Year One of the Revolution: Travel Notes from Morocco

The results of the well controlled Arab Spring in Morocco are taking shape before our eyes as the first Islamist-headed government settles down to work. With God’s help, progress towards good governance may yet be made, notwithstanding the headwinds of economic recession blowing in from the Old Continent.  Read on…

Year One of the Revolution: Travel Notes from Morocco

                                    By Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

Two weeks traveling around Morocco do not a specialist make. But a French-speaker with his ear to the ground and a bit of diligence can come away with a reasonably solid set of impressions, and this is what I propose to share in the travel notes which follow.

I received some pointers from experienced expatriates who work here; from members of the prosperous middle class, including the carpet merchant whose emporium in Marrakesh served local celebrity collector Yves Saint Laurent, as well as Bill and Hillary Clinton; with a native of Casablanca long settled in Virginia and operator of a Tex-Mex restaurant, who returns periodically to visit with his parents and has a time-lapse sense of the changes since the millennium; and the culturally very sophisticated director of the Archeological Museum in Rabat whose motto from a historical perspective that goes back to the Roman age is ‘what goes around, comes around’; with the Russian Cultural Center in Rabat, where Moroccan schoolgirls are taking dance lessons and have visions of taking leading roles in Sleeping Beauty some day, inspired by performances like last week’s touring ballet troupe from Moscow.

And I have profited greatly from the media, both print and electronic, which allocate a large part of their coverage to French speakers, thus allowing us non-Arabists to see a good deal further than we otherwise would.

I take my hat off to the owners and operators of the daily press and specialized weekly magazines on the economy and political life, which I have consulted daily.  To be sure, there are some conventions to get used to.  A daily like Le Matin devotes the first two pages to what might be called chronicles of the court, with extensive coverage of every ribbon cutting ceremony around the country presided over by His Majesty King Mohammed VI (replaced for the opening of the City Zoo in Rabat last week by his tiny school child heir apparent) or give full space to the speeches of a royal princess at the head of the African conference on cancer research.

Praise be to God, the activities of the royal family are extensively reported on the television as well and the specific populist customs, which the cameramen pick up and which I mention below enter into the consciousness of the broad population.

What stands out from this blend of the anecdotal personal encounters and the generalized reportage of the media is that we are witnessing a major turning point in Moroccan history. We have the recent installation of a government headed by the leader of the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD), Prime Minister Benkirane. We see the implementation of a new constitution, which positions Morocco midway in a transformation from absolute monarchy to parliamentary democracy.

Under the present fundamental law, a great deal of executive power rests with the King, who has selected as his advisor a sworn enemy of the Islamist Prime Minister, making plain his intention to verify and monitor closely the plans and actions of the government.  We note that this is a coalition government, with the PJD simply the largest single party, at 30%, and facing in parliament a 46% coalition of Opposition parties sworn to vote against the pending initiatives.

What is the government program which Benkirane set out in his vote of confidence in parliament this past week? And what are the points highlighted in Moroccan coverage of the celebrations marking the first anniversary of the Tunisian revolution and departure of the ‘dictator’ Ben Ali on 14 January 2010?  

The editorials here reminded us that the self-immolation which touched off the Arab Spring was all about corruption (and not about democracy).  To be precise, the trigger was the corruption in every day life which stymies entrepreneurship among the youth which is so important in countries of the Maghreb, with their high levels of unemployment and inability to absorb more staff into already bloated state bureaucracies (though Morocco itself boasts a lesser ratio of state workers to general population than its neighbors).  It was the arbitrary withdrawal of a trade permit which exposed the petty merchant working on borrowed capital to ruin and led to the desperate act that touched off a revolution.

This is only one manifestation of the broader issue of a governing class living off of kick-backs, commissions on state contracts, ‘rente’ in the local vernacular, sapping the vital juices of the economy.  The emphasis of the Moroccan press on this aspect of the Tunisian revolution has its reasons: the key to the government program of Benkirane is precisely to install good governance, meaning an end to kickbacks, and introduction of a competitive and transparent awards process for government contracts.

