In this article, we shall discuss the leadership of the leader of Morocco, Mohammed VI. We shall discuss his rise to power with the history of Morocco, his domestic politics and international relations after coming to power, how they compared to those of his father. In addition, we shall discuss his more recent domestic and foreign policies, with particular attention to issues of anti-terrorism in Morocco, his relationship with Islamist parties in the country, his international relations with the West (including but not limited to France, Britain and the United States), his international relations with other Middle Eastern and North African states, and his policies with regards to Western Sahara.
We will also discuss his policies with regards to gender rights in Morocco, as well as the response by Mohammed VI to the protests against his policies during the 2011 Moroccan protests (which were within the context of the Arab Uprisings).
Mohammed VI As King
Mohammed VI became king in 1999, following the death of his father Hassan II. After coming to power, there are many who were hoping for a new type of leadership, one that would be more open to democratic processes, as well as human rights in Morocco. And following his coming to power, Mohammed VI did seem to work towards addressing at least some grievances that individuals had with the reign of his father. For example, Mohammed VI established a truth and reconciliation commission with regards to human rights abuses that were alleged to occur under the rule of his father. Related to this, “Mohammed VI acknowledged the government’s responsibility for forced disappearances and other abuses of human rights. Less than a month after succeeding his father, he admitted that the government was responsible for the disappearances and announced the formation of the Independent Arbitration Panel, which would review individual cases and compensate victims. In 2003, the panel was disbanded after paying compensation to only four thousand victims, but a few months later the king set up the Instance Équité et Réconciliation (IER) to throw light on abuses committed between 1956 and 1999 and help Morocco turn a new page.” (Ottaway & Riley, 2006: 7). And while some have criticized just how effective this commission was, others were happy to see that he was willing to discuss such a mechanism force with regards to actions of his late father. Related to this, In addition, he seemed to be more open with regards to political organizations compared to his father. He also released political prisoners, something that his father was highly criticized for.
But despite this action, Mohammed VI was still facing a number of social and economic issues that he inherited from Hassan II’s rule. For example, in the late 1990s, there was (and arguably still is) high youth unemployment. In addition, much of Morocco’s economy was focused on energy, and this did not lead to significant diversification. Moreover, the Moroccan state was spending large amounts of money on the military, as well as civil service, often at the expense of some social programs, as well as a weaker commitment to agricultural sectors of the country.
Reforms of Mohammed VI: Family Law and Women’s Rights
If one looks at the reforms of Mohammed VI, it become evident that many of them are not significant advancements with regards to issues of democratization, but rather, many of them have been under categories of modernization. For example, one of the most noted social reforms under Mohammed VI was the new legislation on family law, or what is referred to in Morocco as the Moudawana, or Personal Status Law. Before this, Morocco had a Personal Status Code in 1957, and then another one in 1993 (Anderson, 2009). In both of these there were many statements that limited women’s rights in Morocco. And thus, because of these problematic laws, activists began to work to change the Personal Family Status Law.
In the early 2000s, due in part to pressure from human rights activist groups in Morocco and elsewhere, Mohammed VI embarked upon introducing new laws with regards to women.Related to this, while the reform was actualized in 2004, the movement for these new initiatives took place beginning much earlier. For example, women’s rights groups in the 1980s centered much of their work on the Family Law or Family Code (FC) that existed. Then, a couple of other major events in the 1990s furthered the movement on the issue of gender rights. To begin, in 1992, there was a million signature petition that was–following its collection–given to Hassan II, which called for family law reform.
And while he did little to address their demands, this nonetheless helped bring about more attention to women’s rights, and in turn calls to reform the law. For example, as Clark & Young (2008) explain, “the idea of a vast reform gained momentum and led directly to the socialist-led government’s proposal, in 1999, of the Plan of Action for the Integration of Women in Development, which included – and went beyond – the FC reforms that have now been adopted. In March 2000, in reaction to the announcement of the Plan and also in celebration of International Women’s Day, some 50,000 to 100,000 people marched in Rabat” (336). But, also in the 1990s was international developments with regards to human rights. Specifically, “in 1993, Morocco ratified the UN Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), albeit with two major reservations where CEDAW conflicted with the FC. Activists claimed that the FC enforced the legal minority of women and argued that women could not be integrated into development programmes until these legal obstacles to their full citizenship were removed and their human rights guaranteed by a new FC” (Clark & Young, 2008: 336). These actions helped bring about the Family Law change.
In addition, some have argued that actions Muhammed VI took shortly after coming to power also illustrate a break from the past with regards to the role of women in Morocco and in the public sphere. For example, as Maddy-Weitzman (2005) explains, “King Muhammad VI, who assumed the throne following the death of his father on July 23, 1999, moved quickly to project the image of a more accessible leader interested in political and social reform, one better attuned to the needs and wants of his subjects.10 The closing of the royal harem and the King’s emphatic declared commitment to integrate the female half of society into public life were part of a number of symbolic steps taken to advance the status of women” (396). He goes on to say that along with this,
“Three years later, he took the unprecedented step of publicly announcing his intent to marry. His fiancée, Latifa Benani, was a 24-year old computer engineer from a middle-class urban family in Fez. Muhammad had thus broken with tradition on two counts: he had removed the iron curtain of mystery which had always surrounded the royal spouses, and had married a “modern” woman, instead of adopting the traditional course of sealing political alliances by choosing the daughter of a rural Berber notable. The public announcement, the choice of the bride, the subsequent public celebrations, and the pictures, a year later, of a doting young father cradling his first-born son, were all designed to send a clear message: the royal house was now modern in outlook, marching forward in the spirit of the times with a focus on the future, a future which promised better days for women” (396).
