TOPICS > World

New Morocco Constitution, Election Meant to Avoid Arab Spring-Style Uprising

December 23, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
As other Arab nations erupted in unrest and violence, what unfolded on the streets of Morocco was a peaceful but similar refrain, followed by a new constitution and an election -- giving Moroccans a louder, more democratic voice in government. Ray Suarez reports on the country's attempt at avoiding an Arab Spring-style uprising.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: Now, the second report from my recent trip to Morocco. Tonight, how changes sweeping the Arab world brought new elections in the North African nation and new hopes for greater democracy.

Moroccans have voted before, but this time was different. This was new. There’s a promise of change from an Islamist party with new political powers, and Moroccans now find themselves eager, skeptical and curious about what may lie ahead.

The new constitution and the elections that followed were meant to avoid an Arab spring-style uprising, to give Moroccans a louder voice in the affairs of this country, after long years in which all the decisions that mattered were made by the king and his inner circle.

This year, 32 million Moroccans have looked on as, one by one, other Arab nations have erupted into struggle, uprising, deadly violence. What unfolded on the streets of Morocco was a peaceful, but similar refrain, the demand for a more democratic government.

When the protests subsided, King Mohammed VI quickly organized a constitutional referendum and, under the new rules, a national election, all part of a transition, the king said, toward greater power for people, and less for the palace.

The U.S. ambassador in Morocco, Sam Kaplan, calls the latest election a move in the right direction.

SAMUEL L. KAPLAN, U.S. ambassador to Morocco: We have to see yet whether or not the new constitution as applied to a new administration will indeed result in the sharing of power that it contemplates, sharing of power between his majesty, King Mohammed VI, and the parliament and the prime minister. It’s a fascinating opportunity for change.

RAY SUAREZ: One group of Moroccans with really high hopes for the new political system are the winners of Nov. 25′s election.

Bassima El Haqqawi leader of the winning party, the Islamic Party of Justice and Development, or PJD.

BASSIMA EL HAQQAWI, Islamic Justice and Development Party (through translator): Now, we are in a new era. It is the people who have the power now. The king recognized the people’s will and got engaged in the democratic process by accepting the results and naming the head of the Islamic Party as the prime minister of the government.

RAY SUAREZ: The PJD has never been a part of a Moroccan government. It won a quarter of the November vote, enough to claim victory over dozens of other parties campaigning. The PJD is an Islamist party that ran on improving the economy and fighting corruption.

BASSIMA EL HAQQAWI (through translator): We have an Islamic background, but we are not a religious party. We are a party like the others. We are just a political party with a special position.

MAN (through translator): The Islamic Peace and Justice Development Party, despite its Islamic background, will not close bars and so on. Moroccans are free. There are non-bearded men who go to the mosque for the prayers. There are girls who don’t wear head scarves. The new party will not impose hijab or cause oppression to people or accuse them of heresy. They will serve its country and Moroccans.

RAY SUAREZ: The king remains popular with Moroccans, but economic growth has been slow and uneven. And that’s where it gets interesting. How much change is it realistic to expect? How much power does the king really intend to surrender?

MOHAMED DARIF, political scientist (through translator): The question remains, after the Arab spring, can we deviate from an executive monarchy to a parliamentary one? I think it’s a big adventure.

RAY SUAREZ: Mohamed Darif is a political scientist in Casablanca. He says the king hasn’t surrendered much so far.

MOHAMED DARIF: The king still has all the power in Morocco. The new constitution grants him security, military and even executive powers. What we have done is create a government council, which is presided over by the king, so all the decisions taken by the government are first approved by the king.

AHMED BENCHEMSI, journalist: The king of Morocco is not a symbol. He’s the only player in town.

RAY SUAREZ: Over the last decade, journalist and publisher Ahmed Benchemsi had his magazine seized, was dragged into court and thrown in jail by the government. He now teaches at Stanford University, and isn’t buying the Moroccan spring.

AHMED BENCHEMSI: If you dig a little bit, if you go beyond the veneer, it’s not democratic at all. It just strengthens the absolute autocratic power. The thing with smokescreens is that they can last forever. And they — by nature, they just disappear whenever the wind of protests starts blowing again.

RAY SUAREZ: Zineb Belmkaddem is one of the leaders of the Feb. 20 movement, Morocco’s grassroots answer to the democratic agitation across the Arab world.

We spoke near the parliament, where horse-trading is under way to form a new cabinet. She’s skeptical about a real democratic transition, when the man in the driver’s seat is a king who can decide to stop the process whenever he wants.

ZINEB BELMKADDEM, activist: This is the Arab spring. People have overthrown regimes. Isn’t it time for Morocco to finally make that democratic transition? We are no longer going to wait. This is it. This is the opportunity. If we let this pass, it’s over, again, for a long time.

RAY SUAREZ: So, really, if a half-a-year, another year-and-a-half passes and there isn’t real change, you feel like the moment has been lost altogether?

ZINEB BELMKADDEM: I think that if we don’t start to build, it might take a long time, but we have to stay determined for that change. It might take even two, three, five years in Morocco to see things happening. But I believe, if we don’t hold onto this moment, that, yes, if we give up, this is it. It’s going to be gone for a long time.

RAY SUAREZ: America’s top diplomat in Rabat tempers expectations.

SAMUEL L. KAPLAN: I cannot conceive of a time when, in this country, his majesty will give up power and only become a ceremonial leader. But, definitely, a sharing of power is possible.

And I have heard a term used here in Morocco that I’ve never heard used anywhere else, and that is that this country is headed towards a democratic monarchy, which means, as I understand it, a monarchy where the king has real power, will continue to have that, but in terms of human rights and democratic attributes, the country is moving on the democratic compass in the right direction.

RAY SUAREZ: But is that tempo of change quick-enough paced for an average Moroccan, or has it been timed as part of an international political dance?

Skeptics say the king and his supporters only want to show the world the minimum change necessary to get credit for doing the right thing and keep dissent down internally.

AHMED BENCHEMSI: The king still appoints civil servants and cabinet members at will, regardless of any electoral outcomes. He alone decides huge spending budgets, regardless of whatever the government says or think. He appoints security officials. He does everything. I mean, he’s the undisputed and true leader in Morocco. And this is regardless of any kind of vote or democratic practice.

RAY SUAREZ: Moroccans struggling to earn a living, get their kids educated, improve their own lives, mirror the concerns of the political insiders, a mix of high expectations and hopes tempered by the country’s current reality.

WOMAN (through translator): There are issues that need to be solved concerning the country’s management. Of course we all love our king. We are hopeful that the new government will make real change.

MAN (through translator): We want things to change for the best. We want people to work and develop, and we want politicians to listen to us as we listen to them.

MAN (through translator): There are people who voted for the left wing, others for the right. Despite winning the majority, we need to see the agenda of the Islamic Justice and Development Party. If it is against our wishes, we will all rise again. We now know how to protest. People have learned to say no.

RAY SUAREZ: A reminder to the king and to the new ruling party that people who have had a taste of democracy often want more, not less.