A "Democratic Moment" in Morocco?

During the last years of his reign, King Hassan II initiated a modest and controlled reform process intended to ease the transition towards handing the power safely to the crown prince then, today’s King Mohamed VI. To buttress his legitimacy and distance himself from the authoritarian style of his late father, King Mohamed VI ushered in an era of diffident political reforms that culminated recently, under the popular pressure from within and the rolling revolts from without, in the granting of a new constitution on which Moroccans were invited to vote in referendum held hastily two weeks after, in attempt to diffuse the tense situation.

While the Moroccan monarch could be credited for having reacted swiftly to the legitimate demands of his subjects, unlike other regrettable examples in the region, a sizeable proportion of the population still feels that these reforms fall short from responding to their legitimate demands and has shown that the Makhzen, as the royal institution of power is referred to in Moroccan parlance, is still locked in a logic of privileges and not of rights; a system of power based on a vertical not horizontal legitimacy, which still perceives Moroccans as subjects, not citizens.

Thus the new constitution, as the social contract between the ruler and the ruled, states in its article 1 that ‘the system of government in Morocco is a constitutional, democratic, parliamentary and social Monarchy’. The word ‘citizen’ is used throughout the text to refer to the people of Morocco. A citizen does not have a concrete physical existence but a legal one as he/she only exists in the realm of the law. If one considers that citizenship is the founding principle of political legitimacy it follows that citizens possess a share of the political legitimacy, since it is the body of citizens constituted into a political collectivity or a ‘community of citizens’ who are the sole legitimate elector of its rulers. It is wholly from the totality of ‘citizens’ that power originates and decisions made by rulers are justified.

Many detractors of the new constitution, represented mostly by the 20th February movement, point to the fact that this document is not democratic either in its process or its content. Thus, while article 2 states clearly that sovereignty resides with the community (Umma) who elects its representatives within elected institutions, article 42 states that the monarch presides over and guarantees the continuity of the state. Unlike citizens, subjects do not hold sovereignty in a political system based on a vertical legitimacy. These political reforms, which guarantee sizeable rights to the Moroccan people, still fall short from acknowledging them as full citizens.

Nevertheless most Moroccans would recognize, and rightly so, the bold decision to state in the preamble of the constitution the Amazigh (commonly referred to as Berber) component of the Moroccan identity and officialize Tamazight as a language of the state together with Arabic. The term ‘Amazigh’ refers to a linguistic / cultural and ethnic identity. Most Moroccan activists who demanded the state recognition of Tamazight as an official language perceive themselves as a distinct ethnic group from ‘Arabs’, who some of them consider the dominant group in the political field. It is safe to say that, since language constitutes a strong factor in the formation of group identity more than any other symbol of ethnicity, as it is the chronicle of paternity and the expression of patrimony, whoever speaks Amazigh can thus claim to be an Amazighen. It follows from the same logic that whoever speaks Arabic is an Arab, since the concept of ‘Arab’ refers less in this case to a racial or ethnic identity than a cultural one.

It is generally accepted that while Amazigh revival movements are a relatively recent trend in Morocco’s political field by comparison with Algeria, manifestations of Amazigh identity were present since early 20th century in scholarly and artistic works in North Africa. During the colonial period, the French administration implemented policies intended to sow the seeds of discord between ‘Berbers’ and ‘Arabs’. While this policy succeeded in creating major social schisms in post-independence Algerian society, it failed in Morocco. The ‘Berber Decree’ issued by the French colonial power in May 1930 intended in vain to institutionalize two distinct legal systems in Morocco; one based on local customary laws for the ‘Amazigh’ and another for ‘Arabs’ based on Islamic law.

Referring to Amazigh as a minority, (as some claim especially in Western media) is sheer nonsense from a historical point of view as Arab-Muslim populations coming from the East in the seventh century settled and dissolved into the local population and not the opposite. After centuries of intercultural exchange and intermarriages, it is very hard if not impossible nowadays to distinguish a ‘pure Amazigh’ from a ‘pure Arab’. These have become subjective identities stressed at times and downplayed at others as the relation between movements of population throughout history and cultural change is not direct but rather mediated by power. As it is the case in some African countries, genealogy is a contemporary acknowledgment of political association and not a historical claim. In the case of North Africa in general and Morocco in particular, Arab identity is neither ethnic nor racial but cultural. Being ‘Arab’ is a cultural acquisition common to all Moroccans eve those who do not identify as ‘racially’ Arabs. It follows that Amazigh and Arab identities are not mutually exclusive but rather mutually reinforcing of the all-encompassing Moroccan national identity.

If the drafters of the new constitution rightly recognize the Amazigh component of the Moroccan identity, they have failed to stress the undeniable and inextricable historical links between these two identities within the framework of the overarching Arab-Islamic culture, which also include Christians and Jews throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The second preambular paragraph of the constitution states that:

‘Morocco is an Islamic state attached to its national and territorial integrity and the preservation of the components of its national identity, which is unified through the coalescence of all its composing elements, Arabo-Islamic, Amazigh, and Hassania Sahrawi, and rich of its African, Andalussi, Hebrew and Mediterranean tributaries’.

Yet, drafting the sentence in Arabic through the use of the conjunction ‘and’ between the phrases ‘Arabo-Islamic’ and ‘Amazigh’ has turned the grammatical connector into a cultural disconnetor, which threatens to drive a wedge between two mutually reinforcing elements of the Moroccan identity. Lessons from other African countries, especially Sudan, should teach us to be extremely weary and careful when opening the Pandora box of Identity.

The fact of the matter is that all Moroccans agree on an evolutionary approach towards democracy especially as they witness the violent turn of events in neighboring countries. Whether one is for or against the proposed new constitution, it is undeniable that this is a watershed moment in the political history of Morocco. On July 1st, Moroccans headed to the polls while the debate was still raging over the seriousness of these political reforms, between those who embraced wholeheartedly the new draft of the constitution and those who accused the Monarchy of introducing cosmetic changes. This contentious politics is in itself what we would call a ‘democratic moment’ not a democratic polity, since democracy is not a static state but a process. Democracy is not a bestowed largess but a peaceful way of managing social conflicts and acknowledging divergence of opinions.

It is true that the referendum results have shown that a vast majority of Moroccans endorse the new constitution. Yet, the litmus test of democracy lies less in this endorsement that in knowing whether Moroccans, both ruler and ruled, accept the new political debate without ostracizing or demonizing their opponents. Freedom of speech and opinion is always that of the other, not our own. The recent post-referendum attacks on members of the 20th February movement and the threats received by Abdelhamide Amin, vice-president of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, are very unfortunate and should be condemned unequivocally, as they represent attempts to silence legitimate opinions that should be overtly voiced if Moroccans are serious in building a true democratic state. Whether one agrees with this segment of the Moroccan society or not, one should acknowledge that they succeeded in less than two months where the Moroccan ‘elites’, as represented by fossilized political parties, have failed miserably. Countries develop and advance thanks to those who think critically and challenge the status quo, not those who are lost within a docile multitude. It is only in the dialectics of opposing views that democracy can exist and thrive.

Younes Abouyoub holds a Ph.D. in political sociology (Denis-Diderot Paris VII University & Columbia University). He also has degrees in English literature, Geopolitics and Law. He is a research scholar in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University. He can be reached at ya2125@columbia.edu