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Fearing Wave of Unrest, Morocco’s King Proposes Constitutional Changes

March 23, 2011 at 6:23 PM EST
Ray Suarez reports on the North African nation of Morocco, where the country's king is attempting to stave off protests with a series of constitutional reforms.
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JIM LEHRER: Next, the North African nation of Morocco tries to get ahead of the protests sweeping the Arab world.

Ray Suarez has that story.

RAY SUAREZ: The sound has become familiar: voices clamoring for change. The demands are similar, too: for work, for more power to the people, for a cleanup of widespread corruption.

MAN (through translator): Today, we are here to say that we are all Moroccans. We love our country, we love our king, but we are against corruption and economic and political monopolies.

WOMAN: (through translator): We want the Berber language to be recognized in the constitution alongside Arabic. We want the population to have all the fundamental rights, right to education, right to health, I mean, a state education for all.

RAY SUAREZ: The protests in Morocco have been relatively small and peaceful, compared to those across the Arab world. But this is a country with many of the same problems: high unemployment, food shortages, a lack of housing. But the country’s king has moved swiftly to head off further trouble.

Almost two weeks ago, King Mohammed VI introduced a comprehensive package of constitutional amendments that include handing over some powers to the country’s regions, improving the independence of the courts and more.

KING MOHAMMED VI, Morocco (through translator): To expand personal and organizational freedoms and ensure their practice, to promote a human rights network in all its political, economic, social, developmental, cultural and environmental aspects.

RAY SUAREZ: The king is from a dynasty that dates back centuries. And he’s considered quite popular, according to Andrew Pierre, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

ANDREW PIERRE, U.S. Institute of Peace: So, he has a great deal more flexibility. And we’re a long, long ways from a real revolution in the streets. I don’t think it will come about in the next years at all. My guess is that he’ll have the amount of accommodation needed to keep things fairly quiet, but that accommodation has to be real accommodation, not just sort of figurehead accommodation.

RAY SUAREZ: Some Moroccans believe a real accommodation has not yet been made. As these YouTube pictures show, they returned to the streets this month, arguing the planned reforms have not gone far enough.

Morocco’s foreign minister, Taieb Fassi Fihri, in Washington today, told me reforms were already under way, but his government has watched closely as the Arab spring unfolded. He says people in places like Egypt and Libya were more dissatisfied.

TAIEB FASSI FIHRI, Moroccan foreign minister: I think that it’s more the lack of movement, lack of hope in future, and also a long past with the — with the same power, with the same leadership, with the same president.

In Morocco, it’s totally different, because we are all the time in ongoing process — ongoing process — and the monarchy respond.

RAY SUAREZ: Morocco has had close ties to the West for decades. And today, the foreign minister received a warm welcome from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at their bilateral meeting.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: In our meeting today, I thanked the foreign minister for Morocco’s leadership at the summit in Paris last week and for Morocco’s important role in the Arab League’s decision to call for the protection of Libyan civilians.

RAY SUAREZ: Morocco supported the U.N. Security Council resolution allowing military action to protect civilians in Libya. Last month, Foreign Minister Fihri said the demands of Libyan people are legitimate. He was in Paris last weekend at the emergency meeting of world leaders ahead of the airstrikes.

TAIEB FASSI FIHRI: Morocco is totally, totally engaged by the resolution of the Security Council. Now, each country has the right to express how they will contribute. We want to contribute on the basis of our humble means.

RAY SUAREZ: Fihri says his country is ready to move quickly, that the transition to constitutional monarchy can be complete before the end of the year.