ECFR Report Gives Mixed Grades on Counterterrorism Strategies to Morocco and Tunisia – Part 1

A recent study by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) illustrates the challenges of proposing approaches to terrorism prevention in other countries whose methods may at times conflict with Western values of due process, reflect local power dynamics that are unique to each country, and reflect how those governments view tradeoffs between short vs long-term efforts to combat terrorism.

Europe is increasingly concerned that the large numbers of foreign fighters returning from the Middle East to the Maghreb, particularly Tunisia and Morocco, will in time spill over to Europe creating much larger threats than previously encountered. “European countries have a strong interest in understanding security threats that emanate from North Africa, and in working with North African countries to address them,” according to the study. The study has several themes: the nature of security challenges in the Maghreb with attention to how they counter threats within their borders; the types and level of cooperation with the EU on countering terrorism; how each country is fighting terrorism given their unique societies and histories; and how their strategies impact the EU’s options for cooperation and collaboration.

While most of the analyses believe that Tunisia and Morocco are making important and successful efforts in their struggle with countering terrorism, “Nevertheless, the countries’ counter-terrorism strategies share a common shortcoming: both Morocco and Tunisia have prioritized the prevention of attacks and the disruption of terrorist cells, but have failed to pay sufficient attention to the legal and judicial framework for handling people detained on terrorism charges – or to the wide range of factors that contribute to radicalization.” This caveat has as much to do with the historical roots of notions of justice in both countries as well as structural and resource constraints faced in dealing with those groups at risk of radicalization.

The study calls for stronger cooperation and integration of efforts between the EU members and Morocco and Tunisia who “make up the front line in the EU’s efforts to establish zones of security on the southern shore of the Mediterranean.” It specifically mentions the need for “greater attention to areas such as the treatment of arrested suspects, socioeconomic factors that may contribute to radicalization, and the state’s broader relationship with communities that are disproportionately vulnerable to terrorist recruitment,” as critical priorities in terrorism prevention.

Tunisia – changing of the guard

Given the terrorist attacks in 2015 that exposed the weaknesses in Tunisia’s security platform, “With substantial foreign support, the Tunisian authorities responded to this moment of crisis by launching a program that restructured the security services and improved the country’s defenses against terrorism.”

On balance, the study gives the government high marks in that since 2014, it has markedly improved the army and internal security forces’ capabilities, training, equipment, and coordination.

“In 2015, the government launched the National Commission on Counter-Terrorism, which joined the National Security Council in developing the new, comprehensive strategy on counter-terrorism and extremism unveiled in 2016.” As the study points out, it bears “a strong resemblance to European models, this strategy centers on the four pillars of prevention, protection, prosecution, and response to attacks. Finally, in early 2017, Tunisia set up the National Intelligence Centre, an institution designed to overcome problems with coordination and information-sharing between intelligence agencies that had plagued the country’s counter-terrorism efforts since the revolution.”

These steps, plus the construction of barriers in a militarized zone bordering Libya and Algeria, along with enhanced surveillance and detection equipment, are key factors in the country’s upgraded capabilities. The report states that “Tunisia stands out among North African countries for its readiness to work with international partners on reforming and improving the capability of its security sector. European officials generally agree that Tunisia’s security services have considerably improved their capacity to prevent and respond to terrorist threats since 2015.”

On the other hand, it notes that, “Nevertheless, the overhaul of Tunisia’s security and counter-terrorism strategy and structures has failed to resolve some problems and even created a few new difficulties. The reform of the security services under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior has made little headway… as many officials continue to believe that police transparency and accountability would be an impediment to fighting terrorism.”

While Tunisia has sharpened its skills to prevent terrorist attacks, there still remain several concerns that must be addressed according to the report. First of all, the internal security services need to be reformed, especially reducing its immunity for violating human rights and arbitrary arrests and detention. “Using emergency powers, the security forces have carried out thousands of raids and house searches without judicial authorization, and placed dozens of people under assigned residence orders,” it states, calling for independent oversight of its operations.

Additional challenges include the economic impact of border closures with Libya, which severely restrict cross-border trade; and more importantly, the lack of a comprehensive government-wide strategy for dealing with radicalized individuals. Also of concern is the lack of intelligence on Tunisian diaspora in Europe, in sharp contrast with Morocco, which has significant interactions with its intelligence counterparts in Europe.

Among its conclusions regarding Tunisia, the study recommends, “In Tunisia, international partners should follow through on existing reform programs, encouraging further openness within the Ministry of the Interior to help the institution improve its cooperation with the country’s citizens. Greater professionalism within the security services would make it easier for European partners to share intelligence with Tunisia. European countries and the EU should also encourage and support Tunisia in developing programs to promote religious education and awareness, gearing them towards pupils and their families from an early age.”

In my next blog, I’ll look at the ECFR assessment of Morocco’s counter-terrorism capabilities and strategies.

The Way Forward – Counterterrorism Cooperation between Morocco and the EU – Part 2

In many ways, the headline Morocco: capabilities and deficiencies of a strong state sums up the section of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) study on counterterrorism cooperation between the EU and Morocco and Tunisia. While it notes Morocco’s breadth of capabilities and its reputation as “a model of political stability, economic development, and regional integration in Africa and the Middle East,” the study goes on to say that “Morocco’s approach to counter-terrorism is inseparable from the state’s tight control over its domestic population and its undemocratic and unaccountable political system;” a harsh and only partially accurate rendering of Morocco today and its commitment to countering both domestic and international terrorism.

