July 1st, 2011
04:39 PM ET

Moroccans vote in watershed referendum

By Senior State Department Producer, Elise Labott

Today Moroccans voted in a referendum on new constitution which King Mohammed VI has promised will if approved usher in an era of greater freedoms.

I just returned from Morocco, where there is some reason to be hopeful that amid the uncertain course of the Arab Spring, there may be some blossoms of progress.

While I was there King Mohammed VI unveiled the new constitution, developed in coordination with a variety of political parties and civil society groups. The new, elected government that would result from this constitution would be accountable to parliament, have an independent judiciary and provide equal rights for women and minorities.

Now some might call that move a model for how to modernize and hold onto power. While Syria's Bashar al-Assad and Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh have responded to calls for regime change with military force, King Mohammed has stayed in place by offering to surrender some of his powers; answering his country's reform mopvement with promises that he will shift from an almost absolute to a constitutional monarchy. He has certainly gone further than King Abdullah of Jordan in offering political reform.

The king has fashioned himself a reformer and modern monarch since taking office in 1999, promoting women's rights, easing up on human rights abuses and even investigating abuses during the reign of his father, King Hassan.

But genuine reform has been slow. The country is rife with corruption, there are still political prisoners and freedom of the press does not include criticism of the monarchy.

Inspired by their brothers and sisters in Egypt and Tunisia, young activists organized on Facebook to give the monarchy the push it needed to speed the pace of reform. Tens of thousands Moroccans with the Feb. 20 movement, named after the first big day of protests, have taken to the streets. They are happy for the king to reign, but not to rule. They want a system like Britain or Sweden, where the monarchy plays an important symbolic role, but does not meddle in the affairs of state. These hopeful young Moroccans want jobs and an end to corruption its members say stems from a network of royal cronies.

In March the King answered their calls in a speech promising substantial reform, which resulted in the constitution being put to a vote. Feb 20's answer to the King: cosmetic touches won't cut it.

Indeed King Mohammed retains key powers. He remains the head of the military and Morocco's highest religious authority. He also presides over various committees and councils which suggest that he will still play a large role in ruling the country.

Most of Morocco's political parties say this is okay – for now. It's important, many politicians told me, for Morocco to remain stable as it moves on a more democratic path. Many believe that the new constitution is a good first step and, while not perfect, supporting its passage will give the king the confidence to continue with greater reforms.

And a large number of Moroccans believe the challenge for Morocco is not how good or bad the constitution is, but rather now it is implemented. It will fall upon Moroccans to consolidate these new responsibilities and deliver on the demands for change.

The stakes could not be higher if they fail. A moderate Islamic country, Morocco has had its fair share of terrorist attacks, most recently a bomb at a Marrakech café which killed 17 at the hands of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. While mainstream Islamic parties like the Justice and Development party hope to move the country toward a Turkish model, which marries Islam and democracy, the country's banned Justice and Charity Islamist movement favor a more extremist brand of Islam and are moving into poor Moroccan neighborhoods to spread their vision.

With an intense campaign for the referendum's passage by the government, political parties and on radio and television, almost to the exclusion of room for serious debate about its merits, it is a near forgone conclusion it will be adopted. Whether the new constitution can satisfy the demands of the people and at the same time maintain the popularity of the king is an open question. If not, February 20 says it's ready. Its mantra is "Mamfankich." Translation: "We will never give up."

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