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Moroccan Democracy And The Future Of The Sahara

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By Ahmed Charai

Over the past three months, Arab heads of state have responded to mass protests in their respective countries by either fleeing or fighting. Egypt’s Mubarak and Tunisia’s Bin Ali decided that their positions were untenable and promptly surrendered their rule. Meanwhile in Algeria, Bahrain, Yemen, and, most brutally, in Libya, rulers are cracking down hard on domestic unrest to try and maintain their authority the old fashioned way. In all these cases, Arab leaders appear to have ruled out a third option: share power with their people through serious, aggressive reform of the political system.

Until this week, that is—when Moroccan King Muhammad VI made a stunning speech to his people in which he committed to doing just that. His supporters in the country have dubbed the new plan for sweeping constitutional reform “The King’s Revolution,” while skeptics are voicing doubts as to whether his promises will actually be put into effect. While most sectors of Moroccan society responded with enthusiasm to the king’s proposals, some were critical. The radical Islamist group al-Adl wa ‘l-lhasan, which aims to overthrow the monarchy and establish an Islamist regime, rejected the plan outright. So did a relatively small number of youth protesters. In light of continuing unrest throughout North Africa and the Middle East, the Moroccan leader’s novel approach bears examining. What has he really offered? What are the chances he will deliver? What are the implications for the rest of the region? Each question is further complicated by the long-simmering conflict between Algeria and Morocco over the Western Sahara. The tension over that disputed desert land has stymied political and economic progress in both countries for the past three decades—and any serious political initiative by the king must somehow address the Sahara’s future.

Morocco
Morocco

The 47-year-old monarch announced his new plan on national television this past Wednesday. Flanked by his brother and son, he called for a new constitution that would reduce his own authority vis a vis the elected parliament, effect a separation of powers, enshrine individual liberties and human rights, and distribute governance more evenly over the country. According to the plan, the judiciary, currently under the control of the executive branch, would be elevated to the status of an independent power. An elected prime minister—no longer appointed by the king—would assume control over most aspects of the executive branch of government. New amendments would enshrine individual rights and gender equality as well as make the Berber mother tongue of Amazigh an official language alongside Arabic. Finally, for the first time, regional elected bodies would supersede appointed governors as the principal decision-makers in regional affairs.

The credibility of these commitments may be assessed in three ways: first, in terms of the monarchy’s track record on implementing reform; second, whether the Moroccan people themselves appear to believe the king will make good on his promises; and third, whether the “regionalization” of elected power will apply equally to the Sahara, and what that would mean for the longstanding conflict.

First, as to the track record, since assuming the throne in 1999 King Muhammad VI has indeed made substantial changes in the way the country is governed. He persuaded opposition parties to return from exile and play a robust role in parliamentary politics and government. He built a kingdom-wide network of civil society institutions to foster civic leadership, empower women, and assist the poor. He also created the Arab world’s first-ever truth and reconciliation commission to help redress the people’s grievances against the brutality of his father’s regime. Though far from ideal, the commission delivered official acknowledgment of the monarchy’s historic brutality as well as compensation to victims for their suffering. The kingdom subsequently won accolades from international human rights organizations for bolstering individual liberties. On the other hand, critics of the king have rightly observed that the past few years have seen a reversal of key reforms, particularly in the wake of the monarchy’s tough counter-terrorist measures. So on balance, the king deserves a passing grade for his track record on reform, even if he did not pass with flying colors.

Second, in terms of the Moroccan people’s trust in the king’s proposal, it appears to be relatively strong. While some Islamist groups rejected the speech, key members of the elected opposition in parliament have praised it as taking into account their demands for constitutional reform. As for the country’s youth, popular unrest has markedly ebbed in the wake of the king’s address. On the streets of Casablanca and Rabat, fewer people are taking to the streets—and there are virtually no calls for the ouster of the king. This degree of civil peace is unique among the Arab world’s populous countries today.

