February 10, 2011 | World Defense Review

Moroccan Exceptionalism?

I recently spent nearly two weeks in North Africa, arriving just before popular demonstrations drove Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power and leaving just after the protesters occupied Cairo's Tahrir Square in their attempt to do the same to Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. Yet if it weren't for the fact that I was receiving a steady stream of messages from acquaintances across the region on my BlackBerry and catching the constant coverage first on Al-Jazeera, then CNN International, and, finally, other networks back in my hotel room, I would not have known that unrest was quickly spreading across the Maghreb and unsettling the entire Arab Middle East. It was not a case of my being closeted away from ordinary citizens: actually several times during the trip I opted out of more formal repasts to indulge my craving for mokh (brains simmered in garlic, spices, and, occasionally, preserved lemons, served to be scooped up with crusty bread—a regional delicacy I have acquired a taste for over the years) in local eateries away from the paths of most tourists. Rather, I was in Morocco, a longtime ally of the United States whose apparent immunity to the revolutionary ferment bubbling elsewhere in its neighborhood presents a useful case for American policymakers and analysts to consider as they ponder how to balance the idealist desire to support the peoples of the Middle East in their aspirations for political and social change and the realist interest in maintaining security and stability.

If one follows the rather superficial commentary peddled in recent weeks by cable television pundits, many of whom have never even set foot in Egypt, much less Tunisia, Morocco should be prime candidate for the current wave of upheaval, given the material reasons its people might have for grievance. In fact, on certain indices, they might be deemed worse off than their Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts. GDP per capita (purchasing power parity) in the kingdom is three-fourths of what it is in Egypt and barely half of what it is in Tunisia. Whereas both Egypt and Tunisia have a large, well-educated middle class, the literacy rate in Morocco, while improving substantially in recent years, still hovers at just above 50 percent. The average Moroccan woman can expect to have six fewer years of schooling than her Tunisian sister and two years less than her Egyptian sister. Morocco has a higher infant mortality rate than both Egypt and Tunisia and a lower life expectancy than the latter.

So why were ordinary Moroccans breaking khobz with me, rather than rioting or otherwise agitating against their government? It was not that they were unaware of the protests: satellite dishes are ubiquitous even in the poorest areas, virtually every Moroccan adult has a mobile phone, and the country has one of the most technologically advanced internet services, both cable and wireless, in Africa. Rather, other factors are at play.

First, unlike the most of the Arab Middle East outside Egypt, where the nation-state is a colonial artifice created out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, Morocco has a political history that, leaving aside the classical period, goes back more than twelve centuries to the establishment of a state at Fes by Idris ibn Abdullah, great-great-grandson of Ali, cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad. The current Alaouite Dynasty, which traces its descent from the Prophet of Islam through his daughter Fatima and the Caliph Ali—and, thus, the reigning monarch's claim to be Amir al-Mu'minin (“Commander of the Faithful”)—has occupied the throne since 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London. The fifteenth sultan of Morocco in that lineage, Mohammed III was, in 1777, the first foreign sovereign to recognize the independence of the United States. Thus, the current monarch, King Mohammed VI, enjoys a historical and political legitimacy that is unmatched in the Arab world. The traditional bonds between sovereign and people are renewed annual in the ceremony of the bay‘a, or oath of allegiance, where representatives of the all sectors of the populace pledge their fidelity to the throne and the monarch reaffirms his commitment to defending the rights of citizens as well as the independence, territorial integrity, and welfare of the kingdom.

Second, far from being complacent, the current king, who succeeded his father more than eleven years ago, has embarked on an ambitious program of reform and political opening. In one of his first acts of office, King Mohammed created an Independent Arbitration Commission to compensate those who had suffered detention and other human rights abuses during the long reign of his father, Hassan II. The panel, the first of its kind in the region, heard more than 7,000 cases and awarded more than $100 million in reparation payments. In 2004, acting on the recommendation of his Advisory Council on Human Rights (CCDH) as well as various civil society groups, the king established the Equity and Reconciliation Commission (IER) with the mandate of establishing the truth about human rights violations that occurred between independence (1956) and his ascent to the throne (1999), administering assistance to victims and their families, and recommending measures to prevent future violations and foster reconciliation. The multi-volume IER Final Report, prepared after an exhaustive review of more than 22,000 cases and unprecedented televised hearings centered on victim testimony, was a landmark document that opened the way not only to the payment of $85 million in reparation to some 9,000 people, but also the reform of state institutions and the strengthening of the rule of law.

