Transformation through Monarchy
in Morocco and Jordan
In 1999 two young Arab kings succeeded their fathers to the throne: King
Hussein of Jordan had reigned for 46 years and King Hassan of Morocco
for 36 years, when their eldest sons, Abdullah and Mohammed (both born
in the first half of the sixties) succeeded them. The new kings have a
European education and distinctly westernized behaviour. It is for this
reason that many observers were expecting a legitimacy crisis. But thus
far, the two monarchs seem to propose a different conception of
political order which has gained widespread support: they are regarded
as the new heralds of Moroccan and Jordanian youth. The support of the
youth is one of the major challenges in societies where more than half
of the population is under 25 years of age.
The new kings of Morocco and Jordan both benefit on the national level
from the inherited royal legitimation, on the international level from
the support of the Clinton-administration and on the personal level from
an effort to introduce a new concept of authority. The rumour that King
Abdullah went around the country in disguise talking to people in a
government hospital or in the bureaucracy in order to avoid being
isolated from the complaints of the masses is not unsubstantiated.
Mohammed VI is called by teenagers 'M 6' or 'King of the Poor'. In 1987
he received his diploma in political science from the University of
Rabat. Six years later he submitted his doctoral thesis at the
University of Nice on the cooperation between the Maghreb and the
European Union. Meanwhile he accompanied Jacques Delors, in his capacity
as President of the European Commission, for eight months in order to
learn EU diplomatic policy making. Contrary to many comments after the
death of his father, Mohammed VI was prepared to succeed him but did not
play an important public role within the court ceremony nor had he
voiced any political opinions prior. What was formally known as the
'reign of hiba' (fear) is now being transplanted by a wave of trust.
New values or better public relations?
It is too early to evaluate the sustainability of the introduction of
new norms and values and the direct influence of this discourse on
Realpolitik. It was, without a doubt, a courageous act when Mohammed VI
ousted long-term Minister of Interior, Driss Basri, after 25 years. This
event supports the hypothesis that the more humble behaviour of the
heads of states and a new etiquette at the royal palaces is not merely a
masquerade or political tactics. Further research is necessary, however,
to analyse the effectiveness of the changing images of Mohammed VI and
Abdullah II in order to assess their influence on the collective
One important historical study on Morocco has been presented by Abdellah
Hammoudi, who has examined 'the exact ways in which these abstract
principles of legitimation are vested with an emotional impact
sufficient to foster action' (Hammoudi 1997: 2). The author looked at
the ideological and cultural foundations of the persistent
authoritarianism from an anthropological point of view. From a political
science approach, new questions arise in order to explore whether and
how the images of both kings foster legitimacy among the youth. It needs
to be assessed whether and how Mohammed VI can still be the sacred
commander of the faithful and at the same time break through the
authoritarian style of rule. The recent web chats among Moroccans that
have appeared - with the anonymity of the Internet - containing
questions about the possibility that a descendant of the Prophet be gay,
show the sensitivity of this debate.
Hassan II: the last king of divine right in Morocco?
The relationship between the Moroccan king and his subjects is one of
direct allegiance. The televised ceremony of allegiance, performed every
year on March 3, equals the submission of the whole population in one
instant. The monarchy becomes the one point of reference for the vast
majority of Moroccans. The opposition journalist Hamid Berrada pointed
out that when the people mourned the loss of their father in July 1999
this was not a metaphor; they had been literally turned into orphans.
The strength of the monarchy lies in its direct religious ties between
the king-sultan-caliph and the subject-believer-citizen. '[A]ttacking
him would be both a crime and a sacrilege - inseparable notions in this
logic - at once a violation of divine law and the desacralization of a
figure of Islamic piety', notes Hammoudi (1997: 13). The identification
with the leader is not only based on divine authority and sharifian
descent, but also derived from the anti-colonial stance of the monarchy.
Due to Moroccan colonial history, identification with the regime is much
greater than in any other Arab country.
What constitutes legitimacy?
The point of departure here is the assumption that religious conceptions
of order and legitimacy do not only have a dogmatic dimension but are
also part of a changing social praxis. Legitimacy is not understood as
an inherent characteristic of monarchical rule as such, but as the
result of a process of bargaining and counterbalancing. The Alawite
dynasty that has ruled Morocco since the 17th century has relied on very
flexible conceptions of order and legitimacy, which partly explains
their continuous and stable rule. The Makhzen's (literally 'storehouse'
- centre of power, state) strategy to counterbalance urban and tribal
society, Arab and Berber, reformers and the orthodoxy, and opposition
and the centre of power, has a long successful history in Morocco.