Morocco is supported by Europe and the US in building its CVE tactics and skills, and has initiated a number of programs, with international assistance, to diminish the economic drivers that support radicalization such as unemployment, wealth disparity, corruption, lack of transparency, and marginalization of rural and underserved urban populations. It has also taken on a broader role as co-chair of the Global Counterterrorism Forum.

While the study acknowledges Morocco’s success in thwarting plots internally, it expresses reservations that can be summed up as “at what cost?” Calling Morocco a “surveillance state,” it points out that both “domestically and abroad, Morocco has a proven track record of expertise in human and signals intelligence. Morocco operates as a tight and effective security state, working through an extensive network of security officials and informants that blankets the nation.”

It allows that “European officials have admitted that a number of attacks in Europe might have been prevented had domestic intelligence services been allowed to employ the kind of human intelligence network established in Morocco.” Some detail on these capabilities is instructive. Aside from a national network of some 50,000 locally-sited observers, called mqadmin, who report suspicious activities and personalities, there is a national coordinating center for combating terrorism, the Central Bureau of Judicial Investigation (BCIJ). While the mqadmin ”have an ambiguous status as both official and temporary public servants, a situation that is convenient for the authorities, which avoid accountability by keeping the mqadmin’s role and potential role unregulated, [they] have a reputation for involvement in corruption and human rights abuses.”

The BCIJ, on the other hand, has earned recognition for its effectiveness in breaking up cells of potential terrorists. Morocco is also expanding its work in signals intelligence with the assistance of its European partners, primarily France, the UK, and Germany. The study says that “The Moroccan authorities use a variety of pre-emptive digital surveillance techniques to identify and prosecute suspects, such as monitoring phone calls involving individuals on watch lists, and registering suspicious internet searches. In all, the Moroccan authorities are believed to use 19 human and digital platforms to monitor the population, including on the dark web.”

With these instruments and the new reconnaissance satellite launched in November 2017, Morocco has an integrated effort to counter terrorism, monitor movements on its borders and in the Western Sahara, and track migration in the open spaces of the Sahara and Sahel. An additional tool, dubbed Operation Hadar is also of great value. “The operation was designed to protect Morocco from terrorist infiltration using patrols of airports, train stations, and other transport hubs, as well enhanced border monitoring.” Initially deployed in large cities, it is now being extended throughout the country, the study notes.

The role of King Mohammed VI

As the study points out, “As commander of the faithful, the king retains overall religious authority in the country, enabling the central government to not only retain a measure of religious legitimacy but also to dictate which religious practices and interpretations are deemed acceptable – including those among the religious establishment.” Control of the religious establishment includes media distribution of approved religious texts and sermons, controlling the issuance of fatwas, and treating imams as public servants.

Other initiatives include Morocco’s pioneering work in involving women counselors, mourchidates, in communities and rural areas and the training of imams from Africa and Europe. Also, “Morocco has established a religious council for the Moroccan diaspora in Europe, aiming to assist host countries with religious education. Together with intelligence cooperation, Morocco’s religious training initiatives appear to be a form of security diplomacy designed to improve the country’s reach and international standing.”

While complimenting Morocco on its efforts, the study is concerned that “Indeed, counter-radicalization remains Morocco’s weak point. The fact that the security services have thwarted a high number of terrorist plots reflects their capacity to detect and prevent attacks, but it also indicates the extent to which many young men and women remain susceptible to extremist messaging. In an all too familiar pattern repeated across the world, the government points to the tactical successes of its counter-terrorism operations while downplaying the underlying conditions that necessitate these operations.”

The EU study finds that the government’s outreach to the EU and US for help in prison reform, rehabilitation, police corruption, and training medical staff to recognize signs of abuse are moves in the right direction. It recognizes that “Moroccan counter-terrorism cooperation with both European countries and the US is not only a security endeavor but also a crucial component of Rabat’s long-term efforts to strengthen economic and political ties with these countries. Morocco aims to minimize international outcry over the Western Sahara issue, encourage greater foreign investment and tourism, maintain access to Western military equipment and training, and promote Morocco’s integration into NATO’s strategic plans.”

The path to more effective collaboration must reconcile, according to the study, Morocco’s commitment to a robust CVE strategy firmly grounded in the Moroccan experience, which may or may not take into consideration concerns of its friends in the EU and US on such issues as human and civil rights, internal security and judicial reforms, and social and economic disparities among the population. Working through these issues of accountability and equitable development are as important to the EU as Morocco’s stress on security within stability in the short term. In this regard, the study overlooked two facts in Morocco’s efforts to reduce economic disparities: its national campaign to promote development in rural and marginalized communities, and its need to attract foreign investment to ensure a steady growth in employment opportunities. Facing these concerns as well as the challenges of returning militants from conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere are the next chapter in this complex saga.

What is “Inclusive” Democracy?

And what are a country’s national values?

Much of the commentary following the recent US presidential election is about if and how “American values” will be defended and promoted by the next administration. Potential appointments, speeches, and interviews of President-elect Trump and his surrogates are parsed to speculate about priorities and possible actions that may or may not become emblematic of the new administration. Yet aside from generalized nods towards “making America great again,” there does not seem to be a coherent definition of which values are most salient at this time and under what circumstances.

Some would argue that values are enduring, not situational. Yet the relevance of specific values to what one believes is right and actionable is not always clear, particularly when there is confusion about the transactional nature (this for that) that characterizes most global political exchanges. As we look  at the results of these elections, we can’t help but question which “American values” will be most important to President Trump as he takes office and begins to steer his agenda through Congress and has to deal with groups of engaged citizens.

