The basic legitimization of political authority and the specific logics of domination that have for decades regulated Arabs’ behavior and subjugated their life patterns are under siege in much of the Arab world. Only those regimes that still enjoy the historical prestige of traditional authority have so far managed to weather the assaults on the legitimacy of their rule. But even there, the “habitual orientation to conform,” is gradually vanishing.[1] “Prestige,” as the great Tunisian thinker Ibn Khaldun stated, “decays inevitably.”[2] Unless supplemented with legality — that third form of rational and just authority that Max Weber identifies as necessary for the governed to obey their governors — the lifespan of a regime gets dramatically shortened. This is exactly what is happening to the sclerotic dictatorships in the Arab world. The Egyptian “pharaoh” quickly fell to a historic revolution, as he could no longer summon the “authority of the eternal yesterday” that served him quite well in putting down previous challenges to his rule.[3] The former war hero became especially imperious and deaf to the cries of a frustrated society that grew increasingly disaffected with his rule. When reality finally set in, the octogenarian Mubarak was surprised by how isolated and reviled he has become. A similar fate probably awaits the Syrian self-proclaimed “protector” of Arab resistance against Israeli occupation. The rigidity and contempt with which President Bashar al-Asad has treated the democracy protesters have lost him any good will he could still have generated from his leading role in regional politics. With the legitimacy of his political leadership, authority, and domination totally spent, it is only a matter of time before the ‘Alawite Ba‘thist is relegated to the dustbin of deposed despots.

The citizens’ revolt in the Arab world is thus a direct response to the erosion of the legitimacy of political authority.[4] In Weber’s paradigm, the two regimes that have been hitherto overthrown and those that are on the ropes have had no saving graces left to salvage their decadent regimes from the unprecedented wave of popular revolts against corrupt power. The “good autocrats” of the Arab world have by contrast fared better at containing the regional democratic “contagion.” [5] Unlike the “bad autocrats,” they have skillfully managed popular ambivalence about their authority by cultivating the belief in “the ethical goodness” of their rule and compassion of their character. Such benevolence might not propel their societies into prosperity or get them closer to real democracy, but it does distinguish their rule from the sterile and repressive security regimes of the bad tyrants. It is such a distinction that has so far spared some countries from the flames of internal rebellion.

Morocco and Jordan are examples of two smart regimes that have skillfully used the authority of the “eternal yesterday” and that of their “personal gift of grace” to preserve the basic legitimizations of their rule.[6] Both King ‘Abdullah II (49 years old) and Muhammad VI (48) have been confronted since February with elevated levels of social contention and street demonstrations. Jordan saw sporadic street protests, demanding an overhaul of the country’s security apparatus, an end to endemic corruption, and immediate accountability from the King’s entourage, including Queen Rania and her brother.[7] In Morocco, the protest movement has also been diffuse, clamoring for political and economic change, and targeting the King’s men, Fou‘ad El-Himma and Munir Majidi.[8] But in both kingdoms, the protest gatherings have been relatively small compared to the mass and persistent outpourings that roiled the disgraced regimes of Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria. Hobbled from the start by internal discord over strategy and ideology, the contestation in the streets never took hold.

A Fractured Protest Movement

In Morocco as in Jordan, the protest movement finds itself unable to agree on tactics and goals to bring real democratic change. In a way, the movements’ divisiveness mirrors the significant fault lines that polarize both societies. The majority of Moroccans and Jordanians agree that political and economic change is desperately needed, but there is little consensus on how fast and deep the reforms should go. The disagreements run the gamut between the incrementalists who are afraid to “rock the boat” and advocates of immediate democratization. Tensions have emerged over political and economic policies. Within regime circles, the struggle is between those who want to reform the deformed economic model of their era of crony capitalism and those who see economic reforms as an assault on their privileges. In the streets, there is also a rift between those who demand a retrenchment of the neoliberal state and those that want to streamline the capitalist system and alter its unsustainable and corrupt practices.

But neither group is sure how to accomplish its goals or how hard to push for them. One camp believes that street pressure and mobilization of workers is the only means to force further concessions from the regime; a bigger camp, however, concedes that pressure is necessary but worries that uncontrolled protests could hurt the economy and destabilize both kingdoms. In another piece, I wrote how a growing number of Moroccans are becoming frustrated with the recent proliferation of volatile strikes and protests.[9] The sprouting of illegally-constructed structures in several cities and the exponential growth of street vendors who occupy whole neighborhoods of the busiest streets have sparked fears about growing lawlessness in the country. The April 28 terrorist attack in Marrakesh[10] further heightened anxiety that social contestation and political agitation could end up undermining stability and order. This tense environment, exacerbated by the turbulent post-transitional period in Egypt and Tunisia as well as the protracted bloody revolts in Syria, Yemen, and until very recently, Libya, have weighed heavily in favor of the incrementalists and the monarchy’s measured approach to political reforms.

