While in Morocco, I couldn’t help but notice the ubiquitous pictures of the king adorning the walls of every home, restaurant, and often shop we visited. It reminded me a lot of a trip to the Gambia I had made during spring break the previous year, at which point I had still been in the midst of a semester abroad in Senegal. The streets of Banjul, the capital, were lined with posters and street art proclaiming the greatness of Yahya Jammeh – their president for the last sixteen (almost seventeen) years. And while most Gambians I spoke with maintained that Jammeh had done great things for their nation, this didn’t align with all that I read or observed in my time there.
In light of the revolutions rocking the Arab world over the past few months, I found myself wondering what Morocco’s position was in all this tumultuous activity. Is he really the beloved leader he appears to be judging his omnipresence in the cities we visited, or is this merely the façade of dictatorial (or monarchical, as the case may be) power?
The fact is that the present King of Morocco, Mohamed VI looks downright benevolent in relation to his father, Hassan II, whose 38 years in power were marked by harsh crackdowns on unions, intellectuals, Marxists, political enemies, and rebellious soldiers. In his own right, Mohamed VI has made a number of reforms in his 12 years of power, including improving women’s rights and allowing limited forms of political protest. Of course, today it seems that those limited forms of protest – which did not allow for direct criticism of the monarchy – are not enough for many Moroccans.
We knew prior to our trip, of course, that things were not entirely calm in the region. Five people died on February 20th in the northern city of al-Hoceima when a Bank of America was burned in protest. But given our imminent departure for Spain and the consequent barrier of my linguistic incompetency in the Spanish language, I didn’t know much about what was going on in Morocco upon our arrival in Tetuán. As it happens, a lot was.
In a March 9 speech, King Mohamed VI announced major changes to the constitution which would enhance judicial independence and create a more concrete separation of powers in the Moroccan state. On the following day he established a commission charged with proposing changes to the constitution by June, which would be followed up on in September. The King’s concessions are eerily reminiscent of those of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak just days before he left office, who, too, promised Egyptians constitutional reform.
King Mohamed’s concessions have not silenced his protestors. Just this past Sunday saw 37,000 protestors in the streets of Moroccan cities nationwide. Reda Oulamine, a 38-year-old lawyer, said succinctly: “We want the king to reign, but not rule. Why can’t we have a constitutional monarchy like England or Spain?” But Mohamed VI again echoed Mubarak with his talk of not ceding to demagoguery and improvisation in response to last Sunday’s protest.
If the February 20 protests sparked this entire would-be Moroccan revolution, then why, three weeks later, did we see nothing of it in our Moroccan visit? Portraits of the king still adorned shops from Tetuán to Tangier, and there was no talk of revolution from Mohamad or his father at the hotel. Is this simply because it is not our battle to fight, or because the hotel believed that tourists are meant to enjoy themselves in a politically neutral climate? Whatever the case, it feels a bit surreal to say that I was in Morocco after the protests started, yet I neither saw nor heard any protest.