Morocco: the King’s Speech (2)

This is a continuation of the previous post on Morocco’s political system.

The 20 February movement

Speaking at an Italian restaurant in Rabat some early-twenties activists from the ’20 February movement’ are saying that ‘We do not feel represented by the existing political parties. We want a monarchy like in Holland. For now we are asking for reforms, not regime change.’ The movement is not a typical youth movement modelled on the type of Otpor in Serbia, Pora in Ukraine or Kefaya in Egypt. Actually the early-20s activists of the Moroccan movement have not even heard of Kefaya. Their movement brings together or is supported by a ragtag of young urban middle class ‘spoiled kids’, the outlawed Islamist movement Al-Adl Wal Ihsane (Justice and Spirituality) and leftists disappointed with the left-wing parties. On 20 February they brought together a few hundred thousands people on the streets of several Moroccan cities to voice their demands for greater democracy. Now they organise such big marches once a month. In the meantime they organise smaller sit-ins, flash-mobs and days of giving flowers to the police, donating blood, or supporting Libya.

The protests are not likely to lead to a revolution, yet the mosaic of the movement is potentially hugely disruptive of the Moroccan political system as we know it. For decades the crown positioned itself between the secularists and the Islamists. But these forces are now united in contesting the existing political regime. This is also one of the lessons from Tunisia and Egypt, where much has been done about the Muslim Brotherhood protesting against Mubarak shoulder to shoulder with Facebookers and Coptic Christians. The Moroccans learned the lessons. The secularists and the Islamists are (for) now united in wanting a drastic curbing of the powers of the king and the creation of a parliamentary monarchy. Then, as a 20 February Movement activist says, ‘we all agree we want a democratic system. Later, we will compete against each other. We agree on the need for democracy, not on a concrete political agenda.’ And the monarchy is not in the middle anymore, it is poised against them.

The King’s Speech

On 9 March the king gave a speech announcing a constitutional reform process.  The Moroccan Foreign Minister Taib Fassi Fihri claimed in an article in Le Monde that Morocco has been in an ‘Arab spring’ phase – evolutionary changes and gradual liberalisation – for many years. Yet the process is faulty and hugely top-down. The king invited political parties and other groups to submit their ideas. Then a group of constitutionalists will design amendments to the constitution. But opposition journalists sympathising with the 20 February movement say commission for constitutional reforms visibly consists of only ‘servants to the palace’. There is no process of negotiating, agreeing or even debating properly the new constitutional amendments. Invited parties are supposed to send in their suggestions and the king and his experts will decide on the changes by 30 June. Then, sometime in September a referendum will be held and is certain to pass. Leaving the procedural issues aside, some substantial issues also seem to cloud the process. The King’s speech referred to the need to reform the constitution while within ‘constantes sacres’, among which the sanctity of the monarchy and the role of Islam.

Political parties and protesters alike all agree that Morocco should move from the current system where the king, not the government, governs, to a system where the king that does not govern. Yet, political parties give the king the benefit of the doubt and participate in the process, whereas protesters on the streets do not. Many see the constitutional reform process as an attempt to fake some reforms, buy time, let the tsunami pass, amend the constitution without changing the fundamentals of the political system. As a civil society activist says: ‘the king initiated the process under the pressure of the street and events in Tunisia and Egypt, not from an enlightened impulse.  In his 12 years since he is king he did not nothing of the sort.’ Thus many see that street pressure is the only factor that could maintain the momentum for reforms. The Moroccan foreign minister wrote in relations to Egypt and Tunisia that there is ‘no guarantee that the ‘Arab spring’ will lead to an ‘Arab summer’. One cannot totally discard the arrival of a ‘sobering winter’. But the same might refer to Morocco as well. There is not guarantee that the constitutional reform will bring about ‘a Moroccan summer’ to the country’s democratic developments.

Overall, gradualism and evolution is the talk of the town. But should this round of constitutional amendments fail to alter the system significantly, the next time the protests might be less loyal to the king than they are now and those who are loyal to the process now might not be as loyal next time.