President Barack Obama came under criticism recently for describing Egypt as neither an ally nor an enemy of the United States and then backtracking days later. Most Americans who follow the Middle East and North Africa know perfectly well that Egypt’s relationship with the United States is no longer friendly. After what happened over there during the last couple of weeks, even many Americans who hardly pay any attention at all have figured it out. But it’s not diplomatic for the White House or the State Department to say it out loud, so the president walked it back.
Compare and contrast Washington’s poisoned relationship with Cairo to the one at the opposite end of North Africa. The United States just upgraded its relationship with Morocco to the level of what’s called a Strategic Dialogue, bringing the two almost as close as possible without bringing Morocco into NATO. Americans have fewer than two dozen alliances like this in the world.
The timing could hardly be better. Since the Arab Spring began in Tunisia, North Africa and the Middle East have gone through an extraordinary period of tumultuous change, some of it good, but much of it bad. The U.S. needs friends it can count on over there and hardly has any other than Israel. Pro-American Arab governments — not that there are many of those — likewise need an alliance with the United States they can count on.
That part of the world also needs a stable rock somewhere—not the stultifying stability provided by the House of al-Saud in Arabia, and certainly not the tyrannical sort that Moammar Qaddafi managed for a few decades in Libya. No, what the Middle East and North Africa need right now is progressive stability, the kind that slowly advances human and political development without triggering the kinds of violent reactions and shocks we’re seeing in so many places right now. Morocco is one of the few countries that’s pulling it off.
Unlike “frenemy” states like Egypt and Pakistan, Morocco is a genuine friend of the United States and always has been. Washington and Rabat share the same strategic interests in the region and, just as importantly, the same outlook and vision.
I recently spoke with Youssef Amrani, Morocco’s minister delegate for foreign affairs.
“We’ve decided to upgrade our relationship,” he said. “We have the same values. We have economic and cultural ties. The United States recognizes the commitment of Morocco to human rights and the rule of law. With all the changes in the region, we need to send the message that an Arab country can work with the United States on the basis of shared values.”
Our strong anti-communist alliance during the Cold War transitioned smoothly into a strong anti-terrorist alliance in the 21st century. Long before the terror war started in earnest, however, Morocco stood strong against Nasserism, Baathism, and the other various noxious secular “isms” that have proven such spectacular failures everywhere they’ve been tried.
Arab Nationalism, radical Islam, and anti-Americanism exist in Morocco, of course, but they find less purchase than in most other places. The ideas make less sense there. Morocco is a pluralistic blend of Arab and Berber and has been culturally influenced by southern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa throughout its entire history. The United States has never been hostile toward Morocco and Morocco has never been hostile toward the United States. Only a small percentage of Americans know that Morocco was the first country in the world to recognize our independence from Britain, but everyone in Morocco knows and is proud of it.
Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was sort of an ally of the United States, but he wasn’t a real one. He was part of America’s security architecture in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Washington propped him up with assistance, but he did nothing—nothing—to liberalize or modernize Egypt and prepare it for a future of peaceful relations with itself, its neighbors, or with the rest of the world. Every day his state-run media cranked out as much anti-American and anti-Semitic invective as Nazi Germany, and it did so for decades. He threw liberals as well as Islamists in prison. His military regime ruthlessly repressed anything and everything that even smelled like civil society. Revolutionary Egypt was not even remotely primed for tolerant liberal democracy. “We’ve had 7,000 years of civilization,” an activist told me in Tahrir Square last year, “and 7,000 years of oppression.”
By contrast, civil society is flourishing in Morocco. The state doesn’t have a paranoid view of non-governmental organizations. It doesn’t think they’re part of a sinister foreign conspiracy like the Egyptian government did when Mubarak was running the place and like it still does today. Morocco has long had a pluralistic view of outsiders, the kind that only exists in a few isolated pockets elsewhere in the Arab world like Beirut and Tunis.
Jews live in Morocco as a protected minority. The only other Arab country where that’s true is Tunisia. King Mohammad VI had been campaigning to educate the Muslim world about the horrors of the Holocaust and to put an end to Holocaust denial once for all. It’s outrageous that he has to stand up and say the Holocaust happened and that it was bad, but that’s where we are. His government has opted out of the Arab-Israeli conflict and would, in all likelihood, sign a peace treaty with Israel tomorrow if that wouldn’t cause such a geopolitical headache for itself in the region.
While Morocco is not a democracy and Mohammad VI wasn’t elected, the country does have democratic institutions and its people are slowly developing democratic habits of mind. The king’s father, Hassan II, began liberalizing Morocco decades ago, and Mohammad VI stepped on the accelerator as soon as he came to power. He did it before widespread disgruntlement threatened to bring down the government, which is the best time to do it, not only because it’s the right thing to do on general principle, but because it’s the only way governments can maintain legitimacy over the long term. Reforms aren’t likely to placate hundreds of thousands of furious demonstrators, but genuine reforms will likely prevent hundreds of thousands of furious demonstrators from taking to the streets in the first place.
So while much of the region is boiling with turmoil, Morocco is placid and calm.
“Democratic transition and the building of institutions take time,” said Amrani from the foreign ministry. “You can’t change the world in one day. Countries that have had no institutions and no civil society are going to have problems. Democracy can’t be imposed all at once. It’s a culture. It’s something you have to do every day.”
Edward Gabriel and Michael Ussery, two former U.S. ambassadors to Morocco, put it this way on The Hill’sCongress blog: “Morocco pushed ahead with its own ambitious reform agenda that directly addressed past human rights abuses, the status and role of women in society, the need to focus attention and resources on the most disadvantaged, insistence on religious tolerance, the need to open up political space to civil society and other non-state actors, and conducted a series of the only truly free and fair local and national elections in the Arab World.”
With revolution, war, sectarian bloodshed, and renascent repression roiling so much of the region, Morocco’s gradual political liberalization looks like a better model than ever. And with two hundred years of history behind it, the American-Moroccan alliance is likely to last.
Post-script: I’m raising money for my next trip to the Arab world. Unless Assad falls in Syria, most likely I’m heading to Libya. I might stop briefly in Morocco on the way over. If you haven’t supported me recently (or ever), please help me out. PayPal donations add up to plane tickets, and so do sales of my book, Where the West Ends.
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