Amid Arab turmoil, Morocco charts quiet path to reform

Morocco's King Mohammed VI says Moroccans will vote on proposed constitutional changes in a national referendum. The country's reform movement wants to lessen the monarchy's power.

People attend a peaceful protest calling for more 'democracy and social justice' in Casablanca on April 3. King Mohammed VI's move to overhaul Morocco's constitution has ensured he remains in control of the reform process, but even deeper change may be needed if he is to satisfy those inspired by revolts sweeping the Arab world.

As crises in Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain grab world headlines, Morocco is quietly undergoing what its prime minister has called “a peaceful revolution.”

Leaders around the region should take note.

After a wave of largely nonviolent protests swept the country in February, Morocco’s monarch, King Mohammed VI, made a rare appearance on state television to announce that he was ready to give up considerable powers, including the right to appoint the country’s prime minister and dissolve its parliament.

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Since then, the king has established a panel to propose changes to the country’s constitution and he’s even invited the leaders of the Feb. 20th Movement – the youth-led group named after the seminal day of protests – to join the process.

“Our goal is a new constitution that serves the people, not the elite,” Montasser Drissi, one of the youth leaders, told The New York Times last month.

Another young protester called for “an end to the hegemony of the palace flunkies,” according to The Irish Times. “We want a democratically elected government with real power,” he added.

Morocco has had a monarchy since long before the country gained independence from France in 1956. Today, the royal family costs Moroccan taxpayers $140 million a year – that’s more than twice the cost of the British monarchy.

But the protesters aren’t looking to depose Mohammed VI, who has been relatively well liked and respected across the country since he became king upon his father’s death in 1999. They just don’t want him to have so much power.

One of the protesters’ key demands is to eliminate Article 19 of the constitution, the section that declares the king to be Morocco’s highest religious authority.

They also want more freedom for the press. Hundreds of journalists – including many employees of state-controlled media – protested in Rabat and Casablanca on March 25 to demand greater editorial freedom.

The monarchy has long kept a tight rein on journalists, booting out anyone whose coverage is unflattering. Last fall, Al Jazeera was forced to leave the country when the government revoked its permits. The government was unhappy with how the Arabic news channel had portrayed the conflict in Western Sahara.

But on the whole, Mohammed VI has been a forward-thinking leader, especially when compared to his father, Hassan II, who amassed a grisly human rights record during his nearly four decades of rule. In 1993, six years before he died, Hassan II built a gargantuan mosque in his own honor on the seafront in Casablanca; it’s the fifth-largest mosque in the world.

Mohammed VI does not appear to have such expensive tastes, and he seems, at least superficially, to be more open to reform.

The constitutional review panel – whose members were appointed by the king – will present him with their recommendations in June. The Moroccan people will then have the chance to vote on the proposed changes in a national referendum, the king has said. The world will see whether he keeps that promise.

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