This last week alone, 10,000 people lost their lives in Japan, thousands of Libyans were still paying for Kaddafi’s dementia, and Egypt was still struggling to emerge from the Mubarak era. Considering the scale of these events, the violent crackdown of a few hundred protesters in Casablanca ahead of the scheduled nationwide protests on March 20th, was a non-event internationally.
Moroccans took to the streets last February to ask for constitutional reforms that guarantee a democratic separation of power under a parliamentary monarchy (where the king rules but doesn’t govern). As a response to these demands, King Mohamed VI nominated a group of jurists to undertake the first constitutional revision, since his crowning in 1999. The revision at stake would tackle a few reforms, such as: an elected prime minister with larger prerogatives, autonomy for 12 Moroccan regions, and stronger personal freedoms.
Internationally, the King’s move to reform the constitution was a diplomatic success. At least it was immediately hailed by the US State Department and members of the US Senate, such as John McCain, who praised the Moroccan King’s reformist approach.
However, domestically, the reactions were mitigated. On the one hand, the King’s constitutional speech on March 9th worked as an effective short term tactic to reclaim the majority of Moroccans, who belong to the center of the political spectrum. Indeed, issues like access to a decent education, jobs, freedoms and equality are legitimate concerns shared by all Moroccans. Thus, prior to the King’s speech, many Moroccans, even the most royalists, became increasingly sympathetic to the demands of the change movement.
On the other hand, the king’s proposed map for change, although praised by the movement for change as a step in the right direction, fell short of dissipating skepticism. For instance, many in Morocco are strongly disappointed that the commitment to a new democratic era was not immediately matched with a forceful call to release all prisoners of opinion, an official condemnation of corruption, and an assertion of the freedom of the press.
Unfortunately, this skepticism was further entrenched when the small protests that broke out on March 8th in Casablanca were systematically met by police brutality. Tens of protesters were detained and others were hospitalized, some with serious injuries.
More than promises of reform, the use of force versus police restraint during protests emerges as a major indicator used by Moroccans to measure fake versus credible change in Morocco. In addition to the few pockets of protests taking place on a daily basis, the upcoming nationwide protests scheduled for March 20 will provide another opportunity to test the government’s commitment to change.
With the catastrophic events in Japan, and the disaster in Libya, the Moroccan government might feel that it is in a strong bargaining position. They might interpret the US’s praise for Morocco, and our (US) lack of support to Bahrain and Libya, as a carte blanche to carry on business as usual. They may hope that the current protests are nothing more than a passing trend that will eventually weaken and soon evaporate.
Or, the Moroccan authorities may choose to listen to what the regional wind of change has to say. They can decide to make a few simple but critical political gestures such as: ending the use of force against peaceful demonstrators, and releasing all prisoners of opinion. This approach will prove the most reliable, powerful, and constructive way to negotiate and bring tangible, inclusive and sustainable change to Morocco.
In Morocco, the situation is getting tenser by the day, but King Mohamed VI still has a great opportunity to show that he is indeed listening.