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Middle East

Moroccan king's reform pledge sparks hope of political change

Following street rallies in Morocco last month, King Mohammed VI has announced major changes to the country's constitution aimed at improving democracy. It’s been welcomed by activists and politicians alike.

Protesters march during a protest in Rabat, Morocco

Change is what Moroccans are getting, it seems

Moroccans were in for a big surprise on Wednesday night as regular television broadcasts were interrupted for a rare speech by King Mohammed VI. Dressed in a dark suit and looking somber, the king did something unheard of in this region - he promised "comprehensive constitutional reform."

"It's an important milestone on our path to democracy. We are following this path resolutely with comprehensive political, economic and social reforms," the king said in his televised speech.

"The institutions concerned with good governance, human rights and protection of liberties" would be enshrined in the constitution, he said.

Morocco's King Mohammed VI

King Mohammed VI's speech has caused a stir

It was King Mohammed's first speech since thousands of people rallied in several cities last month in the wake of similar demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt. Protesters had called for constitution reform and an independent judiciary.

Morocco is officially a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. But the constitution empowers the king to dissolve the legislature, impose a state of emergency and have a key say in government appointments, including the prime minister.

'A bombshell'

But the king, who has refused to give up power, said in Wednesday's speech that he was appointing a committee to draw up proposals for reform. The Moroccan people, he said, would then vote on it in a referendum. The king also promised that the reform would include plans for an independent judiciary, a stronger role for parliament and political parties and a regionalization program to devolve more powers to local officials.

The speech has stunned pro-democracy activists in the country, many of whom have for years strongly criticized the monarchy.

"That was the first real speech by the king as statesman, as a real reformer. Politically, it was a bombshell," Zineb El Rhazoui, a political activist said. "The king addressed all the critical demands of young Moroccans. It's a victory for everyone who bravely came out on the streets to fight for their rights."

The king's speech has resonated positively across the country's political spectrum.

Protesters in Marrakech

Discontent with the king exploded on the streets of Morocco last month

"With this speech Morocco has managed to pass with success the crisis that could have erupted from revolts in the Middle East," Lahcen Daodi, a prominent deputy from the main opposition Justice and Development Party was quoted as saying by news agency Reuters.

Hope of real change

But some point out that, given the unrest sweeping across the Arab world, King Mohammed VI either had to act quickly or risk facing a real challenge to his power.

"The king didn't have a choice. He simply had to react to these demands. The regime was under pressure," Zineb El Rhazoui said. "If King Mohammed VI really is honest about what he said, if he personally sees to it that the reforms are implemented, then I perceive it as a sign of his political wisdom," the activist said. "It was high time he showed us that he's taking our problems seriously."

But the king's speech is unlikely to spell the end of the youth-led movement for change. Like many young Moroccans, Zineb El Rhazoui intends to continue participating in street protests. Many young activists have been using social networking websites to call for renewed rallies on March 20.

King Mohammed VI has vowed to fight poverty and high unemployment - key reasons fueling the protests in the North African country. It now remains to be seen whether Morocco will move toward a constitutional monarchy as in Britain and Spain.

Some say the speech signals the king's willingness to go down that road. Abdelhamid Amin of the Moroccan human rights group AMDH says, above all, the address has strengthened the king's own position in a new Morocco.

"It could be that the powerful in this country are actually proving to have an historic intelligence. You seldom see that but it's possible," Amin said. He added that he hoped the speech had sown the seeds of real change in Morocco.

Author: Alexander Goebel (sp)
Editor: Rob Mudge

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