Rabat's Undoing

Why the Moroccan Monarchy Should be Worried

A palace official looks inside the door of the Royal Palace in Casablanca, April 4, 2014. Jacquelyn Martin / Courtesy Reuters

Morocco’s king has always had it good. He governs the country in practice but has been able to shield himself from criticism by presenting himself as being above politics. The palace has been able to maintain this balance by retaining the right to appoint a prime minister to ensure that a loyal government carries out the crown’s preferred policies. But the Arab Spring­–driven 2011 constitutional reforms, which mandated that the king would appoint a prime minister from among the members of the largest political party in Parliament—a royal concession that seemed so minimal at the time—may be changing Morocco’s political system more than anticipated. Namely, it has allowed Morocco’s governing Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (PJD), to increase the palace’s political accountability.

As the first Moroccan prime minister to come to power on the basis of his party’s electoral strength, Abdelilah Benkirane has been unwilling to accept the traditional role of palace scapegoat. In the past, he has admitted his fraught relationship with the palace. He has also been candid with the public about the king’s overriding power and the limits of his own ability to pursue reform. Benkirane has mentioned countless times that he cannot be held responsible for what is happening in the country, since it is the king who governs. And in a 2013 interview with Le Monde, Benkirane declared that “if it doesn’t work with the king, I will simply leave.” Although that may not seem especially provocative, traditionally a minister or employee of the king never threatens to resign, as it is considered pressure on the king.                                                             

As a result, a new narrative is taking hold among the Moroccan public. It still avoids explicitly criticizing the king, but it makes clear where the blame lies for the country’s shortcomings. An example came in the form of a recent televised debate between members of the PJD-led government and opposition leaders. At one point, one of them was

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