Below is a transcript of the December 8, 2011 roundtable: What’s Next for Morocco? Assessing Challenges and Opportunities after the Elections. You can click on a participant’s name to jump to their remarks.
The Moroccan American Center for Policy
Roundtable: What’s Next for Morocco?
Assessing Opportunities and Challenges after the Elections
Edward Gabriel, Former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco
Anouar Boukhars, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies, McDaniel College
Audra Grant, Political Scientist, RAND Corporation
Shari Bryan, Vice President, National Democratic Institute
Robert Holley, Executive Director, Moroccan American Center for Policy
(Click here to jump to the Q&A’s.)
Location: Washington, D.C.
Time: 10:00 a.m.
Date: Thursday, December 8, 2011
Federal News Service
[Copy editor: Jean AbiNader, Moroccan American Center]
EDWARD GABRIEL: Good morning, everyone. To all of our friends that are here, many of you are Morocco experts, so I hope that we can live up to a high standard in your opinion. The bios of each person were handed out at the table out front. I’m Ed Gabriel. I was the U.S. ambassador to Morocco from ’97 to 2001, during the transition from King Hassan to King Mohammed, the current leader.
And it was a very interesting time, as you can imagine, to go from the era of King Hassan to King Mohammed. Some of that we’ll talk about today, as it affects the constitutional process and our topic today on the elections. I also advise the Kingdom of Morocco, although today my opinions are my own, and they don’t necessarily represent the opinions of Morocco.
I’m going to ask each panelist a question and then have them spend five minutes to respond. I’ll ask the other panelists to spend one or two minutes commenting or further refining the answer of the person answering the question. I will then pose questions to each of the other panelists with the same format. In about 50 minutes, we will open up for questions and comments.
Let me just make a couple of comments. One is that Morocco has been spared the disruption and the conflict that we’ve seen in some of the other countries [in the region]. And we have to ask ourselves several questions about why that is? It is very obvious that King Mohammed VI has a very good relationship with the people in the country. There was an unofficial poll done in Morocco a couple years ago – an illegal unofficial poll – by a reputable international firm. And although the palace didn’t appreciate polls being done, the King got a 93 percent approval rating in his country, so I think there’s a strong connection between this particular monarch and the citizens.
The new constitution [in Morocco] also compares with that of other countries in Europe, especially Spain. We see a lot of similarities with the Spanish constitution, which we believe bodes well for this King wanting to become, as he said, “the citizen King.” Now, how is this going to play out in the coming months? I wish we knew. Maybe our panelists will give us some insight into that. Following the elections, we have a party, the PJD, the Islamist party in Morocco, won about a quarter of the seats of the parliament, and will be the head of the ruling coalition of a new government. So the question is: How will they take this new constitution and implement it and push the reform and transition [to greater power sharing] forward?
The second question, of course, is what role is the palace going to play in that transition, and will the constitutional process play itself out in a free and friendly manner? In that sense, I think we’ve seen some of the initial moves by the palace, the King himself, very quickly appointing Benkirane [the secretary general of the PJD] as the head of government while staying out of a lot of the other issues that are in front of the government today. So I think they’re off to a very good start in that sense.
There’s a lot that this country is going to face today. Any of you who may be skeptical about whether changes are going on in Morocco, all you have to do is ask anyone who is currently in the government in Morocco, and they would tell you it’s for real. Many of them are out looking for jobs right now. It’s a big change in the country, and it’s something that they’re going to have to face with a lot of new thinking and, through the transition, they’re going to have to come up with new ideas of implementation. They’re going to go through regionalization [devolving power from the central government to the provinces and local officials]. They’re going to have new human rights and civil rights [regimes as called for in the new constitution]. They’re going to go through power sharing, [crafting] an independent judiciary, and many other kinds of changes. So it’s not going to be easy for Morocco, but it seems like, at the top, they’re very dedicated to this change.
Speaker – Anouar Boukhars
Our first speaker is Anouar Boukhars, who is a well known author on Morocco, and a professor at McDaniel College. Anouar, let me ask you the first question. There seems to be some question in the media about Morocco’s commitment to the reforms. Can you give us your perceptions on how these elections and the new constitution are viewed in Morocco? You were there recently, and you’re going back. Is this a move forward or, as some would say, business as usual?
ANOUAR BOUKHARS: Thank you, Ambassador. It’s definitely a move forward. The ongoing transformation in Morocco has already ushered in several positive developments. First, that Islamists’ win in free and fair elections in Morocco should not come as a surprise, but their victory constitutes a clean break from how elections used to be perceived by, number one, the electorate, and two, by the political elites themselves.
Before, obviously, people used to vote – when they do vote – based on which political party is close to the palace, for example. That’s no longer the case – and that’s what the win of the PJD demonstrates to us today. So the election will lead political parties to understand – and this is very important – that their survival no longer depends on their proximity to the palace. The voters in this election had made the best choice they had. The PJD, in my view, represented the – or one – of the only feasible outlets for any Moroccan who was unhappy with the socioeconomic conditions of the country, with the prevailing economic policies of the outgoing government.
Second, the Moroccan political landscape seemed to be, at least in the last decade, bereft of clear ideological commitments. There has become no difference between rightist parties, parties in the center, and parties in the left. Now, we are seeing some change – positive change, right? We now have a political landscape that is clearly defined, right, ideologically and also politically.
The socialist party refused the offer of the PJD to join the government. Some saw it as a positive move, some as negative move. Personally I wish that they had joined the government based on political consideration and not ideological considerations. Nevertheless, we will probably have a conservative bloc and then a leftist block and then a liberal bloc, and that’s healthy in a democracy. You can’t have a democracy unless you have a well-defined political landscape and political parties with well-defined and distinct ideologies.
So the real important change in Morocco is not just the win of a moderate Islamist party, but the fact that Islamists – for the first time, obviously, or any political party for the first time – will share executive power and will be subjected, for the first time, to the unforgiving test of incumbency.
