Moroccan monarchy’s sacredness: an obstacle to democracy

Yes, Mohammed VI’s March 9 speech was indeed historic. But no, it is not because it announced a major constitutional reform. If this speech is to be marked, it is because, by delivering it, a Moroccan King surrendered to popular pressure – a spectacular first since the country’s independence in 1956. This alone demonstrates that history, in Morocco, is already in the making.

The monarchy and the people engaged in arm wrestling on February 20. That day, 120,000 Moroccans prompted by young Facebook activists hit the streets of no less than 53 cities and villages in Morocco, claiming – among other things – a democratic constitution. In order to avoid Arabic revolutions’ contagion, the government let the demonstrations go unchallenged. As a consequence, the demonstrators realized how numerous they were, and the wall of fear suddenly collapsed.

Since then, numerous sit-ins were held in the four corners of the Kingdom and abundant op-eds were published in the press and on the Internet, all of which increased the democratic pressure--from substantial in February, to intolerable in March. On the 9th, the King appeared on television announcing a spectacular constitutional reform. Among his many promises: the “rule of law”, an “independent judiciary” and an "elected government that reflects the will of the people, through the ballot box." Go for democratic victory chants? Wait a minute…

Whoever reads the speech carefully will notice the devil in the details. Boldest case: by promising to “consolidate the status of the Prime Minister”, the King envisions the latter as the head of “an” executive branch, rather than “the” executive branch. Meaning: there will be another one elsewhere – in the royal Palace, for example. With or without constitutional reform, the “executive monarchy” (as King Mohammed himself puts it) is not done encroaching on the government’s territory. It’s as if you were stepping on somebody’s feet and instead of stepping aside, you promise this person new shoes…

The problem is obviously not with the Prime Minister’s powers. It is with the King’s – especially his spiritual powers, given that Islam is Morocco’s state religion. During his March 9 speech, King Mohammed firmly stated that those “immutable values of sacred character” shall not be debated. The Constitution’s articles 19 and 23 assert that the monarch is the “Commander of the faithful” and that his person in “sacred”. Add to this that article 29 gives him the right to govern by issuing dahirs, which are non-questionable and non-opposable royal decrees.

Long story short: the King of Morocco can do absolutely anything he wants, and no one is granted the slightest power to stop him – all of this in the name of Islam. In 1994, late King Hassan, who crafted this unanswerable argument (pretending it was “immemorial tradition”), once justified it by quoting the Prophet Muhammad: “Those who obey me obey God, and those who disobey me disobey God”. How clearer could that be? Said Mohammed VI: democracy supposes that people in charge are accountable. Yet this doesn’t apply to him. You can’t really ask for accounts from the “representative of God on his land” – as the allegiance act to the King of Morocco puts it.

On another hand, the reform’s scope is likely to be lessened by the identity of its enforcers. The day after his speech, the King appointed a constitutional reform commission formed by 18 local experts, the overwhelming majority of whom are loyal civil servants. Little independent spirit is consequently expected.  The commission’s president, Abdeltif Menouni, 67, is a member of this flock of law experts that was hired in the 1980s by former regime strongman Driss Basri in order to provide some legal justification to King Hassan’s autocracy. A fine connoisseur of constitutional law, Mr. Menouni proved skilled in this exercise. He once explained the notion of “royal prerogative” as “the monarch’s discretionary privilege to act for the good of the country in the absence of constitutional provisions or by his personal interpretation of any.[1]” It is hardly imaginable that this man, who just reached the peak of his career, would dismantle the autocratic “prerogatives” he himself defined.

Yet, despite his ensnared speech and his barely credible commission, Mohammed VI has put himself in a difficult position. Whatever the final draft constitution looks like, it will have to be validated through a referendum. If only because of that, the King will be forced to open the system one way or another. Having the “No” campaigners speak on public TV would already greatly challenge the supposedly untouchable “sacredness” paradigm. How can the royal palace admit that some Moroccans may reject a proposition from the Commander of the faithful? Put under pressure, the monarchy is reaching its ultimate contradiction: Sacred or democratic? It is now time to choose.

The protesters, who are not necessarily aware of these profound political stakes, are waiting on their part for tangible signs of change. The repression of a Casablanca March 13 peaceful protest already casted doubts on the regime’s intentions. Why such violence, only days after the King promised democracy? What if he was not sincere?

Bigger scale protests are scheduled starting March 20. It seems that the government has no good options. Dropping the mask by meeting the demonstrators with brutal repression may well escalate their anger. Up until now, the King himself was spared by the street slogans. This could change, paving the way to an Egyptian-style scenario, indeed the authorities’ worst nightmare. On the other hand, allowing the demonstrations to happen freely would empower the people and encourage them to hit the streets more, thus increasing pressure on the monarchy.

Sooner or later, Mohammed VI will have to make new concessions. When and to what extent? The highly unstable situation makes that hard to predict. One thing is certain: the democratic Pandora’s box is open, and will not be closed again.

[1] A. Menouni in Revue juridique, politique et économique du Maroc, Mohammed V University, Rabat, January 1984 (p. 42)

Original article (in French): Le Monde: "La sacralité de la monarchie marocaine est un frein à la démocratisation"