In Jordan, “the fault lines are plentiful,” warns Tobias Buck of the Financial Times.[11] The divide is deep between the East Bank Transjordanians and the so called West Bankers of Palestinian origin. Each constitutes about half the population and is deeply distrustful of the other. The East Bankers fear that the politically marginalized West Bankers would be the main beneficiaries of a weakening of the monarchy, even though a number of Transjordanian tribes have grown disenchanted with the regime, and some have participated in the current protests. Such contestation, as that which recently unfolded in the neglected tribal areas of the south, must be of great concern to the monarchy. For weeks, protesters took to the streets of Tafileh, 111 miles south of Amman, to demand political reforms and an end to corruption and state marginalization. The speed of the King’s response to this development is revealing. Unlike his slow response to the protests in Amman, King ‘Abdullah moved quickly to calm dissent in this traditional bastion of monarchical support. In June, he visited the Southern Governorate where he launched several development projects worth $21.1 million. The monarchy is extremely nervous lest contentious action in the Transjordanian towns of the south intensify, lending weight to contentious politics in Amman and efforts to a build a broad social movement that transcends societal rifts.

For now, however, the fear of turmoil and chaos, evident in Syria and Yemen, still acts as a strong deterrent against directly challenging the monarchy. The violence in Amman last March when East Bank “monarchists” attacked a protest camp they claimed was led by Palestinians was another reminder of the risk of conflagration. As Tobias Buck aptly put it, “The events of Black September in 1970, when Palestinian militants challenged the rule of King Husayn, ‘Abdullah’s father, sparking a brief but bloody civil war, are etched deeply into political consciousness.”[12]

The failure of the protest movements in Morocco and Jordan to develop into mass movements capable of hastening the transformation of their kingdoms into constitutional monarchies is in part self-inflicted. Both movements are too fragmented and lack charismatic leadership. The fact that they are dominated by Islamists, especially in Morocco, does not help allay public concerns about their motives. In Jordan, for example, “a coalition that includes young people, leftists and workers stopped marching with the Muslim Brotherhood, accusing it of trying to hijack the movement and secretly collaborating with the government.”[13]

But regardless of their composition and collective purpose, the protesters have always faced long odds against two young and flexible monarchs. Unlike the rigid dictators of Tunisia, Egypt, and now Syria who equated flexibility with weakness, the two sovereigns quickly understood that flexibility does not project nervousness but rather constitutes an important element of regime survival. Lacking the substantial financial wherewithal of the wealthy rentier states to buy off dissent, the Jordanian and Moroccan sovereigns therefore quickly moved to nip in the bud the first major crisis of their reign by initiating a measured reform process that, though falling short of the democratic ideal of a constitutional monarchy, still offers some tantalizing possibilities for political change.

The King of Morocco has moved fastest and farthest in the reform process. Unlike King ‘Abdullah who waited until June to deliver a major speech outlining his vision for political reforms, Muhammad VI gave his in early March. In a show of self-confidence, he committed to a referendum as a test on his political legitimacy. In the Hashemite Kingdom, no popular referendum is envisaged on the recently proposed constitutional amendments. The King must be unsure of the outcome of any popular consultation on his constitution, as he does not enjoy the high popularity and respect that are granted to Muhammad VI by his people. He also lacks “the same respect and devotion” that were “accorded” to his father. According to Tobias Buck, he lacks “King Hussein’s ability to charm and manipulate leaders of the East Bank tribes, the Hashemite dynasty’s traditional power base.”[14] This does not mean that King ‘Abdullah has lost his legitimacy and hold on the country. It just means that his rule is fragile and must be buttressed by serious political and economic reforms. The reform process he just initiated is important in as much as it is only a start and not an end in itself.

The Kings’ Response

As early as January, both monarchs responded to moderate-sized protests with a series of initiatives. To help defuse social tensions, they boosted food and energy subsidies, raised public sector salaries, and increased the minimum wage. In February, the King of Jordan fired his unpopular prime minister and dissolved the cabinet. He then formed a National Dialogue Committee (NDC) to revise the political party and electoral law and a constitutional reform panel in April to reinforce the separation of powers. In June, the NDC unveiled modest changes to the election law. In mid-August, the King’s appointed panel of “constitutional experts” finally revealed the much anticipated amendments to the constitution. The proposed reforms provide for the establishment of a constitutional court that monitors and reviews the constitutionality of laws and regulations, creation of an independent election oversight committee, limitation of the extensive powers of secretive state security courts, and enhancement of civil liberties protections. They also make it harder for the government to dissolve parliament or issue laws during its absence.

