting against the regime for his own personal benefit, as he seemed to be groomed by a young generation of democrats who hoped to see him play some political role in the post-Hassan II era.

Partly because of his heart illness, and mostly (probably) to avoid further confrontation with the Moroccan establishment, the prince adopted a low profile in recent years.

He only rarely appeared in public and his recent essay [Fr] dates back August 2010.

Here’s an excerpt from the foundation’s preamble:

The Foundation’s mission is to foster research in social sciences in the Maghreb and the Middle East.

It aims to study society and political systems and to identify the factors which lead to open societies as well as the obstacles to change in the region.

Within this framework, the Foundation intends to highlight the factors of change in the area and the new challenges posed by globalization and by the hegemonic regimes’ transformations.

The Foundation promotes research that focuses on both endogenous and exogenous dimensions of social and political change and on the key players involved in this change. Particular attention is given to cultural and religious factors which foster pluralism in society.

Arab World: Rulers’ Family Life, None of Their People’s Business

Brian Whitaker, the British Guardian’s former Middle East editor and author of a book I highly recommend, is making an interesting parallel between British and Arab monarchies (including Arab monarchical republics) and their degree of openness in matters of family life, as Prince William is announcing his engagement this week:

One obvious factor behind [the] low-key approach to the family lives of Arab royals is the seclusion of women, along with the idea in Arab-Islamic culture that it’s bad form (at least for males) to show an interest in other men’s wives.

This is true to a certain extent. I’m not sure this one argument still is decisive anymore, especially with the relative openness shown by Moroccan and Jordanian royals for example. I’d be more inclined to think that Arab rulers are terrified by the idea that looking more human would reveal them as they really are: ordinary, fallible. They would rather keep the secrecy and the mystic aura that goes with it, as the author goes on explaining:

I think it’s also connected with maintaining a distance between rulers and ruled. Arab rulers would not dare claim to be deities like the Roman emperors but they do try to give the impression of being more than ordinary mortals – remote figures who always know what’s best for their people and whose wisdom is not to be questioned.

In Britain, we know plenty about our royal family, and certainly more than is good for them. But in terms of the way our country is governed, it doesn’t really matter. These days, we keep them in their palaces mainly for their entertainment value. They may still own large tracts of the country but they don’t run it: that is the job of elected politicians.

In Arab countries, though, kings and hereditary presidents actually govern – which is a major difference. Arabs have a right to know more about them, and what sort of people they really are.