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F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / M A Y 2 0 1 2
changes necessary to prepare the country for the eventual
exhaustion of its oil and gas resources or address the
needs of its burgeoning youth.
. King Mohammed VI (hereafter M6) suc-
cessfully traversed an immediate popular challenge to his
authority via a deft constitutional reform that symboli-
cally transferred more authority to parliament and dic-
tated that the party with the most seats would be invited
to form the government. The regime had initially dis-
missed the rise of the Feb. 20 Movement, but it eventu-
ally proved impossible to ignore. A disparate coalition of
activists, principally students, organized demonstrations
across Morocco to protest authoritarianism and the
power of established interests and privilege among those
belonging to or linked with the ruling elite (known as the
Although M6 reacted adroitly to defuse the movement
through personal intervention, the nature of the regime
remains largely unchanged. As much as the king is
revered as a unifying national figure, the makhzen is
feared and regarded by some as a force beyond his full
Though he pushed hard for reform a decade ago, M6’s
softer approach today suggests his priority on maintain-
ing stability and continuity to ensure his young son’s even-
tual succession. The constitutional amendment and
subsequent parliamentary elections, which led to the
Nov. 29 appointment of Morocco’s first Islamist prime
minister, underscored the regime’s preference for coop-
tation (which it alternates with persecution) of its oppo-
nents over real change.
Like other North African countries, Morocco’s so-
cioeconomic situation is dire — epitomized by staggering
inequality, significant illiteracy and limited opportunity.
The expensive commitment to develop the disputed
Western Sahara continues to be a huge drain on the
treasury that no citizen can question.
Rioting in northern Morocco in March was a reminder
that constitutional reform alone cannot assuage decades
of neglect and that the Western Sahara is not the only
area under Moroccan control challenging Rabat’s con-
tinued rule.
The Islamist Justice and Development Party that leads
Morocco’s current government — in coalition with the
nationalist party that has dominated the country since
independence — represents a break with the country’s
political past. It enjoys a strong reputation for honesty
given its previous opposition status. But the rival Islamist
Justice and Charity movement, which rejects the legiti-
macy of the monarchy and reportedly commands wide
support, remains unlicensed, leaving its supporters in ef-
fect disenfranchised.
Much like Algeria, the bottom line for Morocco is that
the regime is managing its immediate challenges, but un-
derlying, unaddressed socioeconomic ills cloud the coun-
try’s long-term future.
What to Do?
The advent of the Arab Spring last year gave the
Maghreb greater saliency for U.S. policymakers. Most
immediately, the risk posed by regional terrorism, per-
petrated by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and its allies
throughout the trans-Sahara region, along with the pro-
liferation of weapons coming out of Libya, demands a re-
assessment of approaches. It also raises the question of
how we can involve all regional stakeholders, including
Europe, in countering this shared threat.
There is no turning back the political transitions now
in play. For decades, regimes suppressed, stalled or ma-
nipulated the dynamics of generational change. This
helped the Maghreb appear to be a relatively stable re-
gion, despite mounting demographic and economic pres-
sures. The fighting in Libya and Syria (assuming the
endgame leads to a new regime there) represents the real
risk to regimes that refuse to hear or respond to calls for
reform. Algeria’s leaders, though they are the most re-
sistant in the Maghreb, understand this, given their coun-
try’s experience — even if their limited worldview
prevents them from taking steps outside their comfort
History offers little reason to believe that the U.S. gov-
ernment generally, or the Department of State in partic-
ular, will accord the Maghreb the attention it deserves
over the long term. The death of the U.S.-North African
Economic Partnership after the Clinton administration
is an object lesson North Africans have not forgotten.
Nor do the Obama administration’s recent declarations
about the need to shift attention to Asia and the prospect
of tighter federal budgets bode well.
The good news is that the Maghreb does not need a
Marshall Plan. But it does need sustained engagement
and attention.
To facilitate this, it’s necessary to acknowledge that ex-
isting bureaucratic structures at State and the White