Then, in 2003, Muhammed VI, when speaking to Parliament, called for the reform of the law. And it was early in 2004 (January 16th) that the government did approve the changes to the law. This new law was known as Moudawana. And while some conservative members of society were upset with this, and some suggesting it was against Islam, Muhammad VI argued that in fact, Islam has within it the ability for ijtihad or personal interpretation (Maddy-Weitzman, 2005), and that this law was an interpretation of Islam, and one well within the religious tradition. The law itself was different than previous Personal Status Codes on a number of fronts. For example, Maddy-Weitzman (2005) notes the differences when he says:
The law included
the following main points:
1. “A modern form of wording, instead of that which undermines the dignity of women as human beings;’’ central to this new style of wording was the conferring of joint responsibility for the family on the husband and the wife.
2. Removing guardianship from a woman once she had come of age.
3. Establishing the minimum age for marriage at age 18 for both men and women, apart from special cases to be determined by a judge. Equality was also to be ensured in custodianship cases by allowing both boys and girls to choose their custodian at age 15.
4. Regarding polygamy, one of the most difficult of all shari‘a matters to reconcile with modernity, Muhammad explained that God had made it allowed, but in fact made it “almost impossible, from the Islamic legal point of view.” The new law would insist on “strict conditions…and a judge’s permission,” before permitting polygamy, including the explicit consent of the first wife, as well as allowing its prohibition within their marriage contract.
5. The process of drawing up and registering marriage contracts for citizens residing abroad was to be simplified.
6. A woman’s right to divorce was to be expanded, to include instances in which the husband “failed to observe any of the conditions in the marriage contract, or if he harmed his wife through lack of financial support, abstinence, violence, or any other wrongful deed.” A man’s right to resort to repudiation (talaq), on the other hand was to be limited by specific restrictions and conditions. All divorce proceedings would require judicial supervision. Divorces would not be registered until the husband had paid all the required monies to the wife and children. Divorce by mutual consent, under judicial supervision, was also to be part of the new law.
7. International agreements protecting children’s rights, which had already been ratified by Morocco, were to be included in the new law. “Children’s rights with respect to custody are also to be guaranteed by entrusting custody to the mother, then the father, then the grandmother on the mother’s side.” In the event that none of this proved possible, a judge would determine the guardian, “keeping in mind the sole interest of the child” (405).
Now, this is in no way to say that the document was within flaws, as many argue that it still did not go far enough. Nor does this mean that because the law calls for these rights, that they are actually realized in society. Nonetheless, Mohammed VI is noted for his actions on this issue of reforming the Family Code in Morocco.
International Relations of Mohammed VI
Mohammed VI has had an active international relations and foreign policy interest, particularly with regards to issues of diplomatic ties to the West, anti-terrorism policies, as well as Morocco’s claims to Western Sahara.
Anti-Terrorism Policies of Mohammed VI
Mohammed VI’s domestic policies have centered largely around anti-terrorism measures. Morocco has had a few terror attacks in the last decade. For example, in 2003, there were a number of suicide bombings that took place on May 16th in Casablanca, with five places being targeted. Here, 33 people were killed as bombs went off in the city. In response, 27 people were arrested (The Guardian, 2003). This was seen as “Morocco’s September 11th.” Then, on Sunday, March 11th, 2007, an individual by the name of “Abdelfattah Raydi, 23, blew up a belt of explosives he was carrying on Sunday night, killing himself and wounding four people after a tussle with the owner of the Web cafe in a suburb that is home to Casablanca’s largest slum” (Ghanmi, 2007). However, according to reports, the location was not the indented target; “The real target had been Casablanca’s police and paramilitary headquarters, restaurants and hotels, the paper said, citing unnamed security agencies” (Ghanmi, 2007). Then, in 2011, there was a remote-control bombing in a cafe in the city of Marrakech in Morocco. Here, sixteen people were killed (The Guardian, 2011). Al Qaeda in the Maghreb were believed to be behind these different attacks.
And as a response, Mohammed VI has carried out a massive anti-terrorism campaign in Morocco, going after extremist groups and those believed to be a threat to citizens and to the Moroccan state. In addition, they have also been working actively with other countries such as the United States with regards to fighting terrorism. Mohammed VI was an ally of the United States before the 2003 attacks, and has continued to cooperate with other countries that have domestic terrorism issues. The relationship between Mohammed VI and the United States is particularly strong on this front.