A recent article on the emerging Trump policies noted the importance of interests in framing how values are expressed to the world at large. There is often confusion between interests and values, the former situational and subject to negotiation, while the latter are supposedly existential and often more enduring than interests. But that distinction doesn’t explain how values become honored within a culture, how they are acquired, and how they evolve or not over time.

In the US, we have several foundational documents that characterize American values: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, equality, and justice for all, to list the more obvious. Over several hundred years, these have evolved into notions of democracy, human rights, equality before the law, defense of the homeland, and peaceful relations with other nations, among others that most Americans, at least conceptually, would agree on.

image: Tipperary Republican

image: Tipperary Republican

This is not the case in most of the developing world where constitutions are sometimes treated as ephemeral statements that reflect political conditions at the time of independence including, prevailing political centers in the regime, strong cultural mores, and dominant themes such as anti-colonialism, third-world solidarity, and the language of rights espoused by the UN. As countries in the MENA and Africa move through post-independence to more robust political systems, they face the challenge of defining their national values anew, promoting their adoption within an adaptable framework, and sustaining relevance to governments and citizens alike.  This is especially difficult as subgroups within the country start to differentiate their unmet aspirations from the prevailing narrative associated with the national identity.

Ultimately, the central question is how countries can adopt core values that are resilient over time and accepted by the vast majority of citizens. These shared values are at the heart of a country’s social contract that embodies the mutual obligations of the leadership and the people. And it is the erosion of these basic ties that are at the heart of the current contradictions in forming a “more perfect union.” The Arab Spring as well as the wave of populism in Latin America and Africa are both reactionary in terms of dissatisfaction with the status quo, and proactive as people seek to find a responsive, inclusive, transparent national political culture.

Part of the problem is that in many countries, the depiction of national values at the time of independence has come under criticism as either having been imposed by elites who drove independence, borrowed from regional and international organizations (think the AU and UN for example), or come about through consensus building among various groups, which often includes resolving conflicts and expanding definitions of nationality, while excluding others.

The current unrest in these countries in transition reflects the nexus of two currents: the need of citizens to articulate their own narratives abetted by technology, and the mistrust that divides rulers and citizens as the original social contracts have lost their relevance and binding power. In the case of the US or anywhere else, the issue of how values are formed and sustained continues to be relevant as technology and external influences are redefining what matters in building national cohesion in a country.

In my next blog, I will look further into what tools can be useful in this emerging definition of “nation-building” and national values.


Featured image from the Immigrant Welcome Center


Morocco Strikes a Strong Note for Tolerance and Inclusion

How will it make a Difference?

An article recently reprinted in The Forward brought into sharp contrast the perceptions of Jews among Arabs and Muslims. The story covered the recent award by Kivunim, the Institute for World Jewish Studies, of its first Reverend Martin Luther King Jr -Rabbi Abraham Herschel Award to Sultan (later King) Mohammed V of Morocco for his protection of Moroccan Jews during World War II.

While estimates of the number of Moroccan Jews at the time vary from 250,000 to 350,000, there is no disputing the fact that when faced with demands from the Vichy government of France, which then ruled Morocco, to impose severe restrictions on Jewish citizens, Mohammed V refused. In the Wikipedia section on Jews in Morocco, it is noted that “Sultan Mohammed V refused to apply these racist laws and, as a sign of defiance, insisted on inviting all the rabbis of Morocco to the 1941 throne celebrations. Jews’ reliance on the sultan’s protection against French persecution was a striking reversal of roles between Europeans and Muslims as Morocco’s Europeanized Jewish elite had perceived them.”

Furthermore, when Arab countries were agitating against the establishment of the State of Israel, Mohammed V decreed that no Moroccan Jews should be harmed as they had been part of Morocco’s long and rich history, one that was highlighted during the Kivunim event.

The earliest Jewish immigration to Morocco occurred more than 2,500 years ago and they integrated into the local Berber population, thus predating the Arab conquest of the 7th century. Jews continued to immigrate to Morocco over the centuries, with the largest number coming as a result of the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Catholic Spain in 1492.

The perils of allowing a fractious relationship between Jews and Muslims were underscored in remarks on the occasion from Morocco’s current King Mohammed VI. In a statement read on his behalf by royal counselor Andre Azoulay, he said, “Today, we need, more than ever, to ponder the lessons and relevance of this part of history in order to stand up more forcefully to the deadly aberrations of those who are hijacking our cultures, our faiths and our civilizations. We are living at a time and in a world in which the collective imagination of our societies is too often impaired, not to say poisoned, by regression and archaism. By capitalizing on the depth and resilience of the legacy left by my revered grandfather His Majesty Mohammed V, we can, together, set out to recover the lost expanses of reason and mutual respect which have vanished from many parts of the world.”

This is not the first time King Mohammed VI has emphasized the multicultural identity of Morocco and the need to preserve its vibrant legacy. He insisted that it be included in the text of the 2011 Constitution, and he has supported projects promoting interreligious and intercultural tolerance and understanding in Europe and in the US. For example, in November 2015, there was an event in Washington, DC marking the completion of the “Houses of Life” project, which, under the King’s patronage, restored 167 Jewish cemeteries in Morocco despite the fact that less than 3,000 Jews now live in the country.

Serge Berdugo, President of the Council of Jewish Communities of Morocco, referred to the historical role of Mohammed V at the New York event. “Thanks to the strong decision of the sovereign, [the] Moroccan Jewish community was neither detained nor deported or murdered in concentration camps. All Moroccans, Jews or Muslims, enjoyed his full protection.”

