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Is Morocco Poised to Become a Democracy At Last?

In the months since King Mohammed VI's speech on March 9, Moroccans have debated what constitutional changes might be coming to their countyr. On Friday June 17, we got our answer—a modern, constitutional monarchy in the mold of Western Europe.

The king proposed a new constitution, to be voted on in July, that puts the principle of popular sovereignty at its center. 

If approved by the Moroccan people, the new prime minister will be the head of government, not the king, and will enjoy broader powers than those of the French prime minister and about the same as those of the head of the Spanish government.

The parliament, elected by universal suffrage, will choose its prime minister from the party that won the most votes, just as in Europe. The prime minister will appoint all cabinet ministers, the heads of government institutions and even the governors. The Government Council, roughly equivalent to the British House of Commons, will make all the decisions, though a few areas require the assent of the Council of Ministers, a kind of Senate elected indirectly. For royal decrees, known as Dahirs Royal, to take effect, they must be approved by a majority of the Council of Ministers. This is a revolution compared to the 1996 constitution.

But democracy is also a set of values. The draft constitution clearly states the commitment to universal values as embodied in international agreements and U.N. conventions. The equality of citizens is clearly protected as are the rights of women. This is a historic choice that removes barriers for legislation in defense of individual freedoms, especially regarding the status of women.

The proposed constitution is revolutionary in other ways. While Morocco will remain an Islamic country where Islam is the state religion, the constitution guarantees every citizen the free exercise of worship. Morocco’s plural identity has finally found expression and the rights of the Jews, the Amazigh, the Africans, the Andalusians are formally recognized. The Amazigh language will become an official language, with an obligation to take the necessary steps for this to happen in schools and government offices. Other moves toward cultural pluralism are also contemplated.

Indeed, Morocco seems poised to become a wholly modern state.

Affirmative action for ethnic minorities, the creation of the Council of Women and Children, the inclusion of the right to education for all, the increased freedom of the press, the creation of a Competition Council to fight corruption in the economic sphere, the obligation of the State to ensure solidarity, and decentralization of government powers each shove Morocco forward toward modernity.

Thus Morocco achieved all of the goals of the protests of the so-called Arab Spring without bloodshed or instability. What sets Morocco apart is the willingness of its far-seeing king, whose legitimacy is not disputed by pro-democracy protestors, to meet his people's legitimate demands for freedom.

Political parties are united in support for the king’s proposed new constitution, except for the radical Islamists of Al Adl Wal Ihsanne and the Maoists of Annahj.

Morocco is fortunate in its history. Its struggle for independence was coupled with demand for the return from exile of its king in the 1953. Morocco became formally independent in 1956. Thus, for more than 50 years, Moroccans have celebrated what they call the “Revolution of the king and the people.” Unlike in other lands, the king can actually be a revolutionary figure.

But, still, the Moroccan example holds lessons for other Arab lands. Rulers can either lead their people to democracy or get shoved aside by reformers. They can either live to be loved by their people or, like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, loathed and exiled.

With any luck, the July referendum on the new constitution will determine more than just the future of Morocco.

Ahmed Charai is Publisher of the Moroccan weekly magazine L’Observateur as well as the French edition of the Foreign Policy magazine. He sits on the board of trustees of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.

Ahmed Charai is publisher of the weekly Moroccan newspaper L'Observateur as well as the French edition of Foreign Policy magazine. An expert on Morocco and North Africa, he sits on the board of Trustees of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and on the board of directors of Search for Common Ground in Washington. He is a member of The National Interest's advisory council.