When Tunisia and Libya began exhibiting what appeared to be the early stages of a popular uprising, some analysts and commentators turned to Morocco, the only remaining kingdom in North Africa, and tried to make sense of what Morocco is (or is not) experiencing:
“Morocco is a regional model.”
“Morocco is not like [insert your choice of country].”
“This King is not like his father.”
“Moroccans are not ready for democracy.”
“Morocco is the most democratic country in the region.”
“The monarchy is needed to preserve national unity.”
Contradictions and inconsistencies set up the predictable arguments of those who tout Moroccan exceptionalism. The logic of the “Moroccan exception” theory treats Morocco as so unique that standard methodological tools used to analyze the rest of the region are mostly dismissed. The “beloved” neotraditionalist monarchy, which rules unchecked despite the existence of a constitution and parliament, presents itself as an easy defense of Moroccan exceptionalism. Political and economic factors, and the entrenched authoritarian regime driven by decades of post-colonial policies, are replaced with a vague and inconsistent reference to Morocco’s situation in relative terms—sometimes drawing comparisons with either its recent history or the conditions of its regional neighbors. The diverse ethnic makeup of Moroccan society is seen as an obstacle to democracy and a threat to national unity, rather than a vehicle for pluralism. Eventually, the rhetoric of Moroccan exceptionalism slips into apologetic support of absolutism.
The theory’s supporters (or whoever is doing the counting) measure popular dissent, or the lack thereof, through the number of bodies present at a certain protest, the types of slogans chanted, and the diversity of the participation cited as an example of the protesters’ incoherent and obscure goals. Based on these measures, the“fall and rise” of the February 20th Movement, as Ahmed Benchemsi puts it, conforms to the perception of Morocco’s ongoing political experience as argued by defenders of Moroccan exceptionalism. While the February 20th Movement is a major component of opposition in Morocco, describing dissent as a matter limited to just the February 20th Movement not only serves those who cite “Moroccan exceptionalism,” but also belittles the presence of dissent in other spheres of Moroccan society. Like popular dissent elsewhere, the Moroccan brand has political, economic, and social roots, is present in both rural and urban areas, and has diverse followers. Dissent in Morocco cannot be captured by simply confining it under a nominal and monolithic umbrella. Doing so limits this otherwise diverse and colorful discourse to the rules of the status quo framed by the regime.