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January 20, 2012

Analysis: Morocco Charts Own Arab Spring

by Carol Castiel

King Mohammed VI of Morocco named a new government almost six weeks after parliamentary elections on November 25, 2011 catapulted the Justice and Development Party (PJD), a moderate Islamist movement, to power.

Abdelilah Benkirane, PJD’s secretary general, was appointed Head of Government. Since the PJD did not win an outright majority of the 395 parliamentary seats, Benkirane leads a broad coalition that includes three secular parties. This is the first time in Morocco’s history that the prime minister has been chosen from the ruling party, a testament to the constitutional changes proposed by King Mohammed VI and endorsed in a nationwide referendum in July, 2011. The constitutional changes grant more powers to the parliament and prime minister.

Meaning of reforms, new faces

So what does it all mean for Morocco? Notwithstanding the February 20 protest movement, which does not believe the constitutional changes promulgated by the royal palace went far enough, the Kingdom appears downright stable and peaceful compared to Egypt and Libya.

Despite the historic constitutional changes and elections, most Moroccans express skepticism bordering on cynicism regarding their elected officials. Some wonder why a PJD-led government should be any different than its predecessor government, which was perceived as corrupt and ineffectual.

However, some are willing to give the PJD – and Benkirane in particular – the benefit of the doubt. Benkirane is uniformly seen as hard-working and serious. But observers agree that it will take much more than one man to implement the structural reforms needed to address Morocco’s challenges: rampant corruption and nepotism, high unemployment and low literacy rates.

Nonetheless, Mustapha El Khalfi, PJD loyalist and newly-appointed minister of communication, says that the government’s top priorities will be to combat corruption, foster equitable economic development and promote social justice. Khalfi also underscored the need for more press freedom. He says that the PJD’s platform can be characterized as “reform within stability, a third way between revolution and authoritarianism.” Khalfi cautions that the nation is embarking on a long process and it has only just begun.

Working-class Moroccans echo the need for patience. A hotel clerk in Tangier told VOA that it will take at least 10 years for Morocco to transform itself into a truly modern country. He said that, more than anything, what Morocco needs is a “change of mentality,” and that can only come with better education. He was pleased that, in contrast to its neighbors to the east, Morocco is taking the slow, evolutionary road to political development.

One issue on which almost all Moroccans agree is reverence and respect for their young monarch, King Mohammed VI. He is seen by Moroccans as hard-working and good-hearted. Not coincidentally, Benkirane and the PJD are strong defenders of the monarchy.

Cause for optimism?

Generally, Moroccans seem cautiously optimistic about their future and the future of their Kingdom.

Some believe the new government is likely to defy the political elites and secular cynics on both the left and the right who believe the PJD will surreptitiously attempt to implement an “Islamist agenda.” Actually, the PJD goes out of its way to distinguish itself from Egypt’s more conservative Muslim Brotherhood. And even if the PJD wanted to implement a more socially conservative agenda, many experts believe it would be mitigated by the three secular parties within the governing coalition.

Moreover, Morocco’s proximity to Europe, as well as its ethnically diverse population of Berbers, Arabs, Jews, Saharawi and Africans, have rendered it a historically open and tolerant society with a moderate brand of Islam. To illustrate, the masthead of the official French language newspaper, Le Matin, displays the day’s date according to four different calendars: Christian, Islamic, Hebrew and Berber!

These are early days for the Kingdom, which no doubt accelerated reforms in reaction to the Arab Spring. Many obstacles could still impede deep and meaningful change, such as entrenched interests and ingrained cultural habits. But a number of factors do justify cautious optimism in the case of Morocco: Its rich natural resources and diverse landscape favor greater investment and tourism; its human potential, especially among youth; the popularity of the king; and a seemingly broad desire for change as personified by the new government led by the PJD’s Benkirane. Observers agree there are tremendous challenges ahead, but there is also a palpable hope that Morocco may yet defy the skeptics, and, if successful, the North African nation could possibly serve as a model for the region and beyond.

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