But along with their cooperation and coordination with other countries, and their own security protections internally, the Moroccan government under Mohammed VI has also tried to control the type of Islam that is being presented in Morocco. In fact, “Morocco has exerted control over religious leaders and institutions, created theological councils, supervised and retrained imams, closed unregulated mosques, retrained and rehabilitated some individuals convicted of terror-related crimes to correct their understanding of Islam, and launched media efforts to transmit “Moroccan religious values” of tolerance” (Arieff, 2013: 7). In fact, the Moroccan government has even tried to go after moderate Islamist groups and parties, trying to minimize their influence in the country. And they have tried to do this through the promotion of what they see as a “tolerant” version of Islam that is Sufism. In fact, they have tried to provide Sufi orders with support so that they can promote their message of Islam. This helps Mohammed VI because, by working with Sufi groups, it heightens his credibility as a religious leader in society. In addition, it counter the message of Islamist parties. Lastly, he doesn’t view the Sufis as political, and thus, does not see them as a threat to his monarchy (Muedini, 2012; Muedini, Sponsoring Sufism: How Governments Promote “Mystical Islam” In Their Domestic and Foreign Policies.”
Morocco has been very active in controlling Western Sahara for their own political and economic interests. Since the 1970s, the Moroccan government has been trying to convince many in the world that they have a claim to Western Sahara. However, an International Court of Justice ruling, as well as the rest of the world says otherwise. But that has not stopped Morocco from occupying Western Sahara, through the building of berm wall that they still monitor. And Muhammad VI continues to carry out a similar foreign policy in Western Sahara. The reason for their interest has to do with the vast phosphates in the region, as well as access to the sea (and fishing agreements that they have made with European states). And since they are closely aligned with the United States, the American leadership has said very little to criticize Morocco’s position on Western Sahara.
Lack of Democratic Reform in Morocco
Along with Mohammed VI’s international relations with the West and with regards to Western Sahara, he has also focused on maintaing his power, and the position of the monarchy in Morocco. The King, his father, and grandfather argued that their position was more than political, that there was a spiritual/religious element to it as well. This is why Mohammed VI also goes by the title Amir al-Mu’minin (“Commander of the Faithful”), a title used in early Islamic history.
In addition, the King has set up the government in a way that continues to ensure not only his power, but also his strong influence over domestic politics in Morocco. For one, the King has set up the electoral system in a way that heavily favors the King and his party. Much of it had to do with Mohammed VI’s actions in 2002. Namely, it was then that “the king changed what had been a pure single-member-district system into a system based on PR structured via two lists. Each Moroccan elector now votes for a local party list in one of 95 multimember districts in order to determine between 2 and 5 seats of the 295 that are filled this way” (McFaul & Wittes, 2008: 23-24). But that is not all. As McFaul & Wittes (2008) go on to say, “The seat allocations are made through a complicated “remainder system” run by local magistrates who determine the “threshold number” needed to win a seat in a particular district. After the top vote-getting parties have been allowed one seat each, the threshold number is subtracted from their vote and the rest of the seats are allocated to parties according to their remaining vote totals, in descending order” (24). What this does is disperse a great deal of the votes, which in turn complicate a party’s chances of winning multiple seats. This system thus clearly favors the King. This, along with gerrymandering, make it difficult to pose a direct political threat to Mohammed VI as King.
In addition, up until the 2011 reforms, the King also selected the Prime Minister. However, again, this was altered after the protests in Morocco and elsewhere in North Africa. However, the makhzan network (one in which loyalists hold important positions throughout Morocco), continues to exist, which only continues to support the King’s power. In addition, the King is still seen as having a divine power in the country. And it is still in the constitution that one cannot directly challenge the King.
As we see, Mohammed VI continues to control the political system in Morocco. And while there were some reforms in 2011, the majority of power is still with the King and the makhzan network. And his domestic and foreign policies have continued to focus on anti-terrorism, the promotion of what he views as a more peaceful type of Islam in Sufism, as well as his continued interest in Western Sahara, and relationships with Western states.
Arieff, A. (2013). Morocco: Current Issues. Congressional Research Service. Analyst in African Affairs. October 18th, 2013.
Anderson, N. (2009). Legal Literacy & the Moudawana.
Clark, J.A. & Young, A.E. (2008). Islamism and Family Law Reform in Morocco and Jordan. Mediterranean Politics, 13, No. 3, pages 333-352.
Maddy-Weitzman, B. (2005). Women, Islam and the Moroccan State: The Struggle over the Personal Status Law. Middle East Journal, Vol. 59, No. 3, pages 393-410.
McFaul, M. & Wittes, T.C. (2008). The Limits of Limited Reform. Journal of Democracy, Vol. 19, No. 1, pages 19-33.
Muedini, F. (2012). “The Promotion of Sufism in the Politics of Algeria and Morocco”, Islamic Africa, Vol. 29, No. 3, pages 201-226.
Muedini, F. (forthcoming). “Sponsoring Sufism: How Governments Promote ‘Mystical Islam’ in Domestic and Foreign Policies” (Palgrave Macmillan).
Ottaway, M. & Riley, M. (2006). Morocco: From Top-Down Reform to Democratic Transition? Carnegie Papers, No. 71, pages 1-20.