Global Currents article

Conservatism and Liberalism in Morocco: A Conflictual Dynamic in the Post Arab Uprising Era

What are the oppositional dynamics between liberalism and conservatism in Moroccan society in the wake of the so called “Arab spring,” the popular uprisings that swept through North Africa and the Middle East five years ago? This is the central question animating my reflection. The legacy of the “Spring” leads us to several questions: How did the Arab uprising affect the conflictual dynamic between conservatism and liberalism in Morocco? How does the state’s political regime reinforce this conflict? How does the regime employ elements of modernity in order to maintain tradition (as they interpret it)? Why does conservatism have enduring traction? Why is liberalism rejected by a large part of the society itself? And do liberal and conservative groups have a vision and a project for society?

To answer these questions, we need to understand the Moroccan political context. Morocco is an executive and absolute monarchy where King Mohammad VI is considered the commander of the faithful. The king holds complete governmental powers (executive, legislative, and judiciary) and supreme religious authority. Accordingly, the religious apparatus is linked politically to the monarchy and works within the framework of the state’s religious policy. In the context of the Arab popular uprisings, Morocco’s protest movement was launched by a youth coalition on February 20th, 2011, and soon spread to 53 cities, including several major cities. The coalition demanded democracy, freedom, dignity, and social justice. King Mohammad VI responded by announcing a popular referendum in July of that year for constitutional reforms, while also integrating the “moderate” Islamist party (Parti de la Justice et du Développement) into the government as the head of the parliamentary coalition after the managed legislative elections in November 2011. Those two major steps helped mitigate public discontent, ensuring the longevity of the political regime, especially the autocratic monarchy. However, the reforms reinforced paradoxical phenomena which issued from a simultaneous effort to retain traditional social institutions and culture, and to adopt some aspects of liberalism related to secularism, freedom, and human rights. For example, one of the most recent points of conflict between conservatism and liberalism is the call by feminist groups for full gender equality in inheritance law. While some human rights provisions were added to the constitution to promote such equality, as explained below, caveats permit inequality to continue.

The majority of Moroccan youth who protested and aspired to political change are caught in a “conflict between the values of an imposed modernization and traditional values [that] has yet to be settled” (Ben layashi, 2012, p. 149). In Morocco, liberalism is accepted at the economic level but not yet at the societal level around certain social issues, like gender equality. In fact, the attitude of Moroccan youth towards secular and religious spheres alike is extremely ambivalent, sometimes resulting in a creative synthesis of ostensibly clashing values and modes of praxis. For instance, young men may want to have a girlfriend and to carry on a sexual relationship outside of marriage. Yet women are expected to enter into marriage as virgins; as a result some undergo operations to restore or reconstruct the hymen once they find a groom.

The imposed modernization coming initially from the colonial era and now more so from globalization is referred to by its detractors as “westernization.” Liberal civic groups borrowed modernization models wholesale from western societies, especially from France and the United States, and did not produce an endogenous vision and process to modernize society and update societal traditions without erasing identity. As such, liberalism is generally regarded as illegitimate. Given its lack of local roots, this form of liberalism requires top-down imposition, ironically leading both liberals and conservatives to coincide in their support for Morocco’s autocratic regime.

As mentioned above, the 2011 constitution reinforces the traditional role (the sanctity) of the monarch as a commander of the faithful, and keeps modernity as a façade to justify the royal monopoly over spiritual and temporal powers, with the latter defined again by the non-separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers. One of the major characteristics of the Moroccan regime is the use of modern elements by the traditional political apparatus to maintain and preserve its autocratic nature. This is referred to as “change for continuity.” When faced with a threat, the regime implements new reforms to give the people the feeling that a change is happening. However, these are reforms that do not affect the regime’s traditional bases. The regional Arab uprising pushed King Mohammad VI to address the existing request for constitutional reform in order to slow down the turmoil on the streets. However, constitutional reform can achieve little given that the Moroccan regime is not based on the constitution, but relies instead on the traditional contract called “Bay’a” (pledge of allegiance) which makes the king above accountability and even above the constitution itself. In fact, the monarchy is considered the institution that produces the constitution. The latter is simply a modern law which does not change the autocratic monarchy but rather makes it stronger. The king as a commander of the faithful was, and still is after the uprising, the executive chief of the government, the supreme judge nominating judges, the head of the army, and the decision maker for foreign policy with the foreign allies and international institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Foundation. At the economic level he is the first entrepreneur.

