CASABLANCA, Morocco — As one Arab ruler after another confronts violent protests at home, Morocco has bucked the trend: King Mohammed VI has sidestepped calls for regime change with preemptive concessions to diminish his own power.
“In Algeria, you have a military junta with the president as the front, but the fact is, it is a very successful repressive military junta,” says Anthony Cordesman, who specializes in strategy and defense at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“And challenging it, particularly when it has emerged victorious after some nine years of civil war, is something that is going to require a lot of popular courage and sacrifice to be successful — in other words, the power has won this fight already.”
On Sunday, thousands took to the streets in cities across Morocco demanding better civil rights and an end to corruption, the Reuters news agency reported.
Morocco’s political stability, meanwhile, depends on the uniting symbol of a widely popular king who has near-absolute authority granted by the constitution. He is both the secular and religious leader of a nation that reveres its 1,200-year-old monarchy.
“I inherited an attachment to the monarchy from my parents and grandparents,” says Najia Ibourk, a 55-year-old schoolteacher from Marrakesh. “In a country with multiple cultural identities, we need the uniting symbol of the king.”
Morocco, a key U.S. ally in the battle against militant Islamists, ofis ten viewed as one of the most liberal monarchies in the region: Since becoming king in 1999, Mohammed, 47, has created a commission to investigate injustices committed by the state under his father’s reign and has promoted women’s rights.
And as turmoil roiled across the region, the king took an unprecedented step earlier this month of pledging sweeping reforms that include diminishing his own power.
After three weeks of peaceful protests calling for more democracy, Mohammed promised constitutional reforms that will ensure a more transparent and fair justice system, a freely elected and independent legislature, and increased power to a directly elected prime minister.
He also pledged to allow religious freedom, promote human and women’s rights, and distribute more equitably resources among rural and urban regions. He said an appointed committee will review the nation’s constitution by June, and the country will hold a referendum on the changes soon afterward.
“Morocco is similar to the other countries in the region in that it does not have a democratic regime but differs, as it has been markedly less authoritarian than Tunisia, Libya and Egypt,” says Lise Storm, senior lecturer in Middle East politics at Exeter University in the United Kingdom.
The protests that hit the Arab world and toppled dictators in Egypt and Tunisia reached Morocco early last month, when the February 20 Youth Movement began calling for major constitutional reform and complained about economic inequality and government corruption.