The Washington Diplomat / June 2011
By Larry Luxner
Compared to his fellow Arab colleagues, veteran diplomat Aziz Mekouar had little to complain about — at least until recently. The Moroccan ambassador in Washington, unlike his counterparts from North Africa to the Persian Gulf, represents a country still mostly at peace with itself, a relative island of calm in a region facing its worst social unrest in modern history.
With Libya engulfed in civil war, dictators overthrown in Egypt and Tunisia, and authoritarian regimes beating up and killing protesters in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, faraway Morocco seemed quiet by comparison, even though protesters there have also been calling for greater democracy.
“This has been a very easy time for me, because we’re doing the right thing,” a notably relaxed Mekouar told The Washington Diplomat. “The American press talks a lot about the Moroccan exception. We have demonstrations too, but if you look at our demonstrations, nobody is calling for the downfall of the monarchy.”
But as the Arab revolts have shown time and again, nothing can be taken for granted, especially calm. Mekouar’s hopeful words were uttered before April 28, the day a powerful bomb ripped apart the crowded Argana café overlooking Marrakesh’s Djemaa el-Fna square, one of the most popular tourist spots in Morocco.
Seventeen people were killed in the terrorist attack — including six French nationals, five Moroccans, two Canadians, one Israeli and three others. In addition, dozens of people were injured. It was the bloodiest attack since 2003, when 45 people were killed in simultaneous suicide attacks by Islamist militants in Morocco’s commercial capital of Casablanca.
Moroccan authorities immediately pointed the finger at al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, though AQIM denied involvement. Since then, seven people have been arrested in connection with the attack who are thought to have been sympathizers of al-Qaida, although police haven’t uncovered any direct links to AQIM.
Interior Minister Taieb Cherkaoui told reporters that the three main suspects in custody “admire al-Qaeda, are filled with al-Qaeda ideology and with Salafist ideology.”
Despite the arrests, the long-term impact of the bombing on tourism remains a major concern. Geoff Porter of North Africa Risk Consulting said the likely downturn in tourist numbers as a result of the attack would have dire consequences for the Moroccan economy. Tourism is Morocco’s second biggest employer after agriculture, with more than 9 million people visiting the country last year, according to the state news agency.
“Tourism ... is fickle and tourists flee at the slightest possibility of violence,” Porter told Reuters. “The loss of tourist revenue will spell economic trouble for the monarchy, which is already experiencing widening budget deficits because of high oil and food prices.”
Another looming issue is the broader instability the attacks threaten to exacerbate. Shortly after the Marrakesh bombing, violence erupted in several Moroccan prisons by Islamist prisoners alleging torture, unfair trials and arbitrary detention. Wider public protests have also continued, with thousands marching in the streets just days after the bombings to demand more democratic rights — while at the same time denouncing terrorism.
In fact, some Moroccans worry that at the very moment the country needs unity, it’s heading down a dangerous path of social upheaval that has torn other Arab nations apart.
Morocco began flaring up in late February, when around 35,000 protesters — inspired by the downfall of Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak — rallied in Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakesh and other cities, demanding political reform. Six people died in that Feb. 20 protest — which sparked the so-called February 20 Movement — including five who burned to death in a bank torched by people Mekouar calls “hooligans.” Another 128, most of them police officers, were wounded in the violence, and 120 people were arrested.
“Some people were asking for the dissolution of parliament, others for the resignation of the prime minister. Some had banners against specific persons,” the ambassador told us. “But nobody put into question the monarchy itself. And the king is very popular, so it was all about governance and corruption.”
Indeed, Morocco’s protests have — so far — been of a decidedly different nature than the turmoil in other Arab nations, with citizens calling for reform but not for the abolishment of the monarchy headed by King Mohammed VI, widely considered one of the most progressive rulers in the region.
Two weeks later after the initial protests, the king went on national TV promising sweeping constitutional reforms, including real executive powers for a prime minister elected by parliament instead of a royal appointee, as well as an independent judiciary. A proposal from the committee for constitutional reform that the king established is due out this month, with a referendum later this year.
“We have decided to undertake a comprehensive constitutional reform,” said the king, underlining his “firm commitment to giving strong impetus to the dynamic and deep reforms taking place.”
