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Why the Morocco Demonstrations are Successfully Bringing About Democratic Changes

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

The protests in Morocco are forcing real democratic changes in the government, a stark contrast to other “Arab Spring” uprisings taking place in Arabic countries throughout the Middle East. The demonstrations are being driven by frustration over the economic conditions in those countries, the level of autocratic rule and its associated government corruption. Middle Eastern Arab countries all share a common form of government known as a constitutional monarchy, consisting of an oligarchy or monarchy run by Islamic-believing leaders with varying levels of religiosity, that co-exist with a weak democratic government. The purely secular side generally consists of a prime minister, parliament, and separate judiciary.

Heavily Islamic, the Arabic states have stubbornly held on to their oligarchic leaders - so getting rid of them by force and replacing them completely with a republican democratic form of government is not likely to happen. The Arab states that have made the furthest strides towards democracy have done so by having in place a leader willing to share his power generously with democratic rule and gradually implement more reforms. Morocco’s King Mohammed VI is like this. There is a real chance that Morocco may some day reach the stage of countries like England, where the monarchy has become strictly ceremonial. One Moroccan blogger sums it up by saying the best way to bring about democratic reforms is to adopt a provision from the Cambodian Constitution, “The King of Cambodia shall reign but not govern.”

The Washington-based Freedom House ranks Morocco the third freest Arab country among the 17 Arab countries, after Kuwait and Lebanon. The demonstrators in Morocco are not as unhappy as demonstrators in other Arab countries. They are not calling for regime change nor have the protests risen to the level of massive violence. Two credit rating agencies, Standard & Poor and Fitch, have stated that Morocco is the least likely Maghreb state (Northwestern African states) to be affected by the wave of uprisings. Like the protests in other Arab countries, the demonstrators in Casablanca, Tangiers, Rabat and other Moroccan cities are calling for democratic reforms, an end to corruption, and better economic opportunities. But unlike the other states, the Moroccan regime is not cracking down violently on the protesters as is taking place in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

King Mohammed VI, who assumed the throne from his father in 1999, has achieved a relative level of stability and contentedness throughout the country by progressively implementing reforms. After taking office, he freed radical Islamist leader Cheikh Abdessalam from house arrest, and welcomed back exiled opponents. He held legislative elections and modified the criminal code. He took steps to modify the Moudawana (family code), giving women unprecedented rights in that region of Africa. He loosened free speech restrictions and set up an Equity and Reconciliation Commission in 2004, the first of its kind in the Arab world, to investigate the disappearance and arbitrary detentions of political opponents under his father’s regime. He is considered progressive on social issues. He instituted a “human development initiative” that builds infrastructure in regional capitals and the most disadvantaged communities. The people are even more supportive of King Mohammed VI because he is considered a direct descendent of the religious leader Mohammed. He has been a unifying figure for Morocco, unlike the autocratic leaders of other Arab states.

In response to the demonstrations, the King promised seven sweeping constitutional reforms in a speech delivered on March 9, 2011. They include election of a prime minister from the party in power in parliament instead of by royal appointment, increasing parliament’s power, a freer judiciary, and expanding the power of officials at the provincial and local level. He promises more protection for political and civil liberties and human rights. He is appointing a commission to draft a new constitution, which will be presented in June and later voted upon by referendum. A committee of ministers has drafted an anti-corruption law to protect whistleblowers, witnesses and victims from corrupt government officials. The King acknowledged “the Berber identity” in his speech, a reference to the 28% Berber-speaking minority.

Even the opposition party, the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD), is pleased with the King’s proposed changes. The banned Islamist group Justice and Charity is advocating for further democratic reforms, not calling for stricter Islamic rule.

France, Spain and the United Nations praised the King’s response. The Obama administration only belatedly commended the proposed changes, which is not surprising considering how haphazard its responses have been to the Middle East uprisings. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who praised Morocco’s democratic reforms as a “model to follow” a year ago, has been surprisingly quiet. This is unfortunate, because the U.S. should hold Morocco up as an example to put pressure on our allies in the region like Saudi Arabia who have not been so forthcoming with democratic reforms.

Morocco appears well on its way to becoming a model for other Arab states on how to relinquish monarchical control. Countries with despotic dictators like Libya and Syria that refuse to accede to democratic reforms will not be able to follow in its lead until those leaders are replaced. The U.S. must keep up the pressure on those kinds of leaders to step down. Unfortunately under the Obama administration, our message has been inconsistent.

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