During a visit to Morocco friends there told me a bitter-sweet joke: "As far as monarchies go", they related, "better to be Moroccan sheep than British cows!" From the vantage point of King Hassan II, who has shepherded his country and tended his flock during the past 35 years, the continued submissiveness of his subjects at the end of the 20th century cannot be taken for granted.
In the face of rising expectations and increasing frustrations, especially among the young, and at a time when the state of health of the 67-year-old sovereign is uncertain, the eventual succession to the Alawi throne by the Crown Prince Sidi Muhammad is being carefully prepared.
This spring the Crown Prince made a formal visit to Paris to meet French leaders in government and economic affairs and to convince them that Morocco is committed to stability, continuity and economic growth and that the regime deserves international confidence.
The Moroccan political and economic elite, whether allied to the palace or in opposition, is openly and impatiently expressing its ambitions and appetites for development and democratisation, and is apparently being taken seriously.
The view of the educated, politically conscious can be summed up by the pithy expression of one of them: "Le Maroc peut decoller ou deconner!" - Morocco will either take off, or come unstuck!
Amid a good deal of movement in socio-economic and political conditions, it is difficult to ascertain how far any structural change may be taking place. In regard to the monarchy, the power and authority of the king remain supreme.
As another example of local ironic humour put it, there are two forces which determine Morocco's fate: Hassan II and God. Beyond these supreme beings, of course, lies a rather intricate structure of relations. It is not so much the image of sheep and shepherd that suggests itself, but rather those of sheep dogs, sheep and wolves, images elaborated into a sociological model by the late anthropologist Ernest Gellner in his Saints of the Atlas, published in 1969.
Gellner's theory of the Moroccan state - the pre-colonial state, to be sure - was deceptively simple and elegant.
At the centre of the political system was the sultan and his court and army, what the Moroccans call the Makhzen.
The government and its troops collected taxes and conscripted soldiers. They were Gellner's "sheep-dogs". Beyond this core were the tribes who paid taxes and served as conscripts - the "sheep". And beyond them in the outer circle, roamed the tribes and holy men who were not always tame.
They were those who lived in the "Land of Dissidence" and who opposed conscription and the payment of taxes without, however, refusing to recognise the spiritual legitimacy of the Sultan, who was the Commander of the Faithful.
The whole of the political system, according to Gellner's scheme, was characterised by the religious charisma of the sultan and others who like him were considered holy men on the basis of descent from the Prophet or a saintly geneology, on the one hand, and by the segmentary organisation of the tribes, on the other hand.
This view from anthropology may seem unrelated to the mundane realities of politics; none the less, it has provided insights and explanations for much scholarly work by political scientists, and influenced various writings on Morocco and even on the Arab-Muslim world, in general, in the media and in governmental agencies.
The best political analysis of Morocco in the 1960s was J. Waterbury's Commander of the Faithful (1970) which drew on Gellner's segmentary model and extended its application to the whole of society.
Interpretations of present-day politics in terms of segmentary theory - that is by a focus on tribalism and patronage - in regard to Morocco, and now often extended to the rest of the Arab-Muslim world, ignore a number of complex webs of relations, structures, interests, and ideologies. (S. Zubaida shows how this is the case in his Is there a Muslim society? Ernest Gellner's sociology of Islam in Economy and Society, vol. 24, no. 2 May 1995). But in the context of Morocco, the metaphor of sheep used in ironic humour has some interpretive bite.
Gellner, in his paradigm of "sheep-dogs, sheep and wolves", grasped something essential about the Moroccan state and society that retains explanatory power, as well as reflecting "the native's point of view".
King Hassan II has ruled over Morocco since the death of his father, four years after Morocco gained its independence from the French in 1956. The king, and God, have reigned since then in a relatively stable, if not always benign manner.
Those decades include two failed coups d'etat, several bread riots, and a number of assassinations, kidnappings and imprisonments for political reasons, as well as many cases of human rights abuses.
To be sure, relative to its neighbours and a lot of other countries in the world, Morocco seems or promises to be in another, tamer league.
Most significantly, the monarchical regime today enjoys popular support and legitimacy because of a combination of socio-economic factors that many Moroccans consider promising if not satisfying, and because of a broad cultural and religious consensus within the population.
Opposition to absolutism in Morocco certainly exists, but it almost universally calls for constitutional monarchy, not abolition of the monarchy. Thus, in April of this year the four political parties that have formed a democratic bloc (kutla) submitted a memorandum to the king which called for various constitutional reforms.
The palace is not prepared to satisfy these demands, but the regime is moving towards greater democratisation in its parliament, liberalisation in regard to freedom of expression, and solid encouragement of private enterprise.
Although there is in Morocco a shared aspiration to "take off" and not to "come unstuck", many argue that development cannot take place without constitutional reform. The desire for improvement through the institutions of a modern state seems widespread and powerful. None the less, Moroccans are profoundly cautious people.
Another current joke has it that there are three possible kinds of relationships that subjects may entertain with the Makhzen: to be liked by the king and to be fondly mistreated; to be disliked by the king and to suffer cruelly; and, finally, to be unknown to the king and to escape recognition. The point of the joke is that in the circumstances, the wisest course is to remain anonymous.
Kenneth Brown is an honorary fellow in the department of sociology at the University of Manchester and director of the biannual Parisian review, Mediterraneans.