In addition, King Mohammed VI has released or reduced the sentences of some 200 prisoners, mostly Salafi jihadists captured during a sweep after the 2003 bombings, in what human rights groups say may be a precursor to a wider review of Morocco’s political prisoners.
The gestures though have failed to quell the violence. On May 15, Moroccan security forces beat a group of activists protesting alleged human rights abuses against prisoners in Rabat, injuring at least 10 people. The protesters wanted to stage a demonstration in front of what they said was a secret government detention center; however, anti-riot police dispersed the crowd before their rally even began.
The king has formed a national council of human rights to probe the allegations of abuse, pledging “expanded individual and collective liberties and the reinforcement of human rights in all dimensions” as part of his broader campaign to install an elected prime minister and free judiciary.
This, writes columnist Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post, is a very big deal. “The king, instead of cracking down, decided to speed up a process of decentralization and deconcentration of power. The idea is to move power and authority out of Rabat and devolve it to local elected bodies,” she wrote. “That will entail monumental challenges for a country where local figures have not had responsibility for governance. The opportunity for graft is real and significant. To say there will be a steep learning curve would be a vast understatement.”
But Mekouar, who’s been Morocco’s ambassador in Washington since June 2002, says his country is up to the challenge, given its unique history in this part of the world (also see “Morocco Embraces Modernization Without Shrugging Off Traditions” cover profile in the September 2009 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
“It’s a totally different mentality, because democracy exists in Morocco,” said the 60-year-old envoy. “We have never had a one-party system as it happened in most other countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Our political parties go back to the 1930s, when the national movement was created to fight for independence, which we gained in 1956. Morocco is a constitutional monarchy, and we have had a constitution since 1962.”
Mekouar, reciting a quick history of Morocco’s main political parties, said that despite the heavy-handed rule of Hassan II, who became king in 1961 and remained on the throne until his death in 1999, “we always had a multi-party and multi-union system” and that “our reforms started many years ago.”
Shortly before his death, Hassan II appointed the leader of the socialist party, Abderraman Yusufi, who had been in the opposition for more than 30 years, to become prime minister. Mohammed VI replaced his father on the throne in July 1999 and soon after, went on TV to promise the Moroccan people he would immediately enact social and political reforms.
“He introduced a culture of human rights in Morocco and addressed the issue of women’s rights, saying that no country can think of having a chance to develop without addressing the interests of half its population,” Mekouar told The Diplomat. “The family law was completely unbalanced in favor of men. Women’s organizations had been fighting for years to change that law. The government tried to launch a debate, but there was strong opposition from the most conservative parts of the country against any changes.”
Nevertheless, a new family code, known as Moudawana, came into effect in February 2004. Among other things, it reserves 30 seats in Morocco’s 335-member parliament for women. Today, women comprise 11.5 percent of the country’s top legislative body, Mekouar noted.
“This new law put men and women on a completely equal footing. For the first time, Morocco showed that there was no contradiction between Islam and gender equality,” the ambassador said. “Other Muslim countries — Tunisia and Turkey, for example — have pretty balanced family laws, but the Moroccan law is based on religion, on Islam. That’s important” in a country where 99.9 percent of the 32 million inhabitants are Muslim.
Something else Mohammed did was establish a commission to look into past violations of human rights under his father’s 40-year reign. Among other things, it gave indemnifications to all people who suffered abuses.
“The first elections under Mohammed’s reign were in 2002, and were considered totally free and fair,” added Mekouar. “In the last 10 years, we’ve had a multiplicity of parties and unions, and the newspapers are free. People can say whatever they want. We’ve had demonstrations almost every day for one reason or another.”
But, we insisted, isn’t it illegal to criticize the king, who wields ultimate political power in his kingdom?
“That’s one of the red lines,” Mekouar replied. “In the press, you should not criticize the king. But if you read the news, there is a lot of debate. The king is very popular in Morocco.”
Whether Mohammed maintains that popularity in the face of mounting protests though remains to be seen. In other parts of the region — long ruled by autocratic kings and presidents — leaders aren’t exactly winning any popularity contests.
Mekouar admits he never expected the Arab world to be turned upside-down in a matter of months. The current wave of revolutions began with spontaneous protests against Tunisia’s Ben Ali, who had ruled that country for 23 years.
