Morocco’s quiet revolution

The North African nation becomes first in the region to agree a programme for constitutional reform

Compared with the political turmoil that has engulfed much of the Middle East and North Africa in recent months, Morocco’s revolution has been a quiet one. Protesters have taken to the streets in many of the kingdom’s major cities, but not in nearly the same numbers as in Tunisia and Egypt.

There has been a strong and sometimes violent response from security forces, but one that has been neither as overwhelming as that in Bahrain or Algeria nor as brutal as that in Libya or Syria. There have been calls for reform, but in contrast to elsewhere in the region, demands for the overthrow of King Mohammed VI, the head of state, have been scarce.

Despite this, Morocco has been the first country in the region to agree a programme for constitutional reform. In Libya, Yemen and Syria, the political landscape is still in turmoil as the incumbent regimes fight for their respective lives. Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia have tinkered with legislative change, but deliberations on more fundamental reform are expected to continue for months, if not years. But in Morocco, a popular referendum on 1 July returned an overwhelming vote in favour of proposed constitutional changes.

Rebalancing power in Morocco

The new constitution focuses on rebalancing the power of the different branches of state, and in particular on diluting royal influence in favour of the prime minister, the legislature and the judiciary. Under the changes, the king gives up his right to appoint any prime minister and is instead confined to choosing from the party that polls the greatest number of votes in parliamentary elections. The prime minister, rather than the king, will now take charge of a large proportion of cabinet meetings. The prime minister will also assume new powers to select and dismiss cabinet members and to choose individuals for other government positions.

Parliament’s scope to originate policy is widened and its authority is strengthened by a new measure permitting it to investigate government officials with the backing of 20 per cent of its members. It can also propose a motion of censure against a minister with the agreement of a third of the house. The current constitution requires unanimity in both cases. The independence of the judiciary is reinforced by the creation of a new supreme council composed of judges and the head of the national human rights council.

According to official figures, 73 per cent of eligible voters turned out to cast their ballot in the referendum, and 98 per cent of those that participated were in favour of the changes. But not everybody is happy. The main political parties have given backing to the new constitution, but the 20 February movement, named after the first day of protests, boycotted the vote and has dismissed the changes as superficial. A statement from international rights group Amnesty International on 11 July backed the changes only insofar as they are used to reform “repressive laws and practices”.

The changes purport to redress the balance between the different arms of state, but they also ensure that the pre-eminence of the king is not undermined. Not only did the proposed reforms originate from the palace, but all the king’s most important prerogatives are retained.

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Richard Nield is a freelance journalist, photographer and filmmaker covering the Middle East and Africa. In 10 years covering the region, he has been published and broadcast by clients including the BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Independent and Foreign Policy magazine. He has reported from throughout the region, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, South Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.