So both the monarchy and the Islamists gained from the results – that’s the best scenario for the palace that the PJD won and for the Islamists, as well. So by appointing Benkirane as a head of government, prime minister, the King showed that he was holding firm to his commitments and to the new constitution – very important. The Islamists, too. They have always aspired – at least, since 1998 – to reach government, to work within the system to change the system.
So both the Islamists and the monarchy have an opening right now for shared governance, and both of them have a stake that the reforms win because it’s true Morocco has weathered the storm quite successfully; but there are enormous, enormous challenges that needs to be confronted – mainly economic – in terms of economics and in terms of corruption. Unless those are addressed, then the country’s bound to experience serious trouble as we move forward.
GABRIEL: Thank you, Anouar. Does anyone want to offer a comment or ask Anouar a question?
AUDRA GRANT: I think that the elections also occurred against a backdrop of a waning interest in politics and a cynicism regarding Moroccan institutions. I was part of a study, a MEPI grant, that launched a pre-election poll in the 2007 elections, and there was a great deal of concern about the ability of Moroccan parties to represent the interests of the Moroccan people, the ability of Moroccan parties to behave in a way that’s autonomous, as well as a general concern as to whether or not the government was interested in some of the more basic issues that people face on a daily basis.
So I think for these elections to have happened at all is significant. And that they have happened in a way that’s non-violent, and that they have happened in a way that has provided a more open political space for various political actors and parties is significant, I think, for the monarchy. In addition, I think the elections are a win in the sense that they have occurred, and also that the PJD has been successful. So I think the monarchy has gone forward in a way that’s very positive. I think that the tradition of reform in the country has been somewhat of a strong one, although there have been some complaints that those reforms – earlier reforms have not gone far enough. But I think there is a very cautious optimism that the monarchy will implement substantive reforms, as opposed to cosmetic reforms which have been the trend in the past.
SHARI BRYAN: I would agree with everything that’s been said. I think we need to look a little bit at the numbers. I don’t think there’s a mandate here at all. The number of people that voted was about 45 percent of the registered voters, but the number of registered voters in this election was about two million people less than in 2007. There’s also the protest movement, the February 20th movement, and some of the smaller political parties that were actually protesting this election. And as we observed, although not scientific, there was a significant amount of the votes that were cast as protest ballots.
So I think there is a significant number of people in society who’ve not bought into the elections, who are skeptical. We heard that skepticism and cynicism on the street during the week before the election. And I think, while it’s significant and important that the reforms have been made, that the PJD won, I think they have a great challenge to actually deliver in a very short period of time.
ROBERT HOLLEY: I’d like to pick up on the theme of protest voting. it’s not as though there were polls available in Morocco to do a good analysis of what people were voting for or why they voted for this party or that one. But anecdotally, I think, one of the conclusions that I’ve drawn from watching the election is that PJD’s victory is, in a sense, both a victory for themselves and a defeat for the other parties in a way which I think is actually positive for them because I think that a lot of people voted for PJD not necessarily because they shared the Islamic reference that PJD says it has, but because they were unhappy with the inability of the other parties in the country to deliver on the kinds of basic goods and services that people are interested in.
So I think, in a sense, while PJD’s victory may seem like a defeat for the other parties, it could have a very positive consequence in the sense that the sort of road to victory that PJD has traced should prove a positive motivation for other parties in the country to try to model themselves on the sort of seriousness of the PJD’s approach to politics. And hopefully, we’ll see some changes in the other political parties in the future [as they] attempt to recapture their portion of the electorate which, presumably, would also lend itself to encouraging greater voter participation in the process as a whole.
GABRIEL: Anouar, we’re throwing around the term “Islamist party. How does this Islamist party compare to those in Tunisia and Egypt? Recently I made the comment – and you can dispute it if you’d like – that this Islamist party is, to me, much more akin to the Christian Democrats of Europe than it is with, quote, “the Islamist party” that you find in Tunisia and Egypt. Would you care to comment on that?
BOUKHARS: Absolutely right. And that’s how they describe themselves; at least that’s how they claim they are. There are similarities with EnNahda in Tunisia. I mean, when EnNahda won, the first thing that the PJD did is that they sent their number two to Tunisia the next day to congratulate them. The PJD sees itself as similar to the Turkish Party of Justice and Development. The PJD claims that the Turkish Islamists have been inspired by the Moroccan brand of Islamism because the Moroccan Islamists coined the name, and then the Turks used it and call theirs the Party of Justice and Development.
But you’re absolutely right. The PJD is not a monolith – it’s very important to remember that. There are at least three groups within the PJD, and that’s one of the challenge of this new government will have. The challenges are more internal than external. It’s how they will be responsive to different constituencies. There is a religious current, Dawa–missionary. There is a pragmatic current represented by elected officials; and then there is a reformist current within the youth that want to deepen, obviously, the process quickly. So how do you square these currents with the PJD’s youth and these differences is going to be a huge challenge.
But the PJD, obviously, is moderate – has always been moderate. And it has stated that – in fact, if you look at each campaign, it does not mention Islam at all. There are five priorities [in the party mission]. Islam is mentioned as the fourth priority, Islam as a reference for actions, for example, Islam as social justice – that’s what they say. The values of Islam would enable them to combat corruption, and that’s the extent of it.
They’re not stupid. They understand that peoples’ grievances are socioeconomic and political. And I agree with you – people voted for the PJD not because of their Islamist brand. It was mostly a protest movement against the rest, and they wanted just to try something new. It’s going to be an economic challenge, and in any case the constitution says that the religion is the purview of the monarch, and that’s clear.
GABRIEL: And the King – it also acknowledges the King as the commander of the faithful…
BOUKHARS: Absolutely right.
GABRIEL: – which is very different from some of these other countries.
