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Is Morocco On Course?

Morocco’s second election since the adoption of the new constitution in 2011 resulted in the appointment of Abdelilah Benkirane as head of government, since his moderate Islamic party, PJD, had the highest number of votes. He is currently in the process of negotiating a governing coalition.

To outside observers, this seems consistent with the norms of a democratic election and so is not remarkable. However, it has a much larger significance for several reasons. First of all, the results reinforce the reality that free and fair elections are a consistent feature of political life in Morocco. There are winners and losers, and the process moves towards peaceful outcomes and transitions, if necessary. Secondly, the results indicated the rise of a strong party, the PAM, in opposition to the PJD-led government, another healthy sign of a society in which no one party has the monopoly on the national discourse. A third consideration is that King Mohammed VI showed his support for the electoral process by immediately appointing Benkirane to form a government, a critical step since PAM is known to be strong supporters of the palace.

Most important in the long run, the election underscores Morocco’s advance towards greater civic engagement and government accountability, a consistent theme in the King’s speeches, most recently to the opening session of Parliament, itself continually including more women and youth members. And this is probably Morocco’s strongest asset, the blending of the King’s leadership with a government supporting ongoing reforms that bring Morocco in line with human and civic values that solidify its democratic elements.

Intentions are certainly not enough. The reform agenda is still incomplete. And the gap between passing and implementing legislation cannot be ignored. The King himself complained about the inadequate understanding and enforcement of the Family Law (Moudawana), which provides significant policies for women’s empowerment. Judicial independence is still to be attained; the regionalization process devolving certain powers to local governments has yet to be fully codified with institutions and human resources prepared to implement it; and there are gaps in the educational infrastructure and approach that are an obstacle to fully developing the country’s human potential.

These issues and many more were raised during the election, another positive sign for Morocco’s democracy. Most importantly, aside from a defensible prohibition on pre-election polling (which can be appreciated given the cornucopia of contradictory results of the myriad polls in the US at this time), Morocco has achieved a seasoned election process. As the political parties mature and the number of serious parties shrinks from the 30+ in the recent election, the opportunities for more robust and vibrant political campaigns can be realized.

Casting Ballots are only one small piece of democracy

Casting ballots are only one small piece of democracy

Over the longer term, Morocco’s elections have another very important function – to build needed credibility in the political system. Some international election observers suggested that the turnout of 43%, while comparable to democratic elections elsewhere, may signal dissatisfaction with political parties. In fact, there are signs that the political parties are getting the message that defining positions, seeking to be more inclusive, and listening to constituencies are critical to their survival and success. Shake-ups are already underway in those parties that fared poorly. Another lesson learned in the recent elections.

Finally, another issue to be reckoned with is how legitimate political mechanisms, such as elections, contribute to Morocco’s internal coherence and ability to govern. The lack of credible mechanism is commonly mentioned an indicator of “state fragility.” As Thomas Carothers points out in a recent Policy Brief produced jointly by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Center for a New American Security, and the United States Institute for Peace, a common feature of fragile states is the systematic exclusion of its citizens. And the commonly defined prescription is “inclusive governance.”

If inclusiveness is the glue for building stability and the social contract, then Morocco is surely headed in the right direction. Elevating the Amazigh language as an official language for the government and educational system, broadening the role of civil society in in policy-making, and the King’s insistence, in his latest speech, that the government remain focused on providing quality services to the people – are all positive trends towards inclusion. People are already more empowered due to digital technologies; the government and institutions must keep pace develop credible and effective communications strategies in order to proactively discharge their responsibilities.

As the Policy Brief concludes:

When a government closes off space for independent civil society, it is creating a significant structural obstacle to achieving inclusive governance and positive state-society relations. An active, diverse civil society is the key to empowering marginalized groups, creating multiple channels for citizen participation, mediating diverse interests in a peaceful fashion, and in general creating state-society relations based on mutual communication, respect, and consensus.

This is where Morocco is headed and the country is well on its way.

