In just a few months, Morocco seems to have experienced a constitutional upheaval as a result of street protests and the good graces of the King. The reform proposals have been well received. At home, the 98% in favour of the reforms make up an overwhelming mandate. Although a minority have labelled the referendum a "sham", international support has been comprehensive. Recent news headlines praised the developments as a step in the "right direction". But optimism can overlook the finer points of the proposals, especially when dealing with such a watershed reform.
In a troubled regional landscape such peaceful reforms augur well, and the idea that "by the harsh standards of Arab politics" Morocco is "relatively liberal" seems again confirmed. However, while greater consideration appears to have been given to public opinion and democratic principles, this is not the whole story. If anything, the methods employed to carry out the reform have undermined what was left of the credibility of the political class, with the only semblance of public debate taking the form of a referendum called for by royal decree. But could this have been otherwise?
The role of a constitution is to organise a polity through the allocation of power and to prescribe a normative frame for its exercise. In Morocco, the constitutional order is characterised by the role of the monarch, which extends to all domains of governance with no provision for the separation of powers. That order has been altered since the first constitution of 1962 by a succession of reforms that, far from having relegated the king to a ceremonial position, have increased his power. This is the main reason why optimism over constitutional change in Morocco has to be tempered with cynicism.
This month's reform has made several advances in enabling the sharing of power. The new constitution empowers not only the prime minister, whose function is to become more akin to that of a fully-fledged head of government, but also the Parliament and decentralized territorial units. It also provides recognition for human rights, including language rights for the Berber minority. The king has nevertheless retained such decisive prerogatives as the right to dissolve by decree both parliamentary chambers, to discharge by his own initiative government ministers, to oversee security policy, and to preside over the Council of Minister and Superior Council of the judiciary.
The limit of this constitutional exercise is well understood by the king himself, who in an address to the nation admitted that "any constitution regardless of its degree of perfection could not constitute an end in itself". The temptation is great to take him up on his word and look beyond the apparent change. By adopting a purely abstract approach we may miss the point of this reform. While the quality of constitutional texts is important in that they often predate constitutionalist practices, their observance may be even more so. As Michel Rousset, French academic and participant to the redaction of the 1996 constitution, observes: "Constitutional texts are mere tool whose utility is only demonstrated by the use it is made of." In the present case, the consolidation of the role of political parties in a context of effective pluralism will require more than just an article of the constitution to come about.
While constitutional moments always carry with them a certain degree of suspension of citizens' rights they also contribute to locating the locus of power within the Moroccan polity. Worryingly, the progress of the present reform has strong similarities to the process leading to Morocco's first constitution in 1962: a royal initiative to form a constitution followed by a referendum legitimising it in the interest of the country's stability. It almost seems like no progress has been made in the democratic political process during that time; the fact that the king has decided to override it at least is giving this sign. "If there was only one reason to doubt of this constitution, it would be the headlong rush toward its validation," said Ahmed Benchemsi, Moroccan journalist and researcher at Stanford on Arab Reform. When, earlier this year, the 1996 constitutional settlement had been found to be increasingly intolerable, the king alone was facing a reform-seeking population without much of a buffer between himself and them. This illustrates that the subverting of the political class by the monarchy has advanced its own influence but has also left itself dangerously exposed.
What has been exposed in North Africa and other parts of the Arab world in the past months is a poverty of politics, as a well-informed and politicised population becomes increasingly sceptical of the electoral process in the face of authoritarian forces. The Moroccan political class has also failed. It has struck a bargain with the monarchy following which it would settle for minor institutional progress in exchange for the privilege of being part of the ruling elite. Parties have been instrumentalised in favour of authoritarian governance. The accession to premiership by the socialist leader Abderrahman Youssoufi has been described as having achieved little due to constitutional restraints and necessary bargaining with the monarchy.
The new constitution might reveal itself insufficient to dispel doubts on the current political deadlock. Neither the political class, the monarch nor the population as a whole benefit from the instability of their current status. This deadlock shows that legitimacy for the new institutions will be hard to gain and that the king will remain a central figure for the foreseeable future.
As things stands, the king is still very much a sultan. The exercise of the royal prerogative through dahir decrees is indicative of the fact that the reforms have fallen short of the promised and awaited constitutional monarchy in which the monarch would rule but not govern. Moreover, his involvement in religious affairs called for by his title of Commander of the Faithful contributes in great part to his legitimacy. In the new constitution, no mention is made of previously of the sacred character of the monarchy. While this does not appear explicitly, it has been preserved at both temporal and spiritual levels.
The resurgence of political Islam and the spectre of Algerian instability have shored up the foundations of the Morrocan monarchy. However, with the prospect of the democratic process opening up, the monarchy's monopoly on power will be increasingly challenged as political actors challenge the religious and political positions of the present institutions. How these challenges are met might provide be the key to the future of this new constitutional settlement.
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