Largely spared from the wave of political unrest that swept parts of the rest of the Middle East and North Africa region in 2011, Morocco did see protests by the February 20 Movement, named after the date of its first major demonstration. However, these were small in comparison to those seen in neighbouring countries such as Tunisia and Egypt. The movement demanded changes such as political liberalisation, a constitutional monarchy and increased efforts to tackle high-level corruption. Despite some intermittent outbreaks of rioting in several regions, the February 20 Movement ultimately failed to maintain major momentum beyond its initial protests in the spring of that year.
COMMISSIONING REFORM: Nevertheless, in March 2011 the king announced plans for constitutional reform, which was one of the demands of the protesters. For this purpose, the monarchy appointed a commission, headed by a constitutional scholar, to collect input from political parties and revise the state’s 1996 constitution. The commission published its new version of the document in mid-June, ahead of a referendum held on July 1, 2011. The referendum saw a significant voter turnout of around 74%, and the reforms were approved by 98.5% of votes cast.
The reforms as a whole tended towards limiting the powers of the monarchy and increasing those of parliament and the government, boosting individual rights and decentralising governance. With respect to curtailing the influence of the palace, major steps included reducing the king’s ability to dissolve parliament (though he can still do this under certain circumstances). The new document also removes a description of the king as “sacred”, stating instead that he is owed respect.
Reforms strengthening the government and parliament included a change requiring the prime minister to be a member of the party that won the largest share of the vote in the last elections. This had not always been the case previously, for example Prime Minister Driss Jettou (2002-07) was a technocrat and not a member of any party. The position of prime minister was also elevated to the status of “head of government”, and endowed with expanded powers of appointment.
Under the new constitution, a minority of members of parliament are also able to instigate investigations of officials and to formally censure ministers.
POWER SHARING: Decentralisation is another key element of the changes. Article one of the constitution contains a new clause stating that the “territorial organisation of the kingdom is decentralised, based on an advanced regionalisation”. The revised document contains an expanded section on regional government, calling for, among other things, measures to ensure the participation of citizens in local government. Another key reform was to make Tamazight, an Amazigh language, an official national language alongside Arabic.
Other changes included the addition of environmental issues to the Economic and Social Council and an entirely new section on good governance. This consists of 18 articles addressing issues such as the constitutional formalisation of national organisations such as the National Council for Human Rights and the National Body for Probity and the Fight Against Corruption. The new constitution also creates a Constitutional Court, replacing the former Constitutional Council, to which new laws have to be submitted to determine their compliance with the constitution.
CENTRAL POWER: While the new constitution contained wide-ranging reforms, it did not render the king a British-style figurehead; indeed, the monarch retains significant powers under the new constitution, such as the right to remove ministers (after consultation with the head of government) and to dissolve parliament (after consultation with the president of the Constitutional Court). In the event of a threat to territorial integrity or developments that prevent the normal functioning of constitutional institutions, the monarch can declare a “state of exception” under which he is permitted to take measures to end the threat. The king also presides over the Council of Ministers and the High Security Council (newly created under the new constitution), and anti-monarchical parties remain banned (effectively ruling out the legalisation of prominent Islamist organisation Al Adl Wal Ihsane).
MONARCH: The current king, Mohammed VI (born in 1963), came to power on the death of his father, Hassan II, in 1999. Reform has been part of Mohammed VI’s rule from the start. In the early years he continued a process of political reform and liberalisation begun in the final years of his father’s reign. Initiatives taken included the formation of an Equity and Reconciliation Committee, which examined human rights abuses committed under the “years of lead” under King Hassan II, and the firing of the interior minister, Driss Basri, who was heavily associated with repression. Other major steps included the 2003 reform liberalising the family code, the Moudawana, to strengthen women’s rights. The reforms, and a more relaxed political atmosphere, also saw the rise of a freer and more diverse press.
Critics complain, however, that the process slowed down after several years, or in some respects even reversed; for example, in the past five years, there have been a number of cases of journalists being jailed and publications being hit with severe libel fines.
The 2011 referendum ushered in renewed movement on rights and reforms. Other recent changes include the adoption, in late 2012, of international conventions on the prohibition of torture, discrimination against women, the protection of civil and political rights, and the prohibition of forced disappearances.
PARLIAMENT: The country has a bicameral parliament, consisting of the Chamber of Representatives (lower house), whose 395 members are directly elected for five-year terms, and the Chamber of Counsellors, which has between 90 and 120 members who are indirectly elected – three-fifths by regional councils and the rest by professional associations and trades unions — for six-year terms. In the Chamber of Representatives, 60 seats are reserved for a female-only national list and 30 seats are reserved for men under 40 years old.
POLITICS & ELECTIONS: Moroccan party politics has traditionally been highly fragmented, with no party managing to dominate parliament or even win more than a fairly small share of the vote. Consequently, governments invariably consist of large coalitions.
The most recent general elections were held in November 2011, earlier than originally scheduled, having been brought forward in response to protests and following the constitutional reforms. Official voter turnout was 45%, up from 37% in 2007. The Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (PJD) came in first with 22.78%, well ahead of the second-placed conservative-nationalist party Istiqlal with 11.86%. The result represented something of a shift from the prior fragmentation of the political scene; in the previous election in 2007, no party won more than 11% of the vote.
