Ambassador Edward M. Gabriel (ret.)
March 13, 2018
Abderrahmane Youssoufi was appointed by King Hassan II as Morocco’s Prime Minister on February 4, 1998, one week after I arrived to Morocco as the new US Ambassador. This month, his memoirs were published, reminiscing about the life of one of Morocco’s greatest patriots, a man who fought for independence, was jailed for challenging Morocco’s human rights and political beliefs, and finally appointed as its Prime Minister. This decision by King Hassan to appoint him and his government of Alternance (opposition party) may be the most significant modern day action, which set the stage for democratic change in Morocco.
One week after the appointment of Prime Minister Youssoufi, I met “unofficially” with his closest confidant and soon to be Minister of for General Affairs, Ahmed Lahlimi, at his request. The meeting took place at the home of Abdallah Alaoui, an Ameriphile businessman and someone close to the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP). Youssoufi’s USFP party was not particularly warm in those days towards the United States, and as a socialist leaning party, tended to have strong alliances with European socialist parties, and further, did not respect ‘US indifference’ with regard to Palestine.
We discussed the importance for the new government to succeed and the need to work closely with the United States in bringing about democratic and social change to the country. Lahlimi assured me that the new Prime Minister had the full confidence of King Hassan II, and would have complete control of all dossiers, with the exception of some Foreign Affairs dossiers and the Western Sahara issue. He saw the acceptance by King Hassan of the September 1997 elections, in which the USFP won, as a sign of a new era in the history of Morocco. It would be the first time an opposition party would run the Moroccan government and potentially set the stage for enhanced democratic changes in the country.
Lahlimi went on to say that, although the King was satisfied with the stability and macroeconomic progress of his country, he desired more liberalization in the social, economic and political sectors, something he hoped the new government would be capable of addressing. Lahlimi was also frank in stating that the USFP remained at odds with the King on his position to hold a referendum on the Sahara. He said they had been on record since 1980 as opposing any vote over the Sahara and believed it to be part of the original and historical territory of the country. This meeting started an extremely close association between the new government and the United States that would endure during the tenure of Prime Minister Youssoufi and beyond.
The United States went on to establish a multi-year strategy with the government of Alternance, more than doubling its aid and refocusing its programming according to a mutually developed vision between the two governments. Prime among our partnership was a plan to address the poorest regions of Morocco, with special emphasis on job creation, micro-credit loans, health services and education.
Other initiatives focused on decentralization of the government decision-making, strengthening civil society through small grants programs and marketing programs designed to attract US investment to Morocco, including a newly formed US-Morocco Business Council.
In a meeting which I attended later in 1998, between PM Youssoufi and US Secretary of Defense, Bill Cohen – the first US Secretary of State to visit Morocco in nearly a decade – Youssoufi recalled how, in the 1940s, a US Navy soldier was passing by in a military jeep and snatched his tarbouch off his head as he was riding his bike down the street. Since that day, he quit wearing the traditional head dress and jellaba, as buying a new tarbouch was too expensive for him. He added jokingly, “Since you are the Secretary of Defense and the first person in charge of the American army, you owe me this tarbouch which was taken by one of your soldiers in 1944.” With his own humor, Secretary Cohen responded, “In the name of the US Army, I recognize having this debt towards you, that we will not fail to settle.” A few weeks later, a new tarbouch arrived, a half century late, but a small gesture of this new warming friendship.
My encounters over the years with PM Youssoufi coincided with a policy conversation I had during the same time with King Hassan II, whom I greatly admired for his wisdom and sense of history. King Hassan and I spoke about the future of the bilateral relations of our two countries. We discussed the state of affairs regarding the end of the Cold War and how this might adversely affect the importance of our relationship. Would the US need to rely on Morocco, as it had previously, now that balances of power were shifting throughout the world? We agreed that Morocco’s importance to America lied in its shared values and a mutual desire to see change and reform. We discussed how Morocco should highlight and utilize its tolerant religion, reform agenda and strong civil society as a means of becoming a model for the rest of the region.
The end of the 1990s turned out to be a very unique time in our bilateral relations, as it coincided with the end of King Hassan II’s reign and the enthronement of the progressive King Mohammed VI, as well as Youssoufi’s taking office the same month that I arrived to Morocco. These unplanned events forged a partnership that would define US-Morocco relations for several decades to come, and set the stage for a new strategic purpose and close relationship, one based upon mutual goals of supporting a democratic, prosperous and stable Morocco. Now is the time to recall this history and reinforce its importance as we move into a new uncertain world.