At a quick glance, the Middle Eastern monarchies appear to have emerged from the Arab Spring relatively unscathed. The uprisings of the past year and a half proved fatal only to those regimes whose institutional roots lacked the historical depth of the Arab world’s kings, emirs, and sultans. But the monarchs themselves have not escaped popular pressure, and now find themselves following the Moroccan Model to tighten their grip.
Morocco’s King Mohammed VI stood out as the Great Exception of the Arab Spring when he proposed a new constitution last March, barely three weeks into domestic unrest. But the King’s benevolent sacrifices have since proved to be the shrewd calculations of a good politician.
Morocco’s new constitution outlined ambitious changes, including real parliamentary elections and a prime minister selected from the majority party. But the much-lauded election last November succeeded only in electing a man with no power over 37 of Morocco’s core posts, whose elevation became a wedge between his and other Islamist opposition parties, and whose title takes the place of the crown as the focal point of popular anger.
With the domestic and international heat off, the king and palace elites have since returned to old ways. Vocal critics like rapper El Haked are again being arrested, while police pin trumped-up drug charges on more subtle dissidents like blogger Mohamed Daadaoui or political cartoonist Khalid Gueddar. Shantytowns constructed since protests began last year are again being demolished, while the government throws massive resources at an unpopular and unnecessary high-speed rail line. And the latest round of international negotiations over Western Sahara are being undermined by endemic misinformation, suppression of Sahrawi protesters, and the Palace’s concerted effort to discredit the UN’s special envoy, Christopher Ross.
All the while the U.S. has held Morocco aloft as a beacon of imagined freedom, as “a model for what can achieved,” as Hillary Clinton put it this February in Rabat. And Arab monarchs from the Gulf to Jordan have proved all too willing to follow. Kuwait’s emir is cycling through one parliament after another to contain reformist MP’s while Jordan’s king tries to get out in front of anger over a new electoral law. Oman’s sultan is jailing bloggers like Mahmoud Al-Rawahi for defamation while Bahrain’s king has activist Nabeel Rajab serving three months for a tweet.
The future of reform within these countries, if any at all, will likely bypass the spectacular upheavals of Egypt and Tunisia. A more gradual phase of reform ought to offer U.S. policymakers, still wary from last year’s turbulence, the prospect of a more organized response to ensure real reform happens. But the first test of conditioning earnest change from a supposedly sincere Arab monarch has already come, and so far the U.S. has let itself be duped.
The Moroccan Model stands as a guide for all the struggling monarchs of the Arab world to not only overcome internal pressure, but to become stronger as a result. All the while, King Mohammed VI has exposed that, whether consciously or not, the U.S. is all too eager to settle for a wink and a nod.