King Mohammed VI’s March 9 pledge to sponsor broad constitutional reforms following moderately-sized protests on February 20 distinguishes him from other leaders in the region, most of whom have offered too little in terms of reforms and offered them too late in the process of uprisings to make a difference. On the surface, King Mohammed’s proposed reforms are significant. But the lack of specifics about the depth of these reforms creates doubt in view of past experiences.
King Mohammed announced in a televised speech
a process of constitutional change that will be put to a popular referendum. Proposed reforms would increase the parliament’s powers in unspecified ways, create a more independent judiciary, and grant elected officials executive powers at the provincial and local level within a decentralization scheme first introduced in 2010. Decentralization will redistribute power from an appointed governor to new regional representatives to be elected by the people. Under the reforms, the prime minister would have greater executive powers, and the revised constitution would contain greater assurances of political and civil liberties and human rights.
A commission headed by constitutional law expert Abdelatif Mennouni is tasked with consulting with representatives of labor unions, political parties, civil society, and other interest groups to discuss the scope of these reforms over the coming months. The 18-member commission will include representatives from professional syndicates and human rights groups (such as Amina Bouayach of the Moroccan Organization of Human Rights), political activists, judges, as well as technocrats such as Omar Izziman and Lahcen Oulhaj (who represents Amazigh/Berber interests). The committee’s recommendations will be reviewed in June and then put to a national referendum. The king indicated that as soon as these reforms are ratified, they will be implemented.
For reformists, the king’s proposal is promising, but some skepticism remains. The largest parties—Istiqlal, the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP), and the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD)—have lauded the initiative and hailed the king as a statesman, while some on the left have criticized the appointed commission, saying it should have been elected and pointing out that many of those on the committee (particularly Mennouni) are too close to the monarchy. Most of the organizers of February 20 protests reacted in much the same way; they indicated that the commission does not represent them and demanded a decisive stand against corruption, release of political prisoners, and greater freedom of the press. All are waiting to see whether reforms will impose any checks on the king’s powers, the true test of their credibility.
Mohammed VI’s approach fits a strategy that he has adopted since taking the throne in 1999, when he distanced himself from the repressive policies of his father Hassan II. Among his first acts as a new sovereign was to dismiss Driss al-Basri, his father’s feared interior minister and close confidant. Mohammed VI supported the leftist-dominated of Abdelrahman al-Yussoufi, an outspoken critic of the policies of King Hassan II. At that moment Morocco seemed on the way to real change. The al-Yussoufi government started with high hopes and undertook an agenda of progressive reforms, but much of what was promised never materialized.
Nonetheless, the king emerged from this experience with a popular reputation as a reformer, while the politicians and technocrats were blamed for the failures of what he billed as foray into progressive politics. What followed was ten years of superficial change suggesting that the king was more concerned with making an early impression than with embarking on genuine reform.
The new chapter of promised constitutional reform could turn out to be similar in the sense that the king is once again outmaneuvering elected officials. The initial response of the government to the February 20 protests—promising to create jobs for several thousand recent university graduates—was a transparent attempt to tame and co-opt youth groups. The king’s subsequent initiative calls on groups across the political spectrum to take ownership of the reforms and become accountable for their failure or success. Even if this initiative is genuine, it will put pressure on the politicians who have clamored for a chance to lead and have long complained that the king does not give them room to operate.
Mohammed VI is trying to get out in front of demands for change rather than be chased by them. What is still unclear is whether he will agree to reforms that would place checks on his power and move Morocco toward becoming a true constitutional monarchy. For now at least and until the protesters speak again, the 47-year-old king is trying to cement his position by making himself an ally of the protesters rather than their target.
Intissar Fakir is a special assistant to the Deputy President of the National Endowment for Democracy. The views expressed in this article do not reflect those of the National Endowment for Democracy.