At a time when issues in the Middle East and between Muslims and other communities seem intractable, there are counter-narratives, such as these Moroccan initiatives, that challenge the bleak assessments of pundits who insist that nothing can be done. Morocco and King Mohammed VI are clearly in the camp of hope, building programs of inclusion, tolerance, and collaboration that challenge the doom-and-gloom forecasts. The US should continue to support its friend Morocco in reversing the trends toward bigotry and exclusion that seem at times overwhelming in the region.

Shared Vision, Shared Objectives

Shared Vision, Shared Objectives

Bottom Line of the Morocco-US Strategic Dialogue

On Thursday, April 9, the US and Morocco issued a joint communiqué at the conclusion of the third Strategic Dialogue between the two countries. The US praised Morocco’s progress on many fronts, Morocco lauded the commitment of the US to stand by its ally and support its economic, social, and democratic reforms. The language of a special partnership resonated throughout the statement.

Building on the priorities established during King Mohammed VI’s visit to President Obama in November 2013 and subsequent senior-level visits, the statement noted that “our strategic partnership and shared vision will promote a secure, stable, democratic, and prosperous Maghreb, Sahel region, Africa, and Middle East.”

Secretary Kerry “reiterated the United States’ appreciation for the action and leadership of His Majesty the King …,” including his “continuing efforts to strengthen further Morocco’s democratic institutions and promote economic prosperity and human development.”

In anticipation of Moroccan local elections coming in September, the Secretary specifically noted “programs designed to strengthen political parties and civil society” as they prepare for the first ever elections under regionalization – Morocco’s program to devolve more power to locally-elected officials. These elections and the training programs are part of a continuing campaign to build local capacity to administer municipalities, determine local priorities and planning, and implement local solutions to address human development needs.

After lauding Morocco’s progress in reforming the military justice system, enabling more organizations to officially participate in civil society, advancing the powers of the National Human Rights Council (CNDH), and implementing immigration reforms enacted since last year’s Dialogue, the Secretary noted that both countries will work together to advance human rights at the UN Human Rights Council.

Business, Africa, Security, and Regional Affairs

On the business front, the major item discussed in the communiqué was the anticipated second Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact, which focuses on education for a skilled workforce, and improving land policies and productivity. The communiqué also noted that both countries had signed an MOU wherein Morocco will share with select countries in Africa its expertise and lessons learned in the MCC relationship.

Secretary Kerry highlighted the leadership of King Mohammed VI in broadening and deepening Morocco’s relations with Africa. This has become a priority in recent years as instability and violence threaten more countries on the continent. The US and Morocco agreed “to work jointly … through a comprehensive and coordinated approach including food security, access to energy, trade promotion, conflict prevention, and the preservation of cultural and religious identity.” With more than 100 agreements already signed between Morocco and African countries, and the King poised for another five-country visit later this month, Morocco is working hard to strengthen its leadership role in south-south cooperation, a role strongly supported by the US.

Reiterating America’s long-standing policy of support for autonomy for the Western Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty, the communiqué stated, “The United States has made clear that Morocco’s autonomy plan is serious, realistic, and credible, and that it represents a potential approach that could satisfy the aspirations of the people of the Western Sahara to run their own affairs in peace and dignity.” Both countries reaffirmed their shared commitment to improving the lives of the people in the Western Sahara and will consider a number of options to move ahead on that objective.

Men and women training as leaders and counselors promoting moderate Islam

Men and women training as leaders and counselors promoting moderate Islam

As expected, security cooperation was a key agenda item. In addition to addressing the various means through which Morocco and the US are working to counter violent extremism, Secretary Kerry thanked Morocco for its participation in efforts such as the Global Counterterrorism Forum and the Initiative on Open Border Security, as well as Morocco’s innovative training center for Imams, Morchidines, and Morchidates – prayer leaders and male and female religious counselors from Morocco, and other countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.

The dialogue included discussions on “Morocco’s reform of its justice sector and promoting the rule of law, and … the launch of new law enforcement and counterterrorism programs, including a trilateral initiative with Moroccan and American trainers working together to train other African partners in border security and crisis management.” The communiqué further highlighted Morocco’s role in promoting dialogue among factions in Libya, working towards a comprehensive solution in Mali that deals with root causes, and a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. In short, the friends were able in a few hours to reiterate their long-standing security commitments based on broadly shared goals and objectives.

“The Minister and the Secretary concluded by noting that the Moroccan–American strategic partnership is based both on shared interests and shared values which provide many avenues for cooperation and collaboration bilaterally, regionally, and globally.” It is a partnership that offers many opportunities to advance the quality of life for the people of Morocco, provides means for enhancing regional security and prosperity, and enables the United States to work effectively in a part of the world where it has an effective and motivated partner.

Morocco Works on Balancing Security and Democracy

Political Space Defined by Addressing Reforms and Safety Issues

With the increasingly complicated and disruptive political landscape in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the debate about the prospects for democracy in that part of the world continues to boil. Some claim the dominoes are falling as Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya succumb to violence, and spillover threats spread to Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia. Others point to the deterioration of old regimes and out-dated social contracts as the central issues of concern – people’s aspirations are being thwarted. Challenges from extremists and militants elude simple solutions, though some analysts and pundits point to economic development as the core factor in mitigating the attraction to violence.

Whatever the perspectives being proffered, there is in reality no “one-shot” solution to these crises, each of which has its own local characteristics. These conflicts were years in the making, and it is the speed at which tipping points were reached in the last six years that really separates these crises from previous conflicts in the region. And it raises again the question as to when is the ideal time, and what are the ideal conditions for promoting democracy – beyond the simple exercise of voting.

