x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 December 2017

Morocco's reforms reflect real divisions within the society

Moroccans will approve their king's proposed new constitution, typos and all, but it's not as far-reaching as some might have hoped. In a country loyal to Mohammed VI but not so united about the ideal level of royal power, perhaps this imperfect constitution is the best that can be had.

Moroccans want their king, but many of them also want him to cede some space in the executive sphere. But those who thought he would be giving up most of his powers are wiser by now.

King Mohammed VI, a beloved leader in the popular psyche but an absolute monarch in reality, addressed his nation two weeks ago to present a new draft constitution, which will be put to a referendum on Friday.

After 100 days of preparations, the constitutional review committee appointed in March responded to pro-democracy street protests, submitted its final proposal in mid-June. Quoting it, the king said Morocco would be a "constitutional, democratic, parliamentary and social monarchy".

The main party leaders were quick to hail the new document as a historic attainment; one of the more zealous, the prime minister Abbas El Fassi, claimed that "with this kind of constitution, we'll be like France, England or Italy in 10 years". Others echoed the thought.

But the king, heir to one of the world's longest-reigning dynasties, may not have conceded as much as might have been expected from a king with a decent reform record and a perceived aversion to traditional forms of rule.

Some of the changes are just an exchange of synonyms. The person of the king is no longer "sacred" in the new text, but "inviolable". Also, the "prime minister" becomes the "head of government". The leader of a party winning a parliamentary majority becomes head of government, but the new title does not change the fact that the formal appointment still comes from the "head of state" - the king.

The proposed reforms have been cheered internationally, but they are not so clear to those most concerned. Indeed, like life itself, the draft constitution is filling the 32 million Moroccans with conflicting emotions: joy, disillusionment and hope.

Joy, because there will be guarantees for rights as precious as freedom of speech, gender equality and the precedence of ratified international human rights conventions over domestic law. Joy also because a large and economically active portion of Moroccan society will have their cherished native tongue Amazigh recognised for the first time as an official language, next to Arabic.

But disillusionment, because the king, Supreme Commander of the Royal Armed Forces and Commander of the Faithful, retains the power to appoint the "head of government", a prerogative that contradicts the notion of parliamentary monarchy.

Moreover, the king may appoint and discharge ministers and dissolve both houses of parliament. And, paradoxically, he chairs the new Supreme Judiciary Council, a body intended to ensure the independence of the justice system.

Hope, because there is a widespread conviction among non-politicised Moroccans that the king will always do what is good for the country. "At least a king is a king, not just some random power-hungry guy," goes the coffee-shop argument.

And this popular dismissal of the whole political class as hungry and vicious gives the monarchy its ultimate strength: undisputed status as "guarantor of stability".

The fact is that dozens of provisions in the 180-article draft constitution are unquestionably positive.

The "Fundamental Rights and Freedoms" section may be the most advanced in this regard, featuring two points in particular that Moroccans previously knew existed only from watching foreign movies: the right to be told the reason for your arrest, and the right to remain silent.

On the other hand, the "Relationship Between the Powers" section clearly makes the king the axis of all politics.

He is now constitutionally obliged to consult with the head of government in matters related to the parliament or the cabinet - which is a first - but the reverse still holds true: The king is to be consulted on all matters of consequence.

Not everyone is as sanguine about all of this as Prime Minister El Fassi.

The young activists who pushed the palace to start this whole process of revising the current constitution - last amended in 1996 - have taken to the streets again to voice a key demand: that the king "reign but not rule".

So on one level Moroccans are being asked to accept the civil rights for which other Arabs are being killed. But on another level, the most democratic king Morocco has ever had still seen as wielding absolute power.

In Morocco, a country with a stubbornly stable 50 per cent illiteracy rate, a solid majority of the population is ready to answer the king's call any day out of sheer trust and affection. Given that, this draft constitution, with its typos, is sure to be approved on Friday. The current state media hype supporting the "yes" in the referendum is only the topping.

The imperfections in this draft constitution in part emanate from the establishment's instinct to protect itself, and in part from its patrician belief that Moroccans have not matured enough to handle full democracy. But these imperfections also reflect Moroccans' interminable bickering over who they are and what they want to become.

Freethinking protesters calling for a ceremonial monarchy sometimes forget that there are also staunch monarchists who fear - perhaps correctly - that Morocco without a potent king would be the Wild West.

In turn, many monarchists are blind to their addiction to a spoon-feeding father figure.

Only an imperfect constitution could straddle this fence.