RABAT, Morocco — Morocco’s king was delivering a landmark speech Friday night presenting new constitutional amendments that could transform the North African nation into a constitutional monarchy with a more powerful elected government.
Pro-democracy activists, however, are skeptical that these rumored far-reaching changes will dramatically decrease the powers of Morocco’s 400-year-old monarchy, which has a long history of enacting superficial reforms.
With pro-democracy uprisings erupting around the Arab world, King Mohammed VI gave a speech in March announcing the start of a process of constitutional reform. He promised to strengthen the roles of the prime minister, the parliament and the judiciary in a bid improve democracy.
The move followed nationwide protests on Feb. 20 in which hundreds of thousands marched for greater democracy and accountability in the nation of 32 million.
Activists are skeptical and have continued to protest, even as the king’s constitutional commission drew up the amendments. They also say police are still beating demonstrators and journalists continue to be jailed.
“I do believe the monarchy will not easily relinquish its powers,” said Arezki Daoud, editor of the online North Africa Journal. “It feels too easy and too quick, therefore I expect some more political fights coming and the pro-democracy movement continuing to pressure the regime.”
The heads of Morocco’s political parties and unions were shown draft proposals for the amendments, and the broad outlines of the reform have appeared in the press.
The position of prime minister will be replaced by a more powerful president who will come from the party garnering the most votes and will be able to appoint and dismiss ministers and governors – powers previously reserved for the king.
The new president can also propose the dissolution of the government, but will still govern with the assent of the king.
Parliament would be able to launch investigations with the support of just one-fifth of its members or begin a censure motion against a minister with the backing of a third, rather than needing the unanimous approval demanded by the current constitution.
The judiciary, which has long been criticized for lacking independence, would be governed by a supreme council composed of judges and the head of the national human rights council. The justice minister would not be on the council.
One of the main complaints of the pro-reform February 20 movement has long been Article 19 of the constitution, which gives the king the title of “Commander of the Faithful” and the “supreme representative of the state,” which they say makes him an infallible absolute monarch.
The revised article will now make the king commander of the army and supreme only in religious affairs.
Western diplomats have said privately they believe the reforms are genuine and a sincere effort by the king to withdraw from the day-to-day running of the country.
Daoud, however, says while the new head of the government appears to be strengthened, the position is still quite weak, especially with an empowered parliament that can be swayed by the king.
“So for the president, his hands appear extremely tied, between executive orders that cannot be passed without royal consent and a legislative branch that can get rid of him any time,” he noted.
The February 20 movement refused to meet with the constitutional committee because they say it was appointed by the king rather than elected.
“We are against the constitution of Mohammed VI,” said Larbi Mekkaki, a 33-year-old activist marching Sunday in Casablanca. “We want a constitution from below.”
According to Hicham Ben Abdallah El Alaoui, the king’s cousin and a researcher at Stanford University, the current reforms follow the same pattern as previous ones, with the king dictating the terms to docile political parties.
“This scenario of a mock discussion among the same players as always, and a happy ending seems a foregone conclusion,” he wrote in French daily Liberation. “Constitutional amendments that are ‘good enough’ will come out and be approved by referendum and the international community. This will give the regime some credibility for reform so that it can dismiss the demonstrators in the street as ‘undemocratic.'”
He predicted continued street protests, however, despite government attempts to paint the February 20 movement as a cover for extreme leftists and Islamic radicals.
Morocco’s official political parties have largely kept their distance from the reform movement and have roundly applauded the amendments.
Prominent newspaper editor Rachid Nini was sentenced to a year in prison for casting doubt on court rulings in a ruling widely seen as an attack on the independent press.
Mostafa Mouatassime, the head of a small opposition party called the Civilized Alternative, however, said he was ready to give the new constitution a chance.
“A worse constitution than the current one does not exist, the new one has to be better,” said the politician, who was jailed for three years in 2008 for alleged ties to a terrorist network – charges he described as trumped up.
“I am optimistic, because in the end, all we have is our optimism. It’s either optimism or a revolution,” he said.
(www.huffingtonpost.com / 17.06.2011)