RABAT—Sitting, as the preamble of its 2011 reform constitution proclaims, at the crossroads where the Arab Islamic world converges with Europe and Africa—all of which are in various stages of ferment and even crisis—Morocco stands out as something of an oasis of stability.
Unlike other rulers in the region, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI has weathered the turbulence of recent years well. Today, in the 16th year since his accession, he enjoys widespread popularity at home, as I witnessed firsthand this past Friday when thousands of elected officials, community leaders, and ordinary Moroccans from across the North African country converged on the capital for the annual renewal of their loyalty to the monarch. (The King, in turn, reaffirmed his commitment to defending the rights of citizens, as well as the independence, territorial integrity, and welfare of the kingdom.) The enthusiasm on display was not surprising given the middle path Mohammed VI has managed to chart, steering the country clear of both revolutionary tumult and violent repression, while simultaneously avoiding the trap of religious extremism. As many of their neighbors continue to come to terms with the so-called Arab Spring, Moroccans have adopted a new constitution and elected a new government, one led for the first time in the country’s history by a (moderate) Islamist party; another election is schedule for September and is already shaping up to be highly competitive contest between a number of parties, both Islamist and secular-leaning.
Part of the explanation for this Moroccan “exceptionalism” is that, unlike most of the Arab Middle East, where the nation-state is a colonial artifice created out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, Morocco has a political history that stretches back more than 12 centuries. The Alaouite Dynasty, which traces its lineage from the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima and the Caliph Ali—thus justifying the reigning monarch’s claim to be Amir al-Mu’minin (“Commander of the Faithful”)—has occupied the throne since 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London. The 15th Sultan in that lineage, Mohammed III was, in 1777, the first foreign sovereign to recognize the independence of the United States (the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the two countries, America’s oldest diplomatic accord still in force, is an extraordinary document bearing the signatures of both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson). Thus the current King enjoys a historical legitimacy that is unmatched anywhere in the region.
Mohammed VI has put his political capital to good use with a concerted program to reform and open up his country’s political space long before the recent upheavals across the Arab world. In one of his first acts upon coming to the throne in 1999, he created an independent commission—the first such panel in the Arab world—to investigate the thousands who had suffered detention and other human rights abuses during his father Hassan II’s long reign. He eventually offered over $100 million in compensation to victims. This effort was followed by a broader political liberalization, including a reform of the family code (Moudawana), which the King successfully pushed through in 2004 over conservative opposition by, in part, invoking his religious authority as Commander of the Faithful. Among other provisions, the legislation significantly advanced women’s rights by elevating the minimum age of marriage to 18, limiting polygamy, granting couples joint rights over their children, and empowering women to initiate divorce proceedings. The political opening was accompanied by both economic reforms aimed at empowering emerging entrepreneurs and the massive National Initiative for Human Development (INDH), a multibillion-dollar program aimed at generating employment, fighting poverty, and improving infrastructure in both rural areas and the sprawling slums on the outskirts of urban centers.
Then came the 2011 constitutional reform. The process was already underway, but was speeded up in the wake of the revolutions that year in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. The reform shifted power away from the monarch to the Prime Minister and parliament. Since then, the legislature has passed ten organic laws called for in the charter, moving the country closer its goal of establishing a constitutional monarchy with separation of powers; devolving more authorities and responsibilities to elected local and regional governments; and embracing the diversity that is enshrined in the constitution’s description of Morocco’s national character as “enriched and nourished by African, Andalusian, Jewish, and Mediterranean influence.”
Perhaps nowhere is the commitment to openness more dramatically apparent than in the sphere of religion, where the King, in his role as religious leader, has pushed to reinvigorate Morocco’s traditionally moderate Islam—which, as my friend Ahmed Abbadi, secretary-general of the Rabita Mohammedia des Oulémas, the senior body of Moroccan religious scholars, summarizes it, is based on the three pillars of Ash’ari theology and its celebration of reason, the Maliki school of jurisprudence and its emphasis on changing contexts, and Sufi mysticism and its focus on spirituality—as a countervailing force to the extremism burgeoning across the Muslim world. Initiatives have been launched to integrate modern learning into the clerical curriculum, create a virtually unprecedented corps of mourchidates (female religious guides), and provide training in the values of moderate Islam for religious leaders not only in Morocco, but across Africa and Europe. A special foundation was recently created with the mandate to use age-old religious links between Morocco and its Sub-Saharan African neighbors to promote tolerance and moderation. This initiative builds on the opening earlier in the year of an institute to provide formation for future religious leaders, both men and women, from Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, and Tunisia, as well as France.
Morocco is also increasing its heft in the economic sphere, with a particular emphasis on doing business in its own African home. This is a point that should not be lost upon American businesses taking up President Obama’s invitation at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi last week to seize the “incredible opportunities” on the continent, given that Morocco is the only African country with a free-trade agreement with the United States. In his 16 years on the throne, Mohammed VI has made some 33 trips to Sub-Saharan African countries, and the results are telling: Volume of bilateral trade between Morocco and the region has increased sevenfold during the period. The three top Moroccan banks—Banque Populaire, Attiwarijafa, and BMCE—operate in more than two dozen African countries, maintaining the continent’s largest retail banking networks by branch. Other companies have followed, and Moroccan enterprises already account for roughly 10 percent of all business transacted across Africa. In April of this year, the U.S. government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation acknowledged Morocco’s regional leadership by signing a memorandum of understanding to have the North African country serve as a triangular partner for the U.S. to “facilitate sharing the lessons of Morocco’s development experience with other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, and serve as an important catalyst for South-South cooperation,” with a particular emphasis on “the goal of reducing poverty in Africa, including a focus on promoting the adoption of new technologies and innovative business models to promote entrepreneurship.”
No country is perfect—and Morocco has its share of challenges—but there is no denying that the country has managed with remarkable aplomb the political, economic, social, and security threats that come from being on the very fault lines of worlds in foment. If the 1,462 Moroccans who have left the country to join the Islamic State represent a problem—one which was clearly acknowledged by a senior Moroccan intelligence official who briefed me last week—then the fact that the government not only is well-informed about the extremist networks but has also caught 163 jihadists who have tried to come home after traveling to Syria and Iraq tells a lot about the professionalism and capabilities of the security services in this “major non-NATO ally,” one of only three on the entire African continent.
While the unique historical and social conditions in the country mean that there is no “Moroccan model” which can be readily exported, at a time and in a region where success stories are rare, the U.S. and its allies—as part of a broader strategy—would do well not only to support Morocco’s efforts but also to consider what lessons could be drawn from this experience that might be applicable to broader contexts.