More broadly, it is a platform of ‘rule of law’ – ensuring grater independence for the judiciary.  And there is the social dimension:  to increase the GDP by changing the tax structure to encourage productive investment, discourage speculation in uninhabited residential projects, to cut subsidies and remove arbitrary tax dispensations; to repair the under-funded pension system; to attack the shamefully high level of illiteracy (30%); to simplify procedures for opening businesses.   As the newspapers comment, the ambitious plans to cut unemployment and raise living standards are about to collide with the very unfavorable market conditions given the state of the world economy and especially the fragility of the French economy and of French banks, with which Morocco maintains its closest commercial relations. 



I paid especial attention to all of the foregoing, since the issues in play are exactly the same ones as I and other Russia watchers called out as key indicators in the weeks prior to Russia’s December 4th elections to the State Duma.  Yes, as we know, Russia’s emerging generation of freedom fighters has focused on the democracy deficit in the country’s political life when they organized demonstrations against allegedly tainted voting, with great encouragement from Hillary Clinton’s State Department.  But for the broad ‘silent majority’ of Russians discontented with the social and political status quo, I maintain that the genuine issue driving their anti-United Russia mood is corruption made possible by the weakness of ‘rule of law.’


The ironies

The fact that an Islamist heads the government has drawn the spotlight to every aspect of Benkirane.  We are reminded that he began his political career on the political Left (non-Marxist), which is today the antipode of the Islamist movements.  From his earliest convictions come the stress on social solidarity that runs through his party’s program.

The papers were very quick to point out how the man has changed from the day of the elections that brought him to power.  He has changed his mood from frowns to smiles.  He has changed his wardrobe.  He donned a suit and tie for his audience with the king.  He exchanged his flip-flops for smart oxfords.  And he demonstratively met with a well-known westernized actress on one of his first public outings.  He also left the door of his office open to feminist movements. And while the PJD is unlikely to table a bill to liberalize the abortion law, it is leaving this possibility to its coalition partners.

Meanwhile, on the side of the monarchy, sartorial notes also were sounded.  Friday television coverage ten days ago showed King Mohammed VI praying in a mosque near Fez, which he was visiting to open an Offshore Technologies Institute and mixed townhouse/apartment complex housing.  The King was wearing a simple white jelabi and a Fez headpiece, with flip-flops on his feet. He left the mosque after prayers and was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd. Several civil and military officers rushed up to him, prostrating themselves and attempting to kiss his hand, which he withdrew with a jerk for all but one or two close retainers, showing very publicly his contempt for servile behavior and burnishing his image as a modern ruler.

While I have appreciated the opportunity to follow up close the significant political developments, playing out here, the Moroccan public has not abandoned its own leisure time pursuits.  And television is the major entertainment that everyone can share, whether in four-star hotel rooms or in bidonville hovels with satellite dishes mounted on the roof. I was pleased to partake of the just launched Turkish serial playing here in Arabic:  Hareem al-Sultan, about Kanuni Sultan Suleyman (the Magnificent), about his (Ukrainian) lifelong wife and mother of his heir, Roxelana, about the wars with the Habsburgs, all set in very sophisticated, refined palace interiors, with magnificent costumes which highlight the richness of tastes, which yield in no way to the very best of Venice, Europe’s arbiter of luxury fashion at the time.  I can heartily recommend the series to readers, with access to the Medi1 channel series available on  The other big hit here is the old standby, sports, football in particular.  Revolutions come and go, but last week’s match of Real Madrid vs Barcelona had the undivided attention of every Moroccan male even though no local boy is on either team.

By a happy coincidence the football match took place on the same day as the official state visit to Morocco of the new conservative Spanish Prime Minister. Local newspapers commented with pride that notwithstanding the presence of an Islamist at the head of the Moroccan government, the Spanish were continuing their tradition of making Morocco the destination of the first trip abroad by their own newly confirmed head of government.

In a preparatory meeting in Madrid between the respective foreign ministers the week before, Morocco’s chief diplomat said that as a result of history and geography the two countries are condemned to getting along.  May the same hold true for the other Islamic governments which will be installed in North Africa in the months to come. Inshallah!

G. Doctorow is the author of Great Post-Cold War American Thinkers on International Relations. ISBN-13 9781453764473. Now available from in paperback and downloadable e-book edition, as well as via Amazon sites in Europe and Japan. At Barnes & Noble and select book stores. Based on Brussels, Belgium, Doctorow was a 2010-2011 Visiting Scholar of the Harriman Institute, Columbia University.