By Benny Avni
By Benny Avni
July 6, 2011 (New York Post)
Morocco moved in democracy’s direction over the weekend, but unlike this winter’s much ballyhooed revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the world — including the Obama administration — barely noticed. Spring? Where?
In a referendum in which, impressively, three quarters of voting-age Moroccans participated, the country adopted significant reforms. Under the new rules, which passed with 97 percent of the vote, King Mohammed VI is to keep ultimate control over the army and remains the supreme religious authority — but on most issues he now must “consult” with an elected prime minister.
The reforms don’t establish the kind of constitutional monarchy that, say, Sweden or Great Britain enjoy. But Morocco’s experiment in transferring some powers to elected officials is unique in a region in which unelected (or faux-elected) rulers tend to grab, rather than cede, powers.
Also included are more rights for women and minorities — another rarity in the Arab Mideast. Berber, for example, will become an official national language alongside Arabic.
The 44-year-old king, who acceded in 1999, started experimenting with reforms much before the so-called Arab Spring. Events in Tunisia and Egypt, however, prompted him to hasten the process.
Unlike former Tunisian ruler Zine El Abidene Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who were almost universally despised by their countrymen, King Mohammed is revered even by Moroccans who are calling for deeper reforms than he’s offering.
The thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators who took to the streets after the weekend’s referendum have a point when they demand further reforms. Too much corruption chokes the Moroccan economy, and despite some new press freedoms, criticizing the monarch is still frowned upon. As Mohammed is likely to soon discover, a bit of democracy is a slippery slope toward much more democracy.
Nevertheless, his nod to liberalization could transform for the better several corners in a region in which hope is rare in this summer of discontent.
As the Moroccan-born Columbia University Mideast researcher Younes Abouyoun says, the king’s “controlled evolutionary approach” could become a blueprint for regional change.
Jordan’s King Abdullah may be forced to adopt similar measures soon. Bahrainis are already demanding that their king follow suit. And Berbers in neighboring Algeria want similar rights as their Moroccan brethren.
Morocco’s evolution may be a more promising path to democracy than the “Arab Spring” revolutions — certainly less violent than, say, in Syria and Libya.
And look at Egypt. Over the winter, everyone from President Obama on down marveled at the prospect of a new democracy ruled by the likes of a young Google executive, Wael Ghonim, who’d spent much of his life over here. In reality, however, the front-runner in Egypt’s presidential race is a 74-year-old former Arab League chief, Amre Moussa, who more than anyone symbolizes the old Mideast order.
And that’s before we even contemplate the dangers that fundamentalist Islamists (and their evil twin, the terror masters) would take over.
Fearing that such forces are much too well-organized for anyone else to compete in a fair election, Egypt’s ruling military authorities are now reportedly considering a delay in the presidential vote, which is scheduled for September.
Morocco, meanwhile, has long been on our side in the fight against Islamist terror, combating such forces as al Qaeda in the Maghreb and fundamentalists who’ve infiltrated groups seeking independence from Morocco in Western Sahara.
The Obama administration has talked up the revolutions that toppled American allies in Egypt and Tunisia. These, we learned, represented progress toward true Arab democracy. We heard no similar enthusiasm from Washington over the weekend, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a pro-forma statement, saying that we “welcome” Morocco’s referendum results.
At the same time, King Mohammed sent America a July 4 love letter. “In 1777, Morocco was the first nation to recognize US independence,” he wrote, reiterating his own commitment to “the principles of democracy” and “the fight against all forms of extremism.”
Yes, we’ve heard such sentiments from Arab leaders before — not all genuine. And no, Morocco’s referendum is nothing like America’s momentous revolutionary approach to governance, as celebrated on July 4.
But Morocco took a significant step that could become a model for transition toward democracy (and affinity with the West) in the region. We should make a bigger deal out of it than we have so far.