This is the core of the issue today: how can a leadership of a country pursue a formula for growth and stability without circumscribing civil and human rights, particularly in today’s environment, where pursuing security is often at odds with speeding up political and economic reforms as an antidote to extremism.

Let’s begin with the assumption that there are no “one-size-fits-all” models, whether one’s point of reference is Singapore, Vietnam, or the populist governments in Latin America. So where do we find working examples of moving towards democracy? It may be that we should spend more time on the ground, assessing how countries that have complex yet manageable development priorities define on a continuing basis the balance between security and freedoms.

Democracy-building is a Full-time Job

Morocco is a country that shares American values — both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have noted that Morocco’s foreign policy reflects shared values and, to a large measure our common interests as well in a safe, secure, and prosperous world. Morocco’s own internal reform process has received support and recognition internationally, and the US has responded favorably with strong economic and diplomatic support, ranging from the only Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in Africa, to an upcoming second Millennium Challenge Compact, to American support for a negotiated settlement to the Western Sahara conflict built on the concept of autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty.

Another very critical area of cooperation is in dealing with threats from radicals and extremists. Morocco has constructed an extensive effort that has earned praise from Europe and the US. While some may express concern that security issues are now emphasized more than human development, one only has to look at reforms enacted and in Parliament, the broadening educational program promoting moderate Islam, and security cooperation against ISIL to understand that Morocco is responding to local realities with a balanced strategy.

The pace and extent of Morocco’s reforms reflects the sensibilities of its political culture, which are constantly being stretched by the vision of King Mohammed VI, who is clear and consistent about collaborative progress. In a recent address delivered to the Crans Montana Forum, he noted that North-South and South-South “cooperation must be rooted in mutual esteem, be based on balanced approaches and show that the interests of the various partners concerned are duly taken into account.”

His strategic approach to human development encompasses all facets of Morocco’s society, from ethnic and gender issues to economic, social, and political concerns. And these are also central to Morocco’s effective multifaceted counterterrorism approach – alongside harder measures necessary to address the threat from radicals who oppose Morocco’s liberalizing society, as well as its close collaboration with the US.

As the US debates its strategic responses to encourage both security and human development around the globe, it faces a daunting task. As Danya Greenfield and Faysal Itani write in the Atlantic Council’s Issue in Focus, “The United States struggles with a palpable tension between its immediate security interests and the need for broader institutional reforms in the MENA that would address the root causes of anti-US militancy.”

They argue that “To secure its long-term strategic interests, the United States should urgently and simultaneously pursue its security needs…and support pluralism, basic human rights, and inclusive economic growth.”

Growing a democratic culture is a never-ending challenge — as witness the continuous evolution of the UK and US. When looking abroad for aspiring partners who seek the humane, just, and prosperous world that is a core element in America’s global vision, US policy, according to the paper, “should reflect that political and economic development go hand in hand.” While there may not be ready-made solutions, working with partners like Morocco will enable both parties to more fully exploit opportunities to reduce threats and promote progress through strengthened collaboration.

Report: Transitions to Democracy Require More than Elections

Atlantic Council Paper Argues for Inclusivity, Good Governance, and Prosperity

Although there are no shortcuts to promoting democracy and the rule of law, recent reports raise the issue of what can still be done to recover from the instability and chaos spawned by the Arab Spring while countering the rising threats of extremism. The authors of a paper from the Atlantic Council argue in “A Transatlantic Approach for the Arab World: Stability through Inclusivity, Good Governance, and Prosperity,” that there are still steps that can be taken to reduce domestic threats and put in place concrete programs to create jobs, enhance stability, and bring about greater respect for the rule of law.

New Paper Argues to More Comprehensive Strategies

New Paper Argues for More Comprehensive Strategies  Credit: Atlantic Council

They point out that “Since 2013, the US administration has downgraded its regional policy initiative on Arab reform, eliminated a special coordinator post for the Arab transitions, and scaled back democracy assistance,” the last factor highlighted by Thomas Carothers in a series of reports. The authors take note that “Although US and European officials occasionally give speeches mentioning the need for inclusive governance, human rights, and equitable growth as part of an anti-ISIS strategy for the region, this rhetoric has not translated into any significant policy measures.”

Is there a way out of this conundrum, as security issues again dominate political reform/stability concerns and lead to an emphasis on hard-power tactics? One casualty of this dilemma is that deep seated grievances that led to initial challenges to Arab regimes have only been directly dealt with in a few Arab countries — most notably Morocco and Tunisia, as well as Jordan to a degree. As the paper describes this situation, “the economic and political exclusion that drove the uprisings remains.” They argue that “The challenges in the Arab world are complex and what is needed is persistent effort rather than episodic attention through grandiose speeches or lofty promises left unfulfilled.”

Yet they also argue that this is the time for developing coherent long-term strategies – targeted specifically for each country – that integrate diplomatic, security, and economic assistance by the US and its European allies to jointly address both short and longer term challenges.

So how is Morocco Doing?

It is not easy to measure moving targets, such as political and economic reforms, when there are internal and external factors that condition outcomes and affect results in areas such as immigration and judicial reform, greater business and public sector transparency, expanding access to local governance, and similar indicators of progress.

Yet there must be accountability on both sides: Morocco must continue concrete progress on political reforms; reducing barriers to new business development; and institutional changes that encourage greater citizen participation at all levels of government. Similarly, donor countries must clearly tie their assistance and support to activities that address both security and stability concerns and enable governments to take more risks in pursuit of economic, social, and political reforms through longer term engagements and emphasis on mutually agreed goals.

