I remember, vividly, how unsettled I was when I learned of the sudden death of Morocco’s King Hassan II on a hot July day in 1999. Like many people around the world, I was glued to CNN’s coverage of the funeral, as throngs gathered to bid the seasoned monarch adieu and bury him in the mausoleum that houses his father and brother’s remains.
Some six or seven years before, Hassan II had insinuated in an interview that it’s not a good idea for an heir to the throne to wait too long and that a king has the right to retire if he so wishes—exactly what King Juan Carlos of Spain did recently. I had the uncanny sentiment that such a smart man was sending a message about his own plans, although no one could have expected him to die that abruptly of a heart condition.
It was, however, in the aftermath of Hassan’s death that I knew that the political system in Morocco was more durable and resilient than many had thought. The transition happened without a glitch, as if it had been choreographed years ahead of time. The quiet and dutiful prince, Mohammed, was duly proclaimed king as the nation mourned his departed father. Mohammed VI hit the ground running to transform Morocco from a fortress state into an open modern stable democratic monarchy.
Almost everything the new king did was revolutionary, beginning with his public marriage to a dynamic working woman. He established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to compensate the political victims of his father’s reign and authorized the setting of the National Human Rights Council headed by a former dissident who had been sentenced to death. These were not cosmetic changes, but part of a long-term strategy to inculcate a civic culture in a country that had practically none. Morocco’s family law had already been rewritten to give more rights to women and their children, including the right to confer citizenship. Male absolutism, a feature of much of the Arab world, was being contained.
Anti-poverty schemes and strategic development projects were launched to ensure the economic wellbeing of citizens and put the nation on a stronger competitive footing. A new health care insurance system was established to cover the medical needs of the poor. The massive cargo port Tanger-Med and the free economic zones that surround it are transforming the once neglected northwestern part of the country into an industrial and economic powerhouse.
The aeronautics industry is already positioning the country as a major global player. In a couple of years or so, Moroccans will be able to take France’s bullet train, known as TGV, from Tangier to Casablanca, the first such train to be in use in Africa. Tourists will fly into modern or renovated airports in Marrakech, Fez, Rabat, Agadir, Tangier, and the already busy one of Casablanca, among others. Soccer teams will play in new, state-of-the art stadiums and citizens will find better hospitals and clinics to go to. One such hospital was just inaugurated in Oujda, near the border with Algeria.
Strengthened by such infrastructure, Morocco is reconnecting with its African roots like never before, sharing its religious and economic know-how with eager partners across the continent. The country’s commercial portfolio has been diversified significantly, even as the system’s stability has impressed observers around the world.
Still surprisingly oil-less and without the lucrative natural resources of its Arab and African neighbors, Morocco is now one of the global leaders in pursuing a policy of renewable and solar energy. This doesn’t mean Morocco is sitting on the sidelines of oil and gas exploration. There is a steady rush by international companies to find some, but Morocco is not banking its future on such extractions. The country’s best capital is its people; that’s why Mohammed VI just set up a council on education to plan out a viable strategy for the future.
With a well-tested security system, enforced by the natural penchant of Moroccans for moderation in all things, the country is poised to pursue a better future. Religious extremism will have no hold in Morocco, despite the feeble attempts by a few desperadoes to prey on people’s naiveté. While the new constitution of 2011 is supposed to be a response to what is known as the Arab Spring, it is, in fact, part of a long-term process of reform whose ultimate goal is a free, modern nation. The king now shares power with an elected government, keeping only religion and the militray outside of poltics.
The people I know in government, from ministers and governors to directors of major operations, are working tirelessly to build a stronger nation. But Morocco needs help, too. Back in 2004, I wrote to make the case for Morocco’s candidacy in hosting the soccer world cup in 2010. This would have been an opportunity to showcase a modern Muslim-majority nation and send a strong message about the value of modernization and tolerance to extremists everywhere. Then, as now, I felt that a lot of attention is directed to the darker side of the Islamic world; yet, equal, if not more attention, needs to be paid to places where things are on the right track. This willful neglect is almost as bad as the violence and horrors we condemn. We need to see examples of positive progress, and Morocco has a number of those to share.
Much remains to be done in Morocco, especially in the domains of education, health, and civic consciousness in general. Like all Arab Muslim nations, Morocco needs to find a path to the future that honors its traditions and, at the same time, moves boldy away from the practices and beliefs that no longer make sense in our age. The freedom to think freely and follow one’s convictions, no matter what they are, are the pillars of any human rights culture. The government would be well-advised to protect such rights in fact and law because, in the end, only people who are free to think can be innovative.
Morocco has emerged as a major destination for music festivals, but this approach is not enough to give the nation a rich cultural landscape. A culture of book reading must be encouraged. As I said more than ten years ago, Moroccans need to find their way to the world’s rich literary, religious, and philosophical traditions. I wouldn’t be opposed to subsidizing such a venture, even if public subsidies are shrinking. Such an approach would go hand-in-hand with a national, public and progressive educational system, not the potpourri of projects that are now passing for educational entrepreneurship. Also, it would be most helpful if Moroccans spoke the same language, as I argued back in 2004. The country will remain trapped in a schizophrenic identity unless it does so. A thoughtful education policy would, therefore, improve standards and strengthen the kind of enlightened patriotism that would unite people and propel the nation forward.
The challenges facing Morocco are many—and some are quite daunting—but there is such an unmistakable will for development in Morocco and a pronounced royal impatience with lack of rigor that the entire country looks like a construction site and a laboratory for responsible citizenship. A peaceful protest culture is unrelenting, even as the elected government is rushing to introduce disruptive change. This whole experiment—what I called “sultanic democracy” recently—is being managed by King Mohammed VI like a seasoned maestro, working tirelessly to keep the momentum going at a steady pace.
Barring some unforeseen catastrophe, I am betting on the success of the Moroccan model.