June 20, 2011- On Friday Bashar al-Assad was slaughtering his own people. Iran continued to hold two Americans in prison. Moammar Gaddafi remained in power while the House of Representatives and President Obama bickered about the War Powers Act. And in Morocco a new “landmark” constitution guaranteeing equality for women, empowering an elected parliament and chief executive, and mandating an independent judiciary was rolled out.
It’s a measure of just how much the squeaky wheel dominates the media and the U.S. government that there was virtually no U.S. coverage of the historic event, and that as of Sunday night the State Department had not issued a statement.
As CNN reported: “[The king’s] actions followed a series of unprecedented protests in this North African modern Muslim country, where street protests are normally tolerated by the state, unlike in most other Arab countries.”The speech delivered by King Mohammed VI provided a detailed description of a new constitution that will be put to a national vote on July 1.
One Moroccan observer said the new government structure was similar to Spain — a monarch remains, but power is devolved to a democratically elected parliament, protections for minorities and women are concretized, and powers are spread to the judiciary, the parliament and to local government.
The king noted in describing the preamble, “The first pillar is the commitment to the Moroccan nation’s immutable values, the preservation and sustainability of which is entrusted to me, within the framework an Islamic country in which the King and Commander of the Faithful ensures the protection of the faith and guarantees the freedom of religious practice.” Yes it is a Muslim country and the monarch derives legitimacy in part from his role as the highest religious authority, but he also guarantees, in a constitutional document, the freedom to practice other religions.
The king also spelled out a constitutional protection for diversity:
Given the cohesion characterizing the various components of our unified, rich and diverse national identity — including the Arabic Islamic, Berber, Saharan, African, Andalusian, Jewish [emphasis added] and Mediterranean components — the draft Constitution confirms the status of Arabic as an official language of the Kingdom, and provides that the State pledges to protect and promote it.
It also provides for constitutionalizing the Amazigh [Berber] language as an official language as well, within the framework of a pioneering initiative which is the culmination of a course of action to rehabilitate the Amazigh language as a heritage belonging to all Moroccans. The official character of the Amazigh language will be gradually implemented through an organic law, which will specify the ways and means of integrating it in teaching and in basic public sectors.
In parallel, the draft Constitution provides for the promotion of all linguistic and cultural expressions in Morocco, particularly the Hassani culture, which is a characteristic feature of our beloved Saharan provinces.
I dare say that Jews don’t find a positive reference like that in any other Muslim country’s legal framework.
The speech also set forth human rights protections and the subordination of Moroccan law to international human rights covenants:
Enshrining in the Constitution all human rights as they are universally recognized, with the applicable mechanisms and enforcement guarantees. As a result, the Moroccan Constitution will be a human rights Constitution as well as a charter for citizenship rights and obligations.
In this regard, the draft Constitution provides for the pre-eminence of international covenants — as ratified by Morocco — over national legislation, as well as gender equality in civil rights, within the framework of respect for the Constitution, and for the Kingdom’s laws which are derived from Islam. The draft Constitution also provides for equality between men and women in all political, economic, social, cultural and environment-related rights; it sets up a mechanism to promote gender equality.
The draft Constitution confirms the commitment to all human rights, especially the presumption of innocence and guaranteeing the conditions for a fair trial. It criminalizes torture, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and all forms of discrimination and inhuman, degrading practices. The draft Constitution also upholds freedom of the press and of expression and opinion, as well as the right to access information and to submit petitions, in accordance with norms and criteria specified in an organic law.
In addition, the constitution will enforce a long-held goal of the king: to devolve power to localities. The king explained that “a chapter has been devoted to local governments and advanced regionalization, in light of the frame of reference I set out in my historic address on 9th March 2011. An organic law will define the powers of the State and of regions, in addition to the resources, organization and mechanisms of regionalization.”
The document was immediately praised by French president Nicholas Sarkozy. (“The President of the Republic hails the major institutional changes announced yesterday by King Mohamed VI to the Moroccan people.”)
The constitution will no doubt be opposed by the secular left, which would like to abolish the monarchy altogether, and by the Islamists who will bristle at all that diversity, especially the king’s role in protecting other faiths. But the king is still seen as a beloved and unifying figure in the country, and the opposition is not expected to be able to vote down the proposed constitution.
The constitution and the speech explode several myths: diversity isn’t possible in a Muslim country; tribal and ethnic divisions make a nation state problematic if not ungovernable; Islam and the secular rule of law are incompatible; and human rights will inevitably be sacrificed if democratic reforms expand in a Muslim country.
The constitution has yet to be ratified and the devil is always in the details. The enhancement of local government will demand a technical expertise and infrastructure that the country doesn’t yet possess. And the potential for unrest over economic issues hovers in the background. Morocco’s economy is hurting down with a drop off in tourism of about 20 percent (50 percent in some areas). However, the hope is that with an independent judiciary and an attempt to root out corruption, the climate for outside business development will improve. (Sort of the opposite of Russia.)
On Sunday there were peaceful protests of a few thousand calling for reforms to go further. No one was killed. Parties opposing the constitution aren’t banned. There is, it seems, something to be learned from the Moroccan experience.