The 2011 Moroccan Constitution purports to protect many human rights and recognizes their universal aspect if and when they are not opposed to the religious identity of state and society. The “recognized” rights are without precise normative content; for example, the rights to life and physical integrity are not accompanied by a clear abolition of the death penalty (Madani et al., 2011). Also, the constitution provides that certain rights are to be defined and regulated by ordinary or organic laws, many of which remain restrictive: freedom of press is guaranteed but legislation will set the rules of organization and control of public means of communication. The main rules all contain the three red lines, or the “sacred trilogy”: religion, monarchy, and territorial integrity. Other rights and freedoms are contradictory, such as the right of faith and belief: it remains illegal to convert from Islam to other religions, and punishable to tempt a Muslim to convert. It is also forbidden by law to change from Sunnism to Shi’ism or to other Islamic denominations. In a constitution aimed at combining in a non-homogenous way the two concepts of a civic state and a religious state, the role and supremacy of international treaties remains ambiguous. For instance, the equality between women and men was always recognized by the constitution but not by domestic laws or society. Article 19 of the Moroccan Constitution establishes this equality but adds that it must be in accordance with the “permanent characteristics of the kingdom.” The crisis over the family status and the role of women has been aggravated by a mixture of laws, some western and some based on Islam, which leaves Morocco in an ambiguous state between civil and religious legal authority (Gray, 2015, p:41). The royal speech given in 2004 when the reformed family code was officially revealed confirmed that Shari’a is the main legislative source in this case, trumping international regulations. The king said, “I can’t make licit what God made illicit and I can’t make illicit what God made licit,” by which he referred to discussions related to total equality between men and women, in addition to the interdiction of polygamy. With this sentence, the king satisfied conservatives and sent a clear message to liberals that Morocco remains a religious state.

The conflict between conservatism and liberalism in Morocco is very complex in the sense that conservative ideas have coexisted with some liberal views like women’s employment. However, when Islamism gained ground in Morocco in the mid 1980’s, its anachronistically inflexible form of conservatism quickly replaced the flexibility of more traditional local forms of conservatism. Social conservatism remains the status quo, not because it has a roadmap for how to engage with modernity, but rather thanks to religious discourse, the support of society and the state, and the growth of religiosity. Moroccan society still believes in the sacred and in traditions; it is deeply conservative and often does not distinguish Islam from Islamism, religion from religiosity, modernization from westernization, secularism from atheism, and freedom from debauchery. Before the uprising, the liberal requests were elitist; certainly no ordinary people discussed the freedom of expression or gender equity. Since the mid 2000’s, thanks to widely accessible information technology, such debates have reached the wider populace, but after the uprising and given social media many of those topics entered homes without necessarily being adhered to or openly discussed. The debates and the requests remain elitist and do not represent the pressing material needs of most Moroccans.

Liberalism is seen as a threat by much of society; it is widely rejected and only supported by minority groups even after the uprising. The uprising did not shorten the distance between the society and liberalism. On the contrary, the uprising showed how conservative society is, and how it is fearful of losing its Islamic identity to westernized atheists conspiring to implement a foreign agenda.  The liberal trend has not provided an attractive vision for society either; its demands are limited to individual liberties and women’s rights rather than deeper political changes. For example, liberals protest for the right to eat publicly during fasting hours in Ramadan but not for freedom of expression, and they do not criticize the autocratic nature of the political regime. Paradoxically, both liberal and conservative groups defend the ambiguous character of the political regime’s “liberal autocracy” and ask for its protection.

Finally, both Moroccan conservatives and liberals have no long-term intellectual vision. The conservative view is rooted in an effort to protect society and the regime from different shocks caused during the post-colonial era, including globalization as a new form of imperialism, and the Arab uprisings. The liberal view is not mature enough to produce a true modern vision tailored to the society without importing pre-packaged western models. The Arab uprising unveiled a conflictual dynamic between liberalism and conservatism in other Arab contexts, not just Moroccan society, but at same time it uncovered the absence of a plan, leadership, vision, and debate. Manipulated modernism exemplified in the façade of constitutionalism cannot lead to true debate between tradition and modernity, and imported liberalism cannot lead society towards culturally and religiously sensitive modernization that reveals “tradition” as contested and living discursive space rather than a reified ahistorical and cross-cultural package.


Photo Credit: Christopher Rose, “Coupling”: “The plaza at the Mosque makes a nice place for young unmarried couples to be alone while still out in public.”

Hind Arroub
Hind Arroub has a Ph.D in law and political science; she is a Moroccan political and social scientist, a Fulbright senior lecturer and scholar, and adjunct professor at Fordham University at the political science department and the Arabic program. Hind is the founder and director of the Hypatia Institute, an independent and interdisciplinary think tank. Hind is the author of several books and articles, including Approach to the Foundations of Legitimacy in the Moroccan Political System (2009) and Revolutions in the Era of Humiliocracy: On the Arab World Issues (2001).

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