Third, perhaps the lynchpin of the plan’s credibility and success, is the question of the interplay between the proposed political reforms and the Sahara conflict. Since 2007 the Moroccan government has offered autonomy to the people of the Sahara as a compromise to the Algerian demand of a separate Saharan state. As people who follow the Saharan conflict know, a relatively small number of Saharans live in refugee camps on Algerian soil controlled by the Polisario militia, which aspires to control all Saharan territory. But now the king’s reform agenda appears to be overtaking political deliberations with Algeria and the Polisario at the UN. Consider the implication, after all, of the king’s new plan to supersede the authority of appointed governors by empowering elected regional councils. An elected council in Morocco’s Saharan region would amount, in effect, to Saharan autonomy—with or without a settlement between Morocco, Algeria, and the Polisario. This prospect underscores that the king’s new plan poses geopolitical as well as a domestic risks to the monarchy. It will be extremely difficult for the king to take such risks unless a peace settlement with Algeria is achieved at the UN. Such a settlement, in turn, requires American and European support.

The possibility of sweeping reform in Morocco, in any event, also raises the question of broader implications across North Africa and the Middle East. Would the king’s plan provide a new model for autocrats to follow in other countries? Would it raise expectations among Arab youth outside Morocco that their leaders, too, will promise similar reforms?

The answer to these questions will vary dramatically from country to country. In Bahrain, for example, the impact of the Moroccan king’s speech will likely be to embolden protestors to demand similar commitments from their own king. The same may be true in the kingdom of Jordan. Nor will the loosening of autocracy in Morocco serve to reduce seething tensions inside military republics such as Algeria, Syria, and Yemen, to say nothing of Libya. But for heads of state in each of these countries, the Moroccan initiative may also provide a viable alternative to fighting or fleeing. It is the choice that every leader should make: to harness his formidable powers in the service of his people—whatever the risk, whatever the outcome.

Ahmed Charai is chairman of Med Radio, a national broadcast network in Morocco, and publisher of the weekly Moroccan newspaper L’observateur as well as the French edition of Foreign Policy magazine. He sits on the board of trustees of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Advisory Board of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and serves on the board of directors of the Search for Common Ground. This article was published by FPRI.

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5 thoughts on “Moroccan Democracy And The Future Of The Sahara

  • March 11, 2011 at 11:47 pm
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    The questions of Moroccan Democracy and the future of the Sahara are totally separate. Morocco could become the Switzerland of the Maghreb and that wouldn’t change a thing for the Western Saharans who have suffered through 35 years of brutal occupation and exile. The Western Saharans would still have the right to de-colonial self-determination. Mr. Charai shows his true colors when he says, “It will be extremely difficult for the king to take such risks unless a peace settlement with Algeria is achieved at the UN.” Algeria quite simply does not have the right to sign a separate peace treaty with Morocco that ignores the desires of the Western Saharans. There just will not be any kind of settlement until Morocco allows a western saharan referendum on independence to take place. For the Western Sahara the King’s speech changes nothing.

    Reply
  • March 12, 2011 at 12:38 am
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    1- “The King’s revolution” as people like to call in 2011 started in July of 1999, when Mohamed VI dismissed Driss Basri from the combined post of minister of interior and information. King Mohamed VI has been ahead of the masses by many years, and today his word can be heard, because of all the hard work he has pushed though in the last many years, in spite of the inertia he inherited and that characterized (and still characterizes) government members.

    2- The regionalization of powers is a concrete step, and has been in the works for many years. However, given the current events, it may look like something that has been cooked up fast to appease the critics.

    3- With regard to other Arab leaders emulating Mohamed VI: it would be hard (maybe impossible) for any of them to suddenly claim that they can lead a reform, since they didn’t do it while they had a chance.

    4- Sahrawis, like the rest of Moroccan people, once they have undertaken governance at the local level, they will seek a stronger union with the other regions. Hopefully, the latter kind of thinking will spread to the rest of the Arab world.