Speaker – Audra Grant
Audra Grant is a political scientist at Rand and a former professor at Al Akhawayn University, a university that I’ve had a lot of dealings with and admire a great deal. Audra, your question: There seems to be a great deal of concern based on statements by the leadership of EnNahda inside Tunisia, the transitional government in Libya, and the Islamist parties of Egypt that women will not fare well under governments with a strong Islamic orientation. Based on your research, is the situation different in Morocco, and what are the implications of the election for women in Morocco? Are we looking at progress or a step backwards?
AUDRA GRANT: I think the promise of transition in North Africa has, indeed, raised a number of important expectations among women that potential liberalization will extend to their community. And women have been, indeed, very important agents of change in these Arab Spring transitions. They have blogged, they have provided services, they have marched, they have protested, and in some cases even fought alongside their male counterparts. So I think that in terms of where women stand now, it can range or their status can range somewhere between precarious to very promising. And I think Morocco could potentially fall on the very promising end of that spectrum.
If we look at some of the efforts and measures that have been implemented to improve the status of women in recent years in Morocco, we can just look back to the 2004 reforms of the personal status code, which seeks to redress and deal with the status of the woman in the household and, by extension, her community. Personal status codes address issues of guardianship, inheritance, custody, and lineage and these sorts of things, as well as property rights. In Morocco in 2004, those status codes were reformed in a way that was much more liberalizing and in a way that looks much more like Tunisia’s codes. Now, women have more of a say in guardianship, and they attain that status at 21 years old. They can also inherit and have greater rights in terms of custody and on issues of polygamy. There are also substantial restrictions that prevent women from being divorced very easily and these sorts of things. So there have been significant strides there.
Also on the electoral front more recently, following the July 1st constitutional referendum, women’s rights are now enshrined and there is recognition of gender equality, not just in terms of political and civil rights but also economic and environmental and cultural rights as well. So that’s very important for women. There’s also been an increase in the number of seats allowed for women, from 30 to 60 seats, thereby propelling parties to have – or to have a greater role in ensuring greater female participation in the political spectrum. So I think Morocco is certainly moving forward in those respects.
I think the concern is whether or not those changes will actually translate into practice. I think the challenge for the new government, again, is to implement meaningful reforms regarding women. And then Morocco can be, I think, a model in the North African region in this issue area. But again, the challenge is really implementing substantive reforms regarding women. It’s been a challenge from the standpoint of changing attitudes and in changing years of entrenched practices.
And I think going forward, training for women’s organizations and women-led parties, and pushing the government to implement those regulations and policies regarding women will be key in the future in terms of giving women greater legislative access and ensuring greater political participation.
GABRIEL: I’m reminded, when the King took the throne upon the death of his father, three weeks after his father’s death on Youth Day [a national holiday], August 20, 1999, he said in his very first public speech: How can our country move forward when half of the population, its women, are disenfranchised? So I think it speaks to one of his great concerns. Shortly thereafter, of course, he was also called King of the poor. But I think it’s one of the issues he personally cares about and that he intends to improve.
How do you feel about these issues, Shari, and would you like to offer a comment or two?
BRYAN: Well, I think that enshrining some of these women’s issues in the constitution is a huge step forward, and the increase in the number of seats in parliament for women is very, very important. Institutionally at NDI – we’re a little skeptical of the long-term impact of set-aside seats for women, because oftentimes women who take seats through these special measures become marginalized in the real political discourse in a legislature.
And it also doesn’t require the parties to necessarily bring in women into their own internal political process. It’s very easy to just say: We’re going to encourage women, but just for those special seats. So I think more will need to be done to ensure that these women who going in are actually a valid part of the discussion and lawmaKing when they get into parliament.
HOLLEY: Yeah, I would. I want to just pick up on that last point. First of all, I want to say that I share your views. And I have a great deal of admiration for the courage and conviction of women in Morocco, many of whom I’ve worked with from the time that I was at the embassy there and since then, for the leadership that they have shown in organizing Morocco’s civil society around advocacy on a whole range of issues that I would sort of call social justice kinds of issues. Their courage in doing that, I think, has been really extraordinary, but I want to talk about women in parliament.
I have the privilege of knowing quite a number of them. And I understand NDI’s concern about the institutionalization of set-aside seats for women in legislative bodies. But the ones I know are not likely to be marginalized because they’ve shown the same kind of courage and conviction in their actions in parliament that they’ve shown in civil society.
I do agree very much of your comments about how the political parties have responded to that in terms of opening the party leadership structure itself to women who are in the party. That’s a place where I think they have been most resistant, and a place I think that really needs to be changed. I agree entirely with that comment.
GABRIEL: And it reminds me of another thing. I think those of you who’ve been to Morocco and worked in Morocco will also witness another thing. This King early on formed bonds and relationships with civil society. He – it seemed as though he was actually reaching beyond government to civil society to drive them at the local level to demand more good governance, but when you look at civil society, a large part of it is driven by women in Morocco.
BOUKHARS: There are very powerful feminist movements in Morocco. In fact, Benkirane, the new head of government, felt it necessary to go and meet with them prior to election. He met with several feminist organizations and addressed some of their concerns.
They’re going to be a pressure group, a lobby group – which is healthy, obviously, to keep this government in line with what the constitution stipulates. On the quota [for women in Parliament], I totally agree. The problem is that if there is no quota, as of yet women [candidates] don’t fare very well. If you look at the results, unfortunately, outside the sixty [quota seats], only three or four women won their seats; and we’re looking at 11 percent right now in the legislature. So, as we move forward it’s you want to engrain it culturally that you have to vote for women.
Also, an important addition to the constitution states that political bodies now are obliged or obligated to reserve about one-third of positions in the leadership to women regionally and nationally. So that’s a positive move forward as I see it, but there are still obviously challenges ahead. And I share your concerns.
