If gross domestic product counted reports, meetings, public forums and other consensus-building activities, Morocco would be the richest country in the world. The notion that the king decides and the country jumps becomes comical when you talk to parliamentary officials, agency heads and leaders of research centers. This is a country with all the speed of a French bureaucracy, a love for abstract political theorists and an obsession with consensus-building with a huge range of groups, individuals and government entities before undertaking significant change.
Moroccans in government and private groups seem earnestly working in good faith on a nexus of problems. They need to privatize and diversify the economy, invest in human capital (education and health care), devolve power to localities, modernize housing, continue to integrate women into the political and economic life of the country and keep radical Islamic forces from undermining its reform efforts. And they need to do it fast, to attend to demands from a population that so far has rejected the Arab Spring model of violence.
On one level, the success is remarkable. The president of the Parliament, Rachid Talbi Alami, took office just a couple of months ago. He rattles off some statistics: 4.5 percent growth last year and per capita income that has gone from $1,500 to $4,500 per year in a decade. While U.S. investment in Morocco is small (American companies don’t know Morocco, he says), Morocco is looking not only to traditional partners in Europe but also south to the rest of Africa. Alami observes that to stem the tide of refugees and other migrants into the country, Morocco will need to help African countries develop. Morocco is increasingly investing, trading with and providing assistance to countries such as Mali, the Ivory Coast and Nigeria, with the hope that with economic progress and cooperation, the African continent will be a market and partner, rather than a source of strife and refugees.
But Alami is candid as well. He acknowledges the threat of corruption as the country sends power and funds to localities. And he says he honestly doesn’t know if the country will buy into his political party’s center-right, more market-oriented philosophy.
Even more critically, Ahmad Abbadi, the head of a league of religious scholars, tells me over lunch that his groups is training hundreds of imams from North Africa, the rest of Africa and other Muslim countries, trying to impart their more flexible, contextual brand of Islam, which stands in stark contrast to Wahhabism. It is the ultimate type of soft-power — Morocco’s effort to turn the tide away from Islamic fundamentalism and to teach that Muslim faith in its purest form can be separated from the state. And yet in Morocco, while Judaism is specifically recognized as a religion, the king remains the leader of the faithful and efforts to constitutionally protect atheism did not survive the drafting phase.
On women’s issues, the record is again mixed. The head of the INDH, the government’s human development initiative, is a woman. Governor Nadira Guermai runs the organization that is charged with carrying out everything from housing redevelopment to education and poverty amelioration. Both male and female aides sit attentively as she describes the organization she’s headed since its inception in 2005. She points out that women now are seen in banking, medicine and government, and even as taxi and bus drivers. It’s a far cry from Morocco’s Arab neighbors. Indeed, the social life here is dramatically different than it is in the rest of the Muslim world. Polygamy, for example, has virtually been eliminated (only 1 percent of marriages are polygamous), a woman heads the country’s business alliance, and the minister of health previously was a woman.
But she, too, recognizes the difficulties in moving on some many fronts, so fast. The government aims to eliminate shantytowns, where you can see the face of extreme, gut-wrenching poverty. But as deficient as they are, some residents refuse to leave family and friends to be relocated elsewhere. Some shantytowns were upgraded with plumbing and electricity as a halfway measure, but a course correction was needed; now, new apartments are built block by block in neighborhoods so that those whose shanties are leveled can move to new high-rises next door. Once completed, the next block of shanties can be razed and those residents moved.
The process from the outside seems excruciatingly slow and complicated. An independent institute studies problems in depth, generates reports and then must rely on politicians to accept (or not) its recommendation. A council of experts covers the same ground as government agencies, so efforts to accommodate conflicting views may extend the time of the best-intended redevelopment plans. And the endemic Moroccan demand for consensus — be it in Parliament, soliciting information in town halls and getting a variety of stakeholders on board for big social programs — gives rise to the complaint that Morocco is moving too slowly. But the benefit of consensus is that conflict is resolved before projects go forward and multiple groups and interests become invested (literally and figuratively) in an undertaking.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the human rights arena. A robust debate and demonstrations on the death penalty can go on, for example, but to defame the king or Islam is still a crime. In a recent incident, a journalist who linked online to an al-Qaeda terrorist’s call to violence was prosecuted, under anti-terrorism laws, not as slander of the king. I pressed the president of the independent national council on human rights (CNDH) Driss El Yazami on this and other limitations on press freedom. Why do they need any of these restrictions? He calmly replied, “It took centuries in the West from the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, etc., to achieve democracy. We have to achieve a long journey and make it as short as possible, but do it peacefully.” In the West, the concept of freedom or democracy is the right of individual expression and self-determination. But in Morocco, he explains, democracy is a way to manage change and diversity peacefully. Coupled with the fear of Islamic radicalism, the process is constantly being monitored. It’s akin to keeping a pot of water boiling but not overflowing: Go faster, or slower, trying to modulate the balance.
For example, the current king in 2004 authorized a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to uncover and document the human right atrocities under his own father and grandfather. According to a government source, “22,000 applications, from which 16,861 victims, victims’ family members, and witness accounts were presented to the Commission, some in publically, televised hearings. 23,676 Moroccan victims have received compensation checks totaling $193 million.” Practices entirely common in the Muslim world, therefore, became the basis for public outrage and monetary recompense.
But El Yazami concedes real problems remain. The conditions in prisons are “not good”; policemen come from uneducated families and need substantial training, and for the first time Morocco now is coping with the influx of refugees from poorer countries. They need to be given political rights, housed and clothed and integrated into a society that already suffers from high unemployment. In response, the human rights commission now is empowered to conduct spot inspections of jails, police stations and refugee centers, and the country has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, Convention against Torture, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women. On paper it looks ideal; in reality, it is a mixed bag.
Moroccan authorities describe all of this as a work in progress, while the West sees backsliding and inconsistency. It actually is what peaceful progress looks like in a Muslim country, at least one with Morocco’s insistence on consensus and the maintenance of its monarchy (which remains a unifying institution and source of national identity.) The West will continue to press Morocco to do more and do it faster and more consistently, but my sense is that Morocco won’t easily be forced to deviate from its slow, methodical pace. And if the West is looking for democracy purely in Western terms, it is likely to be disappointed. Well, as Winston Churchill said about democracy itself, Moroccan-style democracy is the worst system imaginable — except for virtually any other system in a Muslim country. The trick for Morocco and the West is to keep the pot boiling without overflowing and to hope other Muslim countries see the benefit of peaceful change.
As a reminder, my airfare and hotel expenses are being paid for by the Moroccan Institute for International Relations. The views here, as always, are mine alone.