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King of Morocco unveils constitutional reforms

Moroccan King Mohammed VI announced a series of constitutional reforms in a speech that he said will turn the North African country into a constitutional monarchy, though pro-democracy activists remain sceptical.

Under the new constitution, the king will remain the supreme commander of the army and a new article formalised him as the highest religious authority in the country.

The speech marked the culmination of a three-month review of the constitution at the order of the king after protests calling for reform swept the North African monarchy in February.

Immediately after the speech ended, cars flying Moroccan flags drove through the streets of the capital honking their horns, and young people marched along the wide boulevards banging drums and cheering.

Morocco has long had a parliamentary system with dozens of parties, but they remain weak and many are beholden to the king and his advisers.

While the king himself remains popular, there is deep dissatisfaction over the government and the advisers around the monarchy whom are believed to be corrupt and rapacious.

The reform of the 15-year-old constitution represents the king's response to the wave of pro-democracy fervour sweeping the Middle East and North Africa that has toppled governments.

The new constitution will be put to a referendum on July 1.

The king said the constitutional reform "confirms the features and mechanisms of the parliamentary nature of the Moroccan political system" and laid the basis for an "efficient, rational constitutional system whose core elements are the balance, independence and separation of powers, and whose foremost goal is the freedom and dignity of citizens".

The new constitution elevates the prime minister to the "head of government" and ensures he is selected from the party that received the most votes in election, rather than just chosen by the king.

The prime minister also will have the new powers of choosing and dismissing Cabinet members and will be able to fill a number of other government positions, though the selection of the powerful regional governors will remain the king's prerogative.

The king also will continue to chair two key councils - the Council of Ministers and the Supreme Security Council - which make security policy. The prime minister can chair these councils, but only using an agenda set by the king.

Activists from the pro-democracy February 20 movement dismissed many of the changes, describing them as cosmetic.

"Before we had an absolute monarch, now we have an absolute monarch that is a pope as well," said Elaabadila Chbihna, an activist with the February 20 movement that has been carrying out weekly pro-democracy marches around the country.

The reforms also strengthen parliament, allowing it to launch investigations into officials with the support of just one-fifth of its members or to begin a censure motion against a minister with the backing of a third, rather than needing the unanimous approval demanded by the current constitution.

The judiciary, which has long been criticised for lacking independence, would be governed by a supreme council composed of judges and the head of the national human rights council. The justice minister would not be on the council.