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Moulay Hicham Alaoui: “Learning happened on both sides of the barricades.”

Morocco's "Rebel Prince" spoke with students about the aftermath of the Arab Spring and lessons learned.

Morocco’s “Rebel Prince” Moulay Hicham Alaoui, who has formally asked King Mohammed VI to be removed from the line of succession, is one of the few royal dissidents that advocate for progressive policies in the Arab world. The Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at The Fletcher School recently hosted a discussion with him on the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

“As geophysicists will tell you, the aftershocks that follow earthquakes do much more damage, as they insert themselves in the cracks,” Moulay Hicham Alaoui said. He was describing the current wave of unrest in the Arab world as the aftershocks of the political earthquake that was the 2011-2012 Arab Spring.

According to Alaoui, whose academic research has been published in journals such as Politique Internationale, Le Monde Diplomatique, and Journal of Democracy and who has contributed to The New York Times, Le Monde, and Al-Quds, the current protests are triggered by a few interrelated factors. The first is the youth of the region’s population: A third of the Arab population is under 15 years old and another third is between 15 and 29 years old. In combination with economic stagnation, many young people hope to emigrate. “A staggering 70% of Moroccans aged 18-29 want to leave,” Alaoui explained. Furthering the discontent is the lack of progress in governance, which has led to the marginalization of the masses and disenchantment with politics.

He argued that after the first wave, “learning happened on both sides of the barricades.” After witnessing the developments in Egypt, popular movements understood that toppling a leader helps little if the power brokers stay the same and the military continues to command significant power. Protesters have also acquired a more critical awareness of the power and limitations of social networks and information technology. “Technology can be a tool for both liberation and repression,” Alaoui explained.

Across the barricades, authoritarian regimes noticed the fate of their counterparts in Tunisia and Yemen, where governments hoped that the toleration of dissent would buy them some time but they were ultimately deposed. “The winning strategy is a reversion to violence and repression,” Alaoui summed up their conclusions. He noted with particular concern that regimes now pursue dissent even outside their borders, often with impunity, as the brutal assassination of Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul revealed. Alaoui described the latter as the ‘litmus test’ for Mohammd Bin Salman, which exposed the true face of the leader.

The new mood on the streets, according to Alaoui, is what he coined as dégagisme (a so-called “get-out”-ism), where the popular desire is to remove all political elites. He argued that this complicates the equation, as “activists remain aloof from the political arena, fearful of being discredited by any contact with ruling elites. This can lead to an intractable stalemate until one side blinks.” This new mood is also reflected in what Alaoui called a rejection of the great ‘isms’: pan-Arabism, Islamism, socialism, and nationalism. Instead of promises of utopia, protesters today march on the streets because they want to see tangible improvements of democracy.

The next puzzle piece in the grand-narrative that Alaoui presented is the loss of appeal of the Sunni-Shia narrative. The Saudi-Emirati counter-revolutionary regional strategy “has hit a wall.” While the Saudi financing of the Sissi regime has exposed the limits of propping up a regime with money, the bloody war in Yemen has revealed the kingdom’s own military weaknesses and failure in projecting hard power abroad. This occurs against the geopolitical backdrop of what Alaoui called the “sunset of American hegemony.” The U.S. abdication is most notable in the recently revealed Israeli-Palestine peace plan, which signals the retreat of the U.S. from its traditional role as a mediator.

Pointing to the supposedly better ability of monarchies to weather the Arab Spring, Fletcher School Professor Ibrahim Warde asked Alaoui if there is something intrinsically resilient about monarchies. “There was and still is,” Alaoui replied, explaining that they derive legitimacy from their deep roots in society and in some cases can play a conciliatory role. However, he elaborated that monarchies have squandered important political capital by refusing to reform. “Saying this will get me in trouble back home. But trouble is my maiden name,” Alaoui added with a smile.

Moulay Hicham Alaoui’s memoire, “Journal d'un Prince Bann”i (Diary of a Banished Prince,) was published in 2014. It highlights the Moroccan monarchy from an insider’s perspective, as well as Alaoui’s ideas for a truly democratic Morocco. Alaoui holds degrees from Princeton and Stanford, and recently defended his Ph.D. dissertation at Oxford.