“I was very much surprised by how the events unfolded, but I was not surprised by the upheavals. Sometimes when you have that kind of situation, one spark is enough,” Mekouar said. “The Ben Ali regime was very tight. You couldn’t talk, you had no liberties, there was no right of free association. There was no space for freedom. Everything was closed. This is why it ended by exploding,” he added.
“But I think Tunisia could really be a success story because it has an educated population, it’s a country of only 10 million, and they have a broad middle class and very good intellectuals. Tunisia is struggling to be on the right track, and the prime minister is a very respected man. I have a lot of confidence in him.”
While things have quieted down somewhat in Tunisia, protests continue to rage almost every day throughout the rest of the Arab world. In neighboring Algeria, demonstrators have rallied against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who’s been in power since 1999 (and who recently pledged to release thousands of Islamists from prison). Moroccan-Algerian relations have long been poor — mainly due to Algeria’s support of Polisario guerrillas in the Western Sahara, a sparsely populated desert territory claimed by Morocco.
Mekouar politely declined to discuss Algeria, and briefly noting the overthrow of Egypt’s Mubarak, said only that “they’ve adopted new amendments to the constitution and now we have to see what will happen. We’re still waiting.”
Mekouar was equally vague about the ongoing civil war in Libya. When asked if the United States is doing the right thing by aggressively supporting rebels trying to oust Col. Muammar Qaddafi, Mekouar stuck to the script. “The Arab League took a decision, and the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution,” he said. “Since then, every country in the world is bound by that resolution. Each country has its way of interpreting the resolution, and this is what’s happening.”
Turning back to developments at home, the ambassador said he is hopeful that Morocco will usher in change without opening the door to nationwide instability, pointing out that young people are more involved in politics than ever before. “In our first elections in 2007, we had only a 38 percent turnout. But with all the debate going on now, we will see more people voting,” he predicted.
Decentralization is a big part of Mohammed VI’s drive toward efficiency and accountability in government. The new policy is also aimed at reducing the endemic corruption for which Morocco is well known.
“The country will be divided into 12 regions, and the president of each region will be elected to manage that region,” Mekouar explained. “This trend of reforms started many years ago, but these new changes to the constitution started with the king’s speech in 2009 when he announced the regionalization of Morocco and appointed a commission to work on it.”
That commission must present its report in June, after which the new constitution will be voted on through a national referendum, which will most likely take place by year’s end.
“Everybody will be able to vote. The constitution can be changed only by the will of the people, and the only way to have that is through a referendum,” said Mekouar. “Of course, some people will not agree with the constitution. We don’t know how it will turn out. It’s impossible to know because nobody knows what the constitution will look like.”
Mekouar says that thanks to rapid economic growth (Morocco’s gross domestic product has expanded by an average 5 percent over the last five years), the ratio of Moroccans living below the poverty line has dropped from 15 percent to 9 percent. Annual per-capita income now stands at $4,900, he said, adding that Morocco will be “one of the very few countries” to achieve the U.N. Millennium Goals by 2015.
“Our National Initiative for Human Development was to make sure economic growth trickles down to every part of society,” he said. “Morocco believes the only solution for the region is full economic integration. We should have open borders and we should trade freely, following the example of Europe, where each country has its own sovereignty but you can go from Lisbon to Warsaw without showing your passport.”
While a Maghreb economic zone is still years away, Morocco has benefitted from its free trade agreement with the United States.
“Morocco was the second Arab country to sign an FTA with the United States, after Jordan, and the only one in North Africa. This has already doubled trade between the U.S. and Morocco. When you have more trade, you have a better economy and more investments. This brings down unemployment and raises income levels.”
Mekouar said he’s satisfied that the United States is solidly behind Morocco’s reforms, even though the Washington Post’s Rubin noted that Obama was “characteristically silent” after the king’s speech and that the official commendation was instead delivered by a State Department spokesman.
Mekouar dismissed such speculation. “We’ve had very good statements coming from Hillary Clinton during the visit of our foreign minister and even before that. The Obama administration has been pretty clear. All across the political spectrum, we’ve seen supportive statements coming from members of Congress, especially immediately after the speech of our king.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), in fact, was effusive in his praise of Morocco, saying in a statement: “This new reform agenda builds on the king’s long-standing commitment to lead Morocco to a future of reform and modernization, and it could ensure that the Kingdom of Morocco will continue to stand as a positive example to governments across the Middle East and North Africa.”