RABAT, Morocco — The word “kingdom” is easy to gloss over in the official name of this North African nation, but that’s a risky slip to make.
The Kingdom of Morocco’s reigning monarch this month finished celebrating his 10th year on the throne, a period marked by unprecedented advances in democracy, women's rights and press freedom. Yet even as local and foreign media ran fulsome tributes to Mohammed VI — chummily known as “the cool king,” or “M6” — the ruler demonstrated just how absolute his power remains.
On August 1, the government seized more than 100,000 copies of publications that dared print the results of an opinion poll showing 91 percent of Moroccans approve of their king. The government’s explanation?
“The monarchy cannot be the object of debate, even through a poll,” Communication Minister Khalid Naciri announced as the offending publications were confiscated. Authorities destroyed the entire print run of the Moroccan newsmagazine “Tel Quel” and its Arabic-language sister publication “Nichane,” which both carried the poll.
“I was at the printers the day the copies were seized,” said Tel Quel’s editor-in-chief, Ahmed Benchemsi. “They wouldn’t let me out with even one. There were police everywhere.”
Moroccan authorities said the censorship does little to tarnish the king's record of reform that stands as an example for other Arab nations. Observers here and abroad acknowledge the gains of the past decade but many wonder whether further progress is possible while power remains so concentrated. “The system is way more open now but any crackdown can happen, anytime, for any reason,” said Benchemsi, who was hauled into court in 2007 and 2008 for other articles critical of the king.
He said the timing of the latest crackdown — at the moment set aside to celebrate the monarch's first 10 years in power — was particularly unfortunate. “It just ruined the whole thing,” Benchemsi said.
The communication ministry says the sacred status of the monarchy is written into Moroccan law and, because opinion polls undermine that status, authorities had no choice but to censor the findings. “Even if the results are 100 percent in favor of the monarchy it’s a problem,” Naciri said.
Whatever the timing, Naciri said the decision does no damage to the king’s record of reform.
“He has been the principal author of reforms here for the last 10 years,” Naciri said. “We are a country that is in the process of constructing a new democracy. We need stability to do so and the king is the source of that stability.”
Even critics of the king agree the 45-year-old Mohammed VI broke sharply from the policies of his father, Hassan II, who maintained a grip on power by means of secret police, detentions and bullets in a period now nicknamed the “years of lead.”
Upon taking power in 1999, Mohammed VI fired his father’s fearsome interior minister Driss Basri, who oversaw some of the regime’s worst human rights abuses. The new king also set up an Equity and Reconciliation Commission to spotlight offenses committed under his father’s rule and dole out compensation to victims.
The young king released all the women from his father’s royal harem and took only one wife who — in a stark break with tradition — occasionally appears in public. In 2004, the king leant his support to a nationwide coalition of feminist groups that successfully pushed for legal reforms to vastly expand women’s rights of divorce, child custody and property ownership. The change to the family code, or Moudawana, has been held up as example by feminists across the Muslim world.
“The fact that the monarchy was willing to take this on seems like an incredible thing,” said Paul Silverstein, a Morocco specialist and editor at the Middle East Research and Information Project in Washington, D.C. “Morocco’s still an authoritarian state — it’d be hard to argue that it’s not — but it’s kind of a participatory authoritarian state.”
And other experts say measuring Morocco — a country that has applied for membership in the European Union — against repressive Arab neighbors isn’t the way forward.
“If you’re going to compare Morocco with other countries in the Arab world, you’re setting the bar very low,” said Abdeslam Maghraoui, a Duke University political science professor who specializes in Morocco.
Truly democratizing the country will require the king to make the unlikely move of handing much of his authority over to the parliament and judiciary, Maghraoui said. The monarch's seizure of the publications that dared to publish the poll on his popularity shows just how improbable that is.
“The monarchy has reached its limit in terms of reforms,” said Maghraoui. “What we have seen is what we are going to get.”
Editor's note: This story originally appeared with a photograph that incorrectly identified Moroccan Prince Moulay Rachid as King Mohammed VI, as a result of an error by Reuters.