Although some may take issue with Morocco’s pace of reform, there are strong signs that it has not diminished its commitment to change, despite growing pressures from extremists and radicals. The legislative calendar has a full slate of reform measures for review by the Chamber of Deputies, ranging from regionalization and judicial reform to amendments strengthening the family law, and independent status for the transparency commission.

As the report noted, “The United States, the EU, and key European member states should identify joint goals for political reform that extend beyond the fair conduct of elections …” Common areas of interest include promoting greater decentralization of political decision-making to elected local councils, protections for migrants, and extending rights of redress for whistleblowers. These are all in process in Morocco, and most recently, the EU has announced a grant to Morocco to strengthen its recent successes in immigration reform.

Morocco and US Working on Second Compact Credit: MCC

Morocco and US Working on Second Compact
Credit: MCC

Addressing the issues of increasing economic opportunities for youth and women is quite challenging for Morocco, which depends on increased levels of foreign investment to drive industrial development. Yet this too is a priority for the government and for the donor countries. In addition to EU funding for reforms in vocational and technical training programs and strengthening the ecosystem for entrepreneurship, the second US-MCC compact has identified education and training reform as a priority component of the compact. These government-led activities are critical to building a credible business environment that attracts direct foreign investment, such as the recent decision by Embry-Riddle Worldwide University to establish an aeronautics center in Morocco to serve Africa.

The path forward for the Morocco-US partnership is full of unanticipated challenges, from regional terrorism and extremism to the state of energy prices and trade trends. Yet, working as partners, there is more than a glimmer of optimism. As the recent visit of US Science Advisor Dr. Peter Hotez demonstrates, there are incremental steps that reap long-term relationships and benefits on both sides. Dr. Hotez is actually a member of the private sector who, according to the State Department, “will meet with representatives from the scientific, academic, and business communities to discuss ways to build and strengthen research collaboration networks between scientists and engineers in the United States and Morocco.” It is this kind of integrated partnership, which recognizes and supports a broad integrated strategy of collaboration and coordination that will ultimately drive a successful bilateral relationship.

What’s at Stake in 2015 for Morocco?

Will the reform agenda, growth targets, and regional security goals be attained?

In the past few months, I have written several blogs marking the progress of Morocco’s bilateral relationship with the US, including highlights from 2014 ranging from expanded security cooperation and several high level business conferences, to highly visible and successful participation in the US-Africa Leaders Summit and Vice President Joe Biden’s meeting with King Mohammed VI.

While these are useful hallmarks for 2014, they are in some ways benchmarks for viewing challenges and opportunities in the year ahead. There is much to be done if Morocco is to maintain its momentum as a liberalizing and secure country.

When looking to 2015, three key categories of issues stand out. The first of course are issues related to the Western Sahara including the MINURSO renewal, disruptive actions of the Polisario Front supported by Algeria, and the potential for US foreign assistance to be extended to Sahara to advance human development.

Closely related to this are regional security and stability concerns including combating violent extremism through internal and external efforts; counteracting the ISIS threat inherent in militants returning from war-torn areas in the Levant; and supporting stronger regional economic ties to boost employment.

Finally, Morocco has quite a diverse domestic reform agenda, which includes legislation addressing key constitutional issues and continued efforts to expand its commercial and investment opportunities, promote entrepreneurship, and advance its role as a business platform for Africa.

Although the agenda is quite complex and requires heightened cooperation and collaboration among government, the private sector, and civil society, the seeds have been planted for potentially beneficial outcomes. And regardless of what some pundits claim, Morocco alone, among the Maghreb countries, has the domestic leadership stability to take risks to advance its agenda.

Western Sahara

The annual renewal of the MINURSO mandate by the UN Security Council, required to enable it to continue its mission as observers in the Western Sahara in support of a sustainable resolution to the conflict, is anything but routine. Despite recent attempts to impose a human rights monitoring role on MINURSO, Morocco has been able to demonstrate that it takes its role in the territory quite seriously and extends human rights protections throughout all of Morocco. This has enabled Morocco’s friends on the Security Council to promote extensive collaboration between Morocco and UN agencies on this issue and avoid inserting a human rights monitoring role in the MINURSO mandate.

Despite Morocco’s steps to improve the lives of the people in the South, the Polisario Front, fully supported by Algeria, continues an extensive campaign to challenge Morocco’s presence in the area, with some of its members aligning themselves to trafficking, smuggling, and militant elements who are a significant threat throughout the region. Algeria plays its part by maintaining the closure of its border with Morocco, opposing Morocco’s diplomatic initiatives, and refusal to engage in broader conversations on security and economic development.

Perhaps the prospects for positive results from hydrocarbon exploration in the area will encourage the parties to seriously engage in dialogue regarding how to best insure the future of the southern region, which depends on support from Rabat for its economic, social, and infrastructure growth. A significant step by the US government, which mandates US foreign assistance funding in the Sahara, may prove to be a catalyst to promoting the long-sought acknowledgement by Sahrawis enclosed in the Polisario camps in Algeria that their futures are better secured in a thriving, committed Morocco.

Working on a Secure, Stable Future for the Region

Secretary John Kerry meets with Morocco's King Mohammed VI

Secretary John Kerry meets with Morocco’s King Mohammed VI

King Mohammed VI has repeatedly called for a multidimensional approach to combating violent extremism at home, including job training, family counseling, and emphasizing religious moderation. This same approach defines Morocco’s approach to regional security and stability – training imams in moderate religious discourse; broadening economic growth to be more inclusive and sustainable; and working with governments and private sectors to support greater attention to enfranchising marginalized and excluded minorities.

