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Morocco, Prospects for Genuine Reform?

Washington / Morocco Board News--   MoroccoBoard TV Has recently covered a major conference on Morocco in Washington that was organized by The Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). The MBTV coverage followed up with interviews with conference participants...

“Beyond Morocco’s Elections: Prospects for Genuine Reform?” examined the Moroccan political scene surrounding Morocco’s November 25 legislative elections. The panel included Anouar Boukhars, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies at McDaniel College, Marina Ottoway, Senior Associate at the Middle East Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Ahmed Benchemsi of Stanford University’s Program on Arab

Reform and Democracy. Charles Dunne, Director for Middle East and North Africa Programs at Freedom House, moderated the discussion.

Dunne offered introductory remarks in which he noted that although Morocco does not receive ample attention, it is an important “test case.” Morocco can demonstrate whether “any authoritarian government can respond effectively to the upheavals of the Arab Spring through a process of managed, top-down change.” Dunne added that the monarchy faces many challenges, including continuing protests from the February 20 movement among others, as well as the persistence of the economic problems that sparked the unrest. He also mentioned that many Moroccans are wary of sweeping change, and are “cautious” about “embracing it.” Lastly, Dunne stated that the fate of Morocco’s internal stability holds implications for the region and the U.S.

Boukhars analyzed the challenges facing political parties, arguing that voter confidence in existing political parties to effectively utilize the “greater mobility” allowed by Morocco’s new constitution is scarce. “Pluralities are still skeptical,” he said, and enthusiasm is lacking among the populace. Boukhars also mentioned several possible outcomes of Morocco’s parliamentary elections, asserting that concern that the PJD will win a vast majority is “overblown.” One reason the PJD will not fare as well as some analysts predict, he said, is that the Islamist vote is divided. Furthermore, “districting laws disadvantage Islamists.” If the PJD were to win, it would likely experience great difficulty in forming a coalition to govern, effectively lending credence to the claims that voting will fail to change the political landscape in Morocco. Boukhars added that given the new constitutional reforms, political parties have an “unprecedented opportunity” to push for democratic reform. He concluded by posing the question of whether Morocco’s political parties would take advantage of this opportunity.

 Then, Ottoway addressed the question of whether top-down reform could work, asserting that “it always depends on the push from the bottom.” “Is there going to be enough push from the society within the political system” to push for change “that would allow the most democratic provisions of the constitution to actually be put into practice,” she said. Ottoway stressed that the constitution is “an extremely ambiguous document at this point,” which “could be
implemented in an array of different fashions.” The constitution, she added, does not clearly provide for a constitutional monarchy; rather, it allows to king to govern. Ottoway noted that Moroccan political parties have not been utilizing the political space allowed by the new constitution. She stated that regardless of the election results, the parties will not put much pressure against the monarchy.

Ottoway then discussed the February 20 movement, noting that it is a loose group without a clear leadership hierarchy: “It’s almost too democratic for its own good in the sense that it really doesn’t have a strong leadership structure,” which makes it “very difficult to have a coherent direction.” She stated that the leftist parties in Morocco are “leftovers” from the past, “more of a marginal factor.” The Justice and Charity party, while more likely to be a significant force, is not likely to participate in the elections.

Benchemsi disagreed with Boukhars’ argument that the upcoming elections would reveal whether or not parties could effectively utilize their newfound mobility. Benchemsi asserted that these elections are “not that important,” as “the main factor in Morocco is the balance of strength between the monarchy and all other forces.” He also stated that the king’s introduction of constitutional reforms was a “skillful play” intended to crush momentum on the street rather than a genuine promise of change. Benchemsi added that the official statistic of 98.5% of voters in favor of July’s constitutional referendum revealed egregious fraud. He called the new constitution “perverse,” and enumerated the ways in which a “smokescreen” created the illusion of change while protecting the king’s hegemony.

During the question and answer session, Boukhars stated that among the trends indicating positive change in Morocco is that youth within political parties are beginning to challenge political veterans in their organizations. An attendee asked whether continuing economic woes would “be a push for another major uprising.” Benchamsi affirmed the power of economic problems to fuel unrest, adding that the “regional spirit of the Arab spring” could be reinvigorated in Bashar al-Assad were to fall.

Ottoway said that “Morocco is ahead of any other monarchy” in the region in terms of responding to calls for reform. “This is the one Arab monarchy that has at least taken small steps,” she added. An attendee inquired about Moroccans who oppose the constitution as well as the monarchy. Benchemsi and Ottoway agreed that those who “want the fall of the Monarchy in Morocco,” also known as republicans, are “marginal.” source
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