Foes : Outflanked ! Jun30


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Foes : Outflanked !

“This is my way: I invite unto Allah with sure knowledge, I and whoever follows me.”

It was with this these words, quoted from the Qur’an, that King Mohammed VI ended his speech on 17 June, urging Morocco‘s people to vote for his new constitution project in a referendum to be held on 1 July.

It takes quite a nerve to identify oneself with the prophet Muhammad and compare a political reform to Allah’s path. It’s also a paradox, coming from a monarch who is supposedly on the point of renouncing his own divine right.

According to Morocco’s new draft constitution, the king won’t be “sacred” any more. Instead, the people will owe him respect and tawqeer – an Arabic term which means something between reverence and adoration. So how much of a paradigm change is it really?

Although the US says it is “encouraged” by the draft constitution, this is not particularly good news for the monarchy. This mild praise from a rather unknown state department spokesperson during a routine press briefing demonstrates, if anything, the cautious retreat of US diplomacy.

It’s a far cry from Hillary Clinton’s heartfelt declaration on 30 March, commending Morocco for “achieving democratic change [in a way that is] a model for other countries in the region”. At the time it was useful to highlight the difference between a ruthless US-bombed colonel slaughtering his people, and a nice US-backed monarch reacting to street protests by promising “comprehensive constitutional reform”. But since then, the situation has changed.

After taking down two dictators, Arab revolutionary fever was tempered by war in Libya and the bloody repression in Syria. Inside Morocco, the 20 February youth-led, pro-democracy movement has petered out. Because it couldn’t produce leaders, centralised structures and a focused, unifying claim, it lost momentum and finally proved harmless to the monarchy.

Since the king had already promised a new constitution, he had to deliver it. But with the pressure gone, the final draft is merely a democratic window dressing: each time a clause appears to bring genuine progress, another one seriously tones it down – or revokes it altogether.

To comply with democratic norms, the new constitution was supposed to curtail the king’s prerogatives and to empower the elected prime minister, but the only real change is a semantic one. The prime minister will henceforth be called “chief of government” (CoG), though he’s still bound hand and foot to the royal palace, not even controlling his own cabinet.

The king will still appoint and dismiss the ministers at will. At best, the CoG can “propose” ministers for nomination or “require” that they be dismissed, but the king is not bound to accept. On the other hand, the king can reshuffle government whenever he wants. He will now have to “consult” the CoG – but again, he’s not bound to take his opinion into account.

To cut a long story short, the Moroccan king’s absolutism, just like his “sacredness”, has not gone. As for separation of powers, the king said it has been “bolstered” – and yet he still presides over the high council of magistrates, thus tightly controlling the courts of justice.

Optimists may see officialisation of the Tamazight (Berber) language as recognition of Morocco’s ethnic and cultural diversity, but beyond the statement of intent, legislation is yet to be crafted. Morocco’s regime has a history of undelivered promises on that matter. King Mohammed had already committed to implement Tamazight in the schools’ curriculum in 2001, though little progress has been made since then.

In Morocco, practice often contradicts theory. For instance, the palace-promoted new supreme law “forbids” (again, in the absence of specific legislation) conflicts of interest by politicians and the abuse of dominant positions. Yet one can doubt the sincerity of this provision, knowing that the king’s private holding company outrageously dominates Morocco’s economy, to the extent that its global revenue equals 8% of GDP.

The main reason for viewing this new constitution with suspicion is that it is being validated at a breakneck pace. Political parties were given less than 24 hours to review the draft before the king threw it to referendum.

The 20 February activists immediately organised nationwide protests against what they saw as an “imposed” constitution. Unlike what happened in May, demonstrations were not brutally broken up by police but instead the authorities hired swarms of thugs who thronged the streets, looking for a fight with pro-democracy protesters and bawling that Mohammed VI is their “only king”. The mood is turning ugly.

Meanwhile, the referendum campaign is obviously crooked. The state-controlled mosques are mobilised to preach the constitution’s virtues – which is evidently unfair. As for public TV, the Election Watch Collective had asked, alongside Mamfakinch website (the online extension of the 20 February movement) for a fair and balanced airtime-sharing between “yes” and “no” arguments. But the government turned a deaf ear. A few days before the king’s speech, an administrative decree was issued on the sly, splitting airtime only between officially recognised, mainly palace-subservient political parties and trade unions.

Because of the ongoing mass propaganda, there is no doubt that the outcome of the referendum will be “yes”. But the government also needs to persuade large numbers of Moroccans to vote. If the participation rate is below 80%, the monarchy’s motto of “unanimous popular support” will become harder to assert.

This is why the local authorities are preparing to transport armies of citizens to polling stations, even though it’s illegal. For its part, the 20 February movement is calling for a boycott and preparing to video all suspicious “troop movements” during referendum day. A website has been created specially for that purpose with a new battle cry:Mamsawtinch, ou mamfakinch! – “We won’t vote, and we won’t give up!”

Ahmed Benchemsi


This article first appeared in The Guardian on June 30, 2011. The French version appeared the same day on Le Monde.