GABRIEL: I’d like to ask Shari Bryan to speak. She’s vice president at NDI and also was the co-leader of the observer delegation during the Moroccan elections. So she’s just back from Morocco. Our question to you is: NDI spent time in Morocco before, during, and after the elections – and it began during my time in Morocco when NDI actually established an office and began working with the parliament and the political parties.
Given your team’s experience, and NDI’s long experience, how would you characterize the election process this time, and how does Morocco continue to make progress in holding elections in the future?
Speaker – Shari Bryan
MS. SHARI BRYAN: I think the election process itself was quite good, but somewhat unremarkable. There was – when we arrived there a week before, we had a team of 40 observers. Ten of them were long-term observers; they were in the country for two months – so observing the month before and the month after the election. But when we arrived the week before the election, it was really hard to tell that there was an election about to take place. Nobody was talking about it; there were no political posters up in the streets; there was very little in the news. And so it seemed like sort of a non-event. And I think that that kind of plays in to the skepticism about this election.
The election day went off, really, without a hitch for the most part. There were no allegations or findings of ballot-stuffing or irregularities that would have changed the outcome. The management of the election was quite good. It’s still managed by the Ministry of Interior. I think one of the things in the long term that the government should think about – we’ve recommended this in the past – that an independent election commission be created. But they obviously did a very good job.
They had a lot of polling stations. There are 40,000 polling stations in the country. So from a management perspective, it’s a little bit challenging to find enough people to go out and manage 40,000 individual polling stations. They didn’t really need that many. That also leads to some voter confusion about where do you go and vote. The ministry introduced some new kind of high-tech tools that voters could go online and find out where they were registered, and it sort of looked good on the website, but it didn’t really translate into helping people understand where they should go. On election day, a lot of people had trouble finding their polling station.
I think there was a lack of voter education, just the basic education that needs to be provided in any transitional country like this. There was confusion about the ballot. It was a very big, lengthy, complicated ballot. We found that when people came into the polling station, they didn’t quite understand how they were supposed to mark the ballot or what they were supposed to do. In most countries – in many countries there’s information posted outside the polling station that shows a ballot and the ballot procedures, and there was really none of that.
But nevertheless, I think it was well managed. Some of the election officials in polling stations disagreed [among themselves] on the procedures. They weren’t quite clear on how to do the count – it’s a proportional representation system, a little bit more complicated. But even all of those little problems did not amount to enough to say that there the outcome would have been different.
The PJD won, and to go to one of your points, you know, they are clearly the most organized political party in the country. We had briefings for three days before election day and had long meetings with almost every political party. They [PJD] were head and shoulders above their counterparts. They came in extremely organized, articulated their platforms, were able to go into great detail about what their plans would be – in contrast to the other parties who were still unable to really articulate their plans for the future.
On election day, and the days before, it was really the PJD that you saw out on the streets organizing; you really didn’t see the other parties. So I think the fact that they won not only represents they are the only credible alternative, but they’re also so much better organized than anybody else.
The thing that really disturbed us was the number of people who turned out. So I think the government was saying 45 percent is a great turnout. Well, it is. And we can’t really speak about turnout here in the United States. But 45 percent of what?
This is where I think we should be a little bit concerned. Clearly, the number of registered voters was lower in 2011 than it was in 2007. I think that there are probably more people of voting age in 2011 than there was in 2007, with the huge youth bulge that exists there.
When we met with the Ministry of Interior, we asked them how many eligible voters there were in the country, and they refused to answer that question and said that we would have to talk to the census bureau. We thought that was really sort of ridiculous that the Ministry of Interior could not – they did not – want to answer that question, I believe.
Our thinking is that there are many, many people who should be registered, and who should be motivated to vote. This was a very important election. And yet, the numbers were low. In addition to that was the protest vote that we saw – in at least the 200 polling centers that our team observed – a high number of invalid ballots, and many of them were protest ballots. People had come in, taken the time to go to their polling station and go in and vote and put either a big X across the entire ballot or to write an obscenity or to scribble on it. It was a protest vote. And that’s quite unusual. I think there’s a little bit of a history to that in Morocco. But the high numbers of those protest ballots, I think, was remarkable.
The last thing I’d say is we were impressed with the February 20th group we met with. I can’t say their leadership because they don’t really have a leadership – but with those who came to meet with us. And I do think they represent an important segment of society. They represent young potential voters, those who are looking for jobs and those who I think are dissatisfied or skeptical of the reforms.
The reform process in Morocco has been more of a top-down process than a grassroots process. I think you can be critical of that even though the reforms are quite good. I don’t think there’s been enough opportunity for civil society writ large to be involved in the discussion. There are things that the palace and the new government can do to remedy that quite easily by just opening the doors a little bit wider so that people can come in and have a voice and a discussion about these reforms.
At the end of the day, that’s probably the most important thing about these elections – is that not enough people really cast their ballots in favor of anything. More people want a voice in this discussion.
HOLLEY: This election comes across – given the turnout – as a condemnation, actually, of the political parties in Morocco. Moroccans are very politically interested and politically active, for example, when I was in Morocco during the 2009 communal elections, which were a lot more lively than the 2011 elections. When people believe that they have something that actually is going to affect their daily lives, they get involved and participate.
One of the largest challenges to the political parties in Morocco is to find a way to look at and cooperate with civil society organizations as potential partners rather than as some kind of competition and organizations that they want to keep at arm’s length because they’re fearful that the energy and the vibrancy and the advocacy of those civil society groups is somehow going to upset the apple cart inside their own party structure – which would be a good thing if it did. That relationship needs a lot of work on it.
BOUKHARS: The turnout is still a little better than expected. I thought it would be much, much lower. You’re right, I mean, if you draw a distinction between the vote for the constitution as a vote for the monarchy, it was clear that this vote was against political parties. As you all know, parties are held in extremely low, low esteem. [For example], something happened just before the vote: the monarch came to address parliament during an important event and it was carried on television. A parliamentarian wanted to solicit the King’s help, but he couldn’t because of bodyguards, so he threw a letter at the King. That was played over and over again on television and further discredited the political parties. There is a parliamentarian in the parliament, and trying to ask the King for a favor. There was a huge debate about it.
