Indeed, Morocco faces many similar challenges as its neighbors on issues of unemployment, inequality, and political participation. Simply looking at the most recent UN human development index suggests Morocco’s standing is comparable, if not lower than that of Tunisia and Egypt on key indicators measuring quality of life. Yet, the monarchy has been able to resist the forceful revolutions that we witnessed in other countries in the region. That is not to say Moroccans are less engaged or active as their neighbors – protests have been taking place weekly over the past year.
During my recent visit to Morocco, I often heard citizens express their confidence in the ability of King Mohammed VI to fulfill their demands for greater democratic change. Another message was relayed – namely that Morocco is an exception to the recent movement sweeping across the region – this belief anchored in numerous explanations of why Morocco is ‘different,’ including the country’s unique history, its strong economic ties to Europe, and the presence of a more moderate version of Islam. Regardless, recent events in the region have made clear that there are no guarantees against the powerful force of social discontent stemming from unemployment, corruption, and increasing inequality. These issues will eventually need to be dealt with head on.
In recent constitutional changes, the King acknowledged the economic and political benefits of regionalization – including better provision of public services and improved representation. The reforms would shift power and resources from the center to the regions. The revisions would empower regional councils that are directly elected by voters instead of regional representatives that are currently appointed by the executive. Nonetheless, the push towards greater regionalization is not new in Morocco – the government has been pursuing a gradual, controlled process of regionalization as far back as independence.
Traveling to the town of Meknès helped to concretize the significance of this reform and illustrated the regional and social disparities that have been part of the reason for recent protests. In Morocco, the urban-rural divide is particularly pronounced – per capita household consumption in rural areas is only 54 percent of that in Morocco’s urban areas. While progress has been made in the access and the quality of public services, notably in major cities, it is still uneven and often substandard in remote or rural areas. Furthermore, there is a lack of a client-focus and complaints that local administrations are plagued with discretion and arbitrariness in delivering essential services. Evidently, the lack of standard administrative procedures and service standards in addition to weak mechanisms for user feedback and recourse open the door to such arbitrariness.
Traveling deeper into the village of Boufkerane illustrated a significant gap between social classes and administrative authorities and a struggle that exists in ensuring adequate representation on the local level. For example, the council president, chosen by secret ballot, presents the budget and applies the decisions of the council. But what was most evident was that real power is exercised by the ‘pasha’ who acts as an intermediary between the council and the Ministry of Interior – the force who ultimately holds the final decision-making authority. The hope behind the regionalization process is that it will adequately address the striking challenges in resources, mandate, and capacity, and the limited ability to respond to the demands of the population at the local level. This will require more local participation in decision-making processes and civic engagement, more visibility, transparency, and accountability of regional administrations, a greater shared responsibility between citizens, their elected representatives and government as well as more self-defined (and governed) regional development.
The initial excitement over the recent events in the Middle East and North Africa has transformed into what seems to be a more realistic analysis of what the future holds. There are many uncertainties and as we have clearly witnessed in the region, transition is a difficult and complex process. Not everyone makes it out smoothly. The real challenge is undergoing a reform process that is real, genuine, and meaningful. This process takes time and, while we all want overnight change, the method of gradual and sincere reform is, ultimately, what we are all hoping to eventually achieve for the region. Maybe that is what will ultimately set Morocco apart from its neighbors – a steady and sincere reform process that redefines the relationship between the citizen and the State. The political will seems to be there but the jury is still out.