Morocco's Democratic Changes Fail to Appease All

10:09 PM Aida Alami 0 Comments

By Aida Alami

RABAT, MOROCCO — A stressed middle-aged woman in a taxi in Casablanca looked with disdain at thousands of protesters on a main avenue. “We are fed up with them,” she told the driver. “Can’t they just leave us in peace. They wanted a new constitution. They got it. What else do they want?

“They are fighting for our rights,” he replied. “I hope they keep on marching until our health and education systems are fixed and corruption, the biggest ill of this country, is gone.”

A landslide vote in a July 1 referendum paved the way for a new constitution, introducing more freedoms and gender equality. The constitution was approved by 98 percent of those who voted, winning King Mohammed VI congratulations from world leaders, including President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

But critics dispute the validity of the referendum, saying that only 13 million of 20 million eligible Moroccans were registered to vote. They also say the constitution fails to enshrine significant separations of powers within the government.

Leading democracy activists including the February 20 Movement for Change, which began on Facebook and has carried out a series of rallies in major cities, have rejected the outcome and pledged to continue to fight for the establishment of a fully democratic state.

Abdeslam Maghraoui, a political science professor at Duke University in North Carolina specializing in North Africa, said the referendum was a short-term fix for Morocco’s problems.

“It seems that the monarchy and its supporters have managed to pull together a hasty and contested constitutional referendum,” he said. “This will give the monarch a few weeks or months to claim a political victory.”

Mr. Maghraoui said irregularities in the voting process and opposition from large segments of civil society, the main Islamist movement and some political parties had delegitimized the process.

“I would not be surprised at all if we go back to an atmosphere of crisis and possibly violence before the end of the year,” he said.

When the February 20 movement started organizing, shortly after the fall of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, the Moroccan regime activated an extensive propaganda campaign to paint protesters as enemies of the state manipulated by the Western Sahara liberation movement, Polisario.

Still, the movement, linking human rights activists, small leftist parties, youth activists and a banned Islamist party, Justice and Charity, mobilized thousands of people in more than 50 cities and it has since organized marches every Sunday, countrywide.

Its most significant victory has been to raise awareness among Morocco’s politically disengaged youth, who for the first time decided to get involved. Two weeks after taking to the streets, the movement gained ground when the king, in a speech on March 9, promised significant constitutional changes and the introduction of more personal liberties. He then appointed a commission to draft a new constitution, which he unveiled on June 17.

Still, the king’s call to Moroccans, citing the Koran, to vote for the charter was perceived by opponents as an improper interference in the process.

Mehdi Soufiani, a 24-year-old law school student in Rabat, said: “The king is an arbitrator. He shouldn’t have influenced the voters, making the vote about his popularity and not about whether the constitutional changes are what the country needs.”

In July, an organization of Moroccan students in France, Cap Democracy Morocco, which advocates the establishment of democratic institutions, organized a three-day workshop in Rabat that invited young people and scholars to a discussion titled, “Thinking Democracy After February 20.”

Younes Benmoumen, a 24-year-old graduate of the Paris Institute of Political Studies and president of the association, called the referendum a plebiscite on the king and the constitutional changes only cosmetic.

“There is a complete absence of a democratic spirit in the constitutional reform process,” Mr. Benmoumen said, “and no actions were taken to show a willingness of the regime to change.”

During a debate at the Cap Democracy workshop, many raised concerns that the movement had failed to assemble crowds as large as in Tunisia and Egypt and said it risked running out of steam and dying out.

Fouad Abdelmoumni, a member of the Coalition for Parliamentary Monarchy, a group of parties and activists that supports February 20, told young people at the workshop: “A push for radical change in society is only starting to bloom. It will not easily happen. Protesters are going to need to show endurance and patience because the road is still long.”

Najib Akesbi, an economist who teaches at the Institute of Agronomy in Rabat, predicted that the coming legislative elections would send people into the streets again. He said the referendum vote was flawed by coercive pressures from imams and local government officials, vote rigging and one-sided broadcast media coverage.

“Absolutely nobody knows what the majority of Moroccans think as a result of years of repression,” he said. “The movement remains strong in its fundamentals, at its core, and the protesters remain very determined. After Ramadan and summer, the protests will very likely intensify in September.”

Analysts say the newly engaged if widely disparate groups of young Moroccans are not likely to stop pushing for change. That assessment echoes what the young protesters themselves say.

“We are fighting for something meaningful and we will win,” said Mr. Benmoumen. “We are not subject to any deadline, and the course of history is on our side.”

 You can read the story on the New York Times' website

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