Morocco’s role in the coalitions against ISIS and al-Qaeda demonstrates the strong position that the country has taken to challenge extremism and militants bent on destruction and mayhem. Hosting coalition meetings, sending forces to the UAE for military technical assistance, and participating in airstrikes against ISIS are a few of the more visible steps taken by Morocco this past year.

As importantly, the government of Morocco, under the King’s leadership, has entered into more than 80 agreements with its African neighbors to expand economic opportunities and diminish the attraction of militant recruitment.

Growing the Region, Changing Lives for the Better

Domestically, Parliament and the government have a full slate of bills that will implement significant changes in how the country operates. Chief among these is the restructuring of the judicial system to make it independent of outside forces. Other efforts of note include finalizing the new law on associations, which will define guidelines for registering civil society organizations and other associations; and passing the law that eliminates the use of military tribunals for political offenses.

Mourchidate working in community center

Key 2015 Event: Local Elections

Another event to watch is how the government and political parties conduct themselves in the upcoming local elections. Heralded as a concrete step towards regionalization, the elections are already contentious since Parliament has not yet passed the empowering electoral law for the elections to proceed, the myriad possibilities of alliances among parties, the role of  international organizations encouraging a more competitive and open process, and the implications of the various results scenarios.

Hosting the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) was only the latest showcase in Morocco’s commitment to domestic and regional economic growth. The country is moving to maximize its parallel strategy of growing investments in diverse sectors while promoting workforce education and training that results in market-ready labor. Where Morocco is getting it right is emphasizing programs beyond IT to agriculture, hospitality and financial services, skills trade, and special efforts for youth and women.

2015 can be another breakout year for Morocco. Falling energy prices are reducing the drag of energy imports on the economy. Subsidies are being phased out or re-targeted for maximum savings and impact; and the business environment continues to improve for both domestic and international companies. The year may be long and difficult, full of domestic, regional, and international challenges. Yet there seems to be a growing commitment to see the future as an opportunity, which is the key ingredient for success.

Grounding Human Rights in Local Aspirations

For several years, I have been commenting on the challenges in assessing human rights progress without a more comprehensive understanding of how the people affected define human rights. This applies as well to evaluating development efforts tied in large part to democracy promotion – whether it’s the Marshall Plan, the progenitor of post-war reconstruction, or funding water reclamation projects in the Sahel.

This theme is echoed in an article by Professor Eric Posner of the University of Chicago, who takes on the issue of defining and defending human rights without a grounding in the milieu in which these rights are operationalized. His aim is not only to encourage the human rights reporting community to undertake their own assessment of their efficacy – much as development experts have been forced to do – but to give them ways to legitimately help governments improve their human rights.

This has important resonance for a country like Morocco, where development and democracy goals go hand in hand in building a sustainable, inclusive, and equitable society based on Morocco’s unique, local cultural ethos.

Unfortunately, for human rights monitors, it is far easier to focus on a few issues that become criteria for a human rights report than to recognize that each culture manages its priorities in the context of its national needs and aspirations. This can be quite challenging to assess since, according to Posner, “In most countries people formally have as many as 400 international human rights. The sheer quantity and variety of rights, which protect virtually all human interests, can provide no guidance to governments. Given that all governments have limited budgets, protecting one human right might prevent a government from protecting another.”

While some may counter that there must be universal standards otherwise there are no comparative criteria for assessing human rights, Posner says that “the problem is not entirely one of moral pluralism. The real problem is the sheer difficulty of governance, particularly in societies in the throes of religious and ethnic strife that outsiders often fail to understand. There are many legitimate ways for governments to advance people’s wellbeing and it is extremely hard for outsiders to evaluate the quality of governance in a particular country.”

 So what can be done?

While the work of international human rights groups is to be commended for its altruism, oftentimes the impact of their efforts is to distort perceptions of the host countries among international organizations and the donor community. Given the universe of acknowledged human rights (political, economic, social, institutional, religious, associative, property, etc., etc.); the differing cultural, ethnic, historical, and contemporary conditions in countries; and the limitations of resources and infrastructure; how does an analyst determine what advice to give countries regarding what their priorities and policies should be?

The first step: Rather than generating reports that generalize from a handful of cases to a blanket charge of malfeasance without a realistic understanding of the context for human rights priorities, organizations should maximize the benefits of an open dialogue with liberalizing countries such as Morocco. Morocco is more than willing to engage in a respectful, balanced exchange. The country’s commitment has been emphasized time and time again by King Mohammed VI, who places the people at the heart of Morocco’s development – economic, social, human, and political – and he strongly supports promoting rights in a way that makes most sense for his country’s unique circumstances. It seems that this openness would lead to greater collaboration to enhance and enshrine human rights regimes grounded in local values and realities.

As Dr. Posner concludes, “Westerners should abandon their utopian aspirations and learn the lessons of development economics. Animated by the same mix of altruism and concern for geopolitical stability as the human rights movement, development economists have also largely failed to achieve their mission, which is to promote economic growth. Yet their failures have led not to denial, but to incremental improvements and (increasingly) humility.”

We can only hope that human rights organizations will work more diligently and realistically when they find partners such as Morocco that are committed to reform and empowerment centered on Moroccan society and priorities.



I want to congratulate Fatima-Zahra Mansouri, the Mayor of Marrakech, who was named to the  Forbes list of 20 Youngest Power Women in Africa. She was elected Mayor at the age of 33 in 2009  and has since instituted reforms and streamlined government in the city. It is by engaging with people such as the mayor that human rights organizations will learn more about what really matters   to Moroccans.

