Arab Spring: Why was Morocco so Different?

Emily Kelkar



Arab Spring: Why was Morocco so Different?

The Arab Spring occurred in many different countries throughout Africa and the Middle East from 2011-2012. The effects of this revolutionary and reformist movement were different in every country and can still be felt today. Morocco was one of the less violent uprisings because the leader at the time, King Mohammed VI, was willing to make concessions and compromises with the reformists that avoided the dramatic regime changes that occurred across the region.[1] The protests led to government changes and a new constitution, which appeased the people enough to avoid violence. The people wanted an elected and accountable government, who would have control over Morocco’s social, economic, and security policies with the election of prime minister coming from the parliament and not the king.[2] The three most important issues that drove the differences in the Arab Spring in Morocco versus other parts of the region were: the system was already one of the more liberal authoritarian systems in North Africa and the Middle East; the monarchy willing gave way to a series of political, economic, and social reform projects; and a new constitution was created.[3] In this paper I will discuss the lead up to, events of, and conclusions from the Arab Spring in Morocco, along with how it was similar and dissimilar to the other countries in the region, including the key choices made by the King that allowed him to maintain much of his power when many other rulers in the region lost everything.

The events leading up to the Arab Spring in Morocco were similar to the other countries in North Africa and the Middle East because of the intense desire, mostly by young people, for governmental and social reforms. The narrative that came with the beginning of the Arab Spring was that peaceful protesters were attempting to overthrow oppressive regimes for a more democratic and better economic future.[4] The dissatisfaction with the various governments was diverse, but the main problems were lack of employment, poverty, authoritarian regimes, and a frustration with corruption.[5] Poverty and employment rates, even among educated people, throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa had continued to increase until they came to a head in 2010 in Tunisia.[6] The authoritarian regimes had consolidated their power, limited opposing opinions, and carried out human rights abuses against their citizens.[7] Another issue came from the government subsidizations of food and fuel benefiting the wealthy at the expense of the poor. While Morocco had a relatively healthier economy and lower unemployment than most of its neighbors, there was significant unrest caused by the fact that only 34% of Moroccans were covered by the national health insurance plan. [8] While not as combustible as other nations in the region, Morocco clearly had a series of factors that drove the country to protest.

Social media was an important factor in the Arab Spring movement because it enabled people to get their message widely distributed and gave a voice to the people who normally would not be part of such a movement.[9] Social media allowed a message to reach a larger audience and helped bring people together over common issues; it also helped people realize they were not alone. The movements would probably still have spread, but without the same fervor as with social media because while traditional media is influential, less people are able to give their opinions and be heard. The government can also sensor the media and keep dissidents from coming forward and raising their concerns. However, despite the reach of social media it does not always lead to revolution because the people speaking out against the government need to come forward and formally oppose the oppressor.[10] Overall, social media had a major impact on the success of the Arab Spring because of its ability to influence people and bond them together for one cause.

Organizations of civil society were also instrumental in the protests leading up to the Arab Spring. The labor movements in Tunisia and Egypt were major parts of the protests.[11] Mass turnouts at events is a pivotal aspect to a protest movement calling for reform because the more people oppose the government, the more likely they are to listen to what the people have to say and it is less likely the movement can be brought down quietly. Organization in any movement, but especially political movements is important because the more organized a group is, the more the country’s leaders need to pay attention to the message and they cannot be written off easily.

