Can Morocco's King Mohammed VI outpace Morocco's 'winds of change'?

In a rare speech, King Mohammed VI outlined reforms that include a more independent judiciary, a move to direct local elections, and greater human rights.

Royal Palace/AP
Morocco's King Mohammed VI flanked by his son Moulay El Hassan (l.) and his brother Prince Moulay Rachid listens to the national anthem after he delivered a speech to the nation, Wednesday, March, 9, at the king's Palace in Rabat. Morocco's king announced constitutional changes in a rare speech, aimed at consolidating democracy.

In a turning point for Morocco amid winds of Arab regime change, King Mohammed VI now aims by June 30 to formalize a plan allowing the nation’s prime minister to be appointed by the party that gets the most votes in democratic elections.

Previously, the monarch himself selected the prime minister. But in a speech yesterday that even Morocco’s opposition Islamists praised, the king – whose family rule dates to the mid-17th century – set out sweeping reforms that include a more independent judiciary, an “accelerated evolution” of direct local elections, and other constitutional changes allowing greater human and gender rights.

King Mohammed VI did not refer in his rare Wednesday speech to a steady stream of small yet loud protests in the country last month. But analysts see the monarch’s move as a clear effort to reform the country in order to placate what Moroccan foreign minister Taib Fassi Fihri referred to in London today as a “new” set of “youths – extreme leftists, Internet surfers, young people, and Islamists,” who were making themselves heard.

Mr. Fihri suggested the Moroccan king had decided a year ago to promote reform, and in the wake of the Arab uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, had a choice between moving “directly” or “slowly” and chose the former.

“In the Arab world, the leadership protected itself for far too long a time,” Fihri told a set of diplomats and journalists at the Chatham House think tank in London. “We have to listen and follow what is happening in our region.”

That's exactly what the king is doing, according to Fihri. “This is a historical news day for Morocco,” he proclaimed at one point.

A new prime minister selected by the majority party will "be the head of an effective executive branch, who is fully responsible for government, civil service, and the implementation of the government's agenda," the king said.

The French government hailed the monarch’s decision as “brave.”

Sudden change on the magnitude proposed by the king was hard to imagine even two months ago, writes Zouhair Baghough on his blog, The Moorish Wanderer.

“Political strength, heavily in favor of the monarchy, has been suddenly reset to a different equilibrium," writes Mr. Baghough. "We have moved from an executive monarchy – with no constitutional reform agenda in sight – to a blitzkrieg-style commission with a June 2011 deadline.”

Claire Spencer, the head of Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa Programme, called the king’s speech “momentous” but said that most experts and ordinary Moroccans were waiting to see is “how much life” will be breathed into the often moribund political parties in Morocco in coming months.

“Is there enough time before June to make serious change?” she asked.

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