James Traub writes: When I was in Morocco this summer, I heard a great deal about “Moroccan exceptionalism.” Historian Abdallah Laroui has described Morocco as “an island” cut off from its neighbors by sea, sand, and mountains, making it subject to its own laws of development. For the last four centuries, Morocco has been ruled by the Alaoui dynasty, which claims direct descent from the Prophet Mohammed. Moroccans, it is said, revere the monarchy as an almost divine institution, and they expect the current Alaoui king, Mohammed VI, to be an active, engaged monarch, to lead the country and serve as the arbiter among its diverse interests, classes, tribes, and regions. The king, in turn, wants to rule, but not dominate, I was told, which is why he agreed last year to promulgate a new constitution sharply limiting his powers. Morocco, in short, isn’t like Tunisia or Egypt or Libya or the other countries turned upside down and inside out by the Arab Spring. It has, instead, embarked on “a third path of reform with stability,” as Mustapha El Khalfi, the government’s spokesman and its communications minister, told me.
Has it? Nearly everywhere else in the Arab world since the upheaval began in the last days of 2010, power has been seized after a traumatic convulsion, or the ruler has stood his ground by crushing a popular opposition. Absolute rulers, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, do not normally surrender their power without a fight. So Morocco’s “third path” would constitute a rare, and precious, form of incremental democratization. If it worked.
It’s true that the country has not only a new constitution but a new prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, and a new government, which is feeling its way, albeit very haltingly, toward a new modus operandi with the king. No one really knows, however, whether the king and his palace aides are prepared to let the new government succeed or whether the mild Islamists of the ruling Party of Justice and Development are prepared to challenge entrenched royal prerogative.
One morning I took myself on a tour of the 19th-century royal palace complex in the capital city of Rabat. Visitors cannot penetrate the interior. (Moroccans cannot even linger within the outer walls.) As I was walking along the facade past a great tiled doorway, a security official emerged to say, “You cannot walk any farther.” I smiled and said that I didn’t see a line. “No,” he said gravely, “there is no line.” That is today’s Morocco: There are still limits, and you may not know until you’ve transgressed them. [Continue reading…]