Among the beauties of the new Constitution is that it has given space and time for profound debates on almost every issue concerning the Moroccan life, whether socially, culturally, economically, or politically. Much of this debate started a decade ago, in what is called the New Era, which dates back to 1999, and even few years earlier under the reign of King Hassan II. The heat of the debate has turned up since the beginning of the Arab Spring.
During the 90 days of the Mannouni Commission, established on March 9th to listen to political and social bodies to work out a form of the new Constitution, and also after King Mohamed VI’s June 17th speech, which announced the readiness of the new Constitution, much has still been debated. The debate has centered, from my perspective, on six points, which I sketch out and comment on here.
The first point is that the King still holds substantial powers. He holds the religious and army commander position, appoints ambassadors, presides over the Higher Council of the Judicial Branch, can dismiss government officials after consulting with the Head of the Government. At this historical stage in the development of the country, many see the activism of the King as a good thing at the time when the government and parliament have not been doing much. Importantly, the King’s popularity is seen as a protection for the masses from the ruling elite, which the masses wish to weaken. In this way, the King weakens the ruling elite families. It was expected then that the new Constitution would give the King more executive powers, especially in terms of religion, because historically the monarchy has been based on religion as a source of its legitimacy.
A number of voices have opposed the remaining version of the Constitution, because Islam is still the religion of the country. Those who expected something else were not then aware of the historical and political connotations of the kingdom, nor aware of the still majority attachment to religion in the country, despite its seemingly liberal and open spirit. Fear of religion comes from the fact that this supremacy could be abused in practice by some, but I think that if the new Constitution works truly toward the institutional framework it has built for itself, then no such abuse could occur in the medium and long run, though such cases could happen in the short term. Moreover, institutionalization of political and social life, if successful, can then work out a good version of the moderate Malikit School, and would help in shattering the idea of incompatibility of religion and politics. It is another challenge to be faced!
Freedom of worship, the right to life (which implicitly means that death penalty will not appear in the penal code), the right to education, housing, and healthcare are granted in the new Constitution more explicitly, and are among the accompanying points heavily discussed when Islam is discussed, and such issues will be clarified in the laws that endorse them later, and how the individuals consider them and behave according to them responsibly.
The second point is that the Head of the Government is empowered, but the only main weak point in his empowerment is that the King can dismiss one or many of his cabinets after consulting the Head of the Government. This power kept for the King should actually also be seen as a good push-factor for the Head of the Government to have a strong cabinet and a strong coalition. If the cabinet is functioning well, so be it—that is the aim—and if otherwise seen, it will be good to see that there is surveillance not only from Parliament, but also from the King. I do not expect the King to intervene if the cabinet is strong enough and up to the expectations.
The third point is that all the big political parties in the country have welcomed the new Constitution, apart from very minor leftist voices, part of the Movement of February 20th, and the movement of Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine (Al-Adl wa Al-Ihssan). The opposing voices are still going out to the streets to protest against this draft of the Constitution, which they consider “imposed from above” and “ready-made” by the same system, instead of being drafted by a council selected more democratically.
For the Parliament and its future work in relation with the political parties, for example, there is now a movement to “open” immunity for MPs unless what they do or say is within Parliament and concerns opinion, which makes them in this way equal to ordinary citizens before the law. Moreover, changing the party the MP belongs to is now regulated, and if one changes affiliation, he/she loses his seat in Parliament.
The fourth point is that Tamazight (Berber), the language of the Aboriginals, is now constitutionalized as a second national language, besides Arabic. Though it is a long lived but finally won struggle, some activists read between the lines that Tamazight is put in the second paragraph, below Arabic, and that shows that it may be read as a “minor” language compared to Arabic, which would mean that its speakers are also “second citizens.” Moreover, the same activists complain that in the Preamble, Arab and Islamic identity comes before the Berber one in wording, though historically the Berbers are the first settlers of the country. Importantly, the debate has recently gone so far as to see some parties (i.e. the Justice and Development Party, the moderate Islamist party in opposition in Parliament) suggesting adoption of the Arabic alphabets instead of Tifinagh for the constitutionalization of Tamaghizt (Berber). The Arabization of Tamazight would facilitate its speaking and understanding not only by its native speakers, but also by the larger society of the Moroccans who do not speak it, such goes the argument, which makes sense actually. If the Arabization process becomes the option later on through bills of laws, that means that about 10 years of work and rehabilitation of Tamazight, which started around the new millennium, will go down the drain. That is another challenge to be discussed later on in Parliament, and may lead to a referendum about the issue.
The fifth point is that the Moroccans residing abroad now have the right to political participation. The Council of Moroccans Abroad (CCME) is now institutionalized. Moroccans abroad can even participate in the coming referendum of 1st July, though the mechanisms for that are being discussed (whether to use the ID for registration or the old voter card, etc.). Foreign residents in Morocco are also now allowed to participate in local and regional elections where they reside.
The timing for the referendum is the sixth issue that the opposition voices raise. The fact that just two weeks were given as a way to prepare, campaign, and carry out the referendum is not enough, they claim, and means that there has been too much pressure to endorse the new constitution without re-drafting or sufficient debate. The fact that the state has circulated a Friday Sermon in which it encourages for “yes” votes for the referendum has raised the issue of equal space and means for campaigning: the February 20th Movement is now asking for the next Friday sermon to be its space where it can speak out the “no” argument.
These six issues, among others, all boil down to the same point: fear of having more of the same, a new constitution with old practices, where corruption and social injustice prevail. Minor protests against the referendum will go on until the day of the referendum, and afterwards. Most Moroccans will vote “yes” for the referendum, not because they fully trust the political parties as such, but because their trust is more directed to the King and stems from it for the moment. If the political parties and civil society do not sensitize their advocates and the whole masses to behave and also endorse the rights and duties granted in the new Constitution, much will not be achieved. Society has to be politicized and educated to practice its political rights. When that is reached, the political parties will be pressured always through this aware citizenry. Accountability is reciprocal. It will take at least two to three elections before this new Constitution finds its way.
The parliamentary aspect of the monarchy will be reached gradually if the current institutions, the ones formed and the ones to be formed by the new Constitution, work well and gain the trust of the Moroccans. The monarchy will keep its executive powers as long as the political life in the country is not mature, which is an advantage for the citizens if the government is not doing well. By the monarchy I mean the King Mohamed VI and his official consultative body, and not the friends and family entourage that corrupt what the official side of the kingdom does. Institutions weaken corruption, even the one that may originate from the monarchy’s circle. An engaged civil society and rejuvenating political parties are the interpreters of the Constitution; they are its activists, as well as its protectors.
I am for the new Constitution. I see the challenges facing it from now, but this is the way ahead. Constitutions are made for the future, and as we go along, we read more into them. Most of the Moroccans will find in it what they want. For those opposing it, it is their right to protest; they will find a niche in it, too, and from there they will keep asking for their rights. They are doing democracy a good service. The opposition is a key part of the democratic machinery.
Mohammed Hashas is a PhD candidate at LUISS University, Rome