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Journal of Democracy 13.4 (2002) 24-32

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Democratization in the Arab World?

Depoliticization in Morocco

Abdeslam M. Maghraoui

In the 1950s, Morocco was one of the rare newly independent states to embark on a path of political pluralism and market economics. The following decades saw successive governments enact reforms establishing a relatively open political and economic system. And yet, almost half a century on, the country remains authoritarian.

Why? Though favorable to democracy on the surface, Morocco's liberal reforms have actually worked against it by depoliticizing the public sphere. By "depoliticization" I mean the marginalization of questions of legitimacy or sovereignty and—in the Moroccan case especially—the concomitant political primacy given to economic issues. Having unremittingly framed economic questions in strictly technical terms, the monarchy has succeeded in sidestepping a fundamental debate on the sources and distribution of power in the Moroccan political system. Parties that might have spearheaded democratic reform have meanwhile diluted their demands and embraced the monarchy's claim that the country simply needs better economic management.

Morocco's trajectory over the past five decades sheds light on both the slow advance of democratization throughout the Arab world and the relationship between political and economic reform in the region—indicating that hopes placed in gradual liberalization there may be misplaced. Throughout the region, one can find widespread support for the rationalization of economic relations (particularly among business representatives and technocratic elites), economic justice and equity (among nationalist parties, trade unions, and Islamic groups), or civil [End Page 24] entitlements abstracted from a clear political philosophy of rights (among human and cultural rights groups). But support for democratic principles remains sparse and ambivalent.

My contention is that this imbalance results from the depoliticization of Arab societies. By the 1990s, significant economic liberalization had also occurred in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. 1 But political reforms have not only lagged behind economic adjustment; 2 economic imperatives have been used strategically, across the board, to delay political reform. For example, Morocco's late King Hassan II (r. 1962-99) asked the World Bank to provide a report on the state of that country's economy, and then used the report to argue in parliament for the priority of economic reforms over constitutional change. Recently, the heads of state of Jordan, Syria, and Algeria have made similar arguments. Indeed, the strategy of putting political rights on hold in the name of social or economic imperatives has been a characteristic of most Arab political regimes since the end of colonial rule. 3

Economic Liberalization and the Retreat of Politics

Since the time of its independence in 1956, Morocco has engaged in three cycles of economic liberalization: 1) a period of monetary stabilization (1965-83); 2) a structural adjustment program (1983-92); and 3) a program of mise 'a niveau (or "upgrading") intended to restructure Moroccan firms so as to increase their capacity and competitiveness in preparation for free trade with Europe (1995 to the present).

Stabilization. In 1960, Morocco abruptly canceled its first National Plan, which had followed the state-centered model then popular among newly independent nations. The government embarked on a new "mixed economy," in which the public sector assumed the role of stimulator to free enterprise, and signed a series of aid and loan conventions with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to strengthen private entrepreneurship. Stabilization programs lasted roughly until 1983 and focused on budgetary savings through higher taxes and cuts in social programs and subsidies. 4 However, the measures ultimately failed to solve Morocco's economic problems because the very political structure that created them in the first place remained untouched.

Through the creation of state companies in the country's more profitable industries (such as irrigated agriculture, food processing, tourism, banking, construction, and manufacturing), the monarchy used the public sector to control and reward prominent domestic allies. Typically, the state bought out failing companies and resold them at nominal prices to the king's associates once they became profitable—that is, once the public treasury paid for new infrastructure and the public sector...