Over the past three months, Arab heads of state have responded to mass protests in their respective countries by either fleeing or fighting. Egypt's Mubarak and Tunisia's Bin Ali decided their positions were untenable and promptly surrendered their rule. Meanwhile in Bahrain, Yemen, and, most brutally, in Libya, rulers are cracking down hard on domestic unrest to try to maintain their authority the old fashioned way. In all these instances, Arab leaders appear to have ruled out a third option: To share power with their people through serious, aggressive reform of the political system.
Until this week, that is – when Moroccan King Muhammad VI made a stunning speech to his people in which he committed to doing just that. His supporters in the country have dubbed the new plan "The King's Revolution," while skeptics are voicing doubts as to whether his promises will actually be put into effect. In light of continuing unrest throughout North Africa and the Middle East, the Moroccan leader's novel approach bears examining. What has he really offered? What are the chances he will deliver? Finally, what are the implications for the rest of the region?
The 47-year-old monarch gave his address on national television last Wednesday. Flanked by his brother and son, he called for a new constitution that would distribute authority more evenly over the country, strengthen the independence of the judiciary, enshrine individual liberties and human rights, and, most remarkably, reduce his own power vis à vis the elected parliament. For the first time, elected bodies would supercede appointed governors as the principal decision-makers in regional affairs. The judiciary, currently under the control of the executive branch, would be elevated to the status of an independent power. And an elected prime minister – no longer appointed by the king – would assume control over most aspects of the executive branch of government. These proposed reforms were accompanied by a renewed commitment to human and individual rights and raising the status of women, along with a pledge to make the Berber mother tongue of Amazigh an official language alongside Arabic.
The credibility of the speech may be assessed in two ways: first, whether the monarchy has a track record of implementing reform; and second, whether the Moroccan people themselves appear to believe the king will make good on his promises.
Since Muhammad VI assumed the throne in 1999, he has indeed made substantial changes in the way the country is governed. He persuaded opposition parties to return from exile and play a robust role in parliamentary politics and government. He built a kingdom-wide network of civil society institutions to foster civic leadership, empower women, and assist the poor. He also created the Arab world's first truth and reconciliation commission to help redress the people's grievances against the brutality of his father's regime. Although far from ideal, the commission delivered official acknowledgment of the monarchy's historic brutality as well as compensation to victims for their suffering. The kingdom subsequently won accolades from international human rights organizations for bolstering individual liberties. On the other hand, critics of the king have rightly observed that the past few years have seen a reversal of key reforms, particularly in the wake of the monarchy's tough counter-terrorist measures. So on balance, the king deserves a passing grade for his track record on reform, even if he did not pass with flying colors.
The credibility of the king's new plan is bolstered, meanwhile, by the esteem it appears to have won among the Moroccan people. While some Islamist groups rejected the speech, key members of the elected opposition in parliament have praised it as taking into account their demands for constitutional reform. As for the country's youth, popular unrest has markedly ebbed in the wake of the king's address. In Casablanca and Rabat, fewer people are taking to the streets –- and there are virtually no calls for the ouster of the king. This degree of civil peace is unique among the Arab world's populous countries today.
Which raises the related question of what the implications of the king's new plan might be for the Arab region as a whole. Does it provide a new model for autocrats to follow in other countries? Does it raise expectations among Arab youth outside Morocco that their leaders, too, will promise similar reforms?
The answer to these questions will vary dramatically from country to country. In Bahrain, for example, the impact of the Moroccan king's speech will likely be to embolden protestors to demand similar commitments from their king. The same may be true in the kingdom of Jordan. Nor will the loosening of autocracy in Morocco serve to reduce seething tensions in military republics such as Algeria, Syria, and Yemen, to say nothing of Libya. But for heads of state in each of these countries, the Moroccan initiative may also provide a viable alternative to fighting or fleeing. It is the choice that every leader should make: to harness his formidable powers in the service of his people – both because it is pragmatic and because it is right.