To Smooth the Storm, Morocco Pushes On

Articles, favorable and not, continually assess Morocco’s strategic responses to the Arab Uprisings, which King Mohammed VI took on head first by quickly promoting a new Constitution (2011); holding elections for a new Parliament to be led by the party with the most seats, in this case the Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party (PJD); and speaking out often about the need for more citizen participation in the affairs of government. He has also reiterated his commitment to better education outcomes, more equitable economic development, and greater personal and institutional freedoms (e.g., for the media and the judiciary).

Those who defend the regime say this process began with the installation in the late 1990s of an opposition leader as Prime Minister and awareness by King Hassan II, the current King’s father, that unchallenged royal “business as usual” would not survive another decade. They blame the slow pace of change on the birthing pains of a parliamentary democracy, where every current has the ability to prolong debate and question ministers.

Critics of the regime, both Moroccan and otherwise, are of two minds—either the government has been co-opted and still remains too friendly to the royal palace, slowing down needed reforms, or it is a conspiracy in which a slow pace maintains stability and reforms that threaten existing power centers are stalled. They point to the level of human rights abuses, negative government responses to criticism at home and abroad, and lack of large-scale job creation as indicators of failures.

The reality fluctuates between “the government is beholden to the palace and won’t rock the boat” and “the King is a visionary who supports, and indeed calls for, more progress than is being made.” Realistically, the question is: what can Morocco do and what is the reality behind its moderate and mostly successful leadership in the region?

A difficult yet necessary point of departure are the redlines in Moroccan discourse: the monarchy, territorial integrity (read: the Western Sahara/South/Southern Provinces), and Islam. Negative comments on any of these issues have led to bloggers being jailed, newspapers being fined and harassed, and strong criticism levied by government spokespersons.

How does Morocco’s handling of these core topics contribute to understanding the debate around the country’s progress?

Let’s begin with the monarchy. The King still is the symbolic and real leader in military, political, and religious affairs. But the new constitution gave real powers to the Parliament, which is still evolving as an institutional force. Intense debate and discourse take place, and the media follows and stokes partisans on all sides of the issues. So while Parliament might only get a grade of C+ or C-, it is far more decisive than similar bodies in any of its neighbors.

Which brings us to the Sahara. Morocco remains steadfast in its claim to the South, committing billions of dollars to its development in the next 10 years. Some observers note a level of heightened security, some even call it excessive, when it comes to dealing with outsiders such as human rights organizations, left-wing European politicians, and NGOs with similar orientations. This is a difficult challenge for the government, which is working to balance safeguarding freedoms of speech and assembly with progress in implementing regionalization.

Islam is a special category in Morocco’s heritage. As a descendent of the Prophet Muhammed, the King has special obligations towards the religion. In response to critics who challenge the King’s religious role, one could ask: Would they prefer an Iranian or Saudi-style religious domain? The King’s promotion of Maliki Islam’s moderate principles throughout Africa and elsewhere, his exemplary handling of issues regarding the Jewish heritage of Morocco, and his continued interest in the status of Jerusalem are only some of Morocco’s assets when it comes to Islam.

Much has been made of Morocco’s imam and mourchidates training programs to counter violent extremism and the King’s promotion of women’s rights. Using Islam as a touchstone for Morocco’s progress illustrates the King’s awareness of the sensitive ground on which he is treading.

Morocco has much to offer, not as a model, but as a workshop in which democratic and social development challenges are being articulated, refined, and implemented. How it succeeds, in light of both external and internal obstacles, depends largely on the King’s ability to inspire Parliament and the Moroccan people to adopt progressive steps that enhance and enable the future. If Parliament takes advantage of the constitution and gradually builds an institutional foundation for government, and political parties mature as issue-driven entities, Morocco will succeed where others are failing.

Morocco Launches Initiatives to Meet Economic Challenges

Morocco’s new government, King Mohammed VI, and the country’s private sector—with a significant assist from the international finance community—are focused on generating economic growth and job creation. While it certainly faces great challenges, Morocco is building from a much more stable and secure political and social base than its neighbors in the region. Its economic efforts have notched a number of business wins and undertaken key initiatives that hold promise as positive signposts for the future.

