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“Liberty, democracy and equality,” is the slogan of the 20th February Movement in Morocco, led by young university- educated men (and, importantly, women) who speak several languages and use social networks. Many of them first mobilised in 2008 to demand the release of Fuad Murtada, who had created a phoney Facebook profile of the king’s cousin, and was disagreeably surprised when the prosecutor called for six years’ imprisonment (which Murtada fortunately avoided, thanks to international pressure). These young people have been joined by Islamists, the left, the labour unions, the intellectuals and, above all, the most critical elements of the press, which have broken all taboos and come out with an incredibly open flurry of public debate.
After two days of interviews in Rabat, the feeling is one of looking at a coalition so heterogeneous as to be impossible. But its components coincide converge on some clear objectives: political reform, which must limit the king’s power, and economic and social justice. This is long overdue in a land with huge inequalities, where people complain that corruption is a gangrene that extends to every area of life: from cradle to grave — education, health care, work.
The 20th February Movement rose in the wake of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Its early success was resounding, leading the king to dust off the reform programme with which he began his reign before settling into business-as-usual. In his 9th March speech, the monarch announced a commission for constitutional reform, which is to draft a proposal that will be submitted to referendum. With this, the king has shown himself to be more of a statesman than Ben Ali and Mubarak, who disdained the demonstrators and their demands.
His speech has raised great hopes: even the most critical are convinced that the despotism hidden behind the country’s democratic façade is at an end, with no going back. Yet the constitutional reform commission features no representatives of the political parties, nor negotiations between them: only supposedly independent jurists who are to rule on what constitutional reforms are necessary, and on what can be left for later. The 20th February leaders have refused to appear before the commission; so have the extra-parliamentary Islamists, who consider it a farce. In a democracy, they say, it is the citizens’ representatives who must draft a constitution, not technicians picked by the king. Without parliament or parties, it will be a constitution granted by the king to his subjects, not one imposed from below by free citizens.
Herein lies the problem, and the solution too. The king is still the centre of the economic, political and religious system. Under Article 19 of the Constitution he can appoint and dismiss governments, and even dictate laws. There are elections, indeed, but no division of powers, so that some look to the Spanish model: a king who reigns but does not govern, and has voluntarily renounced his powers, giving way to a genuinely constitutional monarchy. Hence a general distrust: is the king’s speech a merely tactical one, to deactivate the protests with cosmetic reforms? Or is he prepared to set out on a road that will distance him from power, even if only by stages? One thing is certain: unlike the scenes in Tunis and Cairo, where Ben Ali and Mubarak were the bull’s-eyes at which the protesters were aiming, in Morocco the monarchy itself is not in question. This lets the king breathe easier, but on the other hand tempts him to take a complacent line. In any case, the taboos are broken, and the press is raging. The young are not about to overturn the monarchy — being unable, and probably unwilling — but they do want a radical transformation. The gates are open to several kinds of future, and definitely closed to some things of the past.
This piece first appeared in El País
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