Democratic moment in Morocco
The constitutional amendments were a good step forward on the democratic transition in Morocco, but they were unable to satisfy many factions in the society, notes Mourad Teyeb
On 1 July, Moroccans voted on a national referendum for constitutional reforms that will mark a new era in Morocco's political development, including instituting stronger limitations on the power of the monarchy and guaranteeing that members of parliament be democratically elected and the prime minister chosen from the party with a majority of seats.
The proposed changes give more executive power to the prime minister, strengthen the judiciary, stress the importance of gender equality, and recognise Berber as a national language.
With the new constitution, King Mohamed VI, whose family has reigned for three centuries, loses his sacred status but remains Amir Al-Mumineen (the Commander of the Faithful), thus maintaining power over the religious establishment. He also retains control over the defence and security forces. He can still impose emergency laws. While the prime minister can appoint all ministers, the king has veto power on those appointments and all new laws need to be confirmed by him.
With a voter turnout of 72.65 per cent, despite the opposition's call for a boycott, 98 per cent of the 13 million registered voters voted yes to the proposed constitutional changes in Friday's referendum.
Many Moroccans, even outside King Mohamed VI's circle as well as members of the political and economic establishment, welcomed the reforms. They saw in them the first concrete steps towards democracy in their country.
"I voted yes because this new constitution introduces good changes in the society, without the use of violence", said Marwan, a 42-year-old company manager. "I believe this reform is a unique model in the Muslim Arab world".
Morocco is "still far from a democracy", thinks Younis Abu Ayoub, a US-based Moroccan activist. But the referendum is "a democratic moment".
Abu Ayoub, the head of Morocco Tomorrow, an independent group of young Moroccan professionals committed to socio-political reform in their country, hailed "a new Morocco that will be shaped by the referendum. These are historic times in Morocco, where the government is allowing the people to speak more loudly and voice their grievances," he told reporters at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on the eve of the referendum. "Taboos have been broken," Abu Ayoub said. "Politics are no longer something to be feared".
Ahmed Herzenni, a former political prisoner who joined the commission that drafted the constitutional reforms, praised the reforms which, he says, "will solidify rights across cultures and genders in Morocco, limit the absolute powers of the king, and promote stronger and more distinct political parties to accurately represent the will of the Moroccan people".
"The demonstrations this year helped speed up the process of reform in Morocco and revived the public's political interest and activism," said Herzenni, who until just before the referendum was chairman of the Moroccan Advisory Council on Human Rights.
Leila Hanafi, an international lawyer with the World Justice Project and expert on North African jurisprudence, said "Morocco has the potential to be a guide for other countries in the region. But we must improve in areas like due process and actually enforcing the laws that we enact."
Mohamed Ziane, founder of the Moroccan Liberal Party, supported the reforms with enthusiasm, linking the changes in Morocco with regional events. "This is a beginning", he recently declared. "Moroccans and the populations of the region finally started thinking about democracy, asking to have more control on their governments".
Some Western analysts hailed the changes as "a new beginning". They see the reforms "as opening a new chapter" of the Arab Spring in which "the regime, with no bullets or teargas, introduces changes itself."
"What's so important about what the Moroccan king has done is that he is forging a different model of change in the Arab world", wrote Kenneth Pollack for the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
The European Union said the reform initiative "signals a clear commitment to democracy". The United States government welcomed the result, declaring it "an important step in Morocco's ongoing democratic development".
Moroccans disagreed over whether it represented a new path for reform in a troubled region or another autocrat's hollow bid to absorb popular discontent. The opposition said the changes are far from "transforming Morocco into a European-style constitutional monarchy".
Those unsatisfied with the proposed reforms include the 20 February protest movement, which boycotted the vote. The 20 February movement, which was named after the day of the first anti-regime demonstrations earlier this year, similar to the coalitions that have led protests in other Arab countries, is made up of young Moroccans, bloggers, Internet activists, small labour unions, some ultra-leftist groups and the Justice and Spirituality Organisation, an illegal but tolerated Islamist movement. It has been campaigning against the referendum and organising protests.
The 20 February Movement denounced the new document as "little more than democratic window dressing on a monarchy that continues to be absolute", reports said.
"This reform is partial", says Malainine Al-Abadila, one of the movement's coordinators. "We are not at the vegetable market, negotiating prices. The King cannot propose an 80 per cent democracy".
"The power remains concentrated in the hands of the monarch", thinks Othman Baqa, member of the CDT workers' union, also a member of the 20 February movement. Baqa said he supported the boycott because the king did not take into consideration proposals submitted by the opposition. "The reforms were imposed by the monarchy, there was no constitutional assembly composed of members of civil society", he said.
Hundreds demonstrated in Rabat on Sunday shouting that the new constitution fails to deliver the democracy they sought. The February 20 has announced it will hold demonstrations every Sunday in the main Moroccan cities.
"This constitution has potential, it strips the king of a lot of power," said Mooti Mahjoob, a professor of political history at Rabat University. "The changes introduced in 1996 in a previous constitutional referendum were never implemented. The future of the reform depends now on the pressure the street can still exert."
Twenty-three-year-old engineering student Karim refused to vote. "It's not real democracy", he said. "It's to calm the people down, that's all. I want a constitutional monarchy like in Britain and Spain."
Moroccan Berbers called the reforms a trick despite the fact that the Berber language Tamzight will have official-language status, meaning that it will now be taught in Moroccan schools in addition to standard Arabic.
But the country's Berbers say the constitutional review won't help their political marginalisation in what they believe is an Arab-dominated government. "This is a symbolic measure. But there are still those in government who have long worked against the integration of Amazighs politically and these measures won't do much about them", claimed Ahmed Adghirni, a leading Berber activist in Morocco.
"There are some Berber people in the Atlas Mountains that come to live in the cities, but they can't make it in Moroccan cities, because they can't speak Arabic. Now the Arabs in Morocco need to learn Berber as they do Arabic," said Sliman, a 23-year-old Berber activist in Marrakech.
Given these caveats, all in all, many Arab and Western observers see Morocco's constitutional reform as a model for Arab spring and a new path for embattled Arab leaders.