In Morocco, the protests were carried out for similar reasons as the rest of the countries and the Arab Spring protests in other North African countries inspired them to seek their own various freedoms. Their main issues were with political and economic reform centered around: reform against police brutality, electoral fraud, political censorship, and high unemployment.[12] The first protests in Morocco started on February 20, 2011 (thereafter named the “February 20th Movement”)[13] where the citizens called for a constitutional monarchy, an elected and accountable government, and constitution reforms.[14] What sets Morocco apart from many of the other Middle Eastern and Northern African countries is that they were calling for reform instead of revolution.[15] They did not ask King Mohamed VI to leave office, but did want the election of the prime minister to be by parliament and not by the king.[16] King Mohamed VI’s family had ruled Morocco as a stable monarchy for more than 300 years.[17] The people revered the royal family but also wanted some changes. Another interesting factor is that the two main parties the Islamist Justice and Development Party and the Socialist Union of Popular Forces remained quiet and distanced themselves from the young people at the heart of the reform movement.[18] This created a divide in the country and put the political establishment on the side of the monarchy. This has been referred to as the “Moroccan Exception” in that while the people, especially the young people, wanted change, they did not have political parties seize on their agenda to force a total regime change. The government was therefore not forced to violently crack down on the protestors (as had happened in most other countries) but rather look for ways to appease them and make some basic, rather than revolutionary, changes.[19]

The non-violence of the protests was much different then in other places in the Middle East and North Africa because in many other countries the Arab Spring led to violent crackdowns on the protestors and bloody revolutions. In Morocco, the most violent suppression came in Casablanca on March 13th, but resulted in no deaths.[20] This reflected the reformist, not revolutionary, nature of the protests. The citizens wanted to bring about real change that would last longer than what a revolution could bring them and because of their protests on July 1, 2011 a new constitution was drafted and put to the people in the form of a referendum.[21] These changes allowed Morocco to avoid a longer confrontation and led to lower fewer and fewer protests in the subsequent months.[22] The citizens of Morocco decided it was in their best interest to discontinue the protesting against the government, and instead decided to work with the government because they had seen what happened with the uncertainty in Tunisia and Egypt and the violence in Libya and Syria and they believed in the benefits of their new constitution.[23] The proactiveness of the King in addressing certain of the citizen’s concerns and giving hope of new constitutional revisions, led to the ability of Morocco to avoid bloodshed.

Political openness was another factor in mitigating the protests in Morocco by enabling conversations with the government instead of making people believe that only a full revolution would make a difference. This openness led to the creation of many politically oriented groups.[24] These groups focus mainly on women and children’s rights, human rights in general, and the advancement of the Amazigh movement (indigenous people of Morocco).[25] The constitution modeled many of its changes on the US constitution including “guaranteeing” people the right to life, physical and moral integrity, right to a fair trial, freedom of press, and gender equality.[26] Mohamad VI created an institution meant to oversee the actual implementation of gender equality.[27] While these rights seem obvious to most Western countries, they were not seen throughout much of the Middle East and Northern Africa, especially the advancement of women’s rights. Along with the advancement of human rights, the increase of support for the Amazigh indigenous people, including making their language Tamazight a national language, showed great progress.[28] These advances and changes are what kept the country from absolute turmoil and helped reach peaceful conclusions Morocco’s neighbors could only dream of.

Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, civil society had been a major part of the political system of Morocco for many years, which led to a higher level of public trust and perceived impact of the constitutional changes. Many people believe these societies have the ability to influence the government and policies made.[29] The 2002 Law of Associations helped foster this relationship with the public because now creating a civil society organization was easier than ever and more people felt like they could be involved in changing their country.[30] The power of giving people a voice can be seen as a positive force throughout history, and can have a great impact on how change is made. Unlike most Middle East and Northern African countries, Moroccan citizens only need to register their association with local authorities rather than requiring prior approval, making the process much smoother and easier to navigate.[31] When people feel like they are in charge of their own destinies and can affect policy for the better, they are less likely to resort to violence because negotiating is the more beneficial path for all parties involved. Even though the system in Morocco is not perfect, they have a general lack of restrictive regulations and censorship, making it the preferred channel for political engagement because, contrary to the way things may often seem, both the people and the government have the same goals – to prosper and to be heard. The ability to have conversations instead of needing military intervention is the main reason the Arab Spring in Morocco did not go the violent route its neighbors did and kept the situation from escalating any more than it needed to. Whenever human rights or indigenous people’s rights are discussed or called to the forefront, they can create an uphill battle between the government and its people because the issues faces are deeply personal.

