I rather like monarchy. I like the pomp and ceremony. I like the sense of continuity. (The Papacy, the Japanese monarchy, the English monarchy and the Danish monarchy are the oldest political institutions on the planet; the English coronation ceremony has elements that date back to Anglo-Saxon times.) I like monarchy’s capacity to separate the power from the glory. I am well aware of precisely how dubious the antecedents of monarchies are (and the older, the more dubious). But, then, the antecedents of an awful lot of non-monarchies are fairly dubious too.
In Morocco …
In the Islamic Middle East, for example, the better places to live are the monarchies. (Well, not Saudi Arabia, but that is a bit of a special case, it being a jihadi state which happens to be a monarchy.) Journalist Michael Totten’s recent piece on constitutional progress in Morocco is a useful reminder of the value of monarchy.
… nineteen-person judicial council that drafted a new constitution that was ratified in 2011. …
Of the nineteen people on the judicial council, five were women, one was Jewish, one was from the Sahara, one was from the Islamic ulema, one came from the magistracy, five were professors of constitutional law, and the rest were professors of political science. A handful were prisoners during the lead years of Hassan II. …
The second committee—the one made up of representatives from the trade unions and political parties—was not as liberal as the king’s hand-picked committee.
A Muslim Middle Eastern state with a Jew on the committee drafting the constitution. Where more than a quarter are women. The contrast with, say, Egypt, which did some constitution writing recently, is striking.
The Alaouite dynasty first ruled a unified Morocco in the late C17th. Claiming descent from the Prophet, the dynasty has a lot of history behind it. It also has anti-colonialism credentials, since the current King’s grandfather, Mohammad V, led resistance to the French (and spent a few years in exile as a result). Credentials currently being put to good use:
Nadia Bernoussi, the law professor who helped draft the new constitution, grumbled a bit about how some foreigners see Morocco’s democratic reforms as a sham.
“Well,” I said. “The king wasn’t elected.”
She was taken aback by my bluntness, and I felt slightly rude saying it, but it’s true and every single Westerner in the world who looks at Morocco’s political system notices that and takes it into account. It is the most salient feature of her country’s government from our point of view.
“It’s true that the king isn’t elected,” she said, “but he has a different kind of legitimacy. He has national, historic, and Islamic legitimacy.”
This isn’t the sort of political sentiment Americans like me can relate to, but I did hear something I could understand and appreciate easily. When I asked uncovered Moroccan women if they fear the Islamists, they all said they did not. (In Tunisia and Egypt the uncovered women I know absolutely fear the Islamists.) But even the feminists in Morocco aren’t afraid of the Islamists. And when I asked why, all of them said “because of the king.”
While Islamists come in various shades, the most problematic, the fundamentalists, are modernists; folk who reject the inheritance of the past in favour of current conceptions, who believe the new is always better than the old. In their insistence in going back to the original “pure” Islam the fundamentalists reject all the painful process of learning that has occurred since. Traditional Islam is, in fact, their enemy. As one can see on display in the Timbuktu cultural vandalism from the Mali islamists or the cultural vandalism in Mecca under the al-Saud. Which is why the Saudi monarchy does not fit the pattern of the other monarchies, because it is so tied in with Wahhabi fundamentalism. It is a modernist, not a traditionalist, monarchy. (What the Taliban did in Afghanistan, what the Islamists have been doing in northern Mali and what the al-Saud have imposed in their realm have considerable similarities.)
The traditions in Morocco do incorporate a process of learning:
Morocco is still in many ways a conservative Muslim society, but the traditions it is conserving aren’t the same as they are everywhere else in the region. The country has a strong moderate Sufi current, and the religion as practiced and understood there has long been influenced by ideas from Sub-Saharan Africa and from Europe, which is only eleven miles away. Plenty of uncovered women are out and about in the streets. I didn’t see a single woman with her face covered the entire time I was there. Female genital mutilation, with an incidence rate somewhere between 78-97 percent in Egypt, doesn’t even exist in Morocco.
