Morocco's new constitution: Larbi's take

Morocco's King Muhammad VI recently presented the text of the country's new constitution, which will be put up for referendum in July. The new text has been rejected by the February 20 movement which had moved the king to implement this "reform" last March, although the new constitution is still widely expected to be approved. I translated the (mostly French-language) blogger Larbi's reaction to the king's speech last Saturday, for two reasons. First, Larbi is one of the most thoughtful and influential Moroccan bloggers and thought English-language readers would benefit . Secondly, I largely agree with his analysis that the new text does not deliver a real change to the political structure of the country; i.e. that the king's powers remain largely untouched and the ability of political parties to influence state policy largely constrained.

Before the text of Larbi's post, a few other links:

And now here's Larbi's take:

Why I reject Muhammad VI’s constitution

By Larbi

While bringing some improvements, the proposed new constitution unveiled today takes us back to a the same institutional structure for the country. It matches neither Moroccans’ aspirations nor the new regional context.

This reform was doomed to fail from its very start. “Granted” by King Muhammad VI, limited in its reach by his speech of March 9, the reform of the constitution has been conducted in an anti-democratic manner, quite unlike what the king claimed in his speech tonight — if one may say so. The ad-hoc commission tasked with preparing the new constitution was appointed by the king and composed almost entirely of men and women whose loyalty was to him. The palace, deaf and blind, chose to royally ignore the wave of contestation that pushed him to reform and leaned on an aging and subservient political class, which in any case had never asked for reform. It ignored the protests of the February 20 movement, which rejected this imposed process and considered that the conditions necessary for the drafting of a democratic constitution were not met. Self-assured and arrogant, the regime stubbornly continued in this vein, which will undoubtedly cause the country to lose much time. This “consultative” approach turned into a farce when the commission refused to allow the heads of political parties to see the draft constitution, finally allowing them only 24 hours to prepare their remarks. This reform has been concocted in secrecy, without real concessions, and under the strict supervision of the king’s political counsellor. These are the facts.

The palace followed this approach to its logical conclusion. At the end of the exercise, we were presented with a fait accompli, particularly as the new constitution is being put up for a referendum as a whole and not on a per-article basis. The result is therefore disappointing.

In particular — and this is not its most revolting aspect — the work of the commission featured practices that, in my opinion, irrevocably discredit the king’s initiative. Public media were not open to dissenting views, not a single symbol of corruption was taken to justice, the palace and those close to the regime have not taken their hands off the economy, not to mention the bloody repression that has struck protestors in recent weeks, or the strike at freedom of expression that was the sentencing to prison of the publisher of the country’s biggest press group. While it promised democracy, the regime showed unbelievable cynicism that it has no intention to abandon, and its reprehensible practices are not about to change, new constitution or not. Even with the best of intentions, it was practically impossible to credit the regime with having a real desire to reform.

If we want to find some merit to the draft constitution announced today, we might say that it least made things easier for everybody, vindicating the dissenters in their skepticism and those who opposed change in their position.

Reading Muahmmad VI’s constitution, the first thing that comes to mind is this: all this for so little! So here we are: a constitution that tries to get rid of a problem by ignoring it.

First of all, it must be acknowledged that the draft presented by the king today has some improvements. The preamble of the constitution, lyrical and replete with homilies, recognizes for the first time the diversity — of culture and heritage — of Moroccan society. Amazigh is recognized as an official language, answering a historic demand of the regions of the north. The constitution guarantees in its text a number of rights and freedoms, starting with the right to life and freedom of speech. But one cannot but think that the current constitution already guarantees such rights, without really implementing them. The drama of this constitution is that even in its breakthroughs it lacks credibility, so empty of substance are the regime’s practices. One can also highlight that the chapter regarding justice merely reaffirms the independence of the judiciary, and redefines the the composition of the Higher Council of the Judicial Authority and the abolition of exceptional tribunals. Likewise youn find a ban on torture and on attacks on the physical integrity of citizens.

These principles were already part of the national consensus, except perhaps the constitutionalization of the Amazigh language and certain other forms of Moroccan identity — but they were self-evident and the king’s commission only had to put them to paper. With a balance of sorts: conservatives will appreciate that there is no mention of freedom of conscience while progressives will be comforted by the stress on full gender equality. All of the components of society will thus be neutralized when it comes to social issues.