In this third installment of the MATIC (Moroccan American Trade & Investment Center) series on Morocco’s economy, I take a look at short and medium-term programs that target economic and job growth, and challenges from the declining European economy, drought, and the need to aggressively support new business development, that require more long-terms remedies.

According to the African Economic Outlook, Morocco is the most consistent non-energy producing economy in North Africa.  “In spite of the uncertainties raised by the Arab Spring, Morocco showed resilient growth in 2011, a trend expected to continue in 2012 and 2013 thanks in particular to robust domestic demand and steady progress in agricultural and non-agricultural production.” In addition to budget reforms, the government is keen to enhance the role of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

“Morocco’s SMEs have been the target of a broad set of initiatives in recent years by a variety of public and private institutions to help improve SME access to funding and capacity building. The access to funding by banks is still limited because of the security required…they are a major engine of the economy and currently account for around 93% of all registered businesses, 46% of employment, and 38% of GDP. Their overall contribution in terms of added value to the economy represents only 20%, due mainly to lack of financing and bureaucratic hurdles.” The article in North Africa United goes on to mention that:

Following a recent conference in Casablanca, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) announced a plan to establish a new lending initiative, via local lenders, to improve access to credit for smaller firms by July…The bank has also announced it plans on providing venture capital to SMEs as a way of boosting financing, while at the same time providing advice, and improving back office functions.

As reported previously, the PNB NAPEO conference in Marrakesh in January stressed the importance of entrepreneurship in the region, targeting emerging and growing businesses are a prime vehicle for job and wealth creation. A range of programs emerging in Morocco matches aspiring entrepreneurs with business professions. Also, the US government has announced a $4 million program to assist young entrepreneurs in the Maghreb to obtain financing for their projects, while the Moroccan government has two programs managed by the National Agency for SME Promotion, (ANPME )— Moussanada and Imtiaz that specifically support SMEs through financing and advisory services. A detailed study of these initiatives and results has been published by the Oxford Business Group.

Multilateral agencies are also doing their part. A new World Bank project will help increase employment in Morocco by matching vocational skills and higher education systems with the needs of the labor market. A second project will strengthen the justice sector to deliver efficient and transparent services to citizens and businesses. The $100 million First Skills and Employment Development Policy Loan (DPL) and the $15.8 million Justice Sector Reform Investment loan were approved in May by the World Bank’s Board of Directors.

Social development programs are also being emphasized in the country’s growth strategies as both education and health care are essential for an effective workforce. King Mohammed VI recently inaugurated RAMED, a large-scale projects aimed at improving access to health care. It is based on the principles of social aid and nationwide solidarity for the benefit of disadvantaged people who are not eligible for mandatory health insurance, according to the Minister of Health El Hossein El Ouardi. He noted that this public system enables the beneficiaries to have access to health care in public hospitals and state-owned health services institutions. The government is also looking at “best practices” from Latin America and SE Asia regarding social safety needs serving the most disadvantaged. Spending in the public sector – up 25 percent from 2011 levels – has been allocated into funds for social programs, education, health, housing, and industrial relations, putting additional pressures on the budget.

Of the many challenges facing Morocco today, most pressing in the mind of the average Moroccan, is the gap between labor skills, available jobs, and efforts to restructure the educational system. According to government statistics, unemployment nationwide is conservatively estimated at 9 percent, with at least 30 percent unemployment among youth. To obtain some quick results in lowering unemployment, the government has generated thousands of public sector jobs. This projected increase by 40 percent of public sector jobs, “mostly in home affairs and education,” is accompanied by an investment of another 93.5 billion dirhams in public wages.

Subsidy reforms is the forefront of Morocco’s legislative agenda, since, as some argue, the program should more directly target the poor rather than all citizens since it is the wealthiest who are likely to consume the most goods that receive subsidies.

