Morocco's King Mohammed VI sacked four ministers and barred five former ministers from ever taking official duties last year. The king's "wrath" comes as a rebuke for the government's poor performance and for "serious dysfunctions" in a five-year development plan launched by the king in 2015 to promote socio-economic development in the northern al-Hoceima region.
The unprecedented move by the Moroccan sovereign is presented as an attempt by the palace to introduce some government accountability. However, the sacking of government ministers is merely the latest example of the increasing royal emasculation of the political class, and an astute deflection from the palace's own responsibility in the current socio-political malaise in Morocco.
More importantly, the latest royal move points to a growing king's dilemma. The regime’s dual strategy of appearing above the political fray, while at the same time managing the political system and opposition forces is increasingly under duress. Through an interplay of discursive and institutional mechanisms of control, the monarchy's constant manipulation of the political party scene and civil society has removed the buffer between the royal institution and the people, and has exposed the palace to direct scrutiny.
This "political earthquake", as many in Morocco have called the royal decision, comes a few months after the king's throne day speech, which laid the blame for current political paralysis in Morocco everywhere else but the monarchical regime. Last July, King Mohammed VI delivered a strongly-worded opprobrium to the political elite chiding them for lack of creativity and for hiding behind the palace.
In so doing, the king cast his institution above and outside the political elite, as if Morocco was a true constitutional monarchy, where the regime is at a distance from the travails of politics. Most notably, the king didn't offer any words or vision that would appease the year-long "Hirak" protests in the Hoceima region. Instead, he later gave amnesty to some imprisoned Hirak activists in a gesture that further consecrates the regime's control of the political system and, ironically, contradicts the narrative the king wove in his speech.
The king's decree to sack government ministers comes a few months after Morocco underwent a political crisis, which hindered the ability of former Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane to form a government due to a political gridlock manufactured by royalist political parties. This showcased the supremacy of the regime vis-a-vis the political class, where popularity and populism are reserved for the monarchy, and not for any one political leader, as Benkirane found out last March.
In the throne day speech last July, the king lamented that: "the evolution witnessed in Morocco in the political domain and in the area of development has not led to the kind of positive reaction you would expect from political parties, leaders, and government officials when dealing with the real aspirations and concerns of Moroccans."
The monarch excoriated those politicians whose "mentalities have not evolved" to match that said evolution. But unlike what the speech leads us to believe, the monarchy is not a passive actor in the Moroccan state edifice. It is well-entrenched in the system, and has for decades fostered a patronage system inimical to transparency and accountability, and conducive to venal practices, rampant in the Moroccan state and its institutions.
The royal decision aims to deflect away from the palace's own shadow cabinet, which in fact holds most political and administrative power, and whose members are the architects of the Makhzen state and Morocco's neo-liberal policies. The kingdom may be, in the words of the sovereign, "enjoying economic dynamism which creates wealth," but that wealth has largely been concentrated in the orbit of the palace and its cronies.
The discontent of the king is paradoxically a result of decades of monarchical control over the political system and its management of the political party scene. The regime has emptied it of any significance and created a political vacuum.
The recycling of party coalitions in the government allowed Morocco's monarchy for years to foster a set of political practices that meet the needs of a modern state with an effective concentration of power. The Moroccan monarchy has a long tradition of manipulating opposition parties through cooptation within the formal political sphere, allowing them some stake in nominal power.
In Morocco's political system, all political parties must submit to the regime as a prerequisite for political participation. Moroccan governments historically have been subverted by the monarchy's far-reaching prerogatives and constitutional powers.
No government has had the effective political mandate to govern. This has weakened the political parties in Morocco, which for the most part suffer from a lack of mobilisation capacity. Elite consensus on the supremacy of the regime prevents political parties from directly challenging the king's power. The regime's ability to co-opt new bases of political appeal clutters the public sphere, making it less open to alternatives from opposition forces.
The regime's manipulation of the political system is intentionally fragmented into "divided structures of contestation", as the monarchy allows select political opponents to take part in the political system while excluding others. These spheres of political contestation condition government-opposition relations and dictate the rules of the game under which the opposition plays within the formal political system. The resulting recycling of political parties and coalitions is necessary to maintain the facade of political participation.
But this strategy has run its course. While it has sustained the monarchy in the past, the monarchy's constant control over the political sphere is ill-devised in the post-Arab uprisings, where the protests of February 20 and the current Hirak movement in al-Hoceima have somewhat demystified the monarchy. The duality between regime and state that the Palace has woven for decades to shield its edifice from any reproach is no longer plausible in the eyes of an increasing number of Moroccans. The monarchy’s consistent attempt to face new challenges to the state with old autocratic tools shows significant fissures. Street demands would have been absorbed by civil society and channelled through institutional mechanisms if the Makhzen, at the behest of the palace, hadn't impoverished the political scene and enfeebled its most promising actors. The king's scathing criticism of the political elite is, in fact, a critique of his Makhzen. Moroccans would welcome a true neutral stance from the monarchy, which might ease in turn the looming king's dilemma.