Reforming Morocco: Taking Apart the King's Speech

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Abdelhak Senna / AFP / Getty Images

Mohammed VI, the King of Morocco, in a televised speech in July 2010

Looks like someone's been paying attention. After three weeks of nationwide protests, Morocco's King Mohammed VI unexpectedly went on television on March 9 to announce sweeping constitutional reforms. The changes, which include free parliamentary elections and a drastic reduction in the monarch's power, coincide closely with the demands of activists who have kept up pressure on the government since launching their first demonstrations on Feb. 20. Nevertheless, few among those championing reform in this north African country are persuaded that real change is at hand.

Although Morocco has a parliament, article 19 of the current constitution grants the monarch near absolute authority, including the power to appoint the prime minister, without the latter ever having stood for election. In his speech, Mohammed VI said that was about to change: he would appoint a commission to revise the constitution, and instruct its members to come up with measures to increase the independence of the judiciary and improve the separation of powers. Most critically, in a country where the monarchy has in the past limited how many seats a given party may hold (this has had an especially restrictive effect on the centrist Islamist Party of Justice and Development or PJD), Mohammed promised to hold free elections, and allow the head of the party that wins the most vote to become prime minister. The draft devised by the commission will also be submitted for approval to a general referendum.

"On the one hand, it's a 180-degree change," says Aboubakr Jamai, a journalist and founder of political website "It's acknowledgment that he has been leading Morocco down the wrong road. He's objectively recognized that what he has been doing was not democratic. But we have to remember that he's proposed these kinds of things before." Med Bouzidi, political scientist Ifrane's Al Akhawayn University, agrees. "Certainly it's a very positive step. But the devil is in the details."

Morocco is viewed — or at least it was before recent events in Tunisia and Egypt — by the United States and many other Western nations as one of the most liberal countries in the region. Since assuming the throne from his autocratic father Hassan II in 1999, Mohammed VI has created a truth and reconciliation committee to investigate atrocities committed by the state under the previous regime, relaxed censorship of the press, and reformed the Moudawanna, or family law, to better protect women's rights. But he has also closed many newspapers and magazines that have touched on taboo subjects, like the royal family's finances, has cracked down on pro-independence activists in the contested Western Sahara region, and has banned from political participation the extremely popular Islamist movement, Charity and Justice. His palace elite, called the Makhzen, is much reviled for their behind-the-scenes influence, and Transparency International ranks Morocco as the 85th most corrupt nation in the world, below Saudi Arabia (50) and Tunisia (59).

Which is why many pro-democracy activists in Morocco are skeptical about the announced constitutional reforms. "There are some good points about the measures he announced," says Nizar Bennamate, 25, an activist and organizer of the February 20 movement. "But is the king really going to give up power? If so, why is he appointing the commission, for example, instead of allowing an elected constitutional assembly?"

Observers say they can't help but notice what was left out of the king's speech. "A lot of analysts have been commenting on the fact that there was no mention of corruption," says Haizam Amirah-Fernandez, senior analyst for the Mediterranean and Middle East at the Royal Elcano Institute, a Madrid-based think tank. "And bringing an end to the corruption that has resulted in so much inequality in Morocco is one of the principal demands of this mobilized sector of society. It's also one of the key causes and symptoms of bad government there."

With another series of nationwide demonstrations scheduled for March 20, many within the pro-democracy movement are wondering whether the speech wasn't an attempt to weaken their momentum. "I think this was an aims of the regime," says political analyst Maati Manjib, an advisor to the youth movement. "After all, the king didn't mention the movement in his speech. He didn't say he was taking their demands into consideration." Beyond youth participants, the speech may also been intended as a means of placating those old-school political organizations, like the Socialist Union of Popular Forces that, in the aftermath of the Feb 20 marches (if not before) have called for constitutional reform themselves. "If anything, the political parties have been too positive in their evaluation of the speech," says professor Bouzizi. "Even the head of the [Islamist] PJD is saying there's no need for more demonstrations."

But, even though the king was silent on their existence, activists see his speech as a clear sign they are having an impact. "We're going to celebrate this little victory, and then we're going to get back to work," says Bennamate. "The March 20th demonstration is going on as planned." If anything, says Youssef Raissouni, president for the Rabat section of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights, it's even more critical now "The speech was about only partial change. And that's not enough. The Moroccan people want radical change."