RABAT (Reuters) - King Mohammed’s move to overhaul Morocco’s constitution has ensured he remains in control of the reform process, but even deeper change may be needed if he is to satisfy those inspired by revolts sweeping the Arab world.
In a March 9 speech the king set up a hand-picked committee to draft changes by June, including a stronger parliament, a bigger role for local officials and an independent judiciary.
The changes were designed to confront demands that he reign rather than rule the North African country of 32.6 million and curb his economic influence and that of the secretive and influential court elite known as the Makhzen.
The initiative appeared designed to deflate growing street protests demanding more radical change in Morocco, which has been ruled by the king’s Alaouite dynasty for 350 years.
Tens of thousands of people joined protests across the country on Sunday, some of the largest demonstrations in decades against a system in which the king is military commander, a religious leader and the final political authority in the country.
An allegiance pact between Moroccans and the monarchy is based on the king’s role as a leader of the Muslim faith.
“We cannot suppress the Commandership of the Faithful since the allegiance pact between the king and the people is not about the king as a person but about religious authority and nothing else,” said Lahcen Daoudi from the main opposition Justice and Development moderate Islamist party.
The reforms have been given extra urgency by the political earthquakes in Arab states that have led to the ouster of long-time authoritarian rulers in Tunisia and Egypt and sparked an armed revolt against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Neighbour Algeria has also had demonstrations.
“It is bold to some extent, but it is also very clever,” said Lise Storm, senior lecturer in Middle East politics at the University of Exeter.
“He will stay in control of the situation by initiating the reform and gain a lot of goodwill from outside and within Morocco because he has taken the initiative,” she said.
The king’s speech took many in Morocco by surprise and fuelled speculation he was ready to take further steps, should his initial moves fail to calm the reformist clamour.
“The king’s proposal is very telling but it must be accompanied by other steps to add more credibility to the constitutional reform underway,” said Mohamed Darif, a politics lecturer at Casablanca’s King Hassan University.
The authorities need to solve pending corruption cases, re-examine trials of hundreds of Moroccans jailed since 2002 on terrorism charges and dilute the economic and political influence of some clans, he said.
The king said the reformed constitution should boost the role of the prime minister and parliament, ensure judicial independence and make politicians accountable.
“Democratic transition is a long process and the king’s speech obviously reflects his commitment to reform, which should start with the constitution,” said Mustapha Khalfi, editor of the main opposition newspaper Attajdid.
The plan would only succeed if political prisoners were freed, the election law became more representative and fraud-proof and the authorities treated political parties fairly, regardless of their political ideologies, he said.
Change can sharpen rather than ease calls for reform, though some political analysts say the king’s plan could enhance his image with Western allies — and at home.
The king’s proposals tackle what appeared to be the main demands of the February 20 Movement, a loose, youth-led coalition inspired by peers who have led pro-democracy revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.
The king has asked a 19-member team he appointed alone to submit draft constitutional reforms in June ahead of a referendum later in the year.
It is led by Abdellatif Mennouni, a constitutional law expert who taught the future king at university and is known to be close to leftist militants.
But in naming the committee himself, the 47-year-old monarch has made it difficult to gauge just how much power he, or his royal court, is willing to relinquish.
“The king showed how much he is in control by pinpointing which areas to be reformed and by naming the committee. He didn’t say anything about the powers he will keep,” Exeter’s Storm said.
Political risk consultancy Eurasia Group said the reform would “not strip him of his broad powers” but allow greater political participation “which will likely placate many regime critics.”
The February 20 Movement has complained the plan failed to meet its key demands: dismissal of the government, curbs on the king’s business clout, criminal proceedings against officials accused of misuse of public funds.
“There has always been a huge gap between the official discourse and reality on the ground,” Saeed Binjebli, one of the founders of the February 20 movement, said of the king’s plan.