In contrast what hitherto have been de facto one-party states in Tunisia and Egypt and what the WikiLeaks-published U.S. embassy cables describe as “carefully choreographed and heavily controlled” polls in Algeria, Morocco under Mohammed VI enjoys a boisterous multiparty system with groups ranging from socialists to Islamists contesting—and, more importantly, registering gains—in the last parliamentary elections in 2007, a poll that was monitored by international groups, including the National Democratic Institute whose report, while noting “isolated irregularities,” observed that “the voting went smoothly and was characterized by a spirit of transparency and professionalism” and praised the government for providing “a significant opportunity for Moroccans to make their political views known.”

Even on the touchy issue of the Moroccan sovereignty over the former Spanish Sahara there has been movement, as I have previously noted, with the government advancing a proposal to break the longstanding impasse on the question by offering generous autonomy including not only an elected local administration—including executive, legislative, and judicial branches—for the “Saharan Autonomous Region” that would be created, but also ideas about education and justice and the promise that financial resources would be forthcoming to support them in addition to whatever revenues can be raised locally. Under the plan, the only matters that would remain in control of Rabat would be defense and foreign affairs as well as the currency, while the regional authority would have broad powers over local administration, the economy, infrastructure, social and cultural affairs, and the environment.

Third, the political opening has been accompanied by a broader liberalization, including a reform of the family code (Moudawana) which the king successfully pushed through over conservative opposition by, in part, invoking his religious authority as Commander of the Faithful. Among other provisions, the new legislation significantly advanced women's rights by raising the minimum age of marriage to 18, limiting polygamy, granting couples joint rights over their children, and permitting women to initiate divorce proceedings. Exceptionally for the Arab world, women also have a place in Morocco's official religious establishment with mourchidates, or female religious guides, trained alongside more traditional male imams.

The government has recognized that poverty is a major concern, but also that the way to spur economic growth—which, in recent years, has averaged between four and five percent, a respectable, if not stellar, rate for a developing country that has not been blessed with an abundance of readily exploitable primary commodities—is to strengthen institutions of governance and encourage the private sector. The state has gradually retreated from the business sector through a series of privatizations that has opened new opportunities for an emergent middle class of entrepreneurs and technocrats. Tariffs have been slashed dramatically, if not eliminated altogether, as they have been for capital goods, raw materials, spare parts, and non-locally-produced goods. The soundness of the country's macroeconomic approach is attested to by the 2007 signing with the United States of what was then the largest compact ever entered into by the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which is mandated to assist countries on the basis of their commitment to policies that promote political and economic freedom, investments in education and health, control of corruption, and respect for civil liberties and the rule of law by performing well on seventeen different policy indicators. The $697.5 million MCC program in Morocco, which entered into force in 2008, is aimed at developing the country's agriculture, fisheries, artisanal production, and tourism sectors, as well as promoting small businesses. The country currently has a free trade agreement with the United States and an association agreement with the European Union. Speaking during his visit Morocco this week, European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Štefan Füle welcomed the political and economic reforms embraced by the government and underscored the willingness of the EU to launch negotiations for the implementation of a comprehensive free trade area. Anyone passing through the seemingly endless construction in the formerly neglected north of the country, as I did last summer during a visit to Tangier, can see the fruit of these measures to free market-friendly measures.

In a Brookings Doha Center report published just last month, Dr. Anouar Boukhars of McDaniel College concluded that with the gradual increase in individual liberties and the progress made with economic and social liberalization, “Morocco has emerged as one of the more liberal Arab states.”