Most Jordanians have greeted these constitutional amendments with guarded optimism. As in Morocco, however, the protesters, who refused to take part in consultations leading to the reform process, dismissed the changes as insufficient. The Islamic Action Front, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, criticized the amendments for ignoring the peoples’ demands to elect their prime minister, failing to curb the powers of the country’s powerful intelligence apparatus, and instituting the separation of powers and systems of checks and balances.

In Morocco, immediately after the outbreak of the protests in February, Muhammad VI endowed the newly created National Human Rights Council (CNDH) with a greater scope of action, including the powers of self-referral and investigation of human rights abuses. The Competition Council, the Central Commission for the Prevention of Corruption, and the Court of Auditors were also empowered to enforce fair competition, transparency, and accountability. On March 9, the King stole the opposition’s momentum by surprising the nation with a television address where he promised wide-ranging constitutional reforms, including an elected government and independent judiciary. On July 1, Moroccans overwhelmingly supported the referendum on the new reforms which constitutionalized the principles of cultural and linguistic pluralism, individual rights and the equality of citizens, enhanced legislative capacity and access to the policy realm, and desacralized the sovereign’s acts and power.

By the end of the summer, the Moroccan monarchy seems to have navigated quite successfully the treacherous times of the Arab Spring. Muhammad VI placed himself at the center of the reform debates, quickly claiming the mantle of the political change the protesters demanded and positioning himself as the leading driver of the reform process. In this, he walked in his late father’s shoes. The Moroccan monarchy has always distinguished itself by its flexibility and ability to reinvent itself. When under pressure, it reshaped its discourse and reorganized its governance practices. When in the early 1990s then-President Zine El-‘Abidine Ben ‘Ali of Tunisia was brutalizing the Islamist movement and pulverizing the political landscape, and the Algerian generals hijacked the democratic process, King Hassan II responded to the real prospects of domestic unrest arising from an economy in crisis and popular resentment against his support for the American-led Gulf War (1991) by initiating a controlled process of liberalization. Unlike his neighbors, he relaxed restrictive controls on civil society activism and redesigned the political rules of the game. In 1998, that process culminated in what was then described as a historic alternation of power where a long opponent of the King, ‘Abderrahmane Youssoufi, was tasked with heading an opposition-led government. That same year, an Islamist party was also integrated into parliament. At his death, King Hassan was transformed from being a dictator into a visionary reformer, who cleverly fended off threats to his throne, prepared a safe dynastical transition to his son, and set the country on a liberalizing trajectory.

Then as now, the monarchy used institutional reforms and promotion of human rights to blunt challenges to its dominance and calm dissent. The difference this time, however, is that the reforms did not gain the acquiescence of the protest movement. “For the first time,” wrote Emanuela Dalmasso and Francesco Cavatorta, “there is today a movement of citizens coming together from different ideological currents that all refuse to accept such (democratic) gradualism even after the regime has met some of its demands.”[15] To be sure, the movement is fractured, disorganized, and lacks popular support. Nevertheless, the monarchy would be advised to take it seriously by addressing its demands, especially those dealing with corruption, rule of law, and public accountability.

The Way Forward

Both King ‘Abdullah and Muhammad VI’s flexible responses to the protests have so far given them the upper hand in shaping the debate over political reform. Unlike the win or lose political games of other Arab states facing turmoil, both regimes skillfully portrayed the promise of top-down reform as a win-win compromise between their old authoritarian constitutions and the parliamentary monarchy model for which the demonstrators have been calling. In both kingdoms, majorities want their sovereign to lead the reform process. But, as Marwan Mu‘asher, former Deputy Prime Minister of Jordan (2004–2005), wrote recently, “they [Jordanians] expect the process to be more serious and lead to concrete results, rather than go through another experience where promises are left largely unfulfilled.”[16] The same observation applies to Moroccans. During my recent field research in the country, I found broad support for the King’s reform effort, but only on condition that it leads to accountable and responsible governance and a low level of economic inequality. The public expects the introduction of remedial measures to prevent corruption in the public sphere and to redress the glaring social and economic disparities.

