|Morocco's "Arab Spring" protesters said they are undeterred despite a recent landslide victory for King Mohammed VI in a referendum on constitutional changes they say do nothing to ease his autocratic grip on power [Reuters]
Thousands took to the streets of Rabat, Morocco's capital, on Sunday to protest King Muhammed VI's new constitution, in the February 20th movement's first show of strength since Friday's vote.
The referendum is being cast as an overwhelming victory for the new constitution, in a vote where 98 per cent came out in favour of the reforms, with a 73 per cent turnout amongst registered voters. Yet, this only counts turnout amongst Morocco's 13 million registered voters in a country where 20 million are eligible to vote.
The February 20th movement, a pro-reform group, had called for a boycott of the vote, denouncing the new constitution as a superficial gesture that would leave the king's power intact and stave off real change.
"The numbers the government is using have nothing to do with reality," insisted Amal Albaghdadi, a Rabat native and organiser with the February 20th movement. "I have come out to say enough with poverty, discrimination, and lack of freedoms. We want real democracy."
"We were never allowed to express our concerns about the constitution," said protester Lekbari Mohammed, Rabat native. "These are false results because we never had the chance to speak."
The demonstration filled Rabat's central Muhammed V Avenue as protesters chanted "freedom" while clapping in rhythm. The tenor was energetic, with demonstrators at many points shaking their fists in the air, waving their hands, and jumping up and down. Many carried images of Kamel Ammari, 30-year-old protester from Safi, who died last month after being beaten by police. Black February 20th movement flags could be seen interspersed throughout the crowd.
"I am here because I do not like the constitution," Lekbari Mohammed said. The king still has all the power in his hands. There is no real separation of power."
Others were protesting about the widespread lack of jobs in the country.
"People don't have money and can't get jobs, even when they have an education," said Sukena, another Rabat native participating in the protest. "And when we come out to protest, police are violent against us."
When the protesters reached the parliament buildings, they were met by about 100 royalists, who hoisted Moroccan flags and burned a February 20th movement flag. At one point, protesters formed a human chain in what appeared to be an effort to protect the royalists and prevent scuffles. The protest was eventually blocked by lines of riot police, preventing the demonstration from progressing to the Parliament buildings.
"I am here to say yes to the constitution," said Amin Awashi, Rabat native, who was participating in the royalist rally. "I do not like everything in the constitution, but I believe that we need to stand by our king, because without our king, we are lost. Moroccans cannot live without the king." Thousands of protesters also marched in Casablanca to denounce the new constitution.
One man rule
King Muhammad VI, who has ruled Morocco since 1999, has sat at the helm of the country's political, religious, and security institutions, with the power to dissolve parliament and enact emergency powers. He has sought to cultivate an image of himself as a reformer, in contrast to his father, who was known for his dismal human rights record, including torturing and imprisoning dissenters.
Yet, critics charge that King Muhammad VI has done little to meaningfully give up power and is also guilty of human rights offenses. In the wake of the May 2003 suicide bombings in Casablanca, King Muhammad VI came under heavy criticism for detaining and torturing suspected Islamist militants and throwing hundreds in jail after rushing them through unfair trials. Journalist Rashid Nini, editor of a leading newspaper, Al Massaa, was recently given a year-long prison sentence for publishing articles criticising government corruption and security policy, raising a public outcry.
Under the new constitution, the king remains in charge of religious, security, and judiciary institutions in Morocco. He retains the right to appoint the prime minister but now must chose from whatever political party wins the popular vote. The prime minister will also have a greater role in appointing cabinet members.
The changes also stipulate that the king can no longer singlehandedly dissolve parliament but must deliberate with the prime minister and constitutional court. Yet, given that the king will appoint the prime minister and half of the constitutional court, this will do little to curb his actual powers to dissolve parliament.
The constitution also establishes Amazigh, the language of Morocco's Berber majority, who say they have been oppressed, as an official national language.
The constitutional changes were aimed at appeasing the February 20th protest movement that has gripped this country since February of this year, in conjunction with the so-called Arab Spring protests across the Middle East and North Africa. The February 20th movement is a diverse, youth-led coalition, with participants across various sectors of society, from trade unions to Berber rights to human rights groups. The protesters, coordinated largely through online media, call for pro-democracy reforms, as well as changes in economic policies to eradicate poverty and create jobs. Protests continue weekly, with over 60,000 protesters rallying on June 5th throughout the country to protest police violence after the fatal police beating of Kamel Ammari.
In the weeks leading up to the referendum, dissenting voices were largely absent from public discourse about the new constitution, as a one-sided endorsement was reiterated on television and in newspapers throughout the country. The country's opposition parties also rallied behind the new constitution, urging their constituents to vote yes. Pro-constitution concerts and rallies took place in towns and cities throughout Morocco.
In several incidents, pro-king ralliers wearing matching "yes to the constitution" shirts attacked February 20th movement protesters, sometimes with the aid of police. Protesters insist that royalists were payed by the government to come out and suppress the February 20th movement protests.
In Rabat, the night before the vote, a mob of thousands of royalists attacked a February 20th movement protest, leading to several injuries. Police allowed the royalists to surround the crowd, shutting down lanes of traffic to make way for buses and trucks bearing flag-waving royalists. "The police let them come up close and provoke us," said one protester, referring to the royalists.
The vote on the constitution has been trumpeted as an overwhelming victory for the new constitution and has garnered praise from the US and European governments, with Hillary Clinton praising the constitution as "a step toward the fulfillment of the aspirations and rights of all Moroccans." The United States is a key ally of King Muhammed the VI and a major provider of arms to the Moroccan government.
Yet, protesters insist that they are nowhere near the finish line. "The movement of February 20th demands real democracy, education, and dignity," said Amal Albaghdadi. "And we will continue, each day. We will not stop. We will be more and more and more."