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Pure Onsense

Reflections on Morocco

Scott Zuke

(Feb, 2012) In a recent GOP debate the Republican candidates expressed their support for making English the offical language of the United States, fearing that showing tolerance to other widely spoken languages (namely Spanish) could divide and damage American culture. I had to laugh, having just returned from a study tour of a nation where a king once declared that "He who speaks only one language is an illiterate."

Morocco is a middle-income and stable Islamic nation on the northwest tip of Africa, eight miles south of Spain across the Strait of Gibralter. The climate is Mediterranean--chilly and wet this time of year, but with a hot sun. Its system of government is parliamentary monarchy, the former toothless and the latter absolute. And while illiteracy is staggeringly high--almost 50%--almost everyone I met there was fluent in two or more languages, typically French and Darija, a Moroccan dialect that combines elements of French and the indigenous Berber language with Arabic. Most are familiar with the traditional Arabic of the Quran, and English learning is on the rise. The ancient Berber language, also known as Tamazight, is still spoken by about 40% of the country, and has been continuously in use in North Africa since the time of the Egyptian pharaohs.

This past January 25 marked the one year anniversary of the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo, the most recognizable event of the "Arab Spring" that saw the toppling of dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, and continues to boil in Syria. Morocco, despite being out on the far western flank of the Arab-Islamic nations, was also impacted by the uprising.

On February 20, 2011, one of the largest protests in decades formed in the capital city of Rabat, demanding that the king, Mohammed VI, cede some of his powers to the elected parliament through meaningful constitutional reforms. Of the other countries that had so far been embroiled in the Arab citizens revolt, governments had either been toppled or responded with violent suppression of protests. Morocco's king took a middle path, getting out ahead of the protests by quickly proposing significant constitutional changes that would strengthen the parliament and meet some--though not all--of the protestors' demands. He also cleverly made these reforms subject to a referendum vote, not only making a gesture toward democracy, but also buying time so that the Febrary 20 Movement wouldn't snowball into a major crisis for the monarchy.

So far the strategy appears to have worked. The protests have diminished (although not disappeared--there are still marches in the streets and "Occupy"-style demonstrations on the rooftops of some buildings near Parliament), the constitutional reforms passed with overwhelming support, and a recent parliamentary election brought on a smooth transition of power to a new leading party, the Party for Justice and Development (PJD).

What are average Moroccans' views on politics? On the PJD, opinions are tentative and mixed. With the Constitutional reforms, citizens really don't know what to expect until opportunities arise for the legislature to test its new powers against the king's authority. And while uncertainty is universal, apathy is also endemic among the populace. Only 45% of the electorate participated in last November's election, and many of those ballots were turned in either blank or scribbled with profanity, demonstrating a disillusionment with parliamentary politics.

This itself, according to a number of critics, is due to the king's strategy for retaining power: anything that goes right in the country is credited to the monarch, and anything that goes wrong, including increasingly public perceptions of corruption, are blamed on Parliament. Either way, public support for the king is strong and genuine. Hassan II, the present king's father who ruled from 1961 until his death in 1999, was far more brutal, and treated the country more like a police state. Mohammed VI has distinguished himself as the polar opposite of his father, forwarding liberal social reforms and tolerating dissent. However clever his techniques may seem for retaining power, it is clear that the country is on a better path for having him.

What about democracy, though? It's a tricky subject. As already seen in Egypt and Tunisia, when dictators have been removed from power and replaced with democratic elections, those with Western sensibilities might not be thrilled with the results. The PJD, for example, is an Islamist party, but a moderate one that is not seeking, for example, to implement Sharia as the national law. Other parties, some of which have been more closely aligned with the ongoing February 20 Movement, are more extreme. Going by popular opinion alone, some political commentators have argued that a Moroccan democracy would be far more conservative than the country has appeared under its Western-educated, more progressive king. For example, Mohammed VI's reforms of the family code--a section of law almost entirely based on Quranic doctrine--to grant women more privileges with regards to marriage and divorce was an important step in advancing human rights in the country, and one that arguably would have failed if put to a popular vote. Thus, while democratization will remain a long-term goal, critics should be aware of the contextual arguments for allowing this process to unfold gradually.

Morocco, in short, is still struggling to define an identity for itself. Geographically it is closer to Europe than the Arab world, and a significant portion of its population continues to identify itself with the indigenous Berber culture rather than that of the ruling Arabs. Tellingly, one expert I listened to admitted that Moroccans do not view themselves as an example for other countries. Multiple citizens I spoke with, from prominent government employees at the powerful Department of the Interior to taxi drivers on the streets of Rabat, made a similar qualifying statement when evaluating their nation: that every country has its good and bad qualities. Such a true and humble sentiment, but how rare to hear, especially by American ears accustomed to frequent displays of nationalist pride. For better or worse, certainly not something I expect to hear at upcoming GOP debates.

Read other article by Scott Zuke