But those are the stakes about this election. That’s why the PJD must perform and it must succeed, because if it doesn’t, then it would contribute to the de-legitimization of political parties.
GRANT: I strongly echo Shari’s points, and I think they’re spot on. When you look at the headlines and you see Moroccans turnout for election, but then when you look at 45 percent – 45 percent up from 37 percent in 2007 really is not a hugely significant difference. If you look at previous Moroccan voting patterns it was much higher, in the 60 and 70 percent range.
The turnout has gone down over decades. What are at play here are two things. First, the palace and the establishment need to catch up with new forms of political activism. Youth no longer find parties to be very useful vehicles for expressing their concerns and grievances. That’s partly because these civil society actors are not very civil, right, in terms of how they behave and how they’re structured.
But blogging, establishing NGOs, starting entrepreneurial organizations, Facebook, Twittering – those are new forms of activism and expression that I think mainstream political organizations and institutions the world over really have to catch up with and understand how to reach out and attract and inspire this new very important constituency, which would be youth.
Also, in terms of how political parties are structured, it was also mentioned earlier that it’s not a very friendly environment. It’s very difficult for women to make inroads because of entrenched practices. It’s very difficult for youth or for younger members of parties also. This is also the case even with the PJD and other Islamist parties in the region. They are led by, you know, older leadership.
So I think a number of things have to happen. First, there has to be a new appreciation for the new kinds of political activism that are important to these new constituencies; and also there has to be an appreciation for the importance of internal reform of civil society organizations and political parties.
GABRIEL: Shari: How did the youth fare in this whole thing? There was a quota for youth; was that good? Is that a good transitional step? How do you see the youth playing in this last election?
BRYAN: The set aside seats are an important step right now. But I think the lack of youth participation – something, again not captured in official data. From our observation, there weren’t a lot of young people going to the polls. That’s the more challenging issue. At the end of the day, is this really going to be about, like it is in so many places –even here – the economy and jobs? Can these reforms and can this new government actually deliver something in that respect that’s different from the last decade?
GABRIEL: I don’t know if things have changed since I was ambassador, but the whole lack of interest by the youth then was in large part due to the arcane nature of the political parties. The parties really have to really modernize and think about how youth is going to be an important part of their future. We shall see, but hopefully this is a good beginning.
Our last speaker is Bob Holley, who was in Rabat when I was there; we served together. Bob’s a 21-year veteran of the foreign service and also two tours in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot, which prepared him well for his job in Morocco.
Speaker – Robert Holley
GABRIEL: Bob, This has been a tough challenge for the US. Although the Arab Spring highlighted common issues among those countries affected, each country is clearly different, both in respect to its domestic political agenda and the relationship of the government and the people. Is there a way forward for the US, or are we better off letting local forces define their solutions for themselves?
HOLLEY: I’m really only going to address one issue, but I think it’s an important one for US foreign policy because it goes to the heart of the issue of the will of the American people to be engaged in this process, and the competence of the US foreign-policy establishment to do that in some kind of meaningful and positive way.
We all know that Morocco’s recent elections was only one in a continuing series of events in the Middle East and North Africa that’s come to be known as the Arab Spring. What I mean to say is that the elections in Morocco did not occur in a vacuum. And we really can’t begin to talk about the consequences for US policy on the back of these elections without putting them in some larger regional context.
What began as a kind of seemingly local process in Tunis suddenly mushroomed into something much bigger and sort of spread around the region like wildfire and became known, as sort of the Arab equivalent of the “shot heard round the world” in the American Revolution. But where any of this is headed I think is really very difficult to say. I mean, we’re in very uncharted waters here.
What’s clear is that the events in the region are not only going to have a very profound set of consequences for the politics of the region itself, but they’re also going to have a very profound set of consequences for the United States and for our allies in Europe and indeed for global politics as a whole.
Having said that, I’m going to say something that you might think is a little provocative: I don’t think that the Arab Spring could have come at a worse time. You might think I’m being provocative in that statement just for the sake of encouraging a little debate on the topic, but I’m actually quite serious about it. Of course, for the people of Tunisia and Libya and Egypt, they’ve gotten rid of Bin Ali and Gadhafi and Mubarak, and you might say that, well, that’s a good thing in and of itself, and it probably is. But the question is, what comes next? Now that’s a very difficult question to answer.
Look at the events that are ongoing in Syria and Iran, Bahrain, Yemen – the whole region is in a process of seismic change at the moment. These changes are revolutionary. Revolutions, history has taught us, tend to turn out to be very messy, very chaotic, and, more often than not, unfortunately also very bloody.
The American Revolution, which was not really a revolution at all but a kind of rebellion – although it produced something which was very revolutionary, that is, a constitutional republic – that revolution itself wasn’t really finished in this country until after the American Civil War. That’s when the contradictions and the dynamics that grew out of the founding of the country finally played themselves out in a bloody mess and helped put the country together again.
The chaos and the bloodshed and the reign of terror that followed the French Revolution has been very well-documented, and you can argue that that revolution took a better part of a century before it played itself out. It included a great deal of bloodshed throughout the continent of Europe.
In both of these examples, what resulted was very much better than what was there to begin with, but that doesn’t mean that we should discount and overlook the very heavy price that was paid in order to get from the beginning of those revolutions to the end of them. Can we expect today that the revolutions that are playing themselves out in the Middle East and North Africa are going to be any less messy, less chaotic, or less bloody than the ones that history has delivered up for us in the past?
The kinds of fundamental political and social changes that are happening out there are clearly necessary. The regimes in the region have become so brittle, so deeply entrenched, so resistant to change, and so unresponsive to what are legitimate needs and demands from the people who live there that, unfortunately, popular revolutions seem to be the only way left – at least, the only way left that people think of to get the changes that they’re looking for.
