Has the king’s promise of reform come in the nick of time—or not?
Apr 20th 2011 | CAIRO | from the print edition
WHEN a protest movement sprang up in Morocco on February 20th King Muhammad VI chose to ignore it. The next day he spoke of speeding up reforms, but ignored calls for radical change. This infuriated pro-democracy campaigners, who promised to protest again. But then, on March 9th, he suddenly changed tack, calling for a drastic overhaul of the constitution, echoing the protesters’ main demand. Parliament and the courts, he said, would become more independent. Power would be devolved to regional councils. The prime minister would have more clout. And the Berbers, known as Amazigh, would have more rights too.
Overnight, Morocco’s generally malleable political leaders and newspaper editors, who had at first rubbished the demand for a new constitution as subversive, became the keenest of reformers. They hailed the appointment of a committee headed by a leading lawyer to produce a draft by June, for endorsement in a referendum in September, as a sign that Morocco would undergo a “peaceful revolution”.
The king’s allies abroad rushed to congratulate him. Alain Juppé, France’s foreign minister, called his speech “courageous and visionary”. Hillary Clinton, the American secretary of state, praised his proposals, saying that Morocco was “on the road to achieving democratic change.” A recent tour of the country by Britain’s Prince Charles “confirmed that Morocco is stable”, according to the prime minister, Abbas el-Fassi. The promise of constitutional reform has been widely welcomed by Moroccans and may, for a while, avert the turmoil that has engulfed much of the region. But protesters have continued to take to the streets in big numbers every weekend since March 20th. Many say that a constitutional commission appointed by the king is bound to reaffirm his executive power. A Spanish- or British-style monarchy is not yet, they sigh, in the offing.
Use the interactive "Graphics Carousel" to browse our coverage of unrest in the Middle East
Though most of the protesters express respect for the person of the king, criticism of the manner in which his monarchy operates has grown. Too much power is said to be concentrated in his palace circle. Complaints are growing that the royal family owns too much of the country. The National Investment Company, known by its French initials, SNI, is said to control Morocco’s biggest bank, insurance company, dairy and cooking-oil firms, as well as a large acreage of real estate—and is now often castigated for its anti-competitive practices. The denigrators even carp at the king’s cultural policies and call for the Mawazine festival, an annual musical extravaganza held in the capital, Rabat, to be cancelled on the grounds of excessive cost.
Such outright criticism of the monarchy, which has become widespread, itself marks a small revolution. The protesters have also taken on the main political parties, whose leaders have previously tended slavishly to echo whatever the king says. This in turn has forced some of those leaders to become more critical. Journalists who had been exiled or kept out of print by the government in recent years have resurfaced online, with websites sympathetic to the protesters. In one dramatic case online journalists have aired a litany of corruption allegations against Moncef Belkhayat, the minister of youth and sports, challenging him to answer questions about the dispensing of government contracts. He has denied the charges, but such scrutiny is unprecedented.
Citizens’ initiatives are sprouting, with local councils and firms accused of corruption and overcharging for municipal services. The king’s constitutional initiative may lead to the institutional breakthrough many hoped for at the start of his reign in 1999. But if it stalls, a wave of even angrier protest may well erupt in September. So the next few months will be critical to the king’s survival.