On August 21, Moroccans celebrated the birthday of King Mohammed VI. The occasion comes at a time of glaring contrast between the North African kingdom's ongoing development and stability on the one hand, and the massive bloodshed wracking the Arab world on the other. In Morocco today, there is a revolutionary new constitution, fine-tuned to the aspirations of the population). Women are on the way to achieving their due status and rights. The Arab Muslim majority population celebrates the country's hybrid, Jewish minority and Berber heritage. Jihadist groups -- even as they gain unprecedented power in Syria and Iraq and threaten Africans from Egypt to the Sahel -- are hard pressed to harm the kingdom thanks to the vigilance of the Moroccan police.
Only three and a half years ago, the idea that Morocco would evolve differently than its Arab neighbors did not seem, to many observers, to be a foregone conclusion. High hopes had been placed on "Arab spring" states, then in the midst of overthrowing their rulers. International interest in Morocco was limited to the street demonstrations of the time -- and speculation as to whether they would grow fiercer. But the real story of Morocco, harder for outsiders to perceive in 2011, lies in the reasons why the country bucked the revolutionary trend: King Mohammed VI had been working since the beginning of his reign to address young people's concerns before they had even voiced them. By the time the protests had begun, the country was well on its way to realizing freedoms and opportunities which Arabs across the region are still a generation away from attaining. The monarch built on the legacy of his late father, Hassan II, but also broke with it -- reconciling the kingdom's traditions with the 21st century, and tackling daunting social challenges which had gone largely unaddressed.
The first major street protests under King Mohammed VI began a decade before the Arab spring, in March 2000. Back then, the main fault line of civil unrest was a conflict between modernizing forces and Islamist movements. The social democrats in parliament had been pressing for reforms in family law which would raise the legal age of marriage to 18 for girls, abolish polygamy, and establish equitable legal recourse for women in divorce court, including fair division of property. Islamists opposed all of the above. The king, in his capacity as "Commander of the Faithful" -- meaning, the highest ranking religious authority in the country -- stepped in to reconcile the feuding forces. He used his special status to pronounce new legal norms based on the Islamic principle of "Ijtihad" (independent reasoning). These norms became known as the "Mudawana" -- a personal status code guaranteeing rights to the Moroccan family. Formalized in 2004, it has rescued underage Moroccan girls from a life of subjugation and divorced women from abject poverty.
The king also inherited a country that ranked near the bottom of countries surveyed in the United Nations Human Development Index. In May 2005, he declared that the war on poverty and disenfranchisement would be a principal driver of his policies. Nine years later, some 29,000 projects have been implemented for the benefit of the country's eight million most vulnerable citizens -- from razing urban shantytowns to granting micro loans to female entrepreneurs. In the realm of health care, infant mortality has fallen off sharply. Sweeping educational reforms are in the works, as are anti-corruption measures geared toward strengthening governance, transparency, and the public trust.
Whereas elsewhere in the region Arab states are struggling to grapple with the forces of political Islam, the Moroccan monarchy has found a way to engage Islamist moderates while containing extremist elements: The head of Morocco's Islamist Party of Justice and Development was empowered, through a constitutional process, to control much of the government, while at the same time proclaiming his allegiance and deference to the king. This may not have sat so well initially with some of the elites close to the royal family who have been vocal critics of political Islam for years. But over time, the wisdom of the king's approach to the PJD has been vindicated: The party's powerful role in government demonstrates the credibility of the new 2011 constitution, and grants Islamists who would like to serve their country a systemic framework in which to do so. Meanwhile, revolutionary Islamist and jihadist groups are weaker and more marginal than ever, and the king vests his own considerable religious authority in supporting the country's most tolerant forms of Islam, including its mystical Sufi traditions.
The many transformations in state and society alike are steadied in Morocco by a flourishing civil society sector, which the king has also fostered. Over fifteen years, NGOs have vastly increased their scope of action and prominence in the public discussion, with as many as 60,000 private associations now active. Especially in rural areas, villages, and slums, these groups mitigate the shortcomings of the state in areas such as education, disenfranchisement, and public services. NGOs pursuing social justice work hand in hand with the government, and have been tapped by the kingdom as a prime mover in the war on poverty. Meanwhile, other groups aggressively pursue a variety of causes, ranging from human rights and gender equality to the struggle against corruption -- as well as ethnically-oriented causes, notably Berber cultural and civil rights. (Morocco is still the only country in North Africa where Berber languages are taught in schools.)
Last week in his annual "Speech of the Anniversary " -- akin to a "State of the Union" address -- King Mohammed VI noted that his population aspires "to reach the highest peaks, and catch up with the most advanced nations. This is not a pipe dream ... It can be a tangible reality, relying on the concrete steps which Morocco has taken on a path of democracy and development achievements." Fifteen years into the king's reign, Moroccans remain grateful to have wise leadership, and hopeful about their future.