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.
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.