x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

For Morocco's February 20 reform movement, new constitution means rebirth

In Morocco, street politics are increasingly vital to democratic reform, with the February 20 movement placed to push leaders to exploit the slim margin for change afforded by the country's new constitution.

Members of the Islamist movement Al Adl Wal Ihssane (Justice and Charity) protest in the streets of Casablanca on Sunday against the new constitution. Al Adl Wal Ihssane is a part of a coalition that forms the opposition movement February 20 Selmaoui-Karim / EPA
Members of the Islamist movement Al Adl Wal Ihssane (Justice and Charity) protest in the streets of Casablanca on Sunday against the new constitution. Al Adl Wal Ihssane is a part of a coalition that forms the opposition movement February 20 Selmaoui-Karim / EPA

RABAT // At first glance, the landslide vote for a new constitution in Morocco would appear to be a setback for the country's vibrant but disorganised political opposition.

After all, it appears to accomplish through the ballot box what demonstrations in the street, led by protesters from the February 20 movement, have so far failed to do: gain widespread public support.

But analysts and supporters of the February 20 reform movement say that street politics are increasingly vital to democratic reform, with the movement placed to push leaders to exploit the slim margin for change afforded by the new constitution.

"For me it was a new birth of the movement," said Montasser Drissi, 19, a co-founder of February 20 from Rabat, following renewed protests on Sunday in several cities. "I saw people from parties that support the movement but don't normally go to the street."

The movement has struggled to rally numbers in recent months. Police have violently dispersed some marches while constitution supporters have mounted counter-demonstrations at others, in a few cases hurling stones.

Morocco's communication minister, Khalid Naciri, said that further demonstrations by February 20 would be permitted, calling it proof of Morocco's democratic spirit.

However, the movement suffers from weak organisation, said Fouad Abdelmoumni, a Rabat business consultant and member of the Coalition for Parliamentary Monarchy, a grouping of political parties and activists that supports February 20.

"They're learning to co-ordinate their activities and I think they'll make progress," he said, adding that February 20 has already invigorated politics by empowering smaller parties.

Those parties are part of an unlikely support committee for the movement that also includes trade unionists, human rights groups and Al Adl wal Ihssane, a moderate Islamist movement.

Activities are decided city by city, by show of hands at public meetings. Mr Drissi wants to preserve that ethos of direct democracy while setting up neighbourhood committees to drum up more support.

"I see neighbourhood committees as an important step toward bigger protests, maybe even sit-ins," he said.

The February 20 movement got going via Facebook in January, organising demonstrations to condemn corruption and demand limits to the power of King Mohammed VI.

In March, the king appointed a commission to draft reforms, with the new constitution unveiled on June 17 and approved in a referendum that officials said brought a 98.5 per cent "yes" vote and 73.46 per cent turnout.

King Mohammed has said that the new constitution strengthens democracy. The prime minister must be chosen from the winning party in elections, and has a greater role in forming the cabinet. The king is also called to consult more with elected leaders before making executive decisions.

Opponents have called its reforms cosmetic, as they largely preserve the king's power as head of state, while granting him direct control of military, security, judicial and religious affairs. "We were told that we'd have a new constitution, but it's just like the last one," said Karima el Faqih, 33, a civil servant who marched in Rabat on Sunday with other protesters.

On Sunday, rank upon rank of protesters advanced down Rabat's central promenade. When they drew alongside the parliament building, three young men mounted a silver Peugeot to lead chants through a loudspeaker.

"Leave" cried one of the men. "Al Makhzen" thundered the marchers in reply, referring to businessmen, politicians and royal advisers that protesters say wield undue influence.

Media reports estimated another 10,000 February 20 protesters marched through Tangier while 5,000 took to streets in Casablanca, Morocco's commercial capital.

Moroccans say they will be listening for the movement's goals.

"I want justice, better health care, better schools," said Hafed, 31, a Rabat IT worker who watched Sunday's march and declined to give his surname. "As long as February 20 stay peaceful and demand things like that, I can see myself joining them."

At a CD stand nearby, vendor Mohammed was more sceptical. "The king told us that change would come step by step," he said, referring to King Mohammed's June 17 speech outlining the new constitution.

"The protesters are in a hurry, and it's not clear to me exactly what they want."

According to Mr Drissi, February 20 avoids promoting a specific political model, opting instead for demands such as fighting corruption, the release of alleged political prisoners and a democratic constitution.

For now, shows of people-power in the streets may nudge leaders to squeeze reform from the new constitution, said Michael Willis, professor of Moroccan and Mediterranean Studies at Oxford University.

"On paper, the constitution is a decent step forward. What the movement can do is to keep up the pressure on politicians," he said.

"The issue then becomes whether the dominant voices in the palace are genuinely for reform."

jthorne@thenational.ae