But if these changes are needed, and indeed to be desired, why do I say they couldn’t have come at a worse time? Well, I think the simple answer to that question is that, are any of us really ready for them? You can argue that no one’s ever ready for a revolution, but in life we also hope that we’re learning something from our previous experiences, and hope that we learn something from the experiences of our friends and neighbors. And that applies to us as individuals as well as to us as nations.
For me the question today is, we know that events in the Middle East are going to have profound consequences for the region. We hope they’re going to turn out well, but they could just as easily, and perhaps even more easily, turn out not so well. That being the case, are we ready, and are we willing to be helpful to our friends in the region that are facing these circumstances? More importantly, do we know how to help them?
My very real concern today is that we seem to be coming up short on both of these questions. Unless we find some new resolve here – and our partners in Europe as well for that matter – I’m afraid we’re going to miss the opportunity to help shape revolutionary circumstances in the region in a way that benefits not only our own interests in the region, but the legitimate demands that are being asked by the societies in the region.
To put it bluntly, I think it’s pretty clear today that the American public has really grown tired of US engagements in world conflicts. Americans have been demanding that the government concentrate more on the domestic problems – the economy and social injustice – and to pay less attention to what’s going on in the world around us. [They do not want] to be drawn into conflicts abroad, in which we seem to be constantly unable or unwilling to deliver the kinds of positive results that politicians in both parties have promised.
The failure of the US in its foreign engagements, and especially in the Middle East and South Asia in the recent years has increased a trend towards American withdrawal from global affairs. It has been building up momentum for a very long time, stretching back indeed to Vietnam, when people began to get very skeptical about US commitments abroad, and especially when those commitments were heavily military rather than heavily political.
Can we reverse the trend? I don’t think that’s really likely. We’ve established through a set of repeated failures, our inability to deliver, not only in the eyes of the American public. In this case, it’s the view of people in the Middle East themselves that the United States has not been a reliable partner for them in trying to bring about the kinds of positive changes in their lives that they’ve been looking for.
Just the other day, a friend of mine, a former ambassador to Morocco – not Ed – sent me an email. In that email there was a picture of a bumper sticker that said: “Be nice to America, or we’ll bring democracy to your country.” It’s the reaction that you have to a statement like that that speaks volumes, not only to perceptions of people here in the United States, but the perceptions of people in the region themselves about the United States and its engagement in the region. Unless we can reverse that kind of trend, I don’t think our prospects for helping to be a positive influence on events in the region are really very good.
Regarding Morocco, I’m going to step out on a limb here and say that what the US needs to do in order to begin to reverse this kind of trend is to have some successes. Morocco offers us an opportunity to have a success in a way that will begin to persuade people here at home, and perhaps people in the region, that the United States can be counted on to be a reliable partner, to stand beside people who are in fact trying to get it right and are demonstrating their own commitment to the process of getting it right in a positive way.
Morocco is in a sense, hopefully, for the U.S. government and for the American people – a kind of low-hanging fruit – Moroccans have already been at this process of reform for two decades and have already demonstrated the political willingness to push this process forward. It is an opportunity for the United States to stand behind that process in a very visible and tangible kind of way, and to show that the U.S. can be effective and can help people achieve these kinds of goals without the violence and the chaos that have been the consequences elsewhere.
Unless we’re able to do that, I don’t think that we’re going to have very much positive impact in the region, and we won’t be able to persuade the people in this country that U.S. foreign policy can in fact deliver on goals in the region.
BOUKHARS: Yes, these are very difficult times. Probably without the economic turmoil in the world, without these recessions, probably there wouldn’t have been these revolutions. So you’re right, it’s twofold. Probably without the recession there wouldn’t have been a revolution.
[Economic issues are critical to the revolutions] not just in the case of Morocco, but also in Egypt and Tunisia. There was a poll just released yesterday in Tunisia, same conclusion. Obviously there are problems with governance but also socio-economics, and they have to deliver quickly.
The United States needs success stories, and Morocco can be one. That’s why it needs all the assistance Morocco can get. Morocco is critical because it’s probably the last case or last hope we have to demonstrate that actually top-down reforms work. If that fails to bring reforms, probably people will look at other alternatives.
Now we have really two ways to go about doing the reforms. It’s either revolutions or cooperative transition – what we call, in theory, pact transitions. So if they fail in Morocco, then probably they can’t succeed in Jordan, because Jordan is following Morocco very closely, and there is pressure on their King to move as well. In fact, that’s one of the demands in the street, is that he [King Abdullah] should follow the Moroccan monarch.
So that’s where Morocco is hugely significant, because it presents a model for other monarchies. Morocco moves forward, Jordan follows, and then hopefully the Gulf. And we have seen some stirrings in the Gulf as well, you know, with Qatar, now in Saudi Arabia where women will vote in 2015 [in local elections]. Those might be baby steps, but still, given the Gulf and the traditions and cultural differences between the two, that’s why Morocco is in my view is hugely significant.
GRANT: Transitions are messy, and I think we’ve assumed that if we have democratization or liberalization prior to democratization, this is somehow going to diminish the likelihood of violence and unrest and instability. We’ve seen anything but in these transition processes because certain grievances and interests are brought to the fore in ways that are very difficult for governments to control.
But I think this comes at a time of diminished US credibility as well. Our leverage in the region is low. We have to be very creative, and also I think very careful with how we approach, interact, and deal with actors and with the sorts of policies that we put forward. As Anouar said, it is about the economy for these newer governments. Their ability to survive in a second election will depend on economic performance.
It is a challenge for the US, and an opportunity for the US is to improve economic conditions, but not through traditional trade policies. We always put forth trade, trade, trade, trade. I think in the context of Morocco and even Tunisia, more entrepreneurial sorts of strategies that encourage smaller types of businesses and more innovative types of businesses that don’t depend on trade are going to be very important. It is an opportunity for the US as well to think beyond the standard [formula of] improving trade and liberalizing trade sorts of policies.