    Reply
  • March 12, 2011 at 1:45 pm
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    Karim of California states, “Sahrawis, like the rest of Moroccan people, once they have undertaken governance at the local level, they will seek a stronger union with the other regions. Hopefully, the latter kind of thinking will spread to the rest of the Arab world.” The history of unrest over the last several years in the occupied territory, the animosity between the illegal Moroccan settlers and the indigenous Sahrawis, and the categorical refusal of the Polisario Front to discuss autonomy within Moroccan sovereignty lead me to believe that Karim is dreaming hear. Real democracy in the Western Sahara without a referendum on independence would be a recipe for disaster since the large majority of the indigenous Sahrawi don’t want to live under Morocco in the first place.

    Reply
  • March 13, 2011 at 9:31 pm
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    Question to Mr Chasli, suppose Morocco give up Western Sahara to the Polisario, what kind of regime we will expect to have in this land? A democratic one that will lead by example to the Arab World to follow? or it is, something similar to the one ruling Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Libya, Egypt…Etc.
    Mr Chasli needs to understand that is not few miles of water and square miles of sands and flies that will split us as Arabs!! the Arabs have enough Land, Seas ,Human and Mineral resources that envy the rest of the world; the problem is that we are still fighting a colonialism disease.
    Here we are every year we celebrate our land independence from the French, Spanish Portuguese, Italian, English…etc occupations, you will expect that after each independence you will see people inspiration realised by true democracy and freedom (West Sahara no different) but what we inherited, opportunist undemocratic rulers that through out the years elusion /greed take over and they became dependent of the West for their survival, which in time works for the interest of the Big co operations of the West by sucking the land resources in return or forcing a political agenda of a sort, things that still happing until today. In the case of Polisario, it is very obvious the rulers will be very dependent of an Algerian regime which is NO Democratic or have any glimpse of hope of been one in the Near Future!!! Because the stake of the few Rulers and the West that lead the (GAME) is very high!!! My heart and mind is with my Algerian and Sahrawi brothers.
    As an Arab patriotic, I will be happy to support my Sahrawi brothers to have their own independent country, if only the intension of the Algerian Regime is good, remember the Polisario are hosted and supported by a regime that not democratic or believe on Arab brotherhood, a regime that kills his own people to hold on to the power – a regime that expels innocents Moroccan patriots leaving in Algeria for years and split between Moroccan and Algerian families to achieve their own political AGENDA. The Algerian Regime agenda is so clear, is to create confusion and enemies in the region and to hold on to the power with an iron feast views shared by many of my Algerian friends and colleagues.

    Ask yourself for once, why we need to create another Arab poor country with slight chance of been democratic one and of course more borders between us? It’s work to whose benefits! You may think that I am patronising and who am I to decide other people faith! But I am sorry I am very realistic and as an Arab patriotic I feel in the same way for the people leaving in Tinduf as well as those leaving in Moroccan and Algerian Chantey towns including the Palestinian living in refugee camps and the whole underprivileged living in the Arab world.

    The Arab people in the region they want only one thing and one thing only is Freedom and Democracy and with this we are capable to sort our indifference between us without any confusion or influences

    Reply
  • March 14, 2011 at 2:08 am
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    Rachid,

    Pluralistic free-market democracy is written into the constitution of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. While new nationhood is always a very difficult proposition, I find no reason to doubt the sincerity of the Polisario. The Polisario has already offered Morocco the prospect of a special relationship with the RASD if Morocco would allow a referendum to take place and the vote is for independence. If Morocco continues to reject this proposition, then a special relationship with Algeria is inevitable. In any event, I feel strongly that the prospects for freedom and democracy are far greater in an independent Western Sahara than it is in Morocco. Despite all the big words about democracy coming from Rabat, I doubt that the crown and Morocco’s incredibly corrupt elite and military are serious about relinquishing power to the Moroccan people. Another issue is that as long as Morocco refuses to allow the Western Saharans their self-determination, the Maghreb Union will never get off the ground.

    Reply

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