Friday, November 18, 2011
SEIU Conference Center

Video footage of this event is available here.

Overshadowed by the dramatic political transitions underway in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, political events in Morocco – including parliamentary elections scheduled for November 25th – have received very little attention in Western media. This belies the fact that the Moroccan political arena has been quite active in recent months.  In July, Moroccans approved in a referendum constitutional reforms put forward by King Mohammed VI in an effort to respond to demands of protesters.  Nonetheless, the youth-led February 20 Movement views these efforts as insufficient, calling for a boycott of the upcoming elections and resuming weekly protests to revive popular demand for further reform.

POMED is excited to host an event examining the Moroccan political landscape, including expectations for the upcoming parliamentary elections. Who are the main parties competing, and who is likely to perform well? What political forces are supporting the calls for boycott, and how might this affect results and the voter turnout?  How are these elections likely to impact the opportunities for substantive political reform including shifts in the balance of power between elected institutions and the monarchy?  And what steps can the U.S. and other international actors take to encourage meaningful reform in Morocco rather than merely superficial changes?


Ahmed Benchemsi
Visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law
Anouar Boukhars
Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies, McDaniel College
Marina Ottaway
Senior Associate, Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Moderator: Charles Dunne
Director for Middle East and North Africa Programs, Freedom House

For full event notes, continue reading. Or, click here for the PDF.


Dunne offered introductory remarks in which he noted that although Morocco does not receive ample attention, it is an important “test case.” Morocco can demonstrate whether “any authoritarian government can respond effectively to the upheavals of the Arab Spring through a process of managed, top-down change.” Dunne added that the monarchy faces many challenges, including continuing protests from the February 20 movement among others, as well as the persistence of the economic problems that sparked the unrest. He also mentioned that many Moroccans are wary of sweeping change, and are “cautious” about “embracing it.” Lastly, Dunne stated that the fate of Morocco’s internal stability holds implications for the region and the U.S.

Boukhars analyzed the challenges facing political parties, arguing that voter confidence in existing political parties to effectively utilize the “greater mobility” allowed by Morocco’s new constitution is scarce. “Pluralities are still skeptical,” he said, and enthusiasm is lacking among the populace. Boukhars also mentioned several possible outcomes of Morocco’s parliamentary elections, asserting that concern that the PJD will win a vast majority is “overblown.” One reason the PJD will not fare as well as some analysts predict, he said, is that the Islamist vote is divided. Furthermore, “districting laws disadvantage Islamists.” If the PJD were to win, it would likely experience great difficulty in forming a coalition to govern, effectively lending credence to the claims that voting will fail to change the political landscape in Morocco. Boukhars added that given the new constitutional reforms, political parties have an “unprecedented opportunity” to push for democratic reform. He concluded by posing the question of whether Morocco’s political parties would take advantage of this opportunity.

Then, Ottoway addressed the question of whether top-down reform could work, asserting that “it always depends on the push from the bottom.” “Is there going to be enough push from the society within the political system” to push for change “that would allow the most democratic provisions of the constitution to actually be put into practice,” she said. Ottoway stressed that the constitution is “an extremely ambiguous document at this point,” which “could be implemented in an array of different fashions.” The constitution, she added, does not clearly provide for a constitutional monarchy; rather, it allows to king to govern. Ottoway noted that Moroccan political parties have not been utilizing the political space allowed by the new constitution. She stated that regardless of the election results, the parties will not put much pressure against the monarchy.

Ottoway then discussed the February 20 movement, noting that it is a loose group without a clear leadership hierarchy: “It’s almost too democratic for its own good in the sense that it really doesn’t have a strong leadership structure,” which makes it “very difficult to have a coherent direction.” She stated that the leftist parties in Morocco are “leftovers” from the past, “more of a marginal factor.” The Justice and Charity party, while more likely to be a significant force, is not likely to participate in the elections.

Benchemsi disagreed with Boukhars’ argument that the upcoming elections would reveal whether or not parties could effectively utilize their newfound mobility. Benchemsi asserted that these elections are “not that important,” as “the main factor in Morocco is the balance of strength between the monarchy and all other forces.” He also stated that the king’s introduction of constitutional reforms was a “skillful play” intended to crush momentum on the street rather than a genuine promise of change. Benchemsi added that the official statistic of 98.5% of voters in favor of July’s constitutional referendum revealed egregious fraud. He called the new constitution “perverse,” and enumerated the ways in which a “smokescreen” created the illusion of change while protecting the king’s hegemony.

During the question and answer session, Boukhars stated that among the trends indicating positive change in Morocco is that youth within political parties are beginning to challenge political veterans in their organizations. An attendee asked whether continuing economic woes would “be a push for another major uprising.” Benchamsi affirmed the power of economic problems to fuel unrest, adding that the “regional spirit of the Arab spring” could be reinvigorated in Bashar al-Assad were to fall.

Ottoway said that “Morocco is ahead of any other monarchy” in the region in terms of responding to calls for reform. “This is the one Arab monarchy that has at least taken small steps,” she added. An attendee inquired about Moroccans who oppose the constitution as well as the monarchy. Benchemsi and Ottoway agreed that those who “want the fall of the Monarchy in Morocco,” also known as republicans, are “marginal.”