In many Arab countries this past spring, the falling of many regimes seemed often as inevitable as the changing of the leaves and as indomitable as the setting sun. Within these countries the leaders who had previously held almost absolute power are seeing the world fall beneath their feet, as the once powerful Egyptian President Mubarak will be tried in a country that he had previously ruled with an iron fist. Leon Trotsky once said of leaders, that if they seek only to preserve themselves, that is what they become; preserves – dried preserves. For as long as many Moroccans can remember, they have been ruled with almost absolute authority by the Alaouite Dynasty, with its current incarnation, King Mohammed VI, controlling almost all aspects of the government. With his recent speech on the 17th of June, the King is hoping to stave off such a fate for himself by offering concessions and a revamped constitution to be voted on by referendum on the 1st of July.
The Alaouite Dynasty has been ruling Morocco in some capacity since the 17th century. Since gaining independence in March of 1956, Morocco has been ruled by three Kings, Mohammed V, Hassan II, and Mohammed VI. While a Constitution did exist with a stated independent judiciary and separation of powers, in practice the King, especially Hassan II, ruled Morocco autonomously and often with an iron fist. The Constitution appoints the King as the Commander of the faithful and also serves as Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, making him head of the nation’s state religion, Islam, as well as making him head of the military. He serves as the head of the Supreme Council, which appoints judges, and the King appoints the Prime Minister as well. The bicameral legislature is seen largely as a rubberstamp on the King’s policies. In short, any semblance of a balance of power has at this point been nonexistent.
The Moroccan people have lived with their extremely powerful monarchy since independence, with little opportunity to change it. There were protests against King Hassan II’s vast repression of his people in the 1980s, but they were short lived and harshly cracked down upon. King Hassan II, who ruled from 1961 until his death in 1999, was known as an extremely repressive leader, whose reign is known throughout Morocco as the “years of lead,” as the King cracked down hard against dissidents and democracy activists. It was not uncommon during his reign for thousands of people to simply disappear. King Mohammed VI, upon his accession to the throne in 1999, was seen by the people as a new type of King, one who is open to reform and liberalization. He has in fact shown reforming tendencies such as his releasing of thousands of political prisoners and allowing many exiled political leaders to return to the country. He further brought drastic improvements into the issue of women’s rights, as he updated the Code of Personal Status, the ruling legislation for determining the Malikite school of Islamic Law, to include the principle of equality between men and women, to raise the legal age of marriage of girls from 15 to 18, and to enforce stricter restrictions on polygamy. However, he has also institutionalized and streamlined the practice of corruption in Morocco to a way that surprised even many other Kings in the region, and has been periodically cracking down on freedom of the press and on political dissent. However, even with these instances, he is still seen largely as a reforming force in the region, and interestingly, none of the protesters called for the King, himself, to abdicate from the throne, but merely for an increase in democratic institutions and a stronger balance of powers. The King is often seen as a positive alternative to the legislature, whom they see as even more corrupt than the King, himself.
The February 20th Protest Movement
On February 20th, Moroccan’s came to the streets to protest what they saw as an inept government too long irresponsive to their needs. Largely composed of Islamists and Leftists, the protestors took to the streets in an unprecedented nationwide demonstration calling for democracy, and a limiting of the King’s powers to a constitutional monarchy. The Nation’s Interior Ministry estimated the total number of protesters at 37,000, protesting in cities all across Morocco, including Casablanca, Rabat, Tangier, and Marrakesh calling for an end to corruption, a new constitution, and a reformed government. While some violence and acts of looting did occur, the majority of the protests were peaceful. The King, himself, was not an object of the protests as the protests were against the government ministers and the constitutional system itself. The Government had originally allowed people to protest with little violence and oppression. However, when the Government realized the potential impact of the protests, they developed a far harsher approach.
These protests, once thought of as unimaginable on the streets of Morocco, went on relatively peacefully every week. Until March 13th, when the police began to escalate the violence, beating individuals in a protest in Casablanca with batons, giving dozens of protesters concussions, as well as broken ribs and limbs. The Casablancan May 22nd protests were then meant as a continuation of the February 20th movement, but the protests were blocked by police, and barely got off the ground. The protesters regrouped and held a protest that following Sunday, the 29th of May, which turned out to be one of the bloodiest protests to date. In the neighborhood of Sbata, there were more than 40 protesters arrested and dozens injured as riot police beat anyone in sight, including those in the neighborhood simply watching the protests. As the government responded to the protests largely through two landmark speeches by the King on March 9th and June 17th, they saw no more reason for the protests, and no longer seem to be treating them as dispassionately as they did on the 20th of February.
