Morocco: King Mohammed VI’s Quest For A Quiet Revolution

The democratic movement in Morocco has yet to target the monarchy, which still has wide popular support. But if reform doesn’t come quickly, the King risks the same fate as other leaders in the region.

Protester in Rabat, Morocco
Protester in Rabat, Morocco
Thierry Oberlé

MARRAKECH – The conference rooms of small political parties and human rights associations are buzzing with constant meetings. Supporters of the "Moroccan spring," inspired by the removal from power of the longstanding presidents of Tunisia and Egypt, are always preparing for the next street demonstration.

The youth-led February 20 Movement, angry about special privileges and corruption alleged within the entourage of King Mohammed VI, is calling for radical changes, including the ouster of some members of the King's inner circle and defense of the freedom of expression. Some are even asking for a debate on Article 19 of the Constitution, the section that declares the king to be Amir al-Mouminine, or the Sacred Commander of the Faithful.

At times, the movement can attract tens of thousands of people throughout the country. The most recent march Sunday also took aim at those responsible for the café bombing in Marrakech last month that killed 17. Police say the three people arrested have ties to Al Qaeda.

The February 20 Movement is an eclectic mix of people fed up with traditional political parties, Facebook aficionados who want to break down taboos on sex or religion, old-school leftists and supporters of Sheik Yassin, the old leader of an Islamist sect. This is what Moroccans sometimes call the "Danone generation," from the popular yogurt brand that symbolizes the globalization so present on Moroccan tables.

But engaging the regime in a constructive dialogue is not easy. The royal house, which controls most of the real power in the country, does not seem ready for any kind of heavy-handed repression. Demonstrations are authorized and police violence is quite rare.

King Mohammed VI has even tried to portray himself as the maker of a quiet revolution. As proof of his interest to the people's demands, he has announced a number of institutional changes that could pave the way for a parliamentary monarchy. He has also promised to reform the justice system and step up efforts against corruption.

"The speech he gave on March 9 clearly shows that the king is not a rais," says Mohammed Nabil Benabdallah, leader of the Party of Progress and Socialism (PPS), currently a member of the Moroccan government. "The blood of democracy runs through his veins, and it is not his nature to resort to violence."

Benabdallah says that a part of Mohammed wants "to preserve the monarchy's grandeur, and another part understands that that can only be achieved by opening it up." He adds that: "The people in the streets are not challenging the values of the monarchy. None of the demonstrators is calling for Mohammed VI to go, and there are no slogans against his family."

Both at home and abroad, Mohammed VI has been praised for his apparent desire for change. Conservatives worried about their future quietly complain that the King's measures go too far, while reformers say they are not bold enough. "This speech would have had a much wider impact if it had come at the beginning of his reign, but now it only looks like a tactical move," says a source close to Moulay Hicham, the King's cousin, who is currently living abroad.

"May 68, Moroccan style"

The young people, meanwhile, are keeping up their pressure. The February 20 Movement is skeptical about the panel established to propose changes to the constitution, and refuses to take part in any of their meetings. "Young people are jealous of their independence. They do not trust anyone. We were promised a lot of changes but none of them materialized, or they were changes for the worse," says Imam, 31, a French teacher in a Marrakech private school.

But some of the youths have agree to talk to members of the older generation. "It has allowed us to make an assessment of this movement," says Omar Azziman, member of the committee for constitutional reform and former ambassador of Morocco in Madrid.

"Young protestors have plainly identified a need for change," Mr. Azziman says. "They have created a shock wave that has finally awoken political players and unions from their slumber. And their demands are reasonable ones: they are right to complain about corruption, bad governance and wasteful public spending...But we should not think of the new constitution as a magic wand that could solve all the country's problems."

A proposal for change is due from Omar Azziman and his colleagues in June, in time for a referendum expected to take place at some point between July and September. Legislative elections should follow too. "We are now living a May ‘68 period, Morocco style," says Mohammed Nabil Benabdallah, the general secretary of the PPS. "The country's young people are behaving as if nothing existed before them. It is true, though, that murky politics have brought us to the point where no one listens to us any more. We have to face up to this fact."

Read the original article in French.

Photo - LeJul

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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