Moroccan King Mohammed VI, in a bold move to appease anti-government protesters, has announced a July 1 referendum on constitutional change. It’s a gamble that could create a template for other monarchs in the Middle East, but risks falling short of protesters’ demands and straining relations with the king’s conservative Gulf allies.
King Mohammed’s proposed changes to the Moroccan constitution stop short of conceding to protesters’ calls for a parliamentary monarchy. Nonetheless, it violates an implicit understanding underlying last month’s invitation to Morocco and Jordan to join the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Saudi-led club of oil-rich monarchs. That understanding involved Morocco, one of the Arab world’s poorer nations, benefitting from oil largesse in exchange for resisting calls for far-reaching political reform.
By calling the referendum, King Mohammed, the 47-year old scion of the Arab world’s longest serving dynasty, recognizes that he, like King Abdullah II of Jordan, are the two Arab leaders under pressure from anti-government protesters who still enjoy the public’s benefit of the doubt. Their thrones are theirs to lose.
By promising reform, King Mohammed, widely viewed as one of the Arab world’s most liberal and gentle autocrats, has so far been able to prevent anti-government protests that erupted in February from escalating.
In March, the king ordered a committee to draw up a new constitution in consultation with political parties, trade unions and non-governmental organizations. King Mohammed had originally scheduled a referendum on the changes for September 1, but moved it forward to July 1 to demonstrate his sincerity.
As a result, it is no wonder that King Mohammed seemed surprised when the GCC issued its invitation last month. Morocco response was lukewarm, saying the country’s priority was the Arab Maghreb Union that groups North African nations.
Saudi Arabia is likely to take heart from the fact that King Mohammed did not go as far as calling for a parliamentary monarchy. Saudi Arabia together with its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has positioned itself as the leading power seeking to maintain the status quo amid mass anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa in demand of democracy and greater accountability.
The risk however from Saudi Arabia’s perspective is that the king has embarked down a slippery slope and that the proposed constitutional changes are the beginning rather than the end of the road.
That risk was evident in initial reactions to the king’s proposed changes announced in a televised speech on Thursday evening. Some critics called the changes a step forwards, others denounced them as cosmetic.
The proposed constitutional changes do “not respond to the essence of our demands, which is establishing a parliamentary monarchy. We are basically moving from a de facto absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy,” Reuters quoted Najib Chawki, a February 20 Movement activist, as saying.
The movement, a driving force behind the protests, has called for a parliamentary monarchy, an end to the influence of the king’s secretive inner circle, the dismissal of the government, and for officials and businessmen it accuses of corruption to be put on trial. It was formed around a Facebook page.
The king’s proposed constitutional changes would give greater power to elected politicians but leave King Mohammed in control of security, the military and religious affairs.
Under the Moroccan constitution, King Mohammed, whose family is seen descending from the Prophet Mohammed, is Amir al-Mu’minin or Commander of the Faithful. A reference to the king in the current Constitution as “sacred” would however be scrapped. Instead the constitution would stipulate that “the integrity of the person of the king should not be violated.” In his speech, King Mohammed described the monarchy as “inviolable.” He said Islam would remain the state religion, but there would be a new guarantee of religious freedom.
The new constitution would give Morocco’s largely rubber stamp parliament some real power. It would oblige the king to pick the country’s prime minister from the party that wins elections. Nonetheless, the prime minister would still have to turn to the king, who retains the right to pass his own decrees, for permissions. The prime minister would propose candidates as ministers, ambassadors and provincial governors but the king would have to approve them.
“The constitution gives the head of government the power to propose and dismiss cabinet members, to steer and coordinate government action, and to supervise public service,” King Mohammed said, adding that he was “the trustworthy guide and supreme arbiter.”
King Mohammed insisted that “appointments in the military remain an exclusive, sovereign prerogative of the King, Supreme Commander and Chief of Staff of the Royal Armed Forces.”
Nonetheless, he contended that “we have managed ... to develop a new democratic constitutional charter. I am addressing you today to renew our joint commitment to achieving a significant transition in completing the construction of a state based on the rule of law and on democratic institutions, and ... good governance.”
The new constitution would empower the prime minister to dissolve the lower house of parliament after consulting the king, house speaker and head of the constitutional court. It would “enshrine citizenship-based monarchy and the citizen king,” King Mohammed said.
Under the proposed reforms, the king would also be entitled to dissolve parliament but only after consulting the chairman of a newly introduced Constitutional Court, of which half the members would be appointed by the king. The reforms would also introduce a Supreme Security Council, which would be chaired by the king as a platform for consultations on domestic and foreign security issues. Its members would include the prime minister, speakers of the bi-cameral parliament and senior army officers.
In a further concession to protesters, the king said, “the draft constitution criminalizes any interference, corruption or influence peddling with regard to the judiciary.” He said the constitution also “criminalizes torture, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and all forms of discrimination and inhuman, degrading practices” and upholds “freedom of the press and of expression and opinion” albeit within unspecified legal boundaries.
The reformed constitution further recognizes Tamazight as an official language alongside Arabic, a move designed to appease Berber activists within the February 20 Movement. Berbers are North Africa’s original inhabitants before Arabs conquered it in the seventh century.
Sunday will provide a first clear response to the king’s effort to meet protesters’ demands when the February 20 Movement organizes another protest manifestation. “We will continue to mobilize Moroccans for a democratic constitution that widens the scope of public freedoms,” Mr. Chawki said.
King Mohammed’s proposed reforms appear to set Morocco on a path toward greater political freedom and economic opportunity. Like in Egypt, where protesters and interest groups maintain pressure on the country’s leaders to lead the country toward democracy, protesters in Morocco are likely to continue to demand their say. The litmus test will be King Mohammed’s willingness to crack down on corruption, reduce the stake of his family and associates in the economy and ensure that protesters are part of the process.
If successful, King Mohammed will have created a model for Arab monarchies, which so far have proven less vulnerable than republican regimes to the wave of protest sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. It is a template that preserves the monarchy, but involves changes others may be reluctant to embrace.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org)