Will these initiatives contribute to improving the Moroccan economy? To be sure, the country is faced with a number of problems: a lackluster harvest and a slowing of foreign direct investment among them. Weakness in demand, particularly in Europe, where the country has many financial ties –reinforces the need to look for new international customers and investors. Economic realities have forced lawmakers to expand the national debt in order to pay for their initiatives.

It is the combination of government commitment, the King’s leadership, the heightened role of the private sector, and the support of the international community that holds the most promise for stable and continuous economic growth. The task of building a stronger economy by mobilizing the entrepreneurial spirit of Moroccans in tandem with other positive forces in the regional and globally has begun in earnest.

Derek Gildea and Garth Neuffer contributed to this article, which was originally published on Morocco On The Move.

Moroccan Elections Focus on Economic Issues

In this second in a MATIC series looking at the role of economic growth issues facing Morocco, we review the party platforms published in advance of the November 2011 elections to describe the economy as a dominate theme in the elections.

Despite the overwhelming approval of Morocco’s new constitution in July 2011 referendum, some demonstrations persisted into that fall. The focus of many of the protestors was a call for greater economic opportunities, transparency in decision-making, and jobs for the unemployed. As parliamentary elections drew nearer, these criticisms were taken up by many of the major political parties which sought to incorporate them into their own electoral campaigns.

The two political frontrunners—Istiqlal and the Justice and Development Party (PJD)—promised to take actions to reduce wealth disparity, create jobs, promote transparency, and boost development. Both parties guaranteed economic reforms focusing on unemployment, tax reform, international trade and investment, and poverty reduction. They also listed education and legal reforms as part of their economic growth strategies.

The PJD set an ambitious seven percent annual economic growth rate as its target, while Istiqlal committed to five percent, a figure consistent with the average rate from 2007 – 2011. The PJD vowed to reduce overall unemployment by two percent, which would require creation of over 200,000 jobs. Both parties promised to take actions to lower the youth unemployment rate, which had reached nearly 30 percent in the fall of 2011.

Both parties mentioned expanding The Compensation Fund, a social safety net financed by both the State and private enterprises that is primarily aimed at financing medical care and promoting education for children from poor families. Istiqlal emphasized the importance of the fund, but suggested adjusting its support base in order to minimize its impact on the budget deficit.

Both parties also promised to improve standards of living and support for the middle class. Istiqlal vowed to fund professional schools (vocational training) and close the gap in social inequalities by improving job focused education. The PJD pledged to increase the monthly minimum wage by over 25 percent, to approximately $370.

In an effort to encourage foreign and domestic investment, the PJD committed to reducing the company tax from 30 percent to 25 percent, and to cut the value added tax (VAT) from 20 to 15 percent. Abdelilah Benkirane reaffirmed his party’s commitment to encouraging international trade and investment after being sworn in as Prime Minister. “This new government has a true will for reform and we will keep all the promises we made. We will do everything to encourage foreign and domestic investment to create a climate of prosperity.”

The victory of the PJD, which captured the largest number of votes, was interpreted both as a validation of their hard work and detailed reform and growth programs as well as a repudiation of the traditional parties whose past performance did not inspire those supporting broader and continuing reforms.

With a new constitution and strong popular mandate to promote economic growth in all sectors and at all levels, the new government began drafting its program, which was presented to the Parliament for approval in early April. Our next segment will take a look inside the new budget and weigh opportunities for stimulating stronger economic performance in light of weakening European markets and projected low agricultural yields.

Sydney Upchurch contributed to the writing of this article, which originally appeared on Morocco on the Move.

Muslim voices Challenge Qualms of Islamists in Power

Representatives from Islamist parties in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia came to Washington last week to talk about the future of democracy under Islamist-led governments. They were uniformly impressive and well-prepared to challenge key concerns being voiced about Islamists in government: support for human rights, gender equality, protection of minorities, and the direction of their foreign policy priorities.

