x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Protesters expected to call for boycott of Moroccan reform referendum

Activists say reforms do not go far enough, and leave king in charge of military, security and religious establishments, and head of the Supreme Council of Justice.

Police officers protect democracy activists from pro-government demonstrators trying to attack them in Rabat on Sunday. Abdeljalil Bounhar / AP Photo
Police officers protect democracy activists from pro-government demonstrators trying to attack them in Rabat on Sunday. Abdeljalil Bounhar / AP Photo

RABAT // Protesters seeking limits to King Mohamed VI's power were expected to call on Moroccans last night to boycott a referendum that the king hopes will approve constitutional reforms.

The king said in a televised address on Friday: "Your first servant will fulfil his national duty by voting 'yes' to the project of the new constitution," urging voters to do likewise.

King Mohamed says the proposed reforms strengthen the separation of powers in Morocco. Leaders of the youth-driven February 20 protest movement say they are cosmetic and have promised to keep up the pressure.

"There has been no real response to our demands," said Montasser Drissi, 19, a co-founder of the movement. "The king retains many powers and heads numerous state councils."

Under the proposed reforms, the prime minister must be chosen from the party that comes first in elections, and the PM will also have broadened powers to form a cabinet. But the king directly controls the military, security and religious establishments, and heads the Supreme Council of Justice.

February 20 activists say that the proposed reforms are invalidated by having been crafted by a royally appointed commission, while the referendum date of July 1 leaves no time for public debate of their merits.

On Sunday evening, royalist demonstrators in Rabat, the capital, broke up a march by February 20 activists in the working-class quarter of Hay Takadoum, pelting them with eggs as police beat several with batons, according to leaders of the February 20 protest group.

The movement was expected hold a general meeting last night to agree on its next moves, with a call for boycotting the referendum the most likely outcome, protest leaders said.

However, such a move would underline questions about the February 20th movement's ability to maintain support among a population that largely appreciates King Mohamed, seen as a foil to distrusted politicians.

After the king's speech on Friday, support appeared to grow for his reform proposals, with some Moroccans voicing disillusionment with the February 20th movement.

"I liked February 20th at the start, but I'm here today to oppose them," said Adnan Semmar, 37, a video production administrator who joined royalist demonstrators in Hay Takadoum on Sunday, wearing a Moroccan flag like a cape. "The reforms are a step forward for Morocco."

Scores of royalists were marching along the avenue waving red Moroccan flags and portraits of King Mohamed, past onlookers and vans of police keeping the avenue clear of traffic.

A van filled with teenage demonstrators in red T-shirts blared slogans through loudspeakers: "The people say yes to the constitution! The people demand the downfall of the traitors!", a reference to the February 20th movement, royalist demonstrators said.

The movement materialised in January on Facebook among young Moroccans inspired by Tunisia's revolution. Momentum quickly grew to organise protests in Morocco. On February 20, tens of thousands marched in cities across the country, condemning state corruption and calling for limits to King Mohamed's power.

Authorities have alternately tolerated and violently suppressed further protests, as the movement has become a grab-bag coalition including left-leaning political parties, independent activists and Morocco's largest Islamist movement.

Hassan Bennajeh, a political bureau member of Al Adl wal Ihssane, an Islamist movement that is part of February 20th, said: "Change should come from co-operation among different currents."

Al Adl wal Ihssane has traditionally called for Islamic values to inform state policy, Mr Bennajeh said. "But now we're putting our special demands to the side, as other groups are putting theirs to the side."

However, lack of structure may cost February 20 activists support over time, said Karim Tazi, a leading Moroccan businessman who has advised the movement.

Yasmina Sarhrouny, a Rabat-based researcher in women's issues, said: "I think the movement itself is a sign of political health. But it's time for them to be constructive. Going to the street saying you're unhappy is not enough."

While the movement mustered demonstrations in multiple cities on Sunday, numbers have dropped in recent weeks, while authorities have branded protest leaders as leftist and Islamist extremists.

According to Mr Drissi, the movement has nevertheless scored at least one victory already by starting public debate in Morocco on long-taboo subjects. "For example, after only three months, people can talk about the king and religion," he said. "That's a big change. And it's not due to the constitution. It's the pressure of the movement."