Impressive Gains and Challenging Future

Morocco Pushes Ahead on Human Rights despite Obstacles

While there may be some who question if there is sufficient energy behind Morocco’s human rights agenda, there is ample evidence that King Mohammed VI has an impressive vision to ensure that human rights protections are robust in Morocco. Amid a great deal of fanfare and activity, Morocco hosted the second World Forum on Human Rights this past week. According to organizers, more than 7,000 people from close to 100 countries participated in the three-day event in workshops, panels, dialogues, presentations, and speeches from several of the world’s leading advocates of human rights.

In his speech to the Forum, delivered by Justice and Liberties Minister Mustapha Ramid, King Mohammed began by acknowledging that “major changes and global challenges underscore the need for holistic, well thought-out and concerted responses.” Conscious of Morocco’s own leadership role in the fields of transitional justice, women’s empowerment, and protection of migrants, he reminded the audience that no nation is insulated from these issues, as they are part of a global transformation.

“Profound changes are affecting the international human rights order. By embracing universal human rights values, the countries of the South, civil society and national human rights institutions play an active role in the process of setting up regional and international instruments for the protection and promotion of human rights.” He noted that the pace of change and increased challenges provide “a unique opportunity for debate and exchange of views on new human rights issues,” which include the rights of the elderly, coping with the impact of the digital age and corporations, empowering the poor, and dealing with the volatile issue of the “enforceability of economic and social rights.”

It is not commonly known that along with the UN Declaration of Human Rights, there is a companion declaration of economic and social rights, which is only now, after more than five decades, rising on the global agenda.

Facing Down Intolerance

The King referred to negative forces that are dragging down progress, “reclusiveness, intolerance, rejection of others because of ethnic considerations or a distorted understanding of the lofty message of religion are leading to blatant violations of fundamental rights, including the sacred right to life.” Despite his concern that each country has cultural and societal characteristics that affect the form of human rights concerns, “The universal character of human rights must not be questioned. Rather than being the product of a single school of thought or doctrine, universality should, in its very essence, be the result of a progressive, dynamic process whereby values are embraced at individual and collective levels.” Perhaps reflecting on his experience in Morocco when confronted with extremism from the right and left, he said that “[i]n this process, national and cultural traditions should be allowed to find their rightful place around a set of immutable values, not in opposition to it or next to it. Indeed, universal values acquire greater legitimacy when they represent and protect human diversity, and when all peoples and cultures contribute to shaping them, ultimately considering them as their own.”

He made mention of the fact that Africa, in particular, was not well represented in the early definitions of human rights covenants due to its relatively recent entry into global debates. “Since it did not have the opportunity to contribute to developing the international human rights law, Africa should be given the opportunity to enrich it with its own culture, history and genius, thus increasing the continent’s chances to fully embrace it.”

Importantly, the King reminded the participants that “Universal values are common to us all, but the pathways we take are not.” He made it clear that Africa is “fully committed to human rights” and “wants to make a contribution to devising standards that are truly universal.” These are encouraging words in the face of extremism, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and ethnic rivalries spread across the continent.

Setting a Global Agenda

The King expanded on three concerns he encouraged the World Forum to address: gender equality, the emerging debate on Sustainable Development Goals, and the issues of international migration and asylum seekers.

Regarding gender equality, current Moroccan efforts include legislation to broaden the definition of domestic violence, follow-up on the constitutional mandate to set up an anti-discrimination commission, gender budgeting – a novel concept that seeks to measure the scope of spending on women — and protection for domestic workers.

The King lauded ongoing efforts to expand the scope of the Millennium Development Goals when the newly drafted Sustainable Development Goals are announced in September 2015, in particular, inserting human rights concerns into the debate.

Reflecting on Morocco’s experiences with a range of migration issues, the King spoke of the more that 240 million international migrants whose futures are “being debated around the world today and which involves governments, civil society and the international community.” His concern is quite broad, both in terms of the overall growth and the increasing numbers of girls and women being displaced, trafficked, and subjected to intolerable hostility.

While reminding the participants of the devastating conditions afflicting many migrants, the King said “It should be pointed out that the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families – which is the main human rights instrument in this area – has, until this day, been signed and ratified only by countries of the South.” Morocco’s almost year-long effort to regularize migrants in the country has overcome serious technical obstacles and hopes to meet its targets shortly.

Morocco Pressing Ahead

To complete his assessment, the King pointed to “quite a decent record [in Morocco] covering such vital areas as transitional justice, women’s rights, human development, the rehabilitation of the Amazigh culture as a key component of the Moroccan identity, the consolidation of national human rights institutions and the governance of the religious domain on the basis of the tolerant principles and teachings of Islam.” He also referred to “other ongoing projects with a significant impact on the protection of human rights in such areas as justice, the press, civil society, local governance and the protection of vulnerable groups,” all reflecting commitments made by the government and the people of Morocco in ratifying the 2011 Constitution.

According to press reports, Morocco has signaled its intention to set up a National Preventive Mechanism, which will make it only one of 30 countries to have a fully operative mechanism against cruelty and torture. Among other issues being addressed are the death penalty and protection of children’s rights domestically, and joining an international effort opposing child soldiers, the sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography.

It is quite stunning to consider that while Morocco is facing its human rights issues at home, from protecting migrants to children’s rights, and broadening the decentralization of authority to local officials, it continues to champion human rights internationally. As the King concluded, the goal is “a world which treats the most vulnerable and poorest segments of society more fairly and equitably, and which is committed to promoting brotherly relations between all human beings.”

Hosting the World Forum on Human Rights shined a bright light on Morocco’s record and its aspirations; and its openness to discuss its reforms will only serve to strengthen its resolve.