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Can fresh Morocco protests build momentum for reform?

Morocco’s pro-democracy activists launched fresh protests Sunday, despite King Mohammed VI’s Friday speech announcing a draft constitution that would limit the powers of his country’s centuries-old monarchy.
“We are sticking to our demands,” say

Morocco’s pro-democracy activists launched fresh protests Sunday, despite King Mohammed VI’s Friday speech announcing a draft constitution that would limit the powers of his country’s centuries-old monarchy.

“We are sticking to our demands,” says Elabadila Maaelaynine, who joined thousands of other protesters in Casablanca to reject the king’s proposals, which they say don’t go nearly far enough.

Rival protesters supporting the king – some genuine, others reportedly pushed by local authorities to speak in his favor – also took to the streets, and the pro-democracy demonstrators had to change their location after they were “attacked” with bottles and sticks by pro-king demonstrators, says Mr. Maaelaynine.

Despite a groundswell of support for democratic reform, however, many Moroccans are satisfied at the pace of change in the kingdom and want to avoid the type of tumultuous “Arab Spring” revolutions they’ve seen in fellow North African countries, such as Tunisia and Egypt.

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“Imagine if the king suddenly says that he is going away … there will be chaos,” says Mohammed Montasir, a journalist in the northern city of Fes, adding that Moroccans are not seeking a revolution but a “movement against privileges” of the ruling elite.

How much reform is enough?

For four months now, activists have campaigned for the king to transfer powers to elected representatives and reign only as a symbolic head.

In Friday’s speech, he announced the constitutional reforms he had promised in March after the first bout of protests.

The most significant proposed change is the boost in the executive powers of the prime minister and the parliament. For instance, the prime minister would appoint and remove ministers as well as dissolve the lower house of parliament in consultation with the king.

The king, however, is not divorced from executive power. The king would choose the prime minister from the party that wins the elections and he could also dissolve the parliament in consultations with the prime minister and members of the new constitutional court, half of whom he would appoint.

The continued presence of the king in the executive branch ignores the key protester demand of separation of powers. He also remains the military and religious head of the country.

While the king is offering a constitutional monarchy, the demand is for a parliamentary monarchy like the United Kingdom. For the activists, the king’s reforms are piecemeal and if they compromise now then the momentum they have generated for comprehensive change will be lost.

They also suspect that the king is trying to rush a referendum on proposed reforms – he set the vote for July 1 – before mass resistance can be mobilized.

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The activists push back
The pro-democracy movement – called February 20 (after the first day of widespread protests in Morocco) – is made up of the web-savvy youth, left-leaning parties, and Islamists.

Peaceful rallies have attracted tens of thousands of people. A few of these demonstrations have been violently dispersed by government forces but not as brutally as protests in much of the Arab world.

Athman Hajhamou and Maniar Othmane are engineering students and activists in Fes. They argue that those who support the king do so because they’ve never known any other alternative. The current dynasty has ruled for more than 350 years.

Unlike his father, the 47-year-old king remains popular for improving women’s rights and ordering a probe into tortures committed by the state during his father’s reign. More recently, Morocco has been accused of torturing Islamist figures suspected of terrorism after suicide bomb attacks killed 45 people in Casablanca on one day in 2003.

“You elect your leaders, you support them, and you can reject them,” says Mr. Othmane. “You don’t have to love your ruler; you love your country.”

Will the movement lose steam?
Some observers predict that the movement will lose steam. Unlike the regimes of other Arab countries, the monarchy in Morocco has a certain legitimacy that can’t be dismissed, analysts say.

“The February 20 movement is finished now, because the king has answered the people’s movement,” says Jawad Kerdoudi, head of the Moroccan Institute of International Relations, speaking by phone from Casablanca.

February 20 has more than 60,000 followers on Facebook and they are calling on people to study the draft of the constitution, but 44 percent of Moroccans are illiterate. Activists are concerned they may be “duped” by the king’s speech.

“Change depends on the strength of the movement,” says Athman, “its ability to mobilize, to protest on the streets, to keeps its peaceful nature, and for democratic forces to remain united.”