The clear message from the Arab Spring is that the region's leaders must initiate swift and far-reaching reforms or risk being overthrown. So far, though, the only country that seems to be heeding that message with anything close to the level of determination that the situation requires is Morocco.
On Friday evening, King Mohammed VI gave a lengthy speech (full text here) setting out plans for a new constitution. His basic outline was of a modern, European-style monarchy with limited powers, a strengthened, democratically-elected parliament, the institutionalisation of human rights and official recognition of Amazigh (the Berber language) alongside Arabic.
Some key points:
The government will be "accountable only to parliament"
Parliament will "have the final say" in ratifying legislation
The prime minister "will be appointed from the party which wins the general elections"
Parliamentary immunity will be limited "to the expression of opinion only, to the exclusion of ordinary criminal cases" and party-switching by elected MPs (which has been a problem in the past) will be forbidden
These plans are the result of a constitutional commission set up by the king last March and, on paper at least, they contain a lot that is commendable. Often, though, the problem in Arab countries is not so much the letter of the constitution as they way that it is applied. In the case of Morocco, the real question is whether these changes will put an end to the pervasive influence of the palace pulling strings behind the scenes, the monopolistic royal business interests and the cosy political elite who surround the king.
The king will also retain control of the armed forces and security, and as Amir al-Mu'mineen ("Commander of the faithful") he will still be the highest religious authority in Morocco:
"The person of the King shall be inviolable, and ... respect and reverence shall be due to him as King, Commander of the Faithful and Head of State."
That might not be a problem if the king were truly nothing more than a national figurehead, but it will be a problem if he continues to meddle behind the scenes (as seems very likely, even with a new constitution). If he wants to be treated with "reverence", he has to stay out of politics – and in the past he has tried to have it both ways.
In comparison with other Arab countries, Morocco's plans do look like a significant step forward. Had they been announced a year or two ago, before the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, they might even have seemed far-sighted. Today, though, they look more like a defensive reaction to events than a bold initiative and many will be wondering if they go far enough.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 June 2011.