Moroccan American Center staff attended two events—a luncheon at CSIS featuring the Moroccan Minister of Communications, Mustapha Khalfi, and a day of panels at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) that included the Communications Minister and representatives from Ennadha in Tunisia, the Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt, the Moslem Brotherhood in Jordan, Egypt, and Libya, and others.

It is not a stretch to say, based on the CSIS session that I attended, that they are quite aware of US concerns. Minister Khalfi has spent time previously in Washington and came ready to answer with details of how the new Moroccan government is facing an array of social, political, cultural, and economic issues that are the test of the new constitution and the new government.

The Minister was quite clear about how the new government intends to move forward. After recognizing the King’s role in framing the constitutional and reform process, Khalfi raised other factors that made Moroccoan exception to the upheavals in the other Arab uprisings. He mentioned the political culture of coalition-building that has been a constant in Morocco, particularly on the local level. This experience has been quite useful as the major players and issues are clear, making negotiations more transparent and to the point. Also, the role of civil society was strongly emphasized as a means for the public to mobilize to focus the attention of the Parliament and political parties on their issues.

To Khalfi, the core challenge is implementing the new constitution by concretizing legislation in a number of key areas: power-sharing; enshrining respect for the multi-dimensional Moroccan identity; reshaping the legal code to protect freedoms and liberties; proceeding with regionalization, which includes political, economic, cultural, and social issues and is the key to resolving the Western Sahara crisis; and ensuring good governance through enhanced transparency, accountability, and reform of the judicial system. The Minister said that at least 40 laws need to be passed as part of the initial implementation process.

Other issues addressed by Minister Khalfi included the importance of rebuilding public trust in the political process, the next test being the upcoming local elections; grappling with the specter of the country’s economic and social ills; re-orienting the economy away from dependence on a Europe that is in crisis; and building a strong basis for regional cooperation and stability.

The CEIP presenters were equally articulate, arguing that the real test of Islamists in power is just beginning. The final verdict will rest on how well democracy and Islam are integrated. The question is not which existing model works best; the answer is what meets the people’s expectations in each country.

This article was originally published on Morocco On The Move.

Disbelief & Discomfort about Immolations as new Gov’t program debated

I spent much of my day talking with taxi drivers, business leaders, friends, and waiters about two topics that are unfortunately related: the self-immolation by five graduates over lack of jobs and reactions to the programs being announced by the new government.

Disbelief and discomfort seem to permeate everyone’s remarks about the immolations, particularly “nothing like this has ever happened in Morocco.” Older middle-class Moroccans were shocked and blamed the unrealistic expectations of the young men for government jobs. This was repeated later by young professionals who were angry that the only interest of these protestors is to secure public sector employment — jobs for life that are among the least productive in the country according to these sources. Those in the lower economic strata said that it was “haram” — forbidden — and it proved that these people were not good Muslims. However another, a taxi driver, moaned the loss of those young men, now depriving their families of much needed support. I didn’t hear anyone mention “martyr,” but that will be turning up on some websites/social media soon.

It is a quandary. Without oil and gas and huge foreign reserves, Morocco is unable and unwilling to broaden public sector employment beyond the largesse of jobs added last year in response to the demonstrations. On the other hand, everyone believes that something must be done but there are few solutions that aren’t tied to longer term reforms of the economy and educational system. Although some claim that promoting entrepreneurship among the demonstrators would generate jobs, it contradicts the demands of the crowd for subsidies rather than the calculated risks of going into business.

The new government is very sensitive to the challenges that they have inherited. Jobs, transparency, equality before the law, and social development are top priorities and there is talk of increased pressure/incentives for the private sector to ratchet up their hiring. Labor laws, however, are an impediment to some since regulations on labor mobility and terminating employees are still not well advanced. In addition, the continued deterioration of Morocco’s main partners in Europe: Spain, France, and Italy, are compounding the slowdown in trade and investment. The debate in Parliament over the government’s program should be instructive regarding the willingness of its members to face their own future unemployment by a half-hearted agenda to provide opportunities that can make the young, believers.

