- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

When, against a background of growing conservatism, notably religious Mohammed VI succeeded his father Hassan II as king of Morocco on July 23, 1999, he set his sights on democracy and modernity. Nine years later, it is worthy noting that this dichotomy between the old and the new still exists as the king breaks with the past.

It is a tangible fact that the scope of liberties is broader. There is practically no taboo and the level of public debate surprises all who knew Morocco 10 years ago, let alone the Morocco of the 1970s.

Moroccans, long deprived of free expression, now discuss everything. The king’s powers, his decisions, his court are no longer off-limits. While such burgeoning is not without shortcomings, excesses and other negative reactions, it is fundamentally undeniable that Moroccan society has secured liberties that seldom prevail elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world.

Strongly dominated in the Sunni arena by the Muslim Brotherhood, political Islam operates in the context of existing rules and institutions. Thus, in many places around the Arab world, and particularly in Morocco, Islamist parties often participate in elections, whenever allowed to do so. Far from having an exclusive religious tone, their discourse often reflects the social and political demands of the people disappointed in their leaders’ inability to meet expectations.

Since the 1980s and the ‘90s, the discourse of political Islam has tremendously evolved, as has the approach, which became more pragmatic. Instead of promising immediate restoration of Shariah, the Koranic canon, the majority of Islamist parties insist on three core concepts: freedom, justice and development. Their vision is, however, unchanged on women. But their discourse is new, and it pays off. Without renouncing their religious slogans, they have aptly integrated their discourse with the theme of democracy and reforms.

In Morocco, reshaping the political landscape and the task of increasing the credibility of elected bodies are further complicated by an active Islamist minority in Morocco, the Justice and Development Party (Moderate Islamist), which uses the divisions within other political forces to make important political scores.

Hyper-spiritual Islamists use the conservative backdrop of Moroccan society to make full use of social issues, in particular focusing on promoting moral values following the May 16, 2003, Casablanca terrorist bombings that killed dozens.

The main political battle waged by this trend pertained to the status of women. They were able, with massive mobilization, to block “the women’s integration plan,” a series of measures put forth by the government to improve the lot of the country’s females. Mindful of the stakes, the king created a commission, which the Moroccan elite - with old reflexes still very much alive - believed would serve to bury the project. The surprise that followed was equal to their skepticism: Not only did the king not bury the project, but he endowed the country with a pioneering Status of Women reform that goes against the current trend nurtured by acute retrograde Islamist undertones.

As Commander of the Faithful, Mohammed VI undertook a deep reform of religious life while promoting an open and tolerant Islam and fighting extremism. This endeavor was conducted to reorganize Moroccan Islam and preserve its overtures as well as to stem the most virulent form of Wahhabism that started to take root in the early ‘80s when Saudi Arabia and Morocco joined forces against Soviet communism in Afghanistan. Mohammed VI chose the option of modernity, a break with tradition that is assuredly critical.

On the delicate issue of human rights, as lives were lost, he acknowledged (which is difficult in developing countries) the responsibility of the state and created independent bodies to seek the truth, offered compensation to victims, and proposed a Moroccan approach to reconciliation.

During his nine years of reign, Mohammed VI has proved that his faith in democracy is sincere and that he is resolutely modern. This said, one should not overlook considering the structural issues affecting Morocco, such as the fragmentation of the political class, the absence of a modern middle class and the political mishaps of the previous decades.

The most serious threat that looms over Morocco’s future remains the nation’s alarming poverty that the king inherited. Often stark, poverty is the lot of millions of Moroccans. Entire segments of society, albeit regions, were left to fend for themselves. The country’s social deficit in terms of housing, hospital beds and basic infrastructure is significant.

The solidarity system put in place by Mohammed VI is based on a partnership approach with civil society. The resources mobilized are considerable but obviously insufficient to bridge the gap, particularly as the population growth remains unchecked despite progress made in urban areas.

The Moroccan economy’s growth rate averages 2 percent to 4 percent over five years, not enough to augur that social problems will be solved in the coming years. Budget receipts, burdened by debt service, are insufficient inasmuch as Morocco, to jump-start its development, committed to an ambitious infrastructure development program of roads and highways, ports, rural electrification and potable water projects for the countryside. These are projects whose effects will be felt in the intermediate and long term.

The situation is a source of concern as extremism, incivility and illiteracy flourish on these islands of poverty. The “Moroccan Model” will only serve if tangible results can be achieved on this front, and Morocco’s success will only be possible if properly supported.

Clearly, Europe and the United States are concerned in many regards, first for security reasons (illegal immigration, drug trafficking and terrorism) and to make democracy viable on the southern flank of the Mediterranean.

The breaks from the past made by King Mohammed VI deserve to be sustained as a role model for the region.

Ahmed Charai is an editor and publisher in Casablanca, and a member of the board of trustees of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and the international nongovernmental organization Search For Common Ground, in Washington, D.C.

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