Each of Morocco’s first five constitutions since independence began the same way: ‘Morocco is a constitutionally democratic and social monarchy.’ The sixth Constitution in 2011 added the word ‘parliamentary’: ‘Le Maroc est une monarchie constitutionnelle, démocratique, parlementaire et sociale.’ The monarchy is ancient: the current dynasty dates back to the mid-17th century and is the oldest surviving ruling family in the Arab countries. The Constitution is a product of modern nationalism and the struggle for independence. Yet, there was an early project for constitutional rule in 1908, on the eve of the Protectorate, which proposed limited controls on the sultan and was based on the idea that the Japanese, equipped with a constitution, had defeated the autocratic Russian empire in 1906. This was a common model for early opponents of European imperialism in Africa and Asia.
Constitutionality has a legitimizing role in Morocco, but so does monarchy. As all the constitutions make clear, the head of state is the King (or Sultan, in 1908), who is ‘Commander of the Faithful’ (amir al-muminin). His authority is derived from his role as the political head of a community defined by belief. That authority, baraka, is an inherited quality passed by genealogical descent from the founder of the Alaouite dynasty Moulay al-Cherif and his son Moulay al-Rashid (1666-1672), who seized power when the Saadi dynasty disintegrated in half a century of civil war. Both dynasties claimed their legitimacy ultimately from the Prophet Muhammad’s descent, but that was a huge cohort. Prophetic descent was reinforced by the ability to command force and exercise power. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the reigning sultan, Abdelaziz, exhausted his money and power. Increasing European hegemony led religiously inspired nationalists to overthrow him and replace him with one of his brothers, Abdelhafid. He could not resist European pressure and agreed to accept a protectorate, although the French authorities removed him as sultan. However, the French did maintain the institution of the royal family and appointed another brother, Yusef, as sultan. When he died in 1927, he was succeeded by his son Mohammed V, who became the symbolic rallying point for a modern nationalist movement that asserted his legitimacy while limiting his powers. In the end, the sultan, after changing his title to ‘King’ in 1956, won the post-independence struggle for power.
Mohammed V’s son, Hassan II, who ruled from 1961 until 1999, maintained the facade of a constitutional monarchy, but he was the master of his realm. He used his constitutional power to appoint the Prime Minister (the leader of the largest party) and approve and promulgate laws vigorously, repeatedly dissolved Parliament, rewrote the constitution several times, and rigged elections in favor of his supporters. Parliament and political parties were reduced to marginal roles, and there were severe constraints on the media. The judicial system was subjected to interference by the authorities in political cases, and dissidents were arrested, held incommunicado for long periods, and tortured. But individuals did not, in the end, ‘disappear,’ and the repression was focused, not generalized. The form of a constitutional monarchy was retained, and towards the end of Hassan II’s reign and after his son Mohammed VI’s succession in 1999, the repression was eased. The 2011 Constitution, which was immediately the result of the Arab Spring movement, was the long-term consequence of this liberalizing trend. Despite its relatively progressive orientation, the new Constitution maintains the monarch as the most important political actor, with his formal rights and legitimacy unchanged.
But Mohammed VI, who came to the throne when he was quite young – he was born in 1963 – has modernizing and technocratic credentials. He earned a BA in law at Rabat-Agdal University and a Ph.D. in law from the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis, where he wrote his thesis on EEC-Maghrib relations. He also spent time training in Jacques Delors’ office when Delors was President of the European Commission.