CASABLANCA, Morocco — Men, women and even young children held Moroccan flags, pictures of King Mohammed VI and wore T-shirts printed “Yes” as they marched in the streets of several Moroccan cities on Sunday to show their support for the new constitution proposed by the king.
Others, however, were angered by the marches. Morocco's pro-democracy protesters denounced the "Yes" demonstrations as government manipulations designed to sway voters ahead of the national referendum on the constitution on July 1.
“How dare you manipulate children,” yelled a man in the central city of Kenitra. “It’s ridiculous to have these children standing here — are they even allowed to vote?”
The upcoming national referendum on the king's proposed constitution has sparked heated debate. Some are in favor of his reforms while others say the changes do not go far enough.
The Arab Spring reached Morocco in February with demonstrations calling for more democracy and a reduction in the king’s power. Although the protests did not reach the scale of the popular revolts that toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, the demonstrations did convince the Moroccan monarch to promise in March to introduce more civil liberties. He appointed a commission to draft a new constitution, which he introduced in a televised speech on June 17.
The new constitution will “make Morocco a state that will distinguish itself by its democratic course,” said the king.
According to the draft, the king must pick a prime minister from the party that wins national elections and who will become head of the government. The king will maintain the power to overrule or dissolve parliament, which is elected, but his status will change from "sacred," which has been the grounds of several lawsuits against journalists critical of the king, to "inviolable."
The draft constitution also introduces more personal freedoms and gender equality.
“I shall vote yes,” said the 47-year-old king referring to the referendum as he ended his address, and giving Moroccans two weeks to decide their position.
Thousands of pro-democracy protesters have marched since then to reject the king's proposed constitution. The Feb. 20 youth movement, which has led the protests in Morocco, says they won’t participate in the referendum. They have been joined by the Unified Socialist Party, the banned but tolerated Islamist Justice and Charity party and a few other organizations, all calling for a boycott of the referendum they consider “undemocratic.”
"This constitution is neither democratic nor coming from the people," said Omar Radi, 25, a member of the Feb. 20 movement. "We reject the king's speech as it doesn't guarantee us any substantial changes."
But even before the king's speech had ended, people were already cheering in the streets. It appears that the positive reaction may have been part of the king's public relations campaign. A video published on the news site Mamfakinch, which means "we will not give up" in Arabic and is affiliated with the Feb. 20 movement, showed a group of people telling police officers during the protest: “We want to go home! Give us the money you promised.” The police officer in the video replied, "Just wait for the royal speech to finish and we will pay you.”
“Propaganda has reached a level where even sports clubs show their support in favor of the "Yes," as if they had any legitimacy to represent their members,” said a young Moroccan blogger who wished to remain anonymous.
The government, meanwhile, says it will allow equal time in the media for each side.
"All those participating in the referendum, including those who are hostile (toward it), will be able to express themselves freely," said Communications Minister Khalid Naciri.
The Islamist Justice and Development Party, the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP), and the conservative Istiqlal party, the country's three biggest political parties, have asked their supporters to vote "Yes" to the proposed changes.
"This constitution is going to bring a lot of positive things to Morocco," Industry Minister Ahmed Reda Chami told AFP.
According to Radi, many pro-democracy protesters were hurt during recent protests by thugs manipulated by those in favor of the proposed constitution.
"Violence targeting the youth of the February 20 movement backed by local authorities is dangerous and is worrying," the Moroccan Human Rights Association (AMDH) wrote in a letter to the Interior Ministry. "Authorities are taking advantage of their socioeconomic hardships to set them up against the young people who demonstrate peacefully."
Journalist Khalid Jamai who writes for Mamfakinch said, "Thanks to this strategy, the central power intends to sub-contract its repression."
The level of propaganda is unnecessary because the outcome is obvious, argues Lise Storme, senior lecturer in Middle East politics at Exeter University in the United Kingdom. “I think this is more of a show for the international community, and then also a sense of unity amongst the politicians who have felt somewhat threatened.”
“The proposed constitution is a step in the right direction as more powers are being devolved to the prime minister, but I do not think it goes far enough,” said Storm. “The king sets the agenda, the politicians simply execute his demands.”
Regardless of the controversy around the draft constitution, some simply say they support it because they believe it is a positive step toward more democracy.
“I think the new constitution is better than the old one,” said Leila, 45, from Rabat. “I consider this constitution as transitory, and the advances it makes can have a positive impact in the future.”