GABRIEL: On that point, Secretary Clinton has established the North Africa Partners for Economic Opportunity (NAPEO), which very much plays to entrepreneurship in the private sector for North African countries. We hope that they can put the muscle and the resources behind this, in your words, a creative approach.
BRYAN: I’d agree with what everyone has said. This is a tremendous opportunity for the United States. I don’t think achieving success in Morocco will require as much economic effort on behalf of the United States as Tunisia or Egypt or some of these other places that are going through a transition. A lot can be done to show legitimate support to the citizens of Morocco, to this new political leadership in the country. We need to continue to push the reform efforts and to make sure that there’s not complacency with the status quo right now.
There was an interesting article in today’s Washington Post op-ed about Obama’s relationship with [Prime Minister] Erdogan in Turkey. Working with Turkey, particularly since the PJD is talking about how it identifies itself a little bit with the Turkey, and Turkish parties, could be another important relationship or angle to develop a deeper relationship with Turkey in some of these countries in North Africa.
But I think it is low-hanging fruit. We should indeed put every effort we have forward, and I don’t think it necessarily needs to cost the US government a lot of money to do so.
GABRIEL: When you look across the region, you start to see certain countries emerging as potential real anchors and leaders – Turkey being one, Morocco, Jordan, and even Saudi Arabia when you consider the power of Saudi Arabia and its pre-eminence in the Islamic world. So it’s a very interesting new dynamic that’s going on among countries that perhaps weren’t in the lead. Egypt used to be in the lead, but now – and Qatar’s coming – UAE can’t be underestimated.
Questions and Answers (edited)
Q: Hi, thank you very much for your conversations. My name’s Pamela Beecroft. I am the program officer at the Center for International Private Enterprise, which is one of the sister institutions with NDI under the National Endowment for Democracy. My question is actually pretty basic.
There have been mentions of civil society and voice and participation. As someone who writes proposals with that kind of language all the time, it’s a very nice sort of term, but I’m wondering if some of you – any of you – can give examples of how you see that in terms of processes, real processes, how you see participation, voice, civil-society inclusion really playing out in a way that satisfies both political parties’ needs for sort of substantive and diverse voices, and the ability of civil society to feel heard, and the ability for citizens to feel like they’re heard by civil society. Sometimes civil society can make up its own sort of segment without necessarily reference to populations of which they’re distilling the voice itself.
Q: I have a question for Mr. Anouar. You mentioned that most people voted for the PJD because it’s something new. But I’m just wondering – aren’t they known for their grassroots work? And also, do they have a track record? Because we can’t just say people voted for them because it’s something new.
Also, in terms of definition, we say – you know, we keep saying or, you know, saying that it’s an Islamist party, and it sounds more like a concern than anything else. Isn’t it an oxymoron to still call it Islamist party in a Muslim country? Can we just clear it up – you know, boogeyman thing?
BOUKHARS: PJD has a track record, in Parliament and in local constituencies. It’s one of the most disciplined party that has been there. Obviously they have not had governing experience prior to the new constitution as the legislature was limited in what it could do. But they have demonstrated that they are serious about what they do, unlike the other parties.
There is also another track record in governance because they had mayors. There have been mayors in several cities, and their record is obviously quite mixed – in Meknes, they had some trouble – but generally they’re viewed as non-corrupt for now, and they would bring some accountability to the system.
Is it Islamist party? Sure. They don’t refer to themselves as such. They say Islam is just a reference. That’s all there is in terms of values. So you’re right – probably we shouldn’t call them Islamist party. They call themselves the Party of Justice and Development. The constitution stipulates no parties based on religion.
GRANT: I taught at Al Akhawayn, and I actually posed this question [about identify] to my students – all Moroccan – and this is how they answered. They said: We are a number of identities, and we affiliate and embrace a number of different regions and cultures. It’s really complicated and there is a broad recognition of it, and I think it is unique. In terms of the political events that are happening in the region, however, I think Morocco does relate to what’s going on in the Gulf and does relate to what’s going on in the Levant as well, from a political perspective. So that’s why we cast Morocco also in the context of what’s going on in the broader Middle East as well.
When I think of civil society, I first think of whether or not institutions themselves are civil in terms of their behavior. Do they have procedures and mechanisms for succession and for nominating candidates of the voices that they claim to represent? Are they transparent, and do they disseminate information in a way that’s egalitarian? Do they have forums and venues for discussions and debates and these sorts of things? I don’t think of civil society in terms of whether or not actors are involved – that’s secondary. To me, what’s also important and what’s a priority is how organizations behave themselves.
The Islamist question – Islamism or Islamist are labels that academics and observers adopted to label and categorize different types of parties. It’s very simple; it’s not necessarily the way that people might describe themselves as members of these parties, but, I would agree with Anouar, it’s kind of a category that’s shorthand for something much more complex.
BRYAN: Regarding civil society, there’s a lot that can be done that’s very simple, that’s been done all over the world. It’s just finding a forum for citizens, citizens’ groups, NGOs, unions – everybody that’s sort of not in government to have a chance to talk about this stuff. That can be done through a variety of mechanisms. I don’t think it’s that hard. Government should take note right now and try to do that. I don’t think they have anything to fear; as the ambassador said, the King has a high approval rating. People support this; they want to be more involved.
On the Islamist issue, we were just talking about this at the office yesterday. We’re trying to get our hands around this thing here in the United States right now. We’re very naïve, I think; the press is naïve about who these parties are and what they stand for. As you pointed out, the PJD is really more like a Christian Democratic party. They have a basis in their faith, but they like free trade. I think that they’re more sort of conservative in the way they would want to run government than basing it off of the Quran. So I think the press is using that label. It’s going to unfold and we’re going to start talking about this in more detail as we go forward with these elections around the region.
