On July 31 2011—a month after Morocco’s adoption of a new constitution— King Mohammed VI held the annual bay‘a ceremony, the most ostentatious of the monarchy’s traditional displays. Commemorating the king’s enthronement, bay‘a features all the pomp of a medieval pledge of fealty: government officials (along with state and local representatives) line up before the gates of the royal palace. The gates open, and the king appears, wearing the traditional white djellaba, and he passes amid the crowds of officials and dignitaries who all bow three times before him in a show of allegiance and shout “Our Lord bestows his blessing on you!”  

With the initial momentum of the February 20 Movement long gone, the Moroccan monarchy has managed to navigate the regional tumult of the past year and a half—doing so largely through exploitation of its symbolic power. Though much analysis focuses on the institutional factors that stall reform in Morocco, we should also give attention to the colossal efforts the monarchy expends on its traditionalist capital; the interplay between the traditional and modern is ever present in these displays (as apparent in the bay‘a described above), and Moroccans are keen observers of their manifestations. 

Following the country’s independence, the Alaouite monarchy has successfully delineated the boundaries of acceptable discourse not just through coercive mechanisms, but by also ingraining specific rituals of power in the public realm. Chief among these are four symbols that imbue the king with religious authority: his role as amir al-mu’minin (commander of the faithful), his baraka (the monarch’s perceived “blessedness”), his sharifian lineage (descent from the prophet Muhammad), and the bay‘a ceremony (an annual oath of allegiance) outlined above. Each of these is institutionalized through the very active Ministry of Royal Household, Chancellery, and Protocol and bureaucratized and codified within the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs.

The new constitution approved last July by 98% of votes in the accompanying national referendum maintains this traditionalist capital. Though it no longer includes the word “sacred” in reference to the king (Article 23 of the old constitution), the constitution still states that “the person of the King is inviolable and respect is owed to Him” (Article 46). Furthermore, Article 41 maintains the king as the “commander of the faithful (amir al-mu'minin)” and gives him leadership over the High Council of Ulemas—the only body in Morocco authorized to issue fatwas. It further specifies that the “King exclusively exercises by dahir (royal decree) the prerogatives inherent in the religious institution of imarat al-mu'minin.” 

The legislature and the cabinet treat these royal decrees as sacred texts; dahirs are regarded as above the political system (even the constitution itself) and many continue to govern state institutions. For instance, the prime minister’s original administrative powers as the head of the Ministers’ Council were bestowed by the king in accord with the dahirs of April 28 and August 17, 1971; a 1977 decree gives the king exclusive control over the appointment of the extremely important posts of the provincial governors. Although the new constitution promises greater autonomy for the prime minister as the head of the government, so far there are no indications that the king has ceded any significant executive powers—especially the discretionary power of royal proclamation. 

And while the king introduced a number of new concepts into Moroccan political parlance—like "citizenship-based monarchy" (al-malakiyya al-muwatina) and "citizen king" (al-malik al-muwatin)—such terms are unclear in practice and may prove mere window dressing.

The religious symbols preserved in the new constitution and ritualized through repeated practice effectively render the king the Moroccan “custodian of Islam”—a posture that translates into vast discretionary powers and inoculates the monarchy against challenges from opposition forces. It is no surprise, then, that from the beginning of the February 20 Movement, protesters did not call for regime change, but for reforming the system of the government from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one. 

The monarchy’s religious capital and management style has had a clear taming effect on the Islamist opposition in Morocco. The Party of Justice and Development (PJD) had long criticized the government’s sluggish economic performance and its institutionalized, rampant corruption. But it understood that a position in the edifice of the Moroccan state must begin with an acceptance of the monarchy’s religious authority, and this understanding has paid out great dividends for the party: for the first time in Morocco’s history, an Islamist party heads the government. Conversely, however, the PJD has yet to live up to its campaign promises of tackling corruption and kleptocracy, and Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane has even himself declared support for the monarchy as a major feature of Moroccan political identity. Whether or not he will attempt to fully exercise the newly vested executive powers of his office or otherwise remain docile as head-of-government in the new constitution remains a mystery, but the outlook seems grim; Benkirane realizes that in order to govern in Morocco, allegiance to the monarchy is obligatory, for any perceived confrontation with the monarchy will make his task difficult in exercising power. Consequently,the PJD risks co-option as yet another pawn in the hands of the Makhzen.

In contrast, the banned Al Adl Wa Al Ihssane (Justice and Charity) Party is the only movement that has openly challenged the king’s religious authority by claiming that it does not conform to Islamic law. Its spiritual leader, Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine, is famous for his 1974 open letter to the late King Hassan II in which he admonishes the then-king for a lack of Islamic values. In 2000, Yassine penned a 35-page memorandum to the current King Mohammed VI, urging him to repatriate his wealth to Morocco. 

But in recent years, Justice and Charity has changed tack. It no longer questions (at least openly) the religious identity of the monarch. Instead, it pitches itself in opposition to the government rather than the monarchy, and focuses on social issues like poverty, education and good governance. This shift may be strategic: after years of confrontation, the organization has been largely unsuccessful in challenging the religious foundations of the monarchy and has suffered much marginalization as a result of its position. 

During a recent workshop on social media and civil society I conducted for 25 social activists in Morocco in May 2012, I asked about the religious capital of the monarchy, and if they anticipate any deep changes to the monarchical approach to its religious capital in the aftermath of the new constitution. One of the activists jokingly replied: “that depends on whether the king would, in the future, wear a djellaba or a western-style suit to the next inaugural session of the parliament.” The monarch always wears his djellaba during religious ceremonies, including the inaugural session of the parliament; while the king reserves his western suits for modern state functions. This interplay of the traditional within the edifice of the modern state is constant and at the core of the political authority in Morocco. In other words, the switches between the djellaba and the western-cut suit are not inconsequential or arbitrary, but epitomize a larger synthesis that characterizes the power of the makhzen.

My best guess is that the monarch will continue to don his best djellaba to press his traditionalist supremacy.

Mohamed Daadaoui is an associate professor of political science at Oklahoma City University. He is the author of Moroccan Monarchy and the Islamist Challenge: Maintaining Makhzen Power (Palgrave 2011). He blogs on Maghreb Blog.