The sacralization of the monarchy in the post-colonial constitution of
1962 (Art. 23) can be seen as one example of the (re-)construction of
religiously founded conceptions of political legitimacy in contemporary
Morocco. The constitution, originally a secular instrument, now
establishes the sacredness of the person of the king - an idea
completely alien to classical Islamic law. Hereditary monarchy is
another concept that is highly controversial among Muslim scholars. Even
the ceremony of the bay'a (oath of allegiance to the sultan/king) does
not mean a return to Muslim traditions, but is very much a backward
production. Today high officials from the Ministry of Interior and
members of parliament are swearing allegiance - and the ulema as well.
The combination of traditional form with modern content is supposed to
constitute historical continuity and therefore legitimacy.
A new challenge for Islamist opposition groups
Whereas their fathers had been proponents of an authoritarian cultural
symbolism, their young successors depict themselves as citizens among
citizens. The mosque of Hassan II in Casablanca is an architectural
manifestation of the former tradition-bound authority (see ISIM
Newsletter 3/99). In Morocco, streets and public buildings are either
named after Hassan II or Mohammed V but never after ordinary citizens.
Mohammed VI is still considered to be a direct successor of the prophet
in the 36th generation. This line of legitimation is not being erased
now, but is mixed with elements of modern popular culture.
The young king's new semiology represents a cultural re-evaluation in
the Middle East. It is being debated whether the obvious metamorphosis
of the holy will end in a position of the king comparable to the Spanish
monarch after Franco. Or is Mohammed VI just trying to secure the
position of the crown above the constitution by applying a modern
In both cases, the new symbolism means a different challenge for the
Islamist opposition than the types of regime with which they were
formerly confronted. So far they had presented themselves as the 'voice
of the poor'. Faced with a choice, many young people now prefer the
cosmopolitan outlook of their young leader to the inward looking
worldview of the Islamists who demand not to listen to music or to
separate the sexes.
The importance and profundity of certain actions can best be deciphered
by the reactions they call forth: In November 1999, Abdessalam Yassine,
the leader of the most important Moroccan Islamist group al-Adl
wal-Ihsan (Justice and Welfare) wrote a remarkable letter addressing
Mohammed VI. Yassine depicts the young monarch as highly admired by
Moroccan youth. '[They] regard him as a friend, a symbol of liberation
and a promise for a better future. During the first weeks of his reign,
and wherever his inaugural campaign took him, the young king is greeted
with genuine and youthful enthusiasm. The Makhzen machinery, which
organised the funeral of the late Hassan II, plays a full role to
present to the crowd, overcome with cheers, a young man having great
presence, smiling and gesturing benevolently to the warm welcome of the
Despite Yassine's proposal to repatriate the royal family's fortune in
order to reduce Morocco's foreign debt, poverty and the unemployment
rate - a proposal considered offensive by the king and therefore
censured - Yassine in his letter does not suggest that Mohammed VI is
not to be trusted or that his mission has already failed. 'In this
beginning of November 1999, the young king has won the first round in
his glorious battle against "l'empire du mal". He has dismissed the
central pillar of the Makhzen. Hassan's odd-job man. Hassan's right-hand
man. Public enemy 2... In his speeches, the new king talks about a "new
concept of authority". He has brilliantly proven that he intends to act
accordingly. However, does he really intend to break off with the past?
Can he do so? When is the great revolution to take place?' (Yassine:
The old generation of leaders in the Middle East chose to counter the
growing tide of Islamism with more and more public space for a
paternalistic interpretation of what were deemed to be Muslim traditions
and practices. With the death of Hassan II, many observers doubted
whether Mohammed VI would acquire the spiritual authority as commander
of the faithful and the theological authority as highest religious
scholar that would guarantee him the support of the ulema. Now it seems
that this might not even be his strongest asset against the Islamist
opposition. It will be of interest for the whole Arab world to see which
notions of legitimacy and type of power will be put forward in a society
which is heavily struck by a crisis of religious and political meaning.
* Yassine explained that he had originally written the Memorandum in
French in order to reach Morocco's westernized French-speaking elite who
regard Arabic as a '"vernacular" language used only to communicate with
- Hammoudi, Abdellah (1997). Master and Disciple: The Cultural
Foundations of Moroccan Authoritarianism. Chicago.
- Yassine, Abdessalam (1999): Unpublished Memorandum.