A King's Introspection, a People's Hope

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Rarely in the annals of Arab political discourse does one find a leader take stock of his country publicly, introspectively, and straightforwardly. Critical thinking is a skill that has never been adequately taught in the region, and both the political culture and society at large are wanting for the benefits of a more open, civil, and deliberative discourse.

Moroccan King Mohammed VI offered an exemplary model for a new kind of official discourse in his speech to the public yesterday on the occasion of the eighteenth anniversary of his accession to the throne. He eschewed regional and international policy matters, in which Morocco enjoys the trust and confidence of so many allies, and cut straight to the problems that have been brewing at home. On the one hand, he said, Morocco has been successful in drawing in international business partners and investors, noting the recent examples of Boeing, Renault, and Peugeot, all of which are now deeply vested in the kingdom. Yet these achievements have not translated into benefits for ordinary people, he said — and while the Moroccan private sector registers gains, the civil service has devolved into “poor governance and weak performance.”

While the private sector has managed to attract the best and brightest of Morocco’s citizens, he explained, the civil service remains full of sloth — coffee slurpers, concerned only to draw their paycheck. He gave an example of Morocco’s regional investment centers, which are government cadres designed to stimulate economic development beyond the major urban areas. Rather than support local economies, the king observed, they more often “impede the act of investing.” At the heart of this tragedy lies a problem of “mentalities that have not evolved,” he said.

The king reserved even tougher words for Morocco’s political class. Noting young people’s disenchantment with the country’s elections, as reflected by low voter turnout, he placed blame with politicians and senior officials who appear to favor self-interest over public service. He noted the high incidents of complaints to the palace of official malfeasance and political dysfunction. Much of the political class, he observed, is utterly detached from the general population and its needs. And he asked, “What is the use of having institutions, holding elections, forming governments and appointing ministers, walis, governors, ambassadors and consuls if they live on one planet, and the people and their concerns are on another one?” The elitism of political power brokers imperils the principle of equality under the law, he observed, and it is time to actually act on the egalitarian principles guaranteed in the Moroccan constitution.

Not all divisions of the state deserve the same low grades, he cautioned. Whereas civilian complaints run high in politics and the bureaucracy, the king noted, the Moroccan security sector has won due esteem for performing its duties responsibly — with respect for human rights — under extremely difficult socioeconomic conditions.

The king’s remedy for the problems he described is a “change in mentality.” It would include a “sense of responsibility and national commitment” — and a new drive within the civil service and among political parties to seek out the most talented and civically minded Moroccans available for the job.

This remarkable speech provides a kind of rejoinder to the song by seminal Moroccan rock band Nass al-Ghiwane. The song, titled “Nehle Chamma,” is a parable set to music, in which a queen bee flies off to meet a human king. She boasts to him about her hive: “There isn't a single greedy official to deceive me. I have students of justice in my service, and God protects me from every cheat.” The king tells her in confidence that he is not so lucky, and she flies away sadder and wiser about human affairs. “The king is a doctor,” she concludes, “and his people are wounded, yet there is no vizier to tell him of their plight.” In response to the song, King Mohammed VI has shown his population that he understands the problems within his government very well. And he has signaled his commitment to rooting out corruption, malfeasance, and sloth. Would that other Arab heads of state offered a similarly frank appraisal of their own countries’ inner workings.

There is a reason why this high level of candor is so rare in the Arab world: Numerous heads of state in the region do not enjoy popularity or legitimacy among their populations. Thus any admission of error poses a risk to their hold on power. By contrast, King Mohammed VI, over the past 18 years, has proven himself to be a man of his word. He has enshrined equality of ethnicities, faiths, and genders in a constitution. He has maintained esteem for Morocco as a responsible player on the regional and international stage. And in opening up the political process to all citizens and the economy to investors everywhere, he has created enormous opportunity for Moroccans to pursue their ambitions.

Yet as he observed in his speech, a change in mentality is in order. The months and years to come will show how the king intends to address the problem. In the meantime, it is incumbent on Moroccan citizens to take part in the process of reshaping the mentality of the civil service, the political class, and all sectors of Moroccan society that stand in need of energy, transparency, and devotion to the common good.

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