A key aspect that minimized the impact of the Arb Spring was something the Moroccan King had done several years before in creating the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.[32] This commission allowed for past victims of human rights abuses to talk about crimes the state committed, even those done under Hassan II, Mohamed VI’s father.[33] After the creation of this commission, a survey in 2009 found Mohamed VI’s approval rating was now over 90%.[34] Within a month of the February 20 protests, the King announced a committee whose task it was to revise the constitution and he appointed trusted reformers and experts to draft such constitution, which was the fifth since Morocco’s independence in 1956.[35] The new constitution was the most liberal since independence because the people had more independence to elect officials and had more control over the judiciary.[36] Mohamed VI came across as an understanding leader because he was seen as a champion for the people and their demands and seemed willing to adapt to a new political reality to avoid the type of Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt.[37] Being seen as open to reform is almost as important as the reforms themselves because again the people feel like they are being heard and have a say in what happens in their country.

Even though the constitution was the most liberal since independence and promoted gender equality and heightened the importance of the Tamazight, the way it was designed was challenged by some as too controlled by the King. The officials granted the ability to form the constitution were appointed by the King and therefore were loyal to him instead of to the people.[38] In addition, public debates were avoided in favor of a quick fix to focus on approval ratings and television stations tended to air more opinions in favor of the “yes vote” on the constitution.[39] The King also used Quranic verses and made disagreement a sacrilege not just a crime in order to keep people for asking for more.[40] Vote rigging and lax identification and registration requirements created lots of doubt on the fairness of the referendum.[41] These issues still plague Morocco today and may lead to another incident in the future. In many ways, from a Western perspective the process could be viewed as “rigged” but for a Arab monarchy, they may have been the only way to get something done quickly. In many ways, the King achieved significant liberal results with very illiberal means.[42]

Critical to the success of the Moroccan Exception is that the King made changes before real protests could take root, thereby quelling dissent and cementing his image as a reform-minded ruler, who desired political stability but was amenable to the wishes of his people.[43] He was able to translate the revolutionary spirit into reforms and guided the country toward a more liberal and democratic government.[44] The West and the East both credited Mohamad with the ability to keep Morocco “stable” and gave their support for the reforms. The NGO Freedom House raised the country’s status from “not free” to “partly free” following the reforms.[45] However, even with all the good that came out of the protests in Morocco, there was still the question of the King’s powers and how to possibly limit them. The political parties taking a bystander role could possibly lead to more challenges because they could have been part of the reform movement and stood with the people, but instead they let the King take all the credit. The problem with this divisiveness between the political parties and the people is that they do not know how to work together to create change.

Even with all of the changes, Morocco still has significant areas to improve the welfare of the people. In order to decrease the probability of future unrest, improvements in public health, education, and social welfare need to be implemented. The government needs to continue to take an interest in its people to improve their quality of life in order to keep the people from protesting again. Economic growth would be a solution to improving the quality of life and it must keep up with the population growth, especially with the working age urban population because poverty was one of the main problems that led to the Arab Spring in the first place.

In many ways, the Arab Spring in Morocco was seen as a success because of the liberal reforms and more democratic type of government. The King has remained in place, but a new party, the Islamic Justice and Development Party (PJD) which was not one of the leading parties before the Arab Spring has emerged as the leading party in the parliament in terms of elected members, and due to the constitutional reforms, the King had to pick a Prime Minister from this party. The PJD was successful in elections because they are not seen as corrupt.[46] They also sought steady reforms rather than tying to get everything at once, which helped maintain stability and order in Morocco.[47] This was different from Egypt and Tunisia where their main goal was to dethrone their rulers, creating lots of social instability and unrest. Their governments were put on the defensive and were forced to act out with violence instead of being able to come to the table and discuss what the options were. The scene in Tunisia and Egypt had a profound impact on both the Moroccan people and government because no one wanted to repeat what had happened in those two countries where violence and instability were everywhere.[48] This is probably why Mohamad VI was so willing to meet the protesters half-way and visa versa because they knew their goals were the same: keep the country stable and able to prosper. The other reason the conflict never turned violent was that the banned Justice and Charity movement, the more extreme Islamist group, refused to use violence against the King or the regime, so he never needed to worry about using violence against them.[49] On the other hand, critiques are unsure that the reforms went far enough because they say the King kept too much power, specifically in the religious and military sectors.[50] Even with the critics, the PJD seems happy with the political changes and favors a gradual reform process, rather than a complete overhaul of the system as seen in Tunisia and Egypt.[51] The important part about governing is knowing that with compromises, both sides will be a little unhappy, the leaders simply have to find a balance in the unhappiness.

