The Middle East Channel

Morocco’s constitutional face lift

Morocco’s constitutional face lift

On Friday June 17, after four months of street protests, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI gave a speech outlining a constitutional amendment which would complete "the construction of a state based on the rule of law and on democratic institutions." The king called on Moroccans to support his proposed constitution in a referendum he scheduled for tomorrow (July 1). Many Western analysts have praised these reforms as a substantive move toward democratic change.  

In fact, the draft constitution does not meet the expectations of the pro-democracy movement which has been calling for the establishment of a parliamentary democracy. Nor does it provide for a real separation of powers. The new constitution enshrines the absolute power of the king, while offering only token changes. The non-consultative process by which the amendments were created, and the unseemly speed by which they are to be ratified, have infuriated democracy activists.  

In the current system, the king reigns and rules arbitrarily through his appointees and closest advisers, who in turn delegate bits of power to clients or even friends or relatives. This form of government, based on a long political tradition, is embodied in a constitution which allows the state to operate thanks to the goodwill of an executive monarch. The poorly representative government only serves as a front for an authoritarian regime. While consecrating the king as "sacred," the current constitution also makes him the undisputed head of the executive, the senior legislator (the king can rule by decree) and the first judge, disabling the people’s very ability to hold the government accountable. It is not so much the inviolability of the king’s person that most democrats have been castigating,  but rather the discretionary prerogatives the monarch enjoys. Moroccans have no way to force accountability on the government, which is the essence of democracy.

How much power is the monarch willing to relinquish with his proposed reforms? In his speech, the King explained that the constitutional amendment "confirms the features and mechanisms of the parliamentary nature of the Moroccan political system, which is essentially based on the principles of the nation’s sovereignty." He added that the new draft would tie "the link between public office and accountability." He insisted the new system would have "balance, independence and separation of powers" at its core. Some welcomed the general spirit of a constitutional draft which recognizes Amazigh (Berber) as an official language, highlights the diverse components of the Moroccan identity, promotes gender equality and underlines the right of access to public information.

A closer look at the document, however, reveals that the proposed draft is nothing more than a semantic face-lift of the previous constitution. Powers remain tied up and under the control of one man: the king. The positive elements are likely to remain a dead letter as long as the legislative power lacks the independence and nerve it needs to implement these general concepts in an overly conservative society.

For example, the protestors expected that the prime minister would be promoted to the rank of the head of the executive, but nothing of the sort actually happened. While the king is forced to choose the head of the government in the party that came out on top in the legislative elections, he can still appoint or dismiss ministers at will. The draft suggests that the king may "consult" the chief of the government before such decisions are made, but nothing requires him to act upon that advice. The draft constitution allows the king to reshuffle or sack the whole cabinet, declare a state of emergency and rule by decree. The prime minister may dissolve parliament, but this is subject to the approval of the Ministerial Council, a body chaired by the king, with a veto power over all decisions made by the Government’s Council. In short, the king remains the center of power: he chairs the Supreme Council of the Judiciary, the Supreme Security Council, the Higher Council of Ulema (the highest religious authority with the power to issue religious edicts, or fatwas), and is the Commander in Chief of the Royal Armed Forces.

Proponents of the draft claim that the king is playing the role of a neutral arbitrator while standing above politics. But the king himself clearly failed to live up to that supposed role.  During his June 17 speech, he explicitly called Moroccans to vote "yes" for the proposed constitution — hardly the act of a neutral arbiter. He went even further implying that a "yes" vote will help find a solution to the Western Sahara conflict. Better still, he closed his speech with a Quranic verse ("This is my way: I do invite unto Allah — on evidence clear as the seeing with one’s eyes — I and whoever follows me"), suggesting that the "yes" vote was a religious duty. This can only have one interpretation: those who vote "no" will be treated as traitors or infidels.

Regardless of the content of the draft itself, the way the constitutional revision was conducted and the pace imposed by the palace are serious causes for suspicion. The "February 20" youth movement, which has been spearheading the pro-democracy protests in the last four months, has called for the election of a pluralistic constituent assembly in order to draft a whole new constitution, setting the basis for a parliamentary monarchy. Instead, the king chose to unilaterally appoint an Advisory Royal Commission, the work and discussions of which were not made public. Its monochromatic political composition, advisory nature and dependence on the king — whose authority it was supposed to limit — raised serious questions about the relevance and objectivity of the work rendered. The content of the draft constitution was submitted to political parties  less than 24 hours before the king approved it. The people were given only 10 days to decide upon a document which took the Royal Commission three months to draft.

Obviously, the palace seeks to pass the reform quickly, and does not want to leave the opposition time enough to organize. This led a group of online activists called Mamfakinch! (We won’t give up! in Moroccan dialect), who represent the Internet extension of the "February 20" movement, to release a statement condemning "the immoral actions of the Moroccan government" and denounced "a botched constitutional debate." The statement explains that "the Moroccan people are not supposed to seriously discuss the draft constitution, but only answer ‘yes’ to the person who submitted it to the vote." 

The official referendum campaign was grossly unbalanced, casting further suspicion on the democratic intentions of the king, and calling into question the very legitimacy of the document. The government went even further. In a clear effort to influence public opinion, imams received written instructions to preach in favor of the draft constitution during their Friday prayers (as evidenced by videos posted on the internet), linking the vote to a religious duty.

The  government instructed private radio stations not to invite journalists or activists known for their opposition to the draft or those calling for boycott. The Mamfakinch! group, along with a collective of NGOs, have called upon the authorities to allow for an equal share of airtime on TV and radio during the referendum campaign. But the government ignored the appeal, slicing up the airtime on public media between the political parties and trade unions approved by the state and mostly favorable to the king’s proposal. 

Physical attacks on members of the "February 20" movement have also raised during the referendum campaign. Mobs were regularly seen roaming the streets of Casablanca and Rabat, armed with knives and batons, bullying and molesting activists and forcing them to chant patriotic slogans. The "February 20" movement has denounced a campaign of intimidation and mass manipulation conducted by the government and called for a boycott of the referendum. Boycott is indeed the last reasonable option that the pro-democracy camp can still use decisively, given the disproportionate means employed by the regime to ensure a plebiscite. In this poll, it is not so much the "yes" or "no" vote that interests the informed observer of the Moroccan scene. It is rather the rate of abstention, which at this point, has become the democrats’ best hope and the regime’s worst nightmare.

Hisham al-Miraat is the co-founder of Talk Morocco and a contributing author for Global Voices.