Fourth, in the delicate area of security, as I have reported here previously, Morocco has made a significant contribution through its comprehensive approach to combating terrorism and extremist ideologies. According to the U.S. State Department's most recent edition of Country Reports on Terrorism, released last August, not only did the Moroccan government pursue “a comprehensive counterterrorism approach that, building on popular rejection of terrorism, emphasized neutralizing existing terrorist cells through traditional intelligence work and preemptive security measures,” but it “continued to implement internal reforms aimed at ameliorating the socio-economic factors that terrorists exploit.” Moreover, the Congressionally-mandated State Department document acknowledged that “King Mohammed VI has promoted significant efforts to reduce extremism and dissuade individuals from becoming radicalized,” citing in particular the National Initiative for Human Development (INDH), a multibillion-dollar program aimed at generating employment, fighting poverty, and improving infrastructure in both rural areas as well as the sprawling slums on the outskirts of urban centers. Just this week, Prime Minister Abbas El Fassi announced that the government would invest $3 billion to bring a total of 79 waste water treatment plants on line by 2012.

While their strategy is broad and involves a great deal of “soft power,” it does not mean that Moroccan officials have neglected the need to use force when needed. In October, Moroccan authorities broke up an international drug trafficking ring, with links to South American cartels, that was transporting cocaine and marijuana between Latin America and Europe, via North Africa. The Moroccan interior minister told the Voice of America at the time that with the arrests there was established what he called “an apparent coordination and confirmed collaboration” between drug traffickers and AQIM, noting that the terrorist group was making money by using its members' knowledge of desert routes, weapons, and means of transportation to protect the traffickers. Last month, authorities disrupted efforts by another AQIM cell to set up a “rear base” in the part of the Saharan provinces beyond the security Moroccan security barrier.

Of course, all this is not to say that Morocco's path ahead is assured. Quite to the contrary, the country faces a number of challenges, not least in the area of security. One of the principal reasons for my recent trip there was to participate in the Marrakech Security Forum, an annual gathering of regional and international government officials, both civilian and military, and scholars, sponsored by the African Federation of Strategic Studies (FAES) and the Moroccan Center for Strategic Studies (CMES). This year the focus was on al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a group whose terrorist activity, drug trafficking, and extremist networking can, as I predicted last month, be expected to continue and worsen in 2011. Similarly, while the inclusion of groups like the Justice and Development Party (PJD), which captured a larger percentage of the popular vote in the last parliamentary election than any other single party, in government have given moderate Islamists a stake in the system and an interest in its continued security and stability, hardliners like adherents of Abdesslam Yassine's Al-Adl wal-Ihsane (“justice and charity”) group have long contested the king's religious title and called as recently as this week for the overthrow of the current constitutional order. And although GDP has risen more than 40 percent since the current king ascended the throne, the unemployment rate remains just under 10 percent, with the figure for youth perhaps twice as high.

Nevertheless, there is reason to be optimistic that Morocco—pace the country's New Jersey-resident dissident Prince Moulay Hicham in his recent interview with the Spanish newspaper El País—will be an exception. While it is true, as former U.S. ambassador to Morocco Edward Gabriel put it earlier this week in an op-ed for The Hill, “Morocco has never held itself out as a model for others and has not undertaken [its] reforms in order to offer anyone any lessons,” the reality is that the country does offer an example of how, integral transformation voluntarily undertaken and carried out both with respect for history, religion, and culture, and at an appropriate speed can offer a path to the future that balances the competing demands of stability and openness to change. Moreover, while the recent crises have underscored the limits of America's ability to “manage” the course of events from the outside, that does not mean that the United States should not redouble its efforts to encourage allies like Morocco to persist in their own internally-driven reform efforts as well as suggest that other countries might learn a lesson or two from the progress achieved. That much would be in America's interests and that of the states and peoples of the Middle East and Africa.

— J. Peter Pham is Senior Vice President of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City. He also holds academic appointments as Associate Professor of Justice Studies, Political Science, and African Studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.

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