Morocco and the PJD still face serious obstacles because of the rapid population growth, limited natural resources, high unemployment rates especially among young university graduates, and the almost crisis about the Western Sahara with the United States, a traditional ally of Morocco. The threat of jihadists also remains because of factions within the country of extremists, but the PJD has tried to engage with them in the political system by releasing some of the clerics from jail.[52] This form of governing is essential to bringing the country together and giving everyone a voice because that was the main goal of the young people when they started the call for reformation. The jihadists cannot challenge the government, or would have a very hard time doing so, because they were elected with free and fair elections and are trying to open a dialogue with everyone in Morocco, not just the people in power. In Morocco, jihadist violence would be viewed much more as terrorism than as “freedom fighters”.

Overall, the reformist movement in Morocco was successful because Mohamed VI and the rest of the government considered the people’s needs and changed the constitution accordingly. The protesters also played a large role in the success of the movement because they did not turn the engagement violent and were willing to work within the political system instead of completely abandoning it like in other countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa. The ability for slow and steady reform allowed for people to all come together and have faith in the government and each other to do what was right for themselves and the country as a whole. While Morocco is in far from perfect shape, they now have the foundation for open dialogue between the government and the people with the free elections of parliament members and accessibility to powerful people. The threat of jihadist violence will possibly always remain in the background in Morocco, but with the jihadists being willing to work with the government and not only against it the country should be able to find solutions where everyone is a little uncomfortable. Taking care of minorities and listening to their views will help Morocco in the future because they will be able to help the people who need it and also listen to other views and ideas, even from people in the parties not in power. They will need to figure out a way to continue economic growth at the same rate that the population is growing, but by investing in more jobs outside of agriculture in major cities, they should be able to keep the prosperity of the country.

The Arab Spring showed the different sides a reformist movement can take from the violent side in Egypt and Tunisia to the mostly peaceful and compromising side in Morocco. The introduction of social media into this movement was especially important because it gave young people a voice and allowed them to vent their frustrations about the lack of jobs and overall poverty. The movement became accessible to everyone and while this is not always the case with social media, in Morocco it turned out to be a positive medium for formulating and articulating ideas. People realized their struggles were not only their own, but that many people had the same thoughts and feelings about their situations, regardless of whether they were educated or not. The decision by the Moroccan government to not use violence to shut down the movement and instead agree to change the constitution and provide rights for more people showed how reforms could be put in place, even if Mohamed VI was only doing it to quell the uprisings it was still a good gesture and viewed as a positive step both in Morocco and around the world. Morocco may have set the tone for other countries to favorably change their own constitutions, bring equal rights to minorities and women, and give more people a say in government.


Works Cited

Lawrence, Adria. “The Mixed Record of Morocco’s February 20 Protest Movement,” Washington Post, February 20, 2016.


Sater, James. “Morocco’s.” Middle East Institute, 1 Oct. 2011,


Tawil, Camille. “Morocco’s Stability in the Wake of the Arab Spring.” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 23 May 2103,


Totten, Michael. “Is Morocco the Model for Arab Democracy?” The Tower, August 2013.


Verlin, Percia. “Morocco and the Arab Spring.” SIR Journal, 26 Feb. 2015,
















[13] Adria Lawrence, “The Mixed Record of Morocco’s February 20 Protest Movement,” Washington Post, February 20, 2016.




[17] Michael Totten, “Is Morocco the Model for Arab Democracy?” The Tower, August 2013.


[19] Lawrence, 2016.























[42] Totten, 2013.



[45] Totten, 2013.