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Is the “Moroccan Exception” Myth or Reality?

Morocco is viewed by many as an exception to the norm in the Middle East and the North Africa (MENA) region. The extent to which this claim is asserted varies, but one thing is certain: Morocco is unique in the region in its governance and culture.

Across the region states typically are autocratic and corrupt. They are ruled through harsh authoritarian regimes that crackdown on dissent. Their economies are underdeveloped and underwritten by statist policies and rents on natural resources, typically hydrocarbons. Societies in the MENA region tend to be very traditional and Islam is often used as a barrier to reform in civil rights. There is an aversion to secularization and Islamist groups thrive in the cultural environment.

On the other hand, Morocco has a much more open society and has a history of progressive ideals. Morocco’s economy has a lot of missed potential, but is growing steadily in diverse sectors and doesn’t suffer from the resource curse. Morocco is still authoritarian, but much less so than its peers, and is arguably on the path to democracy. The Arab Spring, while destructive in many countries, has led to meaningful reforms in Morocco with very little unrest. And finally, Morocco has virtually no serious threat of Islamist groups.

Of course, defining a norm for a whole region requires painting with very broad strokes and each state has its own unique pattern. Furthermore, Morocco seems to fit some of the norms. So is the “Moroccan exception” blown out of proportion? Perhaps it is, but the subtle differences that set Morocco apart go a long way to shaping its present situation and its future. But the purpose isn’t to argue about Morocco’s exceptional status, but rather look to its past to identify the root causes of this notion in order to better compare it with the rest of the region.

Judeo-Amazigh substratum

The first root cause, and the oldest, is the influence of Jewish and Amazigh culture, hereafter referred to as the Judeo-Amazigh substratum. North Africa’s indigenous population of Amazigh people have the strongest historical influence on Morocco’s culture.

After the fall of the second temple and the Jewish Diaspora in 70 AD, Jewish tribes began to spread across North Africa and many found a home in Morocco. The Jewish people and Amazigh were both tribal, nomadic, matrilineal, and had democratically elected ruling bodies. Because of these similarities in tribal structures and the Jewish people’s ability to adapt to different cultures while holding onto their religious and cultural identity, the two groups flourished together.

Jews brought artisanship and the concept of monotheism to the Amazigh and in return were taught agricultural techniques and the concept of sainthood. This culture would change again when Islam reached North Africa. Arab society was also tribal in structure but there were a few key differences. Firstly, it was non-democratic, power was based on wealth and military strength. Secondly, it was strictly patrilineal and women had little place in society. In other MENA states this societal structure remains today much as it was in 700 AD, with Saudi Arabia being the best example. However in Morocco history took a different path and turn.

Positive role of the monarchy

The second big root of exception is Morocco’s system of Makhzen or Traditional Monarchy. In a country as big and diverse as Morocco is, the one main thing that unites the people and provides a sense of national identity is the king. But what sets the Moroccan Monarchy apart from other Middle Eastern monarchies is that the king has more than just historical legitimacy, but also religious legitimacy.

(Andrea Moroni/Flickr)

The king’s role as Commander of the Faithful (amir al-mu’minin) not only unites the country through religion, but also undermines Islamism without much need for violence. In many other MENA states, secular, authoritarian governments that rule through military legitimacy (Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, etc.) find themselves at odds with popular Islamist movements that form in the religious vacuum. These opposing forces often engage each other with violence, and in cases like Algeria’s civil war, this has devastating effects. In Morocco, because the king, the nation, and religion are all virtually the same thing, there is simply no room for radical Islamist groups to form.

The Moroccan monarchy is responsible for part of the Moroccan exception, but in some ways it appears to follow the norm, after all, it is an autocratic regime. This is certainly true, but Morocco is, also, well on its way to democracy through progressive devolution of power since the Constitution of 2011. So why is this happening in Morocco but not in other countries?

To begin, the Moroccan monarchy never really had to be harsh or despotic to maintain legitimacy to rule. Unlike other MENA states where oppressive rulers came to power through violence and military strength, Morocco’s monarchy had significant historical and religious legitimacy to base its claim to power. This answer to the question of legitimacy has continued to aid the monarchy to this day. Another difference in Morocco’s style of authoritarianism is a preference for cooptation over coercion when dealing with the opposition. In a way it is a traditional form of power-sharing.

It is true that during the so called, “Years of Lead” the government of Morocco was harsher in its treatment of perceived threats to its power, however, the trend today, and for most of Morocco’s history is to co-opt the people that threaten to change the status quo. Lastly, Morocco may be authoritarian now but the current King is committed to a slow, calculated shift to democracy. Other authoritarian rulers in the MENA region attempted to hold onto their power at all costs and now in the aftermath of the Arab Spring many of them are dead or gone and their countries in ruins. Morocco is lucky to have a ruler with the foresight to avoid this particular fate.

Lack of oil in Morocco is a blessing in disguise

One last factor that contributes to Morocco’s exceptional status, has less to do with history than it does with geology. Of course geology is not the focus, but it is important enough in this case to be included briefly here. Morocco has virtually no oil or natural gas and relies on foreign imports for its energy needs. At first glance this may seem to be a hindrance, but for Morocco it’s actually a blessing in disguise. Without access to oil Morocco has had to develop its economy to be much more diverse than many of its MENA neighbors.

Additionally, Morocco’s government hasn’t been able to pacify opposition with generous handouts from oil rents in the way that the Gulf States do, so Morocco’s government has had to be much more responsive to popular opinion. All too frequently states in the MENA region and the developing world fall victim to the resource curse, but by the luck of the draw Morocco has avoided this pitfall entirely.

Be it luck, cultural heritage, the actions of a few intelligent leaders, or the voices of many; Morocco has pursued a unique path through history. The tacit influences of history and culture can be hard to bring down to earth, but coupled with distinct and measurable aspects of the political and economic world, they shape Morocco’s history. In many ways Morocco is very much like the other states in the MENA region, but where it counts the most Morocco has done things a little differently, and that makes a world of a difference today.