Some of the Most Maligned Tools of Modern Democracy Are Viewed in a New Light in Saaf’s Reissued ‘A Significant Year’

Part diary, part travelogue, and part social science study, Abdallah Saaf's A Significant Year examines Morocco's 2007 elections with a perspective on all modern democracies.

A Significant Year
Abdallah Saaf
Seagull Books / University of Chicago Press
Jun 2019

Twelve years have passed since Abdallah Saaf wrote A Significant Year, a brief, personal study of the country immediately preceding the 2007 elections. Part diary, part travelogue, and part social science study into the North African nation’s political and social makeup, A Significant Year works best because of Saaf’s sparing, observational style. At less than 150 pages, Saaf makes brisk work traveling the country to see each of Morocco’s geographic regions and major (and minor) metropolitan centers in the months before September 2007’s parliamentary elections. For this English translation, A Significant Year cut the drier, technical details contained in the original publication (chiefly about Saaf’s methodology and an assessment of the election’s outcome).

In retrospect—for the world as much as Morocco—2007 seems a wildly different political and social environment. In Europe, Nicholas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown were taking power in France and Britain respectively, Barack Obama was on the cusp of making history in the United States, and many were beginning to ask if the “War on Terror” (in which Morocco and the United States had cooperated) could even be won. It would be easy to wonder if the political and social observations Saaf made when he originally wrote A Significant Year remain pertinent today. After all, Saaf writes, “[O]n the whole I get the same impression here as I’ve got elsewhere: although the elections are only a few weeks away they’re being regarded with a strange indifference and with a curious detachment.”

The sense is simultaneously familiar and incomprehensible. For many, in the wake of 2016 (both with Brexit and Donald Trump’s “win”) seeing an election as merely an act of going through the motions seems otherworldly compared to the constant barrage of endless campaigning and ever-higher stakes that has become American (and many other countries’) elections by 2019. Could readers imagine a 2020 election atmosphere that is “wan and lethargic” as Saaf describes? Of course, it isn’t merely the West that’s changed. The Arab world (including Morocco) did, after all, go through its own momentous political transformation only four years after A Significant Year was published. While the Arab Spring didn’t have the same impact in Morocco as its North African neighbors, it did lead to concessions by the King and continued demonstrations by the younger generation.

Whether Morocco’s detachment from elections (which have occurred with far less frequency than in the United States) has changed or not, it might also remind us to pause and wonder what does and doesn’t change with each transition of power. More importantly, Saaf’s caution in drawing grand political conclusions is equally refreshing from the nonstop political commentary offered by social media and entertainment-as-news since 2007. Saaf’s cautious and judicious with what he writes and gives his opinion on; his writing is thoughtful and considered and exactly the type all elections deserve.

As an academic and former Cabinet minister, Saaf is frankly far more qualified than many of the political commentariat at work today, and yet he writes, “As for me, the press keeps asking me for my reading of the event. I refuse to comment on situations about which I’m ill-informed and I don’t think I’ve got enough facts at my disposal to answer their questions.” His prudence makes Significant Year read more like a thoughtful conversation with a traveling partner than the work of an academic trying to understand his country.

Despite the fact that it doesn’t have many of the protections most Western democracies share, Morocco’s head of state will remain the same King after any election, and the representative bodies have limited power, many of the voters Saaf discusses ask the same questions as anywhere else. While Saaf travels, he learns that the Deputy Home Secretary has resigned and has been authorized to stand for election in another electoral district. Saaf observes, “We Moroccans have become used to thinking about politics in terms of certain stock notions, such as that of the strongman who’s so powerful that he never leaves office… My informant has quickly ventured the hypothesis that the fellow had in fact been dismissed.” Saaf goes on to explain the rationale behind his interlocutor’s suspicion, and while many readers might not be inclined to use the term “strongman” for any of their own leaders, the suspicion of anyone who voluntarily gives up power is undeniably instinctive.

Alternatively, some of the most maligned tools of modern democracy are viewed in a new light here. From pork projects and earmarks to the expectation that one’s representative will be able to exercise some kind of unilateral power, or even the cynical tactic of opinion-poll governing, these are all ideas voters everywhere are familiar with. But while governing to the polls might be seen as impulsive vote-chasing by some, an utter absence of any polling also denies those in power a fluid sense of where the country stands: “In a situation in which so-call opinion polls are valued more highly than proposals for how to transform society, self-promotion becomes the order of the day…. [T]he elections seem so remote from people’s concerns that wherever I’ve traveled there’s been little evidence of competition among candidates and no opinion polls have been carried out. During this time, the sole effective actor—the State and its organs—will debate” with itself only.

With Significant Year, Saaf went looking for what was not immediately obvious, in a country with few visible signs of the upcoming election. In the end, he reminds us that despite the performance and calcification that occurs as elections drag on, as well as the innate blind spots of any democracy (i.e., either voter naiveté or apathy), significant change, construction, and deliberation occurred throughout Morocco. With or without the election, 2007 saw a changing Morocco, as always, deciding on the course of its future.

RATING 8 / 10