Following the elections, the PJD formed a coalition government with Istiqlal, the conservative Berber-dominated Popular Movement, and the leftist Party of Progress and Socialism (PPS). PJD’s secretary-general, Abdel-Ilah Benkiran, took the role of head of government. This configuration marks the first time an Islamist-oriented party had served in a governing coalition. Benkiran’s accession also underscored a recent trend — bolstered by the 2011 reforms — in which governments have moved away from largely consisting of technocrats towards administrations with a stronger populist bent. The next general elections are scheduled to take place in 2016.
JUDICIARY: The highest judicial body is the Supreme Court. Members are appointed by the Supreme Council of the Judiciary, which is led by the king and includes the minister of justice and representatives from the Supreme Court, court of appeal and courts of first instance. Created by the 2011 reforms, the Constitutional Court has a remit to examine the compliance of laws with the constitution. The court is made up of 12 members, six of whom are appointed by the king and six by parliament (three each by the lower and upper houses), who serve nine-year terms. Power to select the court’s president resides with the king.
FOREIGN RELATIONS: Morocco is a temporary member of the UN Security Council from January 2012 to January 2014. The country is not a member of the African Union (AU), having withdrawn from its predecessor organisation in 1984 over its recognition of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Government, the Polisario’s self-declared state in Moroccan/Western Sahara. It is also a member of the Arab Maghreb Union, though the bloc’s development has been stalled for years, in large part due to Moroccan-Algerian bilateral tensions.
EU: Morocco has among the most advanced relations with the EU, other than actual candidates for accession (which Morocco is not). In 2006 Morocco became the first non-EU country to sign a comprehensive “open skies” aviation agreement with the EU. An Association Agreement with the EU has been in force since 2000, and in 2008 Morocco became the first southern Mediterranean country to be granted “advanced status” under the European Neighbourhood Policy.
In November 2012, the EU completed a scoping exercise, the goal of which was to determine the suitability of the creation of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area with the kingdom. The review supported the start of negotiations and indicated that Morocco demonstrated the necessary ambition for deeper trade relations. The EU is Morocco’s most important commercial partner, accounting for 53.1% of total external trade in 2010 (59.1% of exports and 50.2% of imports), ahead of the US in second place with 6%.
Of EU members, political and commercial ties are particularly close with former colonial ruler France. The kingdom also has close ties with Spain, though these are complicated by public support in Spain for Western Saharan independence. Relations have tended to be better with Spanish socialist governments than with Popular Party administrations (as is currently the case).
US & THE GULF: The kingdom has long had close ties with the US, having been the first country to recognise America’s independence in 1777, and bolstered by its support for the Western bloc during the Cold War and its cooperation in the so-called war on terror. A free trade agreement between the two has been in place since 2004 and the US declared Morocco a major non-NATO ally the same year. The kingdom also has strong links with Gulf monarchies, which have intermittently provided economic support to Morocco. While these links seem to have weakened slightly under Mohammed VI compared to his father’s reign, in October 2012 the king undertook a royal tour of the Gulf states.
ALGERIA: Relations with neighbouring Algeria remain tetchy. The two nations fought a border war in 1963 and are on opposite sides of the dispute over the Western Sahara; Algeria supports the Polisario, which Morocco claims is an Algerian proxy. Morocco has called for Algeria to take part in negotiations over the territory, but Algeria says it is not a party to the dispute. The border between the two has been closed since 1994; Algeria took the decision to close it after Morocco placed visa restrictions on visiting Algerians in response to a terrorist attack in Marrakech that Morocco claimed was linked to Algerian military intelligence. In recent years the kingdom has called for the border’s reopening, which Algeria has refused. Hopes for an end to the closure rose following the election of the PJD-led government in 2011 and stepped-up contacts between it and the Algerian government, including a visit by the PJD foreign minister, Saad dine El Otmani, to Algiers. So far, however, these talks appear to have no outcome. MOROCCAN/WESTERN SAHARA: Morocco claims sovereignty over the territory to its south known as the Moroccan/Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony. Between the mid-1970s and 1991 it fought a conflict over the region with the Saharan independence movement known as the Polisario Front, which is based in and supported by Algeria. A UN-brokered ceasefire ended the violence and has held since; however, the two sides remain at loggerheads over the territory’s status and peace negotiations have repeatedly failed to resolve the situation. The Moroccan government and the Polisario held a series of UN-brokered informal talks on the dispute in 2007 and 2008. However, in November 2012, after nine rounds of discussions since 2009, the UN special envoy for the issue, Christopher Ross, announced that he was ending the talks and would instead be adopting a tactic of shuttle diplomacy. Since 2007 Morocco has said it intends to give the territory regional autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty, which it argues is a fair compromise. This, however, is insufficient for the Polisario, which continues to insist upon a referendum including an option for independence.
OUTLOOK: As the new government enters the second full year of its term, Morocco’s stable political situation puts it in a stronger position to face the challenges posed by the slowdown in the EU. Although some regional issues persist, it continues to build on its strong international profile. Responding to public opinion, a process of reforms was initiated, with changes passed in July 2011 reducing the powers of the monarchy slightly and increasing those of parliament. One key change related to the prime minister: according to the 2011 reforms, he must be selected from the party that comes first in the latest elections. The head of government appoints a Council of Ministers, in consultation with the monarch.