Morocco’s Example

Stephen DeAngelis

July 21, 2009

Last September in a post entitled Making Money in the Med I discussed Tanger Med, a large Moroccan port that had opened earlier in the year. The port can handle 3.5m containers a year. Over the next decade Tanger Med’s annual capacity is expected to rise to 8.5m containers (that’s if the global economy recovers). If it achieves that capacity Tanger Med will be the largest container port in the Mediterranean. In a more recent post, entitled The Emergence of North Africa, I noted that Morocco was attracting significant foreign direct investment. The country has made noticeable progress under the leadership of its 45-year-old king, Mohammed VI, even though corruption, nepotism, and petty jealousies can be found. Nevertheless, Washington Post columnist, Anne Applebaum, says that the contrast between the political situation in Iran and Morocco is stark [“In Morocco, an Alternative to Iran,” 30 June 2009]. She writes:

“If you want an antidote to the photographs of police officers beating demonstrators and girls dying on the streets of the Iranian capital, take a drive through the streets of the Moroccan capital. You might see demonstrators, but not under attack: On the day I visited, a group of people politely waving signs stood outside the parliament. You might see girls, but they will not be sniper targets, and they will not all look like their Iranian counterparts: Though there is clearly a fashion for long, flowing headscarves and blue jeans, many women would not look out of place in New York or Paris.”

The differences don’t stop there. Applebaum continues:

“Unlike Turkey, Morocco is not a secular state: The king claims direct descent from the prophet Mohammed. Nor does Morocco aspire to be European: Though French is still the language of business and higher education, the country is linguistically and culturally part of the Arabic-speaking world. But unlike most of its Arab neighbors, the country has over the past decade undergone a slow but profound transformation from traditional monarchy to constitutional monarchy, acquiring along the way real political parties, a relatively free press, new political leaders — the mayor of Marrakesh is a 33-year-old woman — and a set of family laws that strive to be compatible both with sharia and international conventions on human rights.”

Although Applebaum lauds the changes, she is not blind to the challenges that remain.

“One human rights activist painted for me a byzantine portrait of electoral corruption, involving ‘mediators’ who ‘organize’ votes on behalf of candidates. Others point out that if the demonstrators I saw at the parliament had been Islamic radicals or Western Saharan guerrilla leaders, rather than trade unionists, the police might not have been quite so blasé. Though women have legal rights, cultural restraints remain. A tiny fraction of the population reads newspapers, even fewer have Internet access, and somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of the country is illiterate; as a result, election turnout is very low. Political posters feature symbols, not words.”

One of the most remarkable things that has happened in Morocco is that the current king has admitted that political crimes were committed during his father’s reign — although he stops short of allowing anyone to actually accuse his father of wrongdoing. That concession was not easy for a man who was raised to believe that the king is all powerful, if not infallible. To make sure that the crimes were completely uncovered, Mohammed VI established a Truth Commission. Although, as noted earlier, the Truth Commission was forbidden from mentioning the former king directly, it did help soothe feelings in the country.

“Although this acknowledgement of wrongdoing was made possible by a generational change, it did not require a regime change. There was no revolution, no violence. The king is still the king, and he still has his collection of antique cars. … Not everybody likes the monarchy, but even its opponents concede that the break with the past is real: If nothing else, people feel it’s safe to speak openly, safe to form civil rights groups, safe to criticize the electoral process, even safe to complain about the king. Saadia Belmir — a Moroccan judge and the first female Muslim member of the U.N. Committee on Torture — told me that despite obstacles, “we can now build the future on the basis of our good understanding of the past.” Controversially, perpetrators were allowed to fade into the background. But the crosscurrents of anger and revenge that might otherwise have marked the young king’s reign have subsided.”

Moroccans knew that things were going to be somewhat different when Mohommend VI ascended to the throne. Shortly his coronation, he addressed his subjects on television, promising to fight poverty and corruption, while creating jobs and improving Morocco’s human rights record. Just as surprising, the King married a commoner and permitted her picture to be published — a first in Morocco. According to Wikipedia:

“Princess Lalla Salma of Morocco [was] born Salma Bennani on May 10, 1978. … [She] the first wife of a Moroccan ruler to have been publicly acknowledged and given a royal title. Salma was born in Fes, Morocco, to a primary school teacher father. Her mother died when she was three years old; from then on she was raised by her maternal grandmother. … She was educated in private and public schools in Rabat. Upon completing her primary education, she qualified for an honors program that was initiated by the Ministry of National Education, which resulted in her obtaining a baccalaureate in 1995 with excellent grades in mathematics and sciences at Lycée Hassan II. Following the successful completion of a preparatory course at Lycée Moulay Youssef, Salma graduated in 2000 from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Informatique et d’Analyse des Systèmes. She received a degree in computer science and was her class valedictorian. After graduation, she worked in Casablanca as an information services engineer at the ONA Group, the country’s largest private holding company, which is controlled by the Moroccan Royal Family.”

The Princess, who is a striking redhead, has undoubtedly played a significant role in fostering change in her country. Applebaum concludes:

“Watching the extraordinary range of clothing and skin colors on the Moroccan streets, one takes away at least one thought: Transformation from authoritarianism to democracy is possible, even in an avowedly Islamic state, even with an ethnically mixed population, even with the presence of a jihadist fringe. More importantly: It is possible to acknowledge and discuss human rights violations in this culture, just as they can be discussed elsewhere. Just because much of the Arab world lacks the political will to change doesn’t mean that change is always and forever impossible.”

In another sign of change, new political parties are rising in Morocco [“The king’s friend,” The Economist, 4 July 2009 print issue]. The article reports:

“A new political force is emerging in Moroccan politics. The Authenticity and Modernity Party, known by its French acronym, PAM, with a centrist non-ideological platform open to all comers, has been in existence for less than a year. Yet it already seems destined to win the general election in 2012.”

The party was founded by Fouad Ali El Himma, who “resigned from his job as deputy interior minister and announced his intention to run as an independent in the parliamentary election that year. Where a few saw a fall from royal grace—he was known to be a close political adviser to King Muhammad VI—others sensed the beginning of a reconfiguration of monarchist parties.” El Himma began his political transformation by forming an “an anti-Islamist group, the Movement of All Democrats,” to signal his desire to form a more secular government. He has been very successful in recruiting some of the best and brightest leaders from politics and civil society.

“Mr El Himma has left the official leadership of PAM to Muhammad Sheikh Biadillah, a former health minister from the disputed Western Sahara province; he is more comfortable working in the background. The Moroccan press refers to Mr El Himma as ‘the king’s friend’. Like all the most important royal advisers, he is a former classmate of King Muhammad, and his success depends largely on having (or being perceived as having) the monarch’s ear.”

King’s friend or not El Himma’s reform-minded agenda supports Applebaum’s modest hopes for Morocco’s future. North Africa is likely to become an important economic engine once the current recession ends and Morocco is positioning itself to take advantage of that opportunity.