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Africa: Analysis From Washington -- Monarchy In A Democratic Age

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 26 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- International reaction to the death of Morocco's King Hassan II has highlighted the useful role monarchies can sometimes play in a democratic age, a role sometimes beyond the capacity of more democratic regimes. But it has also called attention to the shortcomings of monarchy as a form of government, limitations that democracies usually can avoid.

Following the death of Hassan II on Friday, leaders from around the world gave him credit for the special role he played in promoting peace in the Middle East between Israel and its neighbors. And they also praised him for the ways in which he used his autocratic power at home to face down Islamist and other extremist challenges to his modernization programs.

In both cases, their comments suggested that Hassan was able to take these steps precisely because he was not accountable in any strict sense to his own people. Had there been a referendum in his country, it is unlikely that the king would have received widespread support for what many saw as his pro-Israeli position.

And had he and his ministers been forced to mobilize popular support for many of the domestic modernization programs he launched and carried through, coverage of his death suggested, Hassan would not have been able to take these steps, and as a result, Morocco might not have benefited from these many unpopular, but valuable reforms.

In short, many of the world's democratic leaders have been praising Hassan precisely because he was not a democrat and thus was not subject to the constraints that they and their governments are.

But beneath this outpouring of praise for the late king, an outpouring that duplicates that which met the passing of Jordan's King Hussein earlier this year, there were other comments that highlight the limitations of monarchy in a democratic age.

On the one hand, virtually every statement about Hassan stressed just how many times he had faced down domestic opponents, sometimes with guile but often with brute force. And these commentators noted that he had faced equally difficult challenges from Arab leaders opposed to his rule, up to and including support for his domestic opponents.

While Hassan proved victorious in all of these cases, the challenges themselves call attention to the fundamental weakness of regimes of his kind, weaknesses that are likely to grow rather than decline as democratic ideals sweep the world.

And on the other hand, virtually every commentator and official expressed the hope that Hassan's son and successor would be able to carry on his father's approach, but equally every one of them noted that there were no guarantees that this would happen.

Like his late father before he took office, the heir and soon to be king has a greater reputation as a playboy than as anything else, leaving open the question as to whether he has the political skills to do what Hassan did or whether he will be forced to appease the Islamist forces in his society or rely on the military to keep him in office. Either choice could presage a sharp break with Hassan's approach at home and abroad.

Consequently, the outpouring of praise over the past three days is less praise for monarchy as an institution than praise for a particular monarch and what he was able to do. But beneath both the praise for Hassan and the expressions of concern about the future of Morocco under his successor appears to be a lesson for the partisans of democracy as well, particularly in those countries which are making the transition from communism. That lesson is that only a republic form of government will allow for both the leadership that countries need at home and abroad and the protection of individual rights that is at the core of democracy itself. For as many Western countries have concluded, only that form of democracy allows for both, thus gaining some of the strengths associated with monarchs like Hassan II without the drawbacks of his system.

Maintaining the balance between opportunities for political leadership and the requirements of democratic governance has never been easy even for established democracies and is likely to prove even more difficult for those in transition. But the commentaries on the death of Hassan II serve as a reminder that those countries which have chosen another route, either monarchy or government by plebiscite and polls, often lose the benefits of both.

And that in turn makes progress toward democracy in these countries more difficult. How fitting that the death of a king in fact serves as yet another reminder of the virtues of democracy and the republic form of government.