Why has Morocco’s king survived the Arab Spring?

Moroccans hold up portraits of King Mohammed VI along a road in Tangiers 29 September 29, 2011. The king has a powerful propaganda machine - but is also genuinely popular

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Morocco's ruling elite thinks it has skilfully sidestepped the revolutionary fervour sweeping the Arab world by offering a milder, more peaceful vision of change.

Following Friday's elections, King Mohammed VI is for the first time obliged to choose the prime minister from the largest party, rather than naming whoever he pleases.

However, many of the protesters who took to the streets in February feel the reforms still fall far short of their demands for a democratic, constitutional monarchy, and have called for a boycott.

A low turnout in the parliamentary poll would detract from the legitimacy of King Mohammed VI's reforms and could hint at future problems.

Ahead of the poll, the sleepy calm of the capital, Rabat, was occasionally punctuated by the marches of unemployed graduates. But the country's powerful monarchy and the system that supports it appear to have averted any direct, mortal challenge for now.

Symbols of power

Central to the monarchical regime's strength is its longevity - the Alaoui dynasty gained control of most of Morocco in 1664 - and its claim of descent from the Prophet Muhammad.

Morocco's King Mohammed VI (in gold robes) slaughters a sheep during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha in Rabat 7 November, 2011. Religious and traditional rituals are used to bolster the monarch's image

"The king has tremendous religious and political capital - it's not just the king but the whole political establishment," says Mohamed Daadaoui, author of a recent book on the monarchy and the "makhzen" - the patronage network that embodies Morocco's ruling elite.

King Mohammed is aided by a powerful propaganda machine - his image adorns streets and shops across the country.

Symbolic rituals also boost his status. In an annual ceremony of allegiance, the "bay'a", which is broadcast on national TV, Moroccan officials bow before the king as he parades on a horse.

Moroccan citizens, many of them poor and illiterate and living in rural areas, "believe that the monarch has a special gift or blessing and they feel that they have some psychological relationship with the king", Mr Daadaoui told the BBC.

Despite these traditional trappings, the monarchy under the 48-year-old king has taken on a more modern, reformist image.

His father, Hassan II, ran a notoriously brutal regime between 1961 and 1999. Opponents were tortured and protests repressed.

Morocco's new constitution

  • King selects prime minister from biggest party
  • Amazigh (Berber) becomes second official language after Arabic
  • King is no longer "sacred", but he is "inviolable"
  • International human rights conventions take primacy over national law

In 1965, the interior minister at the time, Gen Mohammed Oufkir, supervised a crackdown on demonstrations in Casablanca from a helicopter while - according to one story - personally spraying rioters with a machine gun.

But a process of gradual reform began in the final years of Hassan's rule, and continued with his son.

It included a family law that advanced women's rights and a truth commission that explored abuses under King Hassan - though none of those responsible were prosecuted.

Taboo breached

The toppling of long-standing leaders in Tunisia and Egypt at the beginning of the year is widely seen as having caught the Moroccan regime off-guard, at a time when the reform process had stagnated.

As Morocco's own protest movement took shape, a long-held taboo was breached.

"It's the first time in Morocco that the king was openly criticised and they didn't shoot people," says Maati Monjib, a political historian at the university of Rabat.

Instead, the monarchy's response was to promise changes including rights guarantees and more powers for the parliament. These were enshrined in a new constitution that was approved by referendum in July.

Start Quote

We are presenting the way of reform without losing the stability, the unity of the country”

End Quote Mustapha Khalfi PJD

The moderately Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD), which has been buoyed by the recent reforms, and by the gains Islamists have made elsewhere in the region, could win the election and so supply the next prime minister.

But the party is hardly about to rock the boat.

Along with Ennahda in Tunisia and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, it places itself within a contemporary movement to reconcile Islam and democracy.

Coalitions of more secular, royalist parties have tried to smother it and the Islamists have found it hard to directly challenge the king because of his religious status as "commander of the faithful", says Mr Daadaoui. It too is seen by many as being in the pocket of the palace.

"The PJD here in Morocco is presenting the 'third way' between revolution and the uncertainty of the current system," says Mustapha Khalfi, the head of the party's policy unit.

"We are presenting the way of reform without losing the stability, the unity of the country - but at the same time furthering the democratic agenda of Morocco."

'Gentle revolution'

The message of a democratic agenda and gradual change is one that has gone down well with Morocco's allies in the US and Europe.

"The Arab World is in the process of changing," says Wahid Khouja, a senior member of the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), created in 2008 by a former interior minister and friend of the king.

Parliament in Rabat, Morocco, 20 November 2011 In the run-up to the elections, the streets of Rabat felt mostly calm

"We still don't know the results and what will happen in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria or Yemen. But we'll show the Western world that Morocco can bring about a gentle revolution - that it can travel towards a real democracy."

In fact, according to analysts, the reforms passed this year are largely cosmetic, and there is no guarantee they will be put into practice on the ground.

The king retains ultimate control and though parliament has more power, parties are weak.

"In Morocco elections are never decisive," says Mr Monjib.

"Why? Because the electoral system is prepared on purpose not to let anyone succeed, so it's impossible to get more than 20% of the seats in parliament and this is to allow the monarchy to dominate."

He says the manipulation of the party system is just one of the old-fashioned tactics still being deployed to bolster the status quo.

At the recent Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, sheep were being handed out to voters, and over the last few months, the protest movement has been subject to a smear campaign, arrests, and intimidation at the hands of shadowy groups of pro-monarchy thugs known as "baltaja".

Just 37% voted in the 2007 elections, and a low turnout is seen as the biggest immediate threat to the regime's credibility.

Those calling for a boycott have been harassed by the authorities, with almost 100 people called in for questioning over the past month, according to Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch.

This has made some protesters more determined in their demands for real change. But it may also have helped divide and deter them as the king, elevated above the rough and tumble of everyday politics, continues to preside.

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