The hope of Marrakech and the frustration of Rabat are captured well in Isobel Coleman’s blog from the PNB-NAPEO conference at: http://blogs.cfr.org/coleman/2012/01/19/education-and-employment-in-north-africa/

Some like it not: no emerging consensus on the new government

I returned to Rabat two months after the election that brought in a moderate Islamic party to lead the new coalition government. Having spent the last three days at a conference in Marrakech, I was astounded by the news of five young graduates who immolated themselves during a protest for jobs. When one contrasts the hopeful expectations of the participants in Marrakech with the great sadness of young people destroying themselves through some mixture of despair and recklessness, it brings into sharp focus the challenges ahead.

It is difficult to follow the news about the damaged young men without wondering how the new government will meet this severe test one day before it was scheduled to unveil its program in Parliament on Thursday. In discussions with government and opposition supporters it becomes clear that many fear there are short fuses for long-term problems such as closing employment and education deficits. The strongest asset for the new government is the mixture of old and new, professionals, technocrats, and politicians who understand that business as usual will not suffice. Even the palace, which has ensured that its representatives are in key ministries, has been taken aback by Wednesday’s dramatic actions, marking a turn from the usually peaceful demonstrations in the capital.

I spoke with former and current members of Parliament, supporters of the new government, and those who are taking a wait-and-see attitude. While there is no consensus on how it will perform, there is agreement that the immolations are a reality check on thinking that they have the time to make hard decisions. The new government seems poised to take up the challenges quickly if one follows its public statements. Having spent so much time negotiating the distribution and structure of the various ministries, there appears to be a commitment to visible results even if it requires shifting priorities away from reducing deficits and government expenditures.

While Morocco has initialed several commecial and investment agreements with Spain, the EU, and several Gulf countries over the past three months, implementation will take time. In addition, it is hard to convince graduates that after attending university they should return to less populated areas where there are jobs, many of which don’t require any kind of degree. How the government manages expectations and its relations with the palace will demonstrate quickly if the intellectual and operational leadership is there to convince Moroccans that their futures are secure and their lives will improve. No public relations campaigns will work–only results.
This article was originally published on Morocco On The Move.

Now you see them … the case of the disappearing dissidents

In the run-up to the 13thCongress of the very undemocratic Polisario Front in Tifariti 15-21 December, something akin to an Arab Awakening occurred to interrupt 30+ year reign of the General Secretary Mohamed Abdelaziz. It has been reported in intelligence press reports that young people are calling for a change to the Polisario’s Politburo-like behavior.

The congress refused to consider any limitations to the number of terms of office the General Secretary or members of the National Secretariat can hold. Mohamed Abdelaziz has now been elected, unopposed, as General Secretary of the Polisario Front and therefore President of the self-styled Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) for the 11th successive time, with 21 out of 48 members of the outgoing National Secretariat staying on. That would give Fidel Castro a run for the title now that Qaddafi is gone!

More intriguing was the fate of young activists protesting against the Congress, who complained about the lack of fresh ideas and inclusion of diverse opinions, as well as the marginalization of young people.

Of specific concern is the intelligence press report is that scores of young protestors, who had camped out in front of the house of the Secretary General before the congress, were arrested and have not been released. This occurred despite a statement from the Polisario Front’s youth and student wing, UJSARIO, calling for the opportunity for opponents of the current leadership to air their views before the delegates to the congress. This, of course, did not happen; in fact, it was further reported that dissidents were barred from entering the conference hall.

An independent journalist who attended the Tifariti congress characterized the “no” response from the Front’s leadership as: NO to changing the make-up of the leadership; NO to change the decision-making process; and NO changes in policy.

Next door, in Morocco, the popularly elected representatives from four political parties were involved in negotiations under the leadership of the Justice and Development Party (PJD) to form a new government, under a new constitution, that enshrines human rights and an independent judiciary. It will be interesting to see how the group of Polisario nay-sayers concoct their outreach to the new government in Morocco, which received strong voter support in the South, home to the majority of Sahrawis on Morocco.

Article published by Morocco on the Move