From the Editors
During the last years of his reign, King Hassan II initiated a modest and controlled reform process intended to ease the transition of power by attempting to hand the reigns over safely to the crown prince at the time, nowadays King Mohamed VI. To buttress his legitimacy and distance himself from the authoritarian style of his late father, King Mohamed VI ushered in an era of diffident political reforms that—under popular pressure from within and the progression of Arab revolts from without—culminated in a new constitution upon which Moroccans were invited to vote upon by referendum held hastily two weeks after. It was an attempt granted to diffuse the tense situation.
While Morocco’s monarch could be credited for having reacted swiftly to the legitimate demands of his subjects, unlike other regrettable examples in the region, a sizeable proportion of the population still feels that these reforms fall short of responding to their legitimate demands. They feel this has shown that the makhzen—as the royal institution of power is referred to in Moroccan parlance—is still locked in a logic of privileges and not of rights. As a system of power based on vertical not horizontal legitimacy, the makhzen still perceives Moroccans as subjects, not citizens. Thus, the new constitution, as the social contract between the ruler and the ruled, states in Article 1 that “the system of government in Morocco is a constitutional, democratic, parliamentary, and social Monarchy.”
Yet the word “citizen” is used throughout the text to refer to the people of Morocco. But a citizen does not have a concrete physical existence, merely a legal one whereby s/he only exists in the realm of the law. If one considers that citizenship is the founding principle of political legitimacy, it follows that citizens should possess a share of the political legitimacy. It is the body of citizens constituted into a political collectivity or a “community of citizens” who are and should be the sole legitimate elector of its rulers. It is wholly from the totality of “citizens” that power originates and decisions made by rulers can be justified.
Many detractors of the new constitution, represented mostly by the 20th February Movement, point to the fact that this document is neither democratic in its process nor in its content. Thus, while Article 2 states clearly that sovereignty resides with the umma (community) who elects its representatives within elected institutions, Article 42 states that the Monarch presides over and guarantees the continuity of the state. Unlike citizens, subjects do not hold sovereignty in a political system based on vertical legitimacy. These political reforms, which guarantee sizeable rights to the Moroccan people, still fall short from acknowledging them as full citizens.
Nevertheless, most Moroccans do recognize, and rightly so, the bold decision in the constitution’s preamble to recognize the Amazigh (commonly referred to as Berber) component of Moroccan linguistic, cultural, and ethnic identity by rendering Tamazight an official language of the state, together with Arabic. Most Moroccan activists who had demanded official state recognition of Tamazight perceive themselves as a distinct ethnic group from “Arabs” who some consider the dominant group in the political field. It is safe to say that since language constitutes a strong factor in the formation of group identity, perhaps more than any other symbol of ethnicity as it is an expression of patrimony. Whomever speaks Amazigh can thus claim to be an Imazighen. It follows from the same logic that whomever speaks Arabic is an Arab, since the notion of being “Arab” refers less in this case to a racial or ethnic identity than a cultural and linguistic one.
It is generally accepted that while Amazigh revival movements are a relatively recent trend in the Moroccan political field in comparison to Algeria due to complex historical reasons, manifestations of Amazigh identity were present since the early 20th century in scholarly and artistic works. During the colonial period in North Africa, French administrators implemented policies intended to sow the seeds of discord between “Berbers” and “Arabs.” While this divide-and-rule policy succeeded in creating major social schisms in post-independence Algerian society, it failed to do so in Morocco. The Berber Decree issued in May 1930 intended in vain to institutionalize two distinct legal systems in colonial Morocco: one based on local customary laws for the “Amazigh” and another for “Arabs” based on Islamic law. This never came to be.
Referring to Amazigh as a minority, as some claim (especially by some Western media), is sheer nonsense from a historical point of view. When Arab Muslim populations came from the East in the seventh century to settle in North Africa, they dissolved into the local and indigenous population, not the opposite. After centuries of intercultural exchange and intermarriage, it is very hard, if not impossible, to distinguish a “pure Amazigh” from a “pure Arab” today.
