Morocco reforms face test on street

The king faces a showdown with the February 20th Movement, which has vowed to continue protests demanding more change.

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RABAT // Nationwide street demonstrations today in Morocco are expected to reflect whether King Mohamed VI's proposed constitutional reforms have won over an anxious public.

The king says his proposals will turn the country into a constitutional monarchy "based on the rule of law and on democratic institutions". He is calling on Moroccans to approve the reforms in a referendum on July 1, with parliamentary elections expected in early autumn.

However, that brings the king into a showdown with the February 20th Movement, which has vowed to continue protests demanding more change. Protest leaders say the king's proposed reforms do not provide true separation of powers.

The movement was founded in January by young Moroccans inspired by Tunisia's revolution. On February 20, thousands marched to condemn corruption and demand limits to King Mohamed's near-total power.

Authorities have tolerated some further protests and violently dispersed others, as an unlikely coalition of trades unionists, left-leaning political parties and Islamists has formed to support the movement.

King Mohamed appointed a committee in March to draft reforms to head off dissent.Under those proposals, the prime minister must be from the winning party in elections and can nominate ministers. However, the king remains head of state and keeps control of the military, security and religious fields.

The reforms would also make official the pre-Islamic Amazigh language, spoken by a sizable minority of Moroccans, and guarantee equality between men and women within the bounds of Islamically inspired law. According to Mohammed Essabbar, secretary general of Morocco's state human rights council, the reforms include long-delayed recommendations by a truth commission set up in 2004 to investigate abuses under King Mohamed's father, Hassan II, who died in 1999.

Among other reforms proposed by King Mohamed is for international human rights conventions signed by Morocco to take precedence over national legislation.

Karim Tazi, a leading Moroccan businessman who has advised the February 20th Movement and seen the text of the proposed reforms, said they contained advances on individual freedoms and governance.

However, King Mohamed would head the supreme council of justice, possibly sidestepping demands from protesters that he make good on pledges in recent years of an independent judiciary, said Mr Tazi.

"The whole process has been a sprint to the exit," Mr Tazi said. With less than two weeks until the referendum, "there will be little or no national debate - which is a big shame, knowing the importance of what's at stake".

For Montasser Drissi, 19, a co-founder of the February 20th Movement, the proposed reforms are flawed by what he describes as their undemocratic conception.

"The new constitution was made by a commission that was not elected by the people," he said. In a March 9 speech proposing constitutional reform, "the king stated articles that would be in the constitution by default".

Mr Drissi said the February 20th Movement was planning demonstrations in several cities this evening, a pledge repeated yesterday by protest leaders.

Today's protests will bring Mr Drissi and other protesters in the capital, Rabat, to the working-class neighbourhood of Hay Takadoum in a bid to broaden support for the February 20th Movement, he said.

"This must be a popular movement, and that means demonstrations in poor areas," he said. "You have to create consciousness."

Mr Drissi and fellow protesters may get a mixed reception, judging by the mood on Friday in a Hay Takadoum cafe where the sound of King Mohamed's speech filled the room. On a column hung a portrait of the king, a feature of shops and cafes across the country.

"February 20th have played in important role in the changes that are taking place, but I'm against them now," said Karim Touram, 23, a high-school Arabic teacher.

Many Moroccans see King Mohamed as a welcome foil to distrusted political leaders. In 2009, he scored 91 per cent approval in an opinion poll suppressed by authorities on the grounds that all scrutiny of the monarchy is illegal.

"The king has opened the door for the development of the country," said Khalid Anouz, 40, also an Arabic teacher, sitting with Mr Touram. "The next phase is for the political establishment to prepare itself for elections."