A process of learning that now includes democratisation. As Fatima Zahra Mansouri, the elected mayor of Marrakesh told Totten:
“We had the French protectorate period,” she continued, “but after independence we built our own institutions. And now we are building democracy. Democracy isn’t something that’s just declared. It has to be built. We have the separation of powers. And we will never tolerate radical Islam because our traditions here have been moderate for ten centuries. Look, Morocco is stable. We have a secular system. We have strong institutions and a growing economy. We are known as the door to Africa. We have so much cultural diversity here and I think we can turn into a model of human development. You have to live here to fully appreciate it. We can’t adopt a Western style of government yet, but we can strike a balance between who and what we are and what we will have to become.”
With the king providing a sense of continuity.
And in Syria …
The King has a view on the Syrian troubles, and is happy to publicly express it at a conference in Marrakech:
A messenger from His Majesty King Mohammed VI of Morocco hands me a pamphlet with a statement from the palace written in four languages. Helpful! Something for me to work with. The King of Morocco isn’t impressed with Bashar al-Assad. Doesn’t think he’s a reformer. Doesn’t think he’s a crucial part of the peace process. Of the war there he says, “This particularly serious and tragic situation is calling out to the conscience of mankind, given the ever-growing numbers of dead and wounded, tortured citizens, displaced persons and refugees. The numbers are set to increase dramatically if there is no resolute international reaction, especially as the Syrian regime has threatened to resort to weapons of mass destruction.”
Morocco is urging the United Nations Security Council to support a regime-change. That’s my phrase, not the king’s, but that’s what he’s saying. “I therefore call upon Security Council member states…to support the transfer of power in Syria for the establishment of a democratic multi-party system in which all representatives and components of the Syrian people would be involved.”
Meanwhile, the Bahraini monarchy appointed a Jewish woman as its ambassador to the US. Clever, really, but not an option any Islamic republic is likely to take up. But a traditional monarchy has, well, traditional credentials and so more room to manuoevre in such matters.
A much more dubious distinction for the Kingdom of Bahrain is that it was the only monarchy troubled by the Arab Spring. The problem not being poverty as much as Sunni domination of a Shia majority plus corruption and the frustrated aspirations to a more open politics that go with sectarian autocracy.
Free elections have chosen new governments in Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. When it comes, the fall of the Assad regime in Syria will mean elections there, too. The fake republics of the Arab world are going or gone, except for Algeria—where the army rules behind the façade of a “civilian” president. The Algerian military elites are known as le pouvoir, the power, in a system that Mubarak would have viewed as perfectly appropriate. There are elections, but everyone understands they are not sérieux.
Adam Garfinkle makes a similar point in explaining the loneliness of the Algerian regime, as the last “progressive” secularist military regime left standing in the Muslim Middle East, apart from the decaying al-Assad regime in Syria.
The contrast with the brutal way the Algerian republic dealt with (if that is the phrase) its Islamists winning an election and how the Hashemite monarchy of Jordan dealt with the same is stark, to say the least.
There are deceased monarchies in the Middle East–Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen. But the post-monarchy experiences in those countries have not been happy ones. They were also mostly relatively recent dynasties and, in the case of Egypt and Iraq, foreign ones. (The one longstanding dynasty, Yemen, took a civil war with significant foreign intervention to dislodge.) The failure of those monarchies provide salutary lessons for sitting monarchs while what followed the fall of said monarchs should give pause to their subjects. The Sultan of Oman, for example, seems to be very comfortable with a free press as accurate news about the Middle East makes the Sultan’s liberal and prosperous rule look pretty good by comparison. In the Sultan’s Wikipedia entry, the section on his personal life begins:
Qaboos bin Said is an avid fan and promoter of classical music.
After a brief, childless marriage to a cousin, the Sultan has remained unmarried. Can we read the code? It is a feature of hereditary rule that it places folk of various sexualities on thrones by dint of the genetic and congenital diversity of humans. As well as, of course, (where it is not barred) women. Something, until very recently, republics were not much good at and monarchies remain well ahead in.
Vagaries and benefits of inheritance
Monarchy means inherited office, and rules of inheritance have their vagaries. The Kingdom of Hanover had semi-Salic law. This blocked Queen Victoria ascending to its throne. This meant that its monarchy was separated from the British monarchy upon her accession in 1837. Her uncle Ernest Augustus took the Hanoverian throne, taking an autocratic view of monarchy which was continued by his son George V. In 1866, the Hanoverian Parliament wanted to accede to the Prussian demand for unarmed neutrality in the Austro-Prussian conflict. George refused, Prussia invaded and abolished the Hanoverian monarchy, absorbing Hanover into the Kingdom of Prussia. If Hanover had remained in personal union with the Crown of the United Kingdom that would have, to say the least, complicated Bismarck‘s drive to unify non-Habsburg Germany.
