- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 20, 2011

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.

Still, Morocco has some of the same problems faced by Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria, such as widespread youth unemployment and rising inflation.

But like Algeria, which also has battled Islamists for decades, scholars say the chances for a successful revolution in Morocco were never good — albeit for different reasons.

“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.

“This reality has a lot to do with the fact that Morocco is a monarchy. Mohammed VI is not dependent on contesting elections and manipulating their results in order to maintain his power.”

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.

Some say the king went forward with promised reform to respond to the demands of an increasingly impatient population asking for more accountability. “The reason he made the speech now is to stay in control,” Ms. Storm says.

Others credit the move to a tendency in the Moroccan monarchy. “The monarchy has shown throughout the decades its capacity to adapt to the times,” says Mohamed Darif, a political science professor at Hassan II University in Casablanca.

Yet some question whether Morocco is ready to move forward. Mr. Darif said the country isn’t prepared for a system in which a legislature has real power because it doesn’t have credible political parties.

Aboubakr Jamai, a journalist whose independent magazine, Le Journal Hebdomadaire, was shut down by the government in early 2010 for criticizing the regime, disagrees.

“A woman who lives in the mountains may not know how to read, but she still knows she needs health care, roads and can therefore vote for whoever serves her best interests,” he says.

Regardless, the ruler’s move seems to have eased rising discontent for the time being.

“The king reacted in a positive way to the demands made by parties and the people,” says Abdelilah Benkirane, leader of the opposition Islamist Justice and Development Party.

Others are skeptical. “The speech doesn’t guarantee anything,” says Mr. Jamai, who founded the political website lakome.com after his magazine was shut down. “We must remain vigilant.”

The proof of change will come when the revised constitution actually limits the king’s powers, said Ms. Storm, which she believes is unlikely.

“The king is taking charge of the constitutional reform, which allows him to control the extent to which new measures will be allowed,” she says. “By kick-starting the process and openly supporting it, he is not only going to stay in control, he will also be cementing the view held by the general population and the international community as the person to go to when real decisions need to be made, as well as the view of him as a reformer.”

That plays into Western interests, too. Morocco long has been an important partner in ensuring stability in the region and containing al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

In the years since the 2003 terrorist attacks that killed 45 in Casablanca, the United States has tripled economic aid to Morocco to $697.5 million for the period 2007-2012.

Some say the turn of events shows a switch in U.S. strategic thinking — promoting reform before revolution instead of protecting Arab despots.

“Washington doesn’t want another Egypt. They absolutely want reforms in places where ever it is feasible,” Mr. Jamai said. “Today, stability depends on ensuring changes in the regime because people are craving rapid reforms.”