July 7, 2011 (The Economist)
July 7, 2011 (The Economist)
With the easterly wind, the shergui, enveloping them in hot desert air, most of the residents of Benslimane, a sleepy town in north-west Morocco, waited till dusk to vote in a constitutional referendum on July 1st, pressed by officials who wanted a strong turnout for what has been as much a test of King Mohammed VI’s popularity as a poll about reform.
Businessmen backing the yes vote held celebratory street parties. Imams atMorocco’s mosques were instructed to preach in favour of what was heralded as the king’s constitution. But even in conservative Benslimane, some 800 dissidents campaigned for a boycott. A headmaster at a local school serving as a polling station was overheard muttering that the whole exercise was a masquerade.
The result—98.5% in favour—drew guffaws of disbelief from members of the February 20th movement. The coalition of leftists, independent liberals and Islamists from the banned Justice and Spirituality movement surprised many when its protests for social justice and democracy drew thousands of sympathisers across the kingdom earlier this year. It called for a boycott of the referendum.
The new constitution includes some important reforms. It establishes human rights as core principles, recognises Berber, spoken by many Moroccans alongside Arabic, as an official language and calls for gender equality. It gives new powers to the prime minister and parliament and inaugurates a much-needed overhaul of the judiciary. It no longer deems the king sacred, though he is still “Commander of the Faithful”.
Critics complain that many of the new constitution’s articles refer to “organic laws” that have not yet been written, making the extent of some changes uncertain. Others depend on the creation of special commissions, mostly headed by the king. Political parties, a majority of whom backed the “yes” vote, only saw a draft of the constitution at the last minute. No mention is made of King Mohammed’s promise, which came in a speech in March, of moving towards a parliamentary monarchy. The king remains—directly or indirectly—in control of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, or as the new constitution puts it, a “supreme arbiter” of political and institutional life. In many respects, the new constitution merely codifies an existing method of governing that allows the palace to micromanage at its whim.
When the February 20th movement was launched, inspired by the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions earlier this year (but never calling for the king’s head), it drew much public sympathy. Many Moroccans felt enthusiastic about Mohammed VI, dubbed the “king of the poor” at the beginning of his reign in 1999. But less so in recent years, during which press freedoms were dramatically curtailed, incidents of torture returned and corruption increased.
Yet many Moroccans have been frightened by the attempted regime change inLibyaandSyria. “We want transformation without violence,” says Saad Eddine Othmani, a leader of the opposition Islamist Justice and Development Party, which supported the new constitution. “This…is a beginning.”
General elections expected later this year could bring further change. But although the new constitution may have bought the king some time—helped by a doubling of food and fuel subsidies, the creation of new government jobs and the boosting of civil-service salaries—the regime is still not dealing with people’s main grievances, notably failing public-health and education systems, and rampant corruption. The political elite needs to take note, cautions Omar Belafrej, the head of a left-leaning think-tank. “There is little goodwill left.”