Not all “Arab unrest” is equal. Consider these current headlines out of North Africa and try to spot the odd man out: “Libya’s south teeters toward chaos — and militant extremists,” “Egypt Takes Another Step Toward Autocracy—and Instability,” “Tunisia Sees Rising Jihadist Threat,” “Thousands march against Morocco government.” Chaos, autocracy, jihad, and … marching. Today in the Maghreb, where most populations are preyed upon either by unchecked authority or unchecked anarchy, Morocco is different. This is not an accident.
I was recently in Morocco, as a guest of its Institute of African Studies, and the point most Moroccans tried hardest to impress upon me was that their country is fundamentally unlike the failing and convulsed states around it.
And so it is. The kingdom has a functioning parliamentary system. And in 2011, responding to the sentiments unleashed by the Arab Spring, King Mohamed VI held a referendum on the country’s constitution. The resulting document calls for greater participation of elected parties and a Moroccan prime minister. It also newly enumerates a welcome assortment of rights and freedoms. A large-scale decentralization effort is underway to transfer various responsibilities from the king to elected bodies around the country. Whether the diffusion of power will be mostly genuine or cosmetic, continuous or stalled, remains to be seen. But Morocco is certainly not Libya or Egypt or Tunisia.
Mohamed VI appears to be a sincere reformer but he is undoubtedly a savvy king. Expanding the space for consensual governance was the best way to preserve the monarchy. A quick glance around the region tells you all you need to know about rulers who swam against the spring tide. And in truth, Morocco’s previous king, the far tougher Hassan II, began a program of very modest reform in the 1990s, long before Arab tweeters celebrated their flash-mob “victory” in Tahrir Square. So today Moroccans occasionally march, in small and peaceful numbers. It is a blessing that shouldn’t go unnoticed.
But while Moroccan achievement deserves praise, it’s no guarantee of long-term stability or moderation. On this, it was my turn to impress the point upon several Moroccans. The topic came up in regard to the Justice and Development Party (PJD), the largest party in parliament and that of the Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane. PJD, you see, is Islamist. And while some Moroccans expressed concern about what PJD members would do if they came to office in future local elections, most were quick to point out that the king and the constitution simply render authentic political Islam a non-starter. Additionally, PJD is widely understood to be that ever-elusive, quasi-mythic giant squid of Middle Eastern affairs—a moderate Islamist party.
It’s true that in my limited travels I witnessed a good deal of modern and indulgent living, and the Islamists in office cast no shadow on the day-to-day affairs of those with whom I came into contact. I saw many accomplished, uncovered women drinking alcohol and spied only a handful of dour men with fanned beards.
But “It can’t happen here” is an insufficient credo for any people anywhere. It undermines vigilance. And Morocco’s wonders notwithstanding, liberal Moroccans can’t afford to be complacent. The world has yet to see a self-described moderate Islamist party hold to its vow of moderation over the long term. Moreover, within Morocco’s diverse human mosaic reside hundreds of thousands of decidedly non-moderate Islamists. These are the members or associates of the organization Justice and Charity. Unlike PJD, Justice and Charity is non-political. But it wasn’t so long ago that we were assured the Muslim Brotherhood had no designs on the Egyptian presidency.
Historically, the appeal of political Islam owes much to the absence of other compelling political ideas. I thought of this when a Moroccan women’s rights champion explained to me that in her country “politics isn’t connected to values. Politics is about power.” When every other party’s platform is as inspiring as an NFL team playbook, the sincerity and purpose of the Islamists’ can shine in comparison.
This is all to say that King Mohamed VI is threading the eye of an unforgiving needle. He must proceed with democratic decentralization quickly and blatantly enough to satisfy a reform-minded public, but not so recklessly as to give newly empowered parties the means to undermine the largely moderate nature of Morocco.
In the context of the Arab Spring, Barack Obama has talked often about the need for democratic change to come from within a given country. He’s articulated his preference for reform over revolution and has pledged to stand by leaders who show a willingness to move forward on human rights issues. It would seem, therefore, that the president should take a special interest in Morocco.
The most compelling case for American involvement in Morocco, however, rests on national security. For the United States, conflicts in Northern Africa largely go unnoticed—before manifesting as unignorable crises. One such conflict now festers in the Western Sahara and could soon become explosive. Tens of thousands of refugees reside in bare-bones camps in the Algerian town of Tindouf. The camps are controlled by the Polisario Front, an Algerian backed leftist group opposed to Moroccan control of the Western Sahara. That the camps are reportedly run like huge cruel prisons might evoke some Western sympathy. But that they have also reportedly become a recruiting grounds for al-Qaeda-linked groups should spur the United States to action.
As it happens, the action called for is of the very type Obama favors: non-military diplomacy based on mutual compromise. In 2007, Morocco proposed an autonomy plan for the Western Sahara. Broadly speaking, if agreed to, autonomy would mean Western Saharans could govern themselves within the framework of the Moroccan constitution, and the Polisario camps would disappear. American officials have contented themselves with voicing support for the initiative. But without active diplomatic action from the United States it’s doubtful the Polisario and Algeria will take the proposal seriously.
There’s no guarantee that the application of American diplomacy would bring the decades-old conflict to an end. But with some 50,000 nothing-to-lose desert refugees ripe for jihadist indoctrination, it’s hard to see the downside. Of course, the U.S. can always remain on the sidelines for another Mali- or Algeria-type conflagration to emerge and then watch as our allies try to put it out. Don’t assume, however, that we’ll always have Paris.