Despite the vast distance between them and the different circumstances involved, there is a lot that calls for comparison between the experiences of Morocco and Syria, when it comes to dealing with demands for change and the implications of the Arab Spring. Certain events coincided in both countries and led to varying results in terms of lessons, morals and highly significant consequences. Early last year, when the Arab Spring was still in its prime, Moroccan King Mohammed VI and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad both addressed their people’s popular demands for reform and change. The two speeches were worlds apart in terms of form and content, and ended up being worlds apart in terms of the final results. The King of Morocco interpreted the developments well and understood the message coming from the protest movements that shook the entire region. Hence, he opted to issue bold decisions and effect major changes to the internal reform process, which had been initiated during his late father’s tenure and continued during his own. Thus, his first speech after the outbreak of events – and precisely in March 2011 – was dedicated to announcing a constitutional revision aiming to advance the reform and democracy process, widen of the scope of freedoms, and strengthen the mechanisms to protect human rights.
In contrast, the first speech given by Syria’s President in parliament on March 29th 2011, following the eruption of the Syrian revolution, was ambiguous and tense. During his address, al-Assad mocked the Arab Spring revolutions and dismissed them as a new fad. He even deemed what was happening in Syria to be a conspiracy and form of sedition, calling on his citizens to nip it in the bud; this being a “national, moral and religious duty” as he put it. At that time, the gulf separating the perspectives of these two young leaders, who rose to power at practically the same time, seemed vast, especially when it came to their handling of popular demands and aspirations. This gulf has been further exacerbated by the ongoing developments in both countries from the beginning of last year until this day.
As fate would have it, both leaders were destined to address their own people once again three months after their first speeches. And for the second time, the difference between the two was immense and the gulf wide. On June 17th 2011, King Mohammed VI addressed the Moroccans and announced a series of constitutional amendments introduced by an entrusted committee and described at the time as historic. He called upon his people to vote on those amendments in a referendum to be held a few weeks later, in preparation for parliamentary elections.
Three days after the Moroccan monarch’s address, Bashar al-Assad spoke to the Syrians from the University of Damascus. Once again, his speech was a mixture of threats and empty promises. Words about national dialogue and pledged constitutional amendments were mingled with threats towards the protesters demanding reform and change. They were described as saboteurs involved in a conspiracy to destabilize the country. The speech included promises, but it did not offer a clear road map for the implementation of the pledged reforms which the Syrians have been hearing about for many years, ever since Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father as president. Over the past decade, the Syrians haven’t seen any tangible progress on the ground. Contrary to that, al-Assad’s talk about dialogue and reform soon vanished in the midst of other sections of his speech, which underscored the regime’s refusal to understand the street’s message and its intention to confront the popular uprising and repress it through military force and security oppression.
It was obvious that while the Syrian regime was focusing on the security solution as a chief element in resolving the crisis, Morocco was set on continuing along the road of reform and translating promises into action. A referendum was conducted on the constitutional amendments and parliamentary elections were held. This was tantamount to a revolution in the Moroccan ballot box. Abdelilah Benkirane, Secretary General of the Justice and Development Party, was placed at the head of a coalition government incorporating parties from both ends of the political spectrum as well as those in the center. This government reflects the political pluralism and diversity across the country. Through a process of gradual reform, Morocco saved a lot of time and overcame the agony we are now witnessing in many other countries. Furthermore, Morocco has been much faster than the Arab Spring countries in terms of implementing constitutional amendments and holding parliamentary elections. For example, Egypt and Tunisia are still experiencing the throes of their revolutions and have a long way to go before drafting new constitutions and holding elections in accordance with them. It is true that Tunisia held its parliamentary elections last October, before Morocco, but it is still making the preparations that will lead to the drafting of a new constitution, thereby paving the way for new elections and another constitutional stage. As for Egypt, it has gone through a great deal of pain ever since the outbreak of its revolution; it is still waiting for presidential elections and the constitutional battle is expected to be far from easy or smooth.
If we go further in our comparison, we would find that Yemen has been more unfortunate because its revolution drowned in military confrontations and political bartering. It eventually ended in a vague formula where people do not know whether the regime has been actually toppled, or whether the president is on vacation after which he will return to the political scene as leader of his party and director of the country’s affairs.
Libya, on the other hand, has given us a glaring example of the sheer indifference that authoritarian regimes feel toward their people. Gaddafi immersed his country in pools of blood and confrontations, which eventually led to foreign intervention. Hence, Libya shall need a long time to recover and rebuild what the war has destroyed and the rule of Colonel Gaddafi has left behind. The horrific part is that the Libyan experience, in terms of many aspects, seems to be the closest to what is happening in Syria, especially with the regime’s persistence in carrying out more killings and acts of torture, and its insistence upon trying to suppress the popular uprising regardless of the price and results.
The Moroccan experience may have been unjustly assessed because it did not receive the attention it deserves. This is because the bloody events of other revolutions and uprisings dominated the political scene and news headlines. However, Morocco’s experience provides an important lesson, namely that reform satisfying people’s demands and aspirations is possible. However, such reforms should be enacted before the bloodbaths and atrocities of repression, which ultimately close the windows of dialogue and destroy the chances of a peaceful transition. The problem with some leaders is that they do not like to listen, and if they ever do, they do not understand the message of their people.