These subjective identities have been emphasized at times, downplayed at others. The relationship developed as people moved throughout history and through cultural interchange was not direct one, but rather it was mediated by power. As is the case in some African countries, genealogy is a contemporary acknowledgment of political association rather than a historical claim. In the case of North Africa in general and Morocco in particular, Arab identity is neither ethnic nor racial, but instead cultural. Being “Arab” is a cultural acquisition common to all Moroccans, even those who do not identify as “racially” Arabs. It follows that Amazigh and Arab identities are not mutually exclusive. They are rather mutually reinforcing and part of an all-encompassing Moroccan national identity.
If the drafters of the new constitution rightly recognized the Amazigh component of Moroccan identity, they have failed to stress the undeniable and inextricable historical links between these two identities within the framework of an overarching Arabo-Islamic yet indigenous local cultures, which also include Christians and Sephardic Jews—as is the case throughout North African and the Middle East.
As the second preambular paragraph of the constitution states,
“Morocco is an Islamic state attached to its national and territorial integrity and the preservation of the components of its national identity, which is unified through the coalescence of all its composing elements: Arabo-Islamic, Amazigh, and Hassania Sahrawi, and rich of its African, Andalussi, Hebrew, and Mediterranean tributaries.”
Yet, by drafting the sentence in Arabic through the use of commas in addition to the conjunction “and” between the phrases “Arabo-Islamic” and “Amazigh” has turned grammatical connectors into a cultural disconnector. And this threatens to drive a wedge between two mutually reinforcing elements of Moroccan identity. Lessons from other African countries, especially Sudan, should teach us to be extremely weary and careful when opening the pandora’s box of identity.
The fact of the matter is that a sizeable segment of Moroccans agree on an evolutionary approach towards democracy, especially as they witness the violent turn of events in neighboring countries. Whether one is for or against the proposed new constitution, it is undeniable that this is a watershed moment in the political history of Morocco, since the powers that be caved into the legitimate demands of the people.
On 1 July 2011, Moroccans headed to the polls. Meanwhile, the debate still rages over the seriousness of these political reforms between those who wholeheartedly embraced the new draft of the constitution and those who accused the Monarchy of introducing “cosmetic” changes. This contentious debate on politics is in itself what we would call a “democratic moment” but not a situation that evinces democratic polity, since democracy is not a static state but a process. Democracy is not a bestowed largesse. It is a peaceful way of managing social conflicts and acknowledging divergent opinions.
Referendum results have shown that a vast majority of Moroccans endorsed the new constitution. And the subsequent elections held in November 2011 brought to power, for the first time, the main opposition Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (PJD) as part of a governmental coalition of discredited traditional parties. Yet, the litmus test of democracy lies less in the endorsement of a constitution and in the electoral ritual organized every few years, that in knowing whether Moroccans, both ruler and ruled, accept the new political debate without ostracizing or demonizing their opponents. Freedom of speech and opinion is always that of “the other”—not our own.
Thus, post-referendum attacks on members of the February 20th Movement and the threats received by opposition figures of civil society like Abdelhamide Amin, Vice President of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, are very unfortunate. These attacks should be condemned unequivocally, as they represent attempts to silence legitimate opinions that should be overtly voiced if Moroccans are truly serious about building a democratic state.
Whether one agrees with this segment of the Moroccan society or not, one should acknowledge that opposition movements succeeded in less than two months where Moroccan elites, as represented by fossilized political parties, have miserably failed. Countries develop and advance thanks to those who think critically and challenge the status quo, not those who are lost within a docile multitude. It is only in the dialectic of opposing views that democracy can exist and thrive.
It may well be that Morocco’s constitutional reforms and subsequent electoral results managed to absorb, at least for the time being, popular frustration and anger. And it is likely that the February 20th Movement may not survive its own limitations and contradictions. Yet, it would be unwise to think that its contentious spirit or members will fade away.
For better or worse, the major achievement of the recent political developments in Morocco is locating the ‘political’ in wider society. After decades of stifled political debates, heterodox opinions are finally being voiced, and contention is in the agora. That is exactly what Moroccans should cherish and protect. It is up to the people to make sure that this “democratic moment” is not evanescent but permanent.
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