New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 11, 2012
TANGIER, Morocco » Until recently, politics in Morocco involved red carpets and speeches in high Arabic that the average citizen could not understand. But on a campaign swing this fall through a working-class area of this port city, Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane stood on a makeshift podium in a muddy vacant lot.
He spoke without notes, kissed babies passed forward by the crowd and promised, as he has done all along, to fight corruption and return the government to the people.
"We will get stronger with the help of God and accomplish what we wanted," he told the crowd, which roared its approval.
But more and more Moroccans are questioning his ability to do that, wondering whether Morocco's version of the Arab Spring brought anything more than cosmetic changes to this impoverished country, which has been one of America's most stable and staunch allies in a region marked by turmoil.
A year ago, it seemed Moroccans were giddy with the sense that they had found a gentle, negotiated answer to the popular uprisings in the streets. The country's king, Mohammed VI, 49, defused angry protesters by volunteering to share his power. Within months, Morocco had a new constitution.
Benkirane's moderate Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party, won a plurality in parliamentary elections in November. Western governments heaped praise on the election process, satisfied that this strategically important country, just 12 miles south of Spain and atop a changing and uncertain continent, was settling in to a new more democratic order. (This week Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is scheduled to visit Morocco for a meeting of the Friends of Syria.)
But these days, many here are questioning whether the king and his entourage really gave up anything at all. Telquel, perhaps the country's most influential magazine, ran a cover story this fall saying that the palace had gradually taken back its concessions: The king's shadow Cabinet was interfering at will and was even sending its own emissaries to the United States and Brussels when Moroccan interests needed tending to. Benkirane, the magazine pointed out, had publicly admitted that the king's advisers sometimes met with government officials without consulting him.
Some also point to a quiet clamping down on political activists. In October, the United Nations said there was evidence of a recent spike in reports of torture in Morocco. About 70 protesters associated with the pro-democracy February 20 Movement are still in prison. In May, a popular rapper was sentenced to a year in jail for a song about police corruption. And six political activists testified at a hearing in September that they had been physically — and sexually — abused after being arrested for protesting in July.
In other countries rocked by Arab Spring uprisings, tensions today are being felt largely over the role of Islam in government. These issues have come up in Morocco, too. But here, the larger tensions appear to be over the power of the old guard. Many Moroccans will not criticize the king, instead focusing on the network of power and privilege that surrounds him and the corruption that they believe sucks any hope of prosperity from this country.
The problems Morocco faces are enormous. The country has invested heavily in infrastructure: Superhighways are everywhere and there are plans for a high-speed train, too. But 40 percent of the population cannot read or write. Forbes has estimated the king's fortune to be more than $2 billion. But the average income here is low, roughly half of what it was in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring first took off.
Benkirane took office showing a flare for the dramatic. He quickly slashed ministerial salaries and perquisites, and he refused to move to the prime minister's mansion. He also took on Morocco's notorious cronyism. To widespread amazement, his government published the names of those who had been given lucrative bus licenses. Since then, however, his efforts have foundered.
Some critics say the prime minister has been outmaneuvered at every turn. Once last spring, Benkirane seemed to lash out at the king and his entourage, suggesting that protesters could easily return to the streets. But soon after, he said the remarks had been misunderstood.
In August, he suffered what some saw as a serious public humiliation when an outdoor event at which he was to be the main speaker, planned months ahead of time, was abruptly canceled the night before by the Interior Ministry for reasons that remain unclear.
"I think there are functionaries in the ministries who have not yet changed," said Imane Yakoubi, a member of the governing board of the Justice and Development Party's youth league.
When Benkirane spoke to the crowd in Tangier, he rarely addressed any concrete issues. He pledged his loyalty to the king and proclaimed that the two had a good relationship and that anyone who said otherwise was a liar. Yet he repeatedly talked of the ways in which an unnamed "they" undermined his efforts and spread lies, a subject he took up again last week in Parliament.
In a rare interview on Al-Jazeera recently, he said democracy was advancing slowly, but surely. "If you thought the Benkirane government was going to end corruption in six months," he said, "there is a problem with expectations there."
But some say the underlying issue is that the new constitution — drafted by a committee appointed by the king — did not go nearly far enough in shifting power to elected officials. The king remains head of the Council of Ministers and the Ulama Council, which runs the mosques. He also runs the military, the security forces and the intelligence service. He even chooses the prime minister, though he must choose from the majority party.
"We find ourselves with a constitution that allows us to only pretend that things have changed," said Fouad Abdelmoumni, an economist and an activist involved in the pro-democracy movement who was jailed under Hassan II, the king's father.
Supporters see it differently. They say that the constitution is exactly what the people wanted, as it was put to a referendum. They say Morocco is developing a unique way — a "third path" to democracy. "We are in a period of emergence," said Mokhtar el-Ghambou, who is helping to found Rabat International University. "Morocco is in a democratic process. It is not yet a democracy. That needs time. We are not there yet."
Certainly King Mohammed VI has proved himself to be far different from his father, who imprisoned thousands of his opponents and made many disappear. When he ascended to the throne in 1999, he established a reconciliation commission to acknowledge some of the worst abuses of his father's rule. And he has also expanded women's rights, a move that put him at odds with Morocco's conservative Muslims.
But the king's popularity remains something of an open question. Polling on this issue is illegal.
Those involved in street protests over the past year say that they have faced widespread brutality. In February, protesters took to the streets in Taza complaining about unemployment and an abrupt rise in the cost of electricity. But these days their banners sit in a puddle in the corner of the barely furnished offices of Mohammed Chiabri, who leads the local branch of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights. "It is just too hard to keep going," Chiabri said of the protests. "They used so much violence against the protesters that people just stopped."
Still, even those who are disappointed by the slow pace of change doubt whether Moroccans have the stomach for a second Arab Spring. "Moroccans like their comfort zone," said Fadel Abdellaoui, a young businessman. "They see Syria, Libya, and they say, ‘OK, we will be going slow."'