The king’s commission creates a host of new constitutional institutions. A National Council for Languages, an Authority for Gender Parity, and even the Higher Authority for Audiovisual Communications has become a constitutional institution. In its haste, the commission has produced a verbose text, replete with platitudes, which often sacrifices the essential to the secondary.

But where we most keenly expected change, the constitution disappoints most severely.

Intellectual honesty compels me to state that, with regards to the draft constitution, I had planned to judge on only one criteria: the creation of a parliamentary monarchy and the limitation of the king’s powers, since I considered the other improvements as borne out of common sense and self-evident.

For me, it’s clear: we were under a powerful monarchy in which the king was the head of the executive, and we will remain under the same system with some superficial changes.

Let us recapitulate. In the current constitution, the king appoints the prime minister (Art. 24) and can dismiss ministers and the government (Art. 24). He heads the Council of Ministers (Art. 25) which makes him the head of the executive branch. He is the head of the Armed Forces (Art. 30), appoints civil service and military positions and can delegate this function (Art. 30), appoints and accredits ambassadors (Art. 31), signs and ratifies international treaties (Art. 31). He can address parliament with no right of reply or debate (Art. 28), presides over the opening ceremony of the October session of parliament (Art. 40), can dissolves the chambers of parliament (Art. 28). He appoints judges under certain conditions (Art. 84), has the right to grant pardons (Art. 34), heads the Higher Council of the Judiciary (Art. 86), the Higher Council of Education (Art. 32) and the Higher Council of National Promotion and Planning (Art. 32), and can declare a state of emergency (Art. 35).

In the new draft constitution the king still appoints the prime minister (Art. 46, on the condition that he is a member of the party with the largest score in parliamentary elections), appoints ministers based on recommendations by the prime minister (Art. 47), can dismiss ministers (Art. 47) and probably the government (Art. 47, which leaves it unclear where the king can dismiss the prime minister, entailing a dissolution of the cabinet). He heads the Council of Ministers (Art. 48, although he can now delegate this function to his liking on specific occasions) and is therefore still the head of the executive branch of government. He is the Commander of the Armed Forces (Art. 53), appoints military personnel and can delegate this function (Art. 53), approves civil service nominations via his presidency of the Council of Ministers (Art. 48), appoints and accredits ambassadors (Art. 55), signs and ratifies international treaties (Art. 55, with conditions). He addresses parliament still with no right of reply (Art. 52), presides over the October opening session of parliament (Art. 65), and can dissolve the chambers of parliament (Art. 51). He approves the nomination of judges (Art. 57), can grant pardons (Art. 58), presides over the Higher Council of the Judiciary (Art. 56), the National Security Council (Art. 54) and can declare a state of emergency (Art. 59).

As for the controversial Article 19, it has simply been split in two (Art. 41 and 42), this concatenation giving a result as undefinable and as open to wide-ranging interpretations as the old, much-criticized article.

To summarize, even when he does not keep his current prerogatives, the king retains power over the head of government as he must give his direct or indirect consent over all decisions through his presidency of the Council of Ministers and the National Security Council. Not a single government decision can be promulgated with the king’s approval, and when he may delegate his powers this remains entirely according to his whim and conditions. Because of this, he remains directly and indirectly, for all intents and purpose, the head of government and retains the first and last word with regards to public policies and the state’s direction. We can even wonder what the point of nominating a head of government from the largest party in parliament, whatever its political ideology, when he must have the consent of the king in his policy. We are far from a parliamentary monarchy and more or less in the same configuration of an executive monarch without whom nothing can be decided. And they call this progress!

My personal national duty is to reject this constitution because it leads us to an identical institutional infrastructure for the country, one in which the king still both reigns and governs. It is to reject because it does not bring the deep renewal that could bring real change to the country’s political practice and because universal suffrage will continue to have little impact on the country’s governance. It is to reject it because it does not meet my hope of seeing the creation of a parliamentary monarchy. My national duty is to reject a reform that, the day after the referendum, will leave Morocco facing the same problems of absolutism and arbitrary rule. Finally, I reject it because one must discipline this regime which, even with the best constitution in the world, would continue its practice of exercising a suffocating hegemony over the political system. It is as if it understood nothing.

Nota Bene 1: I have not yet decided whether I will vote no or will boycott the referendum.

Nota Bene 2: The translation into French of the names of these constitutional institutions in this post is not official, I only have the Arabic version of the text.

 

 

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.