Several months after revolts toppled authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, the Arab Middle East continues to undergo seismic changes. Between Syria’s crackdown and Libya’s quagmire, the Arab Spring seems stalled and the momentum for further regime change diffused. However, not all the region’s Arab regimes have used abject violence to stem the growing demands for socio-economic and political reforms. Relying on the popular appeal of its monarchy, Morocco has dealt with its protest movement through a calibrated political strategy of sheepish reforms, while also benefitting from the fledgling opposition movement’s lack of coherence and organization.
No sooner had protests erupted in Morocco than king Mohammed VI gave a major speech on constitutional reforms. Unlike the violence used by some regional regimes to deal with such demonstrations, the Moroccan king’s March 9th speech pledged constitutional reforms and addressed the government’s regionalization process, a program launched last year to devolve power to the kingdom’s different regions. In his speech, the king promised “comprehensive political, economic, social and cultural reforms,” expressed his “firm commitment to giving a strong impetus to the dynamic and deep reforms taking place,” and employed strong pro-reform language. Notably, however, the king failed to mention the monarchy’s role in or the scope of these reforms. This sent mixed signals to both the opposition forces and the reform movement – in the past, the kingdom has undergone top-down constitutional reforms that have only strengthened the monarchy’s control over the political system, drowned the party system with political parties loyal to the palace, and introduced electoral engineering. Still, after the king’s March 9th speech, many Moroccans remained hopeful that meaningful change would come to the kingdom’s socio-economic and political circumstances.
However, after the palace commission on constitutional reforms unveiled its recommendations for a new draft constitution on June 2011, this sense of hope dissipated. In a major speech, the king endorsed the commission’s draft constitution and introduced its newly-minted concepts of a “citizenship-based monarchy” and a “citizen king.” The new draft constitution was summarily submitted for a referendum in July and approved by a resounding 98% of the popular vote.
The new constitution provides for vast stylistic changes, but little in terms of deep institutional reforms. For example, the king is no longer sacred, although he still remains inviolable “and  respect and reverence shall be due to him as king, commander of the faithful (amir al-mu’minin) and head of state.” All the new constitution has done, however, is to split the old constitutional provision on the king’s sanctity (article 19) into two new provisions (articles 43 and 44) that more specifically detail the monarch’s religious and political powers. In essence, then, the king retains the religious and temporal authority he had under the previous constitution.
The constitution also reinforces the kingdom’s Islamic identity, albeit enriched by several diverse influences, including Hebraic, African, Andalusian, and Mediterranean cultures. Among its other notable changes, the new constitution recognizes Amazigh as the country’s second official language and calls for the promotion of Hassani Sahraoui culture as part of the cultural, historical and social heritage of Morocco. These provisions are unprecedented in the MENA region, making Morocco the first North African country to officially recognize the Amazigh language as well as its Jewish heritage. The constitution also reinforces the Prime Minister’s subservient role within the country’s political system. In the draft constitution, the Prime Minister, long a powerless official in the shadows of the monarch, is appointed by the king from members of parliament’s ruling party. Although the constitution does give the office of Prime Minister significant appointment powers, the Prime Minister’s ability to dissolve parliament and declare a state of emergency requires royal consent.
As these examples demonstrate, the changes contained in the new constitution are cosmetic at best and part of a masterful strategy by a popular monarch in complete control of the political system. They lack institutional depth and will not affect the contours of power in Morocco, where the king continues to act as arbiter over a divided political system. For example, the constitution’s new system of separation of powers contains no mechanism for horizontal accountability, particularly with regards to the monarchy. The constitution also provides no safeguards against government violations of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and does not adequately establish and protect the rule of law.
The February 20th Movement
The regime has also benefitted from the increasingly fragmented February 20th protest movement. The movement lacks organization and a coherent strategy for its protests, which have been dwindling in strength and numbers. I attended the movement’s post-referendum protests in Marrakesh in July, where the number of protesters did not exceed 200 to 300 people. Numerous bystanders gathered to deride and mock the demonstrations, which many view as an exercise in futility. If the movement hopes to remain relevant, it must shake off this image.
The constitutional referendum has also dealt the movement a major blow, though not a fatal one. Because of the massive public support for the new constitution, the movement has been restricted in its ability to mount a significant challenge to the corrupt undemocratic foundations of the state in Morocco. The fledgling movement has compounded this problem by adopting a rather ambiguous position towards reforming the monarchy. In particular, the February 20th movement has not adequately distinguished between its wholesale rejection of the proposed constitution and its specific opposition to the constitution’s failure to tackle the king’s vast political powers. As a result, some have criticized the movement for advocating regime change, which is unacceptable to many in the kingdom. This confusion has made it easier for the state and its cronies to mount a campaign that has cast the February 20th movement as opposed to the monarchy and the territorial integrity of the country.
Despite all of these challenges, the democracy movement in Morocco continues to launch protests. Every Sunday, the February 20th movement marches in the streets of major Moroccan cities demanding real reforms and an end to the government’s corrupt and kleptocratic practices.
Although the Moroccan state seems immune to the effects of the protest movement, it must deliver on the new constitution’s purported reforms if it hopes to prevent the February 20th movement from gaining momentum. More importantly, in the coming months, the lack of socio-economic reforms could serve as a rallying point for renewed social demands, which, if adequately mobilized, could destabilize the state and put more pressure on the monarchy.
*Mohamed Daadaoui is Associate Professor of Political Science at Oklahoma City University. He is the author of “Moroccan Monarchy and the Islamist Challenge: Maintaining Makhzen Power” (Palgrave 2011)