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Saturday, June 18, 2011
Morocco King Proposes Steps to Democracy
By Steven Erlanger
Abdeljalil Bounhar/Associated Press
Cafe customers in Casablanca, Morocco, watched King Mohammed VI's speech on Friday night. Under his plan for the government, he would still control the military and religious matters.
In a major effort to try to respond to calls for more democracy and accountability, King Mohammed VI of Morocco announced proposed constitutional changes on Friday night that would reduce his own nearly absolute powers and name a prime minister from the largest party elected to Parliament as head of the executive branch.
But his plans fall considerably short of the constitutional monarchy that many protesters have demanded and leave the king with absolute control over the military and religious matters.
The proposals will be put to a national referendum on July 1 instead of in September as originally planned.
The prime minister, who would be formally called “president of the government,” would be able to appoint government officials and ministers and would have the power to dissolve Parliament. The judiciary would be an independent branch; the king has headed the council that approves all judges.
It would mean a “government emerging through direct universal suffrage,” the king said in an eagerly awaited speech on national television. The changes, he said, will “make Morocco a state that will distinguish itself by its democratic course.”
The king would remain head of the Islamic faith in Morocco and be called “commander of the faithful.” But a reference to the king in the current Constitution as “sacred” would be replaced by the expression: “The integrity of the person of the king should not be violated.” Islam would remain the state religion, but there would be a new guarantee of religious freedom.
The king, who is 47 and has been in power since 1999, has been facing growing pressure to respond to calls for democratic change and a constitutional monarchy from the February 20 Movement for Change, which began on Facebook and has carried out a series of rallies in major cities. While thousands attended the rallies, they did not compare in size to those elsewhere in the Arab world, and there has been relatively little violence or state repression of the demonstrators.
As the Arab Spring has rolled through the Middle East and North Africa, monarchies have withstood the demand for change better than secular autocrats. And Morocco, on the western edge of the region, has not escaped the demand for change. The king, who is considered a reformer and a more gentle ruler than his feared father, King Hassan II, has been criticized for stalling far-reaching reforms after terrorist bombings in Casablanca in 2003.
He has also been accused of allowing the advisers and former schoolmates around him to become wealthy from state contracts and monopolies, and of tolerating corruption.
But the proposals he unveiled on Friday were a considerable effort to try to get ahead of the calls for change.
In the last few months, he released some 200 Islamist prisoners who had been jailed in the roundups that followed the 2003 bombings.
The final draft of the reformed Constitution explicitly grants the government executive powers. Government ministers, ambassadors and provincial governors would be appointed by the prime minister, subject to the approval of the king. The prime minister could dissolve the lower house of Parliament after consulting the king, House speaker and head of the Constitutional Court.
And in another response to demands from protesters, Berber will be made an official language alongside Arabic.
The king said that the constitutional reform “confirms the features and mechanisms of the parliamentary nature of the Moroccan political system” and lays the foundation for an “efficient, rational constitutional system whose core elements are the balance, independence and separation of powers, and whose foremost goal is the freedom and dignity of citizens.”
The proposed changes did not satisfy all the protesters, who say they will continue to hold rallies pressing for more change, including one scheduled for Sunday.
Najib Chawki, an activist from the February 20 Movement, told Reuters that the reform “does not respond to the essence of our demands, which is establishing a parliamentary monarchy. We are basically moving from a de facto absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy.”
But many Moroccans will see the changes as a judicious effort by the king to promote a gradual move toward democratic accountability. Mohammed Nabil Benabdallah, secretary general of the small Party of Progress and Socialism, said they show Morocco is entering a new era.
“There will be a new balance of powers,” he told Bloomberg News. “It paves the way toward the establishment of a democratic state.”
This article was published in The New York Times on 18/06/2011