By Souhail Karam
By Souhail Karam
RABAT, June 21 (Reuters) – Morocco’s King Mohammed, at the helm of the Arab world’s longest-serving dynasty, has take a timid step towards a democratic transition with a constitutional reform plan he wants voters to approve in a July 1 referendum.
But by seeking to remain at the centre of almost every strategic decision, the 47-year-old monarch faces closer scrutiny from Moroccans, who have so far mostly shunned the revolutionary spirit of the “Arab Spring” despite chronic social woes.
After some of the biggest protests in decades — inspired in part by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt — the king announced on Friday he would devolve some of his powers to parliament and the government but retain his hold on security, the army and religion.
“This is a constitution for a democratic transition, it does not herald the start of a democratic era,” said Mohamed Darif, a political analyst and lecturer at King Hassan University.
“(It) will allow political parties to rebuild credibility and the voters to understand their responsibilities,” he added.
Parliamentary elections have been held in Morocco for almost 50 years but the king and the secretive court elite, known as the Makhzen, have retained the upper hand over the ballot box by naming the government and setting key policies.
Helped by high illiteracy rates, an ingrained deference towards a dynasty that claims descent from prophet Mohammad, and control over the media, the palace has used either repression or divide-and-rule tactics to tame dissent since Morocco gained independence from France in 1956.
“The reform reinforces this historic bi-polarity in the Moroccan political system with prerogatives of the king and the government overlapping,” a Western diplomat said of a division of powers many say lacks clarity.
WHO IS BOSS?
“It raises the question ‘who will really make crucial and strategic decisions and who will bear the blame if they fail?’,” the diplomat asked.
In a televised address on Friday, King Mohammed described the new constitution as “democratic” and said that he was “the trustworthy guide and supreme arbiter”.
Lise Storm, senior lecturer in Middle East politics at Exeter University, said the king could have made the constitution more democratic.
“The constitution is not democratic. It’s a step in the right direction but it does not go far enough,” she said.
The new charter allows the king to name a prime minister — but this time only from the party that wins most seats at parliamentary elections — and to vet appointments of other ministers and suggest the termination of their mandates.
The reformed constitution explicitly grants the government executive powers, but it keeps the king at the helm of the army, religious authorities and the judiciary and still allows him to dissolve parliament, but not unilaterally as it is the case under the current constitution.
The king will continue to have a say over strategic appointments such as those of the powerful provincial governors — interior ministry representatives at regional level — the central bank or the phosphate monopoly and will name half the members of the constitutional court.
“The unhealthy bi-polarity of the Moroccan political system is left intact under the granted constitution … even as it implicitly violates the stated goal of the reform,” said Omar Radi, an activist from the February 20 Movement.
The group has been leading street protests demanding that the monarch hand over all his executive powers to elected officials.
The Moroccan movement has not won the sort of mass popular support that toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and has not gone as far as demanding an end to the monarchy, focusing on the king’s perceived growing business influence, allegations of corruption and political meddling by his courtiers.
GOOD, NOT BEST
Morocco’s royal family holds a 60 percent stake in National Investment Co, whose 2010 net consolidated profits accounted for 27 percent of total net profits made by companies listed in the Casablanca bourse.
The protests were enough to prompt King Mohammed in March to order a hand-picked committee to discuss constitutional reform with political parties, trade unions and NGOs. The brief was to trim his clout and make the judiciary independent.
Robert Holley, head of the Washington-based Moroccan American Center for Policy, said critics of the reformed constitution were “letting the best get in the way of the good”.
“This is a country that is still deeply rooted in its tradition, a country that is still modernising.”
With high unemployment and poverty rates, an inefficient education system and a high perception of nepotism and corruption, Morocco seems in the eyes of many to contain all the ingredients for a revolt. But Holley said that was unlikely.
“(Unlike Syria and Libya) there has always been avenues for people to express their grievances in Morocco,” he said.
Ali Anozla, editor of the independent Lakome.com news portal, said that with “a history of unkept reform pledges, the monarchy could have made the constitutional reform plan more genuine by announcing a separation between power and money.
”The king not only holds political, military and religious powers but also the economic and business authorities. “The new constitution reinforces the structure of political despotism as it existed under the current one. It will only be a matter of time before Moroccans realise the new constitution does not change much,” Anozla said.
Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Middle East Program said history showed that the crucial factor was how critics of the status quo maintained pressure for change.
“How far the king’s top-down reform will go may well depend on the strength of a bottom-up push by