King’s March 9th and June 17th Speech
In response to the massive protests in his country, King Mohammed VI announced on March 9th that he would heed the calls of his people, and drastically reform the nation’s constitution. According to the monarch the proposed reform is not a result of the protests, but rather a result of the wide-reaching and groundbreaking reforms adopted by the King since the beginning of his reign. On March 9th the King gave his first public speech since the February 20th protests, and announced to his people that sweeping changes would be made to the kingdom’s constitution, aimed specifically at improving democratic institutions and strengthening the rule of law. He further pledged that future parliamentary elections will be free, and that the winning party would choose Prime Minister, rather than the King, and he ordered a commission to draft and review the constitutional revisions, with a proposal to be given to him by June.
On June 17th, after significant anticipation among the Moroccan people and the world, the King gave his speech outlining many of the changes to appear in the new draft of the constitution. One major aspect the King noted, was that the constitution would be much more robust and far reaching than the former, as the number of articles in the constitution is to increase from 108 to 180. The King announced that the prime minister would become the “president of the government” and would have the authority to appoint government officials, two rights previously afforded only to the king. The judiciary would be governed by a Supreme Council of which the King would not be apart. One further change is to add the Berber language as an official language along with Arabic. The constitutional changes are to be put to a referendum on July 1st, as the King describes it so that the constitution can be the nation’s first constitution truly of and by the people. The King described the changes as, “a bedrock of the special Moroccan democratic development model -- a new historical bond between the throne and the people."
Even with these significant proposed reforms, there are still many key positions that the monarch will retain for himself. For example, King Mohammed will continue to chair the Council of Ministers as well as the Supreme Security council to allow him to retain his power over the military. Further, he retains his position as Commander of the Faithful, and is therefore the highest religious authority in the Islamic state. While many Moroccans applaud the King’s speech as historic in its capacity to truly reform the nation, many of the February 20th activists continue to claim that it is not enough, and that the King needs to relinquish the fundamental powers he still continues to hold over the country.
Admittance to the Gulf Cooperation Council
In a very important development as to the state of Morocco’s monarchy, in May Morocco as well as Jordan were invited and have subsequently joined the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which is aimed at strengthening the security of monarchies in the Gulf. A group headed largely by Saudi Arabia, the GCC has sought to alter its strategic alliances in the midst of the growing revolutions in the region. As a member of the GCC, each nation is obligated to help the others in event of civil unrest, and Saudi Arabia has demonstrated this with its brutal crackdown of the protesters in Bahrain, another member state.
The goal of the GCC is to maintain a united front on foreign policy in order to sustain the ability of the monarchs to stay in power. While originally established for economic considerations, the group has become much more foreign policy oriented, and one of the primary fears is that the fall of a single monarchy could undermine the rest. How Morocco’s membership in the GCC will restrict and influence the actions of the monarch is yet to be seen. Considered one of the more volatile monarchies in the region, Morocco now has increased stability as Saudi Arabia and her allies are obligated to protect the Moroccan Monarch. It is obvious that the rest of the Council would drastically be against Morocco’s reforming of the constitution so much as to eliminate the King’s powers. The King might now forced to limit the scope of the democratic reforms so as not to anger Saudi Arabia or the rest of the GCC. Now it is not simply the King’s intentions for his nation’s future which are important, but the intentions of rest of the Gulf Monarchies as well.
What is to become of the July 1st referendum, and what powers the King will truly abdicate are at this point unclear. What is clear, however, is that the Moroccan constitution is facing a drastic change, and the Moroccan people feel a new sense of power over their government. For the King to maintain his relevance as an effective leader, he must heed the calls of his people, not just nominally, but forcefully and forthright. The constitution must not merely posit an independent judiciary or a stronger legislative branch, but guarantee it, and enforce it. For the King to remain relevant in the midst of an Arab Spring doing everything it can to rip off the leaves of tyranny for democracy and freedom, he must take his own words seriously and on July 1st show his people that he is serious about reform and avoid the fate of so many other leaders who did not.