6-23-2011By Robert Joyce
Human Rights Defenders Program
Debate continues in Morocco over the proposed constitutional amendments put forth by King Mohamed VI this past Friday. After months of deliberation, the king announced several reforms to be voted on in a referendum on July 1st. Some have claimed that these reforms are an appropriate step in the right direction for Morocco—a stable move towards democracy. Others say that the king is simply reacting to the continued protests fueled by unemployment, corruption and calls for democracy.
Under the proposed reforms, the position of prime minister becomes president of the government and could appoint officials. The prime minister, while still selected by the king, must come out of the winning party in elections. Parliamentary investigations are also made easier, requiring only one-fifth of members, with censoring a minister requiring one-third.
The constitutional amendments would also reform the judiciary branch—establishing the supreme council, which is composed of judges and the head of the national human rights council appointed by the king, to head the branch. The king also talked about the need for freedoms of speech, press and assembly, as well as the right of parliament to question any official in the country.
Other improvements are found in the terminology of the constitution. In Arabic and French, the male and female words for “citizen” are used to supplement the extension of “economic, social and cultural” rights to the existing “political” rights held by women. It also mandates that the state work to forward gender equality.
One issue gaining little international attention but crucial in the Moroccan context is the addition of Amazigh (known elsewhere as Berber) as a national language. People of Amazigh descent are estimated to make up over 60% of the Moroccan population. The struggle for Amazigh cultural rights has been gaining steam in Morocco in recent years and the installation as a national language will greatly forward efforts to promote Amazigh culture and history.
In principle, the increased recognition of Amazigh and women’s rights is a win for the human rights community. The constitution also remarkably mentions secret and prolonged detention as illegal and mandates that everyone put in custody be read their rights. In his address, the king also acknowledged that Morocco faces grave challenges in the economy and broadly in the field of human rights—both both powerful admissions.
In short, the king is proposing the right things, and he’s saying them at a most crucial time. But are people convinced? The February 20th Movement is not. The youth-led pro-democracy group is named after the first day of nationwide protests in Morocco and they’ve called for a boycott of the July 1st referendum. The group points out that no democratically elected official was involved in the drafting, a process that the U.K.-based newspaper The Guardian called “self-assured and arrogant.” The short timeline of the July 1st vote and packaged set up of the amendments allow for very little debate—which also means less citizen participation. The most important criticism, however, is the vast authority the king retains.
Under the new constitution the king remains in full command of the armed forces, he keeps the title, “Commander of the Faithful” and thus his “inviolable” status. While claiming to create an independent judiciary the king also stated that he would continue to have final say on all sentences. Also, while giving parliament the power to question any official, his statements to parliament remain impossible to debate. Parliament is also forbidden from criticizing Islam, the king, or the idea of the monarchy. The king also failed to highlight the severity of problems in the education system in his country, where an estimated 48% of the 32 million people are illiterate.
There is also reason to doubt that these amendments will be implemented and made reality on the Moroccan street. Earlier this month a very popular newspaper editor Rashid Nini was sentenced to a year in prison, after waiting two months to be sentenced, for criticizing the regime. Just two days after the king’s speech, anti-government protesters were immediately and violently pushed back by police and pro-government groups. While going further than most, the talk of reform in Morocco fits a pattern of similar talk by Arab leaders recently, fearing the spread of the Spring.
Critics have used this evidence and Morocco’s past of promising reform and not delivering to call the new constitution “cosmetic change.” Going further than highlighting the limited nature of the reform, critics have doubted whether the new constitution will mark progress at all. Lack of government commitment to live up to the spirit of the principles outlined in the amendments will mean very little change to the status quo in Morocco. It is clear that despite the upcoming referendum, the juggling act will continue in Morocco between a king who still holds more credibility than many Arab leaders, and a youth-led democracy movement demanding more than they’re getting.