Morocco’s Islamic question

An important election will take place in September when Morocco – one of the Islamic world’s most liberal and progressive countries – goes to the polls to cast a verdict on the ambitious modernization program of the new King Mohammed VI.
The big question is whether the largest single party to emerge in the new parliament will be the Islamist PJD (Party of Justice and Development). US diplomats, who routinely talk with PJD leaders, note that the party opposes violence and follows the moderate Islamism of the current Turkish government.
But the George W. Bush administration visibly cooled its rhetorical support for democratic change in the Arab world when recent elections in Egypt and the Palestinian territories suggested Islamists are likely to be the main beneficiaries.
There is no disputing the trend in Morocco. In 1997 the PJD won just nine seats, but that jumped to 34 in the 2002 elections, and even government officials think they will win at least 60 seats in September. And as the largest party, the king may be persuaded to appoint one of its leaders as prime minister.
The decision will rest with the king, who retains sweeping powers and keeps firm control of the interior, defense, and foreign affairs ministries. Other parties might form a coalition that keeps the Islamists out, but that may only delay the Islamist purge. Their popularity is growing because they represent the main opposition to the current coalition government in which socialists serve alongside conservatives.
Morocco is taking a cautious and controlled route to democracy, and it represents the kind of Islam that the Bush administration and, in its own way, the European Union, admire; both would like to see it become a model for others. For the United States, Morocco enjoys the status of a non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally and has deployed peacekeeping troops to the Balkans in support of NATO and EU missions.
NATO’s former deputy commander, German Gen. Dieter Stockman, said of Moroccans that “they were excellent troops, disciplined and intelligent and a pleasure to work with.”
Meanwhile, Morocco last week published the impressive results of the first year of its new free trade agreement with the United States. Trade rose by a striking 44 percent to $1.4 billion. Morocco’s exports of textiles rose by 81 percent, and its exports of electrical machinery rose to $122 million. In return, Morocco imported US aircraft worth $250 million and $163-million worth of American cereals.
Morocco’s biggest trade partner is still the EU, but with its free trade zones and open door for foreign investment, Morocco is a country increasingly plugged into the global economy. It ranks no. 36, ahead of Turkey and Israel, in the line up of the best places for offshoring, according to the latest Global Services Location index published by the A.T. Kearney consultancy. The same group also publishes the globalization index, in which Morocco and Tunisia are the only two Arab countries in the Top 40, notably ahead of China at no. 51.
With a per capita Gross Domestic Product nudging $2,000, the economy grew more than 6 percent last year and is poised for take off, helped by the $4.5 billion in remittances sent home by Moroccans working abroad.
The country now has almost all its children in primary school, more than half of them in secondary school, and the life expectancy is now greater than 70. The birth rate has dropped to an average of 2.5 children per woman of child-bearing age, and infant mortality rates have dropped from 115 to 38 per thousand. This is a country doing everything it can to do everything right, despite a decade of grim droughts in the 1990s, persistently high unemployment, and grinding poverty in the rural and mountain areas.
The modernization has been driven by the young king and a small, tight-knit group of technocratic ministers, many of them the king’s university classmates. In three days of intensive talks with various ministers and the monarch’s top aides, this reporter was left in no doubt of their determination to follow the “Asian tiger” economies and steer Morocco into the EU’s prosperity club.
“We are like a tree, with roots in Africa and the Arab world, but we breathe the air and take our rain from Europe,” ambassador Hassan Abouyoub, the king’s top foreign policy adviser said. “We cannot live without Europe; we have no choice.”
The monarch, who likes to be called “guardian of the poor” because of his fight against rural poverty, has pushed through the Moudawana, a crucial reform for the rights of women, despite the opposition of religious conservatives. Married to a computer engineer with whom he has two children, the king is a devout Muslim, and even the most extreme Islamists find it difficult to challenge the religious credentials of a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. Over the weekend, religious leaders from all over the country flew into the fabled desert city of Marrakech, where the king presided over a celebration of the birthday of his revered ancestor.
There is no question that Morocco is an Islamic country, and of a traditionally tolerant and relaxed form in which the country’s important Jewish heritage is celebrated, alcohol is freely available (and the local wines are good), and Christians and Jews can meet and worship at will. But there are ugly signs of extremism. Bomb attacks in Casablanca in 2003 led to tough new anti-terrorism laws that have been criticized by human-rights groups.
Morocco expects that its elections will generate intense interest and wide media coverage that is more likely to focus on the Islamist rise rather than on the story of reform, rising prosperity, and democratization that the king and his aides would prefer to tell. But, even if the Islamists do better than expected at the polls, their broadly moderate stance might yet demonstrate, much as Turkey and Malaysia have done, that democracy and Islam can work fruitfully together.
Martin Walker is United Press International’s (UPI) Editor Emeritus. Acknowledgment to UPI’s “Walker’s World” commentaries.