Morocco’s annual ritual of loyalty to the king, seen by critics as outdated and degrading, took place this year after the rise to power of an Islamist-led government, and sparked reactions that highlight tensions within the kingdom.
Dozens of activists gathered on Wednesday outside parliament to call for the abolition of the ceremony, in which government officials bow down before King Mohammed VI in an elaborate ritual at the palace in Rabat.
Normally held on July 30, to commemorate the king’s coronation 13 years ago, the “Celebration of loyalty and allegiance” first took place in 1934 as a protest against Morocco’s French colonial masters. From 1962, six years after independence, it became an annual event.
Cloaked in a golden robe, the monarch paraded around the palace grounds on horseback, shaded by a large parasol, with senior government officials and representatives from across the country bowing and chanting: “May God protect our king.”
Ahmed al-Toufiq, minister of Islamic affairs and religious endowments, who is close to the palace, defended the ritual as an annual pledge of allegiance by Moroccans to their king, officially referred to as Commander of the Faithful.
Speaking afterwards on state television, he said it reaffirmed “a comprehensive political and religious contract,” and reflected similar pledges in early Islamic history which Muslims today were “nostalgic for.”
But opposition activists say the event perpetuates a “backwardness” and “servitude” in Morocco that is inappropriate for the 21st century, touching on a highly sensitive issue in the North African country.
Most of those attending Wednesday’s demonstration were members of the February 20 reform movement, which was born out of the wave of protests that took hold in the kingdom last year during the Arab Spring.
But while they may be the most vocal, they are by no means the only ones criticising the royal ceremony.
Senior members of the Party of Justice and Development (PJD), the moderate Islamist party that heads the government coalition after winning November elections, also believe it is time to do away with such archaic traditions.
“It’s not necessary to make these gestures every year, gestures that debase our humanity and our dignity,” Abdelali Hami al-Din, from the PJD’s political bureau, told AFP.
“The political culture of the Makhazen is archaic, it is anti-democratic and it is anti-human rights,” he added, referring to the term used for the network of power and privilege that surrounds the king.
“I believe everyone would like to see this ceremony abolished, not just the PJD.”
— Reforms and repression —
The November elections that brought the PJD to power followed the reforms introduced by King Mohammed VI to curb his near-absolute powers, in a bid to stifle Morocco’s protest movement.
After the PJD’s electoral success, the Islamist party’s leader Abdelila Benkirane, who had himself called for some aspects of the loyalty ceremony to be changed “to conform with modernity,” was appointed prime minister in January. But it remains unclear how much real power he holds.
Certainly the party’s criticism of the royal ceremony sits at odds with the authorities’ disproportionate response to Wednesday’s protest, which riot police forcefully dispersed, beating and injuring some of the demonstrators.
One February 20 activist, speaking shortly afterwards, said the repression of the protest indicated that there was little chance of the ceremony being cancelled.
“They don’t want to be forced into making concessions,” he told AFP.
Separately, 101 political activists, including MPs, human rights defenders and journalists, called in a joint statement on Thursday for an end to the allegiance ceremony, saying it dated back to “bygone eras.”
“Kneeling and bowing and kissing the hands of the king and his family does not make sense … (insults) the dignity of Moroccans … and inflicts serious damage on the country’s reputation.”