HOLLEY: I want to come to this issue about civil society and echo something that you said earlier about innovation because I think this is really important and a key to success in the region. With Ed’s kind support, while we were in Morocco together at the embassy, one of the things that we did out there was to start a small grants program.
It took an enormous amount of persuasion to get the State Department to agree to do this and to find a mechanism for doing it. But it’s a very innovative and extremely effective way to reach out and give civil society groups that are doing advocacy – both for political reform or social reforms – a direct voice by making grants anywhere from like $5,000 to $25,000, and resisting putting our own label on it so that it doesn’t get labeled as a US program. But it allows you, through a modestly funded grant program, to reach out and touch a whole broad segment of the society that’s trying to support reforms, whether it’s working on implementation for women’s rights in rural areas or whether it’s the pursuit of, for example, a comic book on human rights that wound up getting used in a curriculum, and doing a play about a divorce proceeding that was put on by a women’s theater group. These kinds of things can have huge impacts at small costs.
The US government and, frankly, the instruments of a democratization and governance programs that our government supports now needs to be willing to adjust their own program priorities and activities to embrace these kinds of innovative ways and get them to go forward. We failed entirely in persuading others in the region to adopt this kind of approach. Even though when the Second Intifada began in Palestine, everybody else was shut off from dialogue with their political contacts in civil society. In Morocco, we were able to continue to talk to people about events because we had been reaching out to them in this kind of concrete way.
Q: Yes. Could any of you comment on the impact that this election might have on the Western Sahara dispute?
Q: During my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, I could see firsthand some of the political and economic frustrations that the youth were facing, so I was wondering if you could each elaborate a little bit more on the youth – sort of what you think their role is moving forward and whether they’ll be sort of successfully incorporated into the discourse that’s going on.
GABRIEL: On the Sahara, I think the biggest change post-constitution for the Sahara is the regionalization plan. It’s going to be very important as the country devolves power. Think about this – the King of Morocco is pushing for a constitution that devolves power from the top. That in itself is a very strong and quite amazing comment. So how that evolves in the Sahara will be interesting because the international community now is proposing a solution to the Sahara that would involve Morocco sovereignty with autonomy in the region. That’s something that the King of Morocco, and the Moroccan people, as well as the international community have now are coalescing around. If that regionalization meets international standards for autonomy, it will have a profound effect on the final solution to the Sahara.
HOLLEY: The people in the Polisario have been pushing the point of view that they are the sole representative of the Sahrawi people – at least, that’s their self-proclamation, Despite the fact that here you have a group of people that have had the same president and haven’t had a meaningful election in better than three decades.
The people who actually live in the Sahara, has been given repeated opportunities to vote in multiple elections, which allows them to express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their status and who they think ought to be running affairs locally. The Polisario leadership has repeatedly called for people to boycott these elections. The Polisario has appealed to the UN Secretary General to ensure that Morocco doesn’t allow the people in the Sahara to even go to the polls and express their opinion. Despite all of that, people in the Sahara have gone to the polls in record numbers and have voted for their own national representatives and their own local leadership. This has demonstrated fairly conclusively, over at least the last decade, that they’re committed to an arrangement in which they are currently living and presumably committed to the kinds of promises that are being made to them in how they will be able to live their lives in the future. They are completely rejecting the alternative which is being offered to them by the Polisario’s leadership. That speaks volumes by itself.
BRYAN: On the youth question, NDI carried out focus groups of youth perceptions of the reform process in Morocco in July, and I think it’s an interesting read. It’s on our website, www.ndi.org, and it really reflects everything that we’ve been talking about today: that youth are in favor of reforms, but they’re skeptical and they’re worried that they’re not going to go far enough; they are dissatisfied with political parties, and what they really want this reform process to focus on is education, jobs, and an end to corruption.
I think that there is a youth movement out there that’s a little bit disenfranchised, and should be brought into the tent for more constructive engagement. They have strong views, and they want this reform process to succeed, but they also want a job, and they want to go to school.
GABRIEL: Anouar, would you take on the question of the upper-bound expectations of the PJD and this political process?
BOUKHARS: Let me begin with the Western Sahara. In my interviews there, what really just pops up is the question of governance. It’s the same problems that exist in the interior of Morocco. There’s a serious problem of governance, and people are driven by local concerns, and that’s why they go to vote. Importantly, the PJD won a seat or two in the Western Sahara. That’s unthinkable, and I’m one of those that was stunned by that. PJD usually doesn’t do well in the rural areas at all. They did pretty well this time, and also in the Western Sahara that tells you exactly what drives peoples’ concerns – is governance, governance, governance.
The expectations, obviously, are high for the PJD. I mean, even those that don’t vote for the PJD hope that they will practice what they preach, that that they would bring more accountability because that’s really what matters, and that they will contribute to the independence of the judiciary. In the last few days, they had celebrations in Tangier and Fez and elsewhere in which tens of thousands of their supporters came, and one of the chants was “independence of the judiciary.” So that’s where the expectations are, and whether they can deliver or not, that we shall see how it plays out. ut there are expectations out there, and a lot of the silent majority is still skeptical, and support the monarchy, but it just don’t know how this process will go.
GRANT: – I wanted to add to Shari’s always excellent comments on youth. Something that I didn’t mention and I think that deserves attention is that for youth in Morocco, it’s not just about jobs and employment and earning a living. Some early research that I was involved in earlier this year emphasized that youth want to be respected. They want to be valued and taken seriously. They don’t want to be treated like children. They want a purpose.
There’s a whole element of self-fulfillment and the sense of being useful and the sense of being part of something important and something enduring that also drives youth attitudes and their frustration – that sense that not only do they not have access to jobs and economic opportunity and political opportunity, but rather, just as people in Morocco, they’re not appreciated and they’re overlooked, and they’re just marginalized as human beings, as young human beings because of their age. So going forward, I think that also deserves attention, and we should always be mindful of that as well.