How Morocco handled the Arab Spring

Nicholas Pelham writes: Since the Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself and the Arab world aflame in December 2010, young men all over the Middle East have tried to imitate him. In no country have they done so more often than in Morocco, where some twenty men, with many of the same economic grievances, are reported to have self-immolated. Five succeeded in killing themselves, but none in sparking a revolution.

It is not for want of causes. Morocco’s vital statistics are worse than Tunisia’s. Its population earns half as much on average as its smaller North African counterpart. One of every two youth are unemployed, and the number is rising: failed rains have cut the country’s wheat harvest in half and have compounded a mounting budget deficit hiked by rising fuel prices and a downturn in tourism and exports to Europe, Morocco’s beleaguered main trading partner. In late May, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Casablanca to protest the government’s failure to tackle the country’s social ills.

Meanwhile, widely circulated accounts by veteran Moroccan and French journalists describe the cronyism clawing through the palaces. The personal assets of King Mohammed VI — based on his control of the country’s phosphate mines, it is reported — have quintupled to $2.5 billion over the past decade. This makes the monarch of the impoverished realm more wealthy — according to Forbes — than Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.

But whereas Ben Ali, Tunisia’s policeman, pigheadedly sought to keep power when the streets erupted in late 2010, Morocco’s po-faced but retiring King has kept one step ahead by offering to share it. On March 9, 2011 — just weeks after Ben Ali’s exile — King Mohammed unveiled a new constitution that gave up his claim to divine rights as sovereign, but left him as Commander of the Faithful, much — said palace advisers — as Britain’s Queen remains head of the Anglican Church. And while other Arab monarchs, like Jordan’s, dithered about whether to risk parliamentary elections, Mohammed held them quickly and fairly last November; when an Islamist party won the most seats, the King declared its leader, Abdelilah Benkirane, the prime minister.

I first met Benkirane 13 years ago, in 1999, when he was standing for election in the shanties of Sale, a squalid adjunct to Morocco’s serene capital, Rabat, from which it is separated by the picturesque Bouregreg estuary. Unable to deliver running water to his constituents, he ranted against a beauty pageant that the kingdom’s elite were staging in the Rabat Hilton. His core demand was that female contestants replace their swimsuits with kaftans, the hooded woolen tunics that turn hour-glass figures into dumplings. Benkirane won both the campaign and the ballot.

Abdelilah Benkirane of the Islamist Justice and Development Party in the Moroccan parliament, Rabat, December 19, 2011

At the time, Benkirane’s claim that he would be running the country within two elections was met with guffaws. Andre Azoulay, the King’s debonair Jewish adviser, summoned me for a reprimand after I reported his prediction on the BBC. “Bullshit,” he pronounced, horrified that an Islamist might ever sully the makzhen, Morocco’s royal establishment. Benkirane was wrong — but only by an election, and he now holds more power than any previous prime minister. At his investiture, he hurriedly pecked His Majesty on the shoulder, dispensing with the tradition of kissing the hand of a man nine years his junior.

One day this spring, I met Benkirane again, by knocking on his front door in Les Orangers, an ordinary middle class neighborhood just beyond Rabat’s medieval walls — he has until now declined to leave his aging town house for the stately home that comes with his office. Unlike the more high-falutin’ Arabic of traditional courtiers, Benkirane—who is popularly known as Benky — speaks in a language Moroccans understand, a dialect called derija, which mixes the various cultures that have swept through its mountains: Tifinagh, the Berber tongue, French, and Spanish. [Continue reading…]

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