Morocco’s ruling elite thinks it has skillfully sidestepped the revolutionary fervour sweeping the Arab world by offering a milder, more peaceful vision of change. Following Friday’s elections, King Mohamed VI is for the first time obliged to choose the prime minister from the largest party, rather than naming whoever he pleases.
However, many of the protesters who took to the streets in February feel the reforms still fall far short of their demands for a democratic, constitutional monarchy, and have called for a boycott. A low turnout in the parliamentary poll would detract from the legitimacy of King Mohamed VI’s reforms and could hint at future problems.
Ahead of the poll, the sleepy calm of the capital, Rabat, was occasionally punctuated by the marches of unemployed graduates. But the country’s powerful monarchy and the system that supports it appear to have averted any direct, mortal challenge for now. Central to the monarchical regime’s strength is its longevity - the Alaoui dynasty gained control of most of Morocco in 1664 - and its claim of descent from the Prophet Muhammad.
Religious and traditional rituals are used to bolster the monarch’s image “The king has tremendous religious and political capital, it is not just the king but the whole political establishment,” said Mohamed Daadaoui, author of a recent book on the monarchy and the “makhzen” - the patronage network that embodies Morocco’s ruling elite.
King Mohamed is aided by a powerful propaganda machine - his image adorns streets and shops across the country. Symbolic rituals also boost his status. In an annual ceremony of allegiance, the “bay’a”, which is broadcast on national TV, Moroccan officials bow before the king as he parades on a horse.
Moroccan citizens, many of them poor and illiterate and living in rural areas, “believe that the monarch has a special gift or blessing and they feel that they have some psychological relationship with the king”, Mr Daadaoui told the BBC. Despite these traditional trappings, the monarchy under the 48-year-old king has taken on a more modern, reformist image. His father, Hassan II, ran a notoriously brutal regime between 1961 and 1999. Opponents were tortured and protests repressed.
International human rights conventions take primacy over national law. In 1965, the interior minister at the time, Gen Mohammed Oufkir, supervised a crackdown on demonstrations in Casablanca from a helicopter while - according to one story - personally spraying rioters with a machine gun.