But inherited office also means long time horizons. Though subject to normal human failings, the long time horizons of monarchy is one of its distinct advantages. As economist Mancur Olson pointed out that, the longer the time horizon of the ruler, the more their interests tended to converge with those of their subjects. One tends to be somewhat more careful and accommodating the longer you and your children are going to be living with the consequences of your decisions. Of the three major Axis powers, the two monarchies (the Kingdom of Italy and the Empire of Japan) found it easier to exit from fighting precisely because they were monarchies; there was someone with sufficient authority to say enough!. Nazi Germany had to wait until Hitler was dead (and assassination proved to be a less reliable alternative).
Not that long time horizons are enough in themselves. The Kim Family Regime (now in its third generation of rulers) seems to have gained rigidity, rather than flexibility, from its hereditary succession. But it is very much a modernist regime with the rulers more Theocrats-in-Chief than anything like a traditional monarchy (some analysts class the ruling ideology, Juche, as a religion, since it has an eternal President and now an eternal Secretary-General). The trouble with ruling in the name of eternal persons is you are rather confined by their precedents and, in such a completely totalitarian society, said precedents are all-pervasive. Creating a very strange, tyrannical and oppressive society.
The more traditional “the King/Queen is dead, long live the King/Queen” says “it’s all yours now”. Indeed, a judicious “being your own person” can be a great way to relieve certain stresses. This has a long history. The idea of getting the merchants to elect delegates to be consulted on matters fiscal goes back to Alfonso IX of Leon in the late C12th early C13th and involved explaining that the previous ruler (his Dad) had screwed up the finances, so … An idea that seems to have spread to England a bit later. Wrapping change in the aura of tradition is something monarchy can do particularly effectively. This balancing of continuity and change is precisely what the Moroccan monarchy is currently engaged in. The utility of monarchy as a social anchor is not lightly to be cast aside.
The Dynasts’ War
The Great War of 1914-1919 was by far monarchy’s greatest failure. Calling it ‘World War One’ is a foolish title, it was by no means the first world war. Consider the War of the Austrian Succession and Macaulay‘s evocative words about Frederick the Great:
In order that he might rob a neighbour whom he had promised to defend, black men fought on the coast of Coromandel and red men scalped each other by the great lakes of North America.
It was much more the Dynasts’ War because it was so much driven by the fears of the Hohenzollern, Habsburg and Romanov regimes about the implications of demotic politics–democracy and nationalism. All ruled realms whose borders were defined by nothing other than which territories the dynasties had managed to acquire and hold–so conflicted with the claims of nationalism–and sought to hold off democratic threats to their authority (or to the privileges of those who hid behind monarchial authority).
But all three monarchies paid for their gross failure by being overthrown and, in the case of the one “bloody-handed tyrant” of the three, Tsar Nicholas II, being killed along with his family. Shot in a cellar in the sort of gangster-execution one would expect from the ideological gangsters who succeeded him. And, who, of course, were far worse than he. As has often proved to be the case. (They were also, btw, far worse economic managers; the Soviet economy never achieved the growth rates managed by the Russian Empire under Nicholas, one of the more unimpressive Tsars.)
Comfort in continuity
Monarchies, like all else, are subject to selection pressures. Which brings us back to those long time horizons. Separating the power and the glory, wrapping change in the aura of tradition, providing the comfort of continuity, providing a social anchor. These are not small benefits. The British monarchy even provides a sort of quiet internationalism in spreading itself around so many realms.
And the role of monarchy in an evolved political system can be remarkably hard to unpick, if you do not want to make things worse. As the attempts to turn the Australian monarchy into a republic discovered.
In 1969, an opinion poll found 18% support for republicanism in the UK. In 2007, an opinion poll found 18% support for republicanism in the UK, a stable result only briefly (and mildly) disturbed by the outpouring over the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. There is much more good sense in that than many too-clever folk seem to grasp.
Yes, I rather like monarchy.