Morocco’s reforms: Power to some other people

Morocco’s king lets an Islamist government make real changes – Published on The Economist, March 17, 2012.

ON HIS drive home from work Morocco’s prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, stopped by a mob of angry graduates demanding jobs. “We voted for you, and you send the police to beat and arrest us,” they cried. Mr Benkirane apologised and promised that any police officers who broke the law would be punished. Some of the graduates clapped.  

Something is changing in Morocco. The stuffy feudalism that made the kingdom a museum piece is lifting. New construction includes a web of motorways, double-decker trains that run on time and the Mediterranean’s largest port. Unlike other Arab autocrats who dithered when uprisings erupted last spring, King Mohammed VI unveiled a new constitution within weeks. This promised to transfer real (though not all) powers to a freely and fairly elected government. Within a year he accepted an electoral triumph by the Justice and Development Party (or PJD, after its French initials), a mildly Islamist group … //

… Yet even as the formal opposition has fizzled, an informal one is rising. In the rural areas, where the poorest half of Morocco’s 30m people live, discontent periodically boils over. Curfews, water-cannon and arrests have failed to prevent clashes from engulfing two northern towns. Protests over utility prices are acquiring a secessionist edge. A looming drought will only make matters worse.

The fiscal situation is also deteriorating. Until now the economy has weathered Europe’s doldrums remarkably well. But the previous government drained foreign reserves into salary and subsidy increases, so there is little left to give. The return of thousands of jobless workers from depressed Europe and lawless Libya has further shrunk the cushion.

The police struggle to claw back lost authority after a year of slippage. In cities peddlers spill into the streets, clogging the traffic; crime is rising. The security forces have begun demolishing some of an estimated 44,000 homes built illegally over the past year by Moroccans exploiting the vacuum; the attempted show of strength risks provoking a backlash.

It would have been easy for the government to blame the ancien regime for hobbling their prospects. Refreshingly, the Islamists say the buck stops with them. They promise transparency and a fairer distribution of wealth. They have published a list of bus companies granted prime intercity routes by unexplained orders from above. Next they may shame army generals who have long grabbed maritime fishing licences to feather their nests.

The campaign may have its limits. Mr Benkirane’s coalition is full of ministers from the previous government he has hitherto criticised for nepotism and waste. It will be hard to fight the old order while sharing power with it.

Failure could be costly. A new book, “Le Roi Prédateur” (“The Predator King”), published in France, describes how the king has quintupled his wealth in his 11 years on the throne, with the secretive makhzen continuing to hold large, lucrative chunks of the economy. Despite a ban, the book has gone viral online. Café chatter contrasts Mohammad VI’s surfeit of palaces with the hovels his forces knock down. Yet Morocco’s ruler is less cursed and more kissed than his fellow Arab kings. Sacrificing a few of his greedier courtiers should help him keep it that way. (full fext).

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