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Fears grow for Moroccan democracy as pro-monarchy parties dominate
alximo [ PM ]
20 October 2008 17:24
By Heba Saleh, North Africa Correspondent

Published: October 15 2008 03:00 | Last updated: October 15 2008 03:00

When Ahmed Benchemsi, publisher of a Moroccan satirical weekly magazine, found himself in court last year accused of disrespecting King Mohammed in one of his columns, at first he could not understand what the authorities had found offensive.

"I had written way more critical editorials about the king," said Mr Benchemsi. "But the judge said I had described the king in my piece as a 'human being', and addressed him as 'brother'."

This tone was seen as too familiar, he said. "I should have kissed his hand mentally. But I am not a courtier, I am a journalist."

Morocco is held up by the US as a model of reform in a bad region - it stages regular elections, its current prime minister comes from the largest party in parliament, and it has a lively and often irreverent press.

But it also has a king who wields enormous power, a parliament that is almost toothless, and what many call a "shadow" government of royal advisers who make key policy decisions. The government, critics allege, simply executes the king's political programme.

"The monarchy says it wants reform," says one politician. "But it remains very cautious towards change."

One sign of this caution is the recent launch of a party headed by Fouad Ali al Himma, a friend of the king. The Party of Authenticity and Modernity, or PAM, has joined forces with another pro-palace party to form the largest bloc in parliament.

"We fear that this experiment is dragging Morocco to a system in which the state has its own party [which is used to dominate politics] as in Egypt or Tunisia," says Idriss Lashgar of the Socialist Union of Popular Forces, part of the government coalition.

Speculation is rife in Morocco that the king stands behind Mr Ali al Himma and that the purpose of the new party is to form a counterweight to the Islamists of the Party of Justice and Democracy, who have genuine grassroots support.

The PJD is often cited as the best organised party in the country. Last year there were predictions that it would emerge as the strongest force in parliament. But in elections last October the Islamists came a close second - an outcome that spared the king from having to decide whether to choose an Islamist prime minister.

Now, analysts argue, the ruler is keen to reorganise the political landscape to create a modernist pole headed by Mr al Himma's party, which would stand up to the conservatism represented by the Islamists. It is not unusual in Morocco for the palace to create front parties in order to keep other forces in check.

King Hassan, the current monarch's father, spent decades organising the political scene to ensure that it would not produce serious challenges to his rule.

But it was also King Hassan who launched what is known as "alternance" - a process of opening up, under which credible opposition parties were brought into government to share the burden of addressing the country's social and economic problems.

This process has continued and Morocco's current prime minister is from Istiqlal, a nationalist party that continues to enjoy real support. But many critics, mainly in the business community, say governments led by party political leaders have proved less efficient in managing the economy than those led by technocrats chosen by the king.

"The worst of all this is that we can't afford now an absence of the king," said Mr Benchemsi. "The political leaders are too inefficient and the king does well for the economy. If he withdraws we will have either populists or Islamists ruling us. But this is the fault of a system that does not put confidence in people."

Mr Benchemsi was not punished for the alleged disrespect in his column. Last month the judge announced an indefinite postponement of the case. Although the monarch is believed to have intervened to reprieve Mr Benchemsi, his experience typifies the clash between traditional autocratic rule and modern liberal freedoms - one of the central contradictions of Moroccan politics.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008
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