By HASSAN ALAOUI
The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 6:18 PM
RABAT, Morocco -- King Mohammed VI said Wednesday that Morocco will revise its constitution for the first time in 15 years, aiming to strengthen democracy in the face of a push across the Arab world.
In a rare TV and radio speech to the nation, the popular monarch said a new commission would suggest constitutional revisions to him by June, and the overall project would be put to Moroccan voters in a referendum.
"By launching today the work of constitutional reform, we embark on a major phase in the process of consolidation of our model of democracy and development," said the king, wearing glasses, a sober black tie and a dark suit. He was flanked by his brother, Prince Moulay Rachid, and his 7-year-old son, Crown Prince Moulay Hassan.
Some Moroccans poured into the streets of Rabat, the capital, to celebrate after the speech, blaring car horns and waving the North African country's single-star flag.
But the overall reaction to the country's first constitutional revision since 1996, and the first since Mohammed VI took the throne following his father's death in 1999, wasn't immediately clear. The speech, which was only announced hours earlier, came as many people in the football-crazy country tuned in to watch the latest European Champions League contests.
A major question was whether the constitutional changes on tap will involve the highly contested Article 19, which largely underpins the near-absolute power that the king has in Morocco. It enshrines the monarch as "the defender of the faith" - Islam - and "guarantor of the perpetuation and the continuity of the state," as well as respect for the constitution.
Many labor unions, political parties and human rights groups have clamored for changes to the constitution for years, and Article 19 has been one of their main targets.
Still, the breadth of the king's address suggested a major reworking is in the offing.
The wide-ranging efforts aim in part to devolve greater power to Morocco's regions, improve the independence of courts, and ensure that the prime minister is selected by the majority party in parliament, he said.
The king said women's rights and political participation - already a mainstay of his previous reforms - would be strengthened, such as ensuring through law that men and women have equal access to elective positions.
The plan would aim to broaden individual freedoms, solidify the rule of law and strengthen human rights. The king also said he was committed to a "strong push" to revive the country's reform ambitions.
Morocco has so far avoided the persistent unrest that brought down regimes in fellow north African countries Tunisia and Egypt. Five people, however, died in violence linked to protests across the country on Feb. 20.
The main target of those protests was parliament, where many Moroccans fear their voices aren't heard. Few Moroccans question the monarchy, which has existed for centuries - and Mohammed enjoys broad admiration and respect.
The king did not make any direct reference to the upheaval that has swept across North Africa and elsewhere.
An ally of both Europe and the United States, Mohammed VI is widely seen as a reformer compared to his iron-fisted father Hassan II - though human rights in the country have faced criticism.
Last October, Human Rights Watch reported that suspects detained under Morocco's counterterrorism laws are routinely subjected to human rights violations. The government denied those allegations.
Jalil Bounhar in Casablanca, Morocco, and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.