Both monarchs are smart enough to realize the high level of social discontent in their realm. The explosions of rage and frustration that set neighboring Tunisia and Egypt ablaze have been building in Morocco and Jordan over time.[17] The blend of technocratic rule and centralization of economic policy-making has not led to equal economic development. Instead, it contributed to the rise of new elites that flaunt their wealth and creep into political positions of power, while failing to absorb the increasing numbers of the unemployed. Large-scale investment projects have not significantly reduced the huge economic disparities between and within regions.[18] These economic shortcomings, compounded by a deepening crisis of legitimacy in elected institutions, major social transformations, and mounting anger at the intensification of corruption and malfeasance of senior officials and palace proteges, have left Morocco and Jordan vulnerable to social tensions. Neither kingdom is stranger to social protests. Protest movements, driven mainly by unemployed associations, have become ubiquitous, sometimes degenerating into dangerous violence, like those that gripped the town of Sefrou in Morocco in 2007 and Sidi Ifni in 2008. Luckily, these locally-based protests did not find immediate echo in other areas of the country.

“The life span of a dynasty corresponds to the life span of an individual,” wrote Ibn Khaldun in his celebrated book al-Muqaddimah. It eventually “grows up and passes into an age of stagnation and thence into retrogression.”[19] To avoid such political decay and broadening of societal resistance, both sovereigns need to get serious about power- sharing, tackling corruption within their midst and in the public sphere, and redressing economic disparities.


[1]. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, eds., From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1946), p. 78.

[2]. Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, trans. by Franz Rosenthal (Princeton, NJ: Bollingen Series, 1969), p.105.

[3]. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, eds., From Max Weber, p. 78.

[4]. See Michael Hudson, “AwakeningCataclysm, or Just a Series of Events? Reflections on the Current Wave of Protest in the Arab World,” Jadaliyya, May 16, 2011.

[5]. Robert Kaplan, “The Good Autocrat,” The National Interest, June 21, 2011.

[6]. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, eds., From Max Weber, p. 79.

[7]. François Soudan, “Mohammed VI et Abdallah II : deux rois dans la revolution” [“Mohammed VI and Abdullah II : Two Kings in Revolution”], Jeune Afrique, July 4, 2011.

[8]. Fou‘ad El-Himma, a former powerful delegate minister at the interior and a close friend of the monarch, entered politics in 2007. His goal was to shake up a moribund political system and erect a solid front against the Islamists. The unintended consequence of this move, however, was to alienate huge swaths of the political class, including the monarchy’s staunch loyalists. As it turns out, the public also resented this direct incursion in the political realm, as the street protests showed. Protesters denounced El-Himma as a counterfeit politician who uses his proximity to the monarch to foster more political patronage and clientelism. Munir Majidi, the personal secretary of the king, is one of the main captains of the palace’s expanding business ventures. His idea was to build up national companies (dominated by the monarchy) through mergers and consolidations that are able to compete internationally and fend off foreign takeovers. This big business revolution, as the Majidi saw it, was justified in patriotic terms (economic patriotism) and out of dire necessity (monarchical intervention and control of the economy is good for the global competitiveness of the country). As with El-Himma’s hegemonic designs, the regime underestimated the resentment of the business class and private sector as well as peoples’ growing frustration with crony capitalism.

[9]. Anouar Boukhars, “Popular Upsurge and Political Pacts in Morocco,” Jadaliyya, August 3, 2011.

[10]. “Moroccan Tourist Café Terrorist Attack Leaves at least 15 Dead,” The Guardian, April 28, 2011,….

[11]. Tobias Buck, “Jordan: Rifts in the Valley,” Financial Times, August 15, 2011.

[12]. Buck, “Jordan: Rifts in the Valley.”


[13]. Kareem Fahim, “Jordan’s Protesters Ask Little, and Receive Less,” The New York Times, July 19, 2011.

[14]. Buck, “Jordan: Rifts in the Valley.”

[15]. Emanuela Dalmasso and Francesco Cavatorta, “The Never Ending Story: Protests and Constitutions in Morocco,” Jadaliyya, August 12, 2011.

[16]. Marwan Mu‘asher, “Jordan’s Proposed Constitutional Reform — A First Step in the Right Direction,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Commentary, August 17, 2011.

[17]. “Révoltes sociales : après l’Algérie et la Tunisie, le Maroc?” [Social Revolts: Is Morocco Next after Algeria and Tunisia?], Jeune Afrique, January 20, 2011.

[18]. In Morocco, for example, Marrakesh and Agadir have received substantial amounts of tourism investments, but both rank near the bottom of the poverty scales. Out of 16 regions, Marrakesh ranks 12th and Agadir 11th, leading many to question the economic impacts of tourism and the failure of the benefits of investments to trickle down to the majority of people. In Fez, which also attracted significant investments, the rate of urban and rural poverty is higher than the national average. Even in the major metropolitan city of Casablanca, there are significant pockets of poverty. These pockets are usually juxtaposed with rich areas. Bachir Thiam, “Cartographie de la pauvreté: La fracture régionale” [“Poverty Mapping: The Regional Divide”], L’Economiste, March 1, 2011.

[19]. Khaldun, The Muqaddimahp. 138.

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