Friday, August 5, 2011

Is Morocco Ahead Of The Pack?

By Jonathan Power
One of the less noted aspects of the Arab Spring is how secure the region’s monarchies appear to be. But why? They too have their inequalities and their restricted franchises, yet Morocco, Jordan, Oman and the Gulf kingdoms, with the exception of Bahrain, have avoided a tempestuous confrontation between protesters and the authorities, even though none of them have escaped protest of the milder variety.
The answer, I would guess, is that despite the monarchies retaining most of the political power, they have been flexible and reformist.
Morocco is a case in point. Reform actually began under the father of the present king who was widely and rightly considered an old-fashioned despot. Under pressure from Europe and the US, human rights groups such as Amnesty International and local political parties, in his last years the king allowed the release of most political prisoners, relaxed censorship and reined in the security forces.
His son, Mohammed VI, coming to the throne in 1999, continued the process. In 2002 he surprised everyone by handing over a slice of power to a former Amnesty-adopted political prisoner who earlier had been sentenced to death. The socialist, Abderrahmane Youssoufi, was appointed prime minister. Funding for health and education rose. A minister for justice was appointed who once had headed the country’s largest human rights organisation. The king also released from house arrest the leader of one of the more militant Islamic groups.
The Equity and Reconciliation Commission was appointed. It finished its work five years ago. It acknowledged a past of gross human rights violations - torture and false imprisonment, often in solitary confinement with their families being told nothing, not even if their relative was alive or dead.
In one report Amnesty said it recognised some positive developments: financial compensation for 742 cases of enforced disappearance. The government also provided medical rehabilitation and a restitution of previous employment.
Nevertheless, with Egypt and Tunisia in the midst of revolt, copycat protests erupted in February this year and continued until June. They were nonviolent; at one point, 8,000 doctors staged a sit-in. The security forces were kept on a tighter rein than they had been in earlier times, although there were plenty of beatings, one demonstrator was tortured and another died.
The king responded with more reforms. He promised a new and tougher National Human Rights Council, a plan of constitutional reform including giving up some of his powers. Parliament was to be given more responsibility and the remit of the government widened. The minority Berber language was to be recognised. The judiciary was to become more independent. The king was no longer going to be “sacred” but (merely) “inviolable”. But he remains the head of the military and is the highest religious authority, a combination no other Arab country has.
Women were to be guaranteed social as well as, as at present, civic rights. They have long had the right to vote.
On July 1, a referendum in favour of all these reforms passed easily.
Today the secular Istiqlal (Independent) Party runs the government. In the last election, the party only won 16 per cent of the vote, enough to make it the biggest party in a very fragmented legislature (which suits the king). It trumped the Party that many observers thought would win, the Islamic Justice and Development Party. Although it is a moderate party and does campaign for a slow modernisation, it has a long way to go before it will be as liberal as its Turkish namesake.
The head of the Istiqlal party, Prime Minister Abbas Al Fassi, is a man not known, judging from his previous governmental and diplomatic posts, to be much of a liberalising force.
He went along with the repressive practices of the former regimes. However, to its credit, the party does have dozens of women candidates who do not wear headscarves and seven women are members of the government.
There remains much to criticise. There are still some arbitrary arrests. The press is pretty well controlled and repression continues in the Western Sahara, the desert region which Morocco annexed at the time Spain was giving up its colony there. Morocco has dug in its heels against UN efforts to persuade it to hold a referendum there.
Is Morocco a pacesetter for the Arab world? In many ways yes - at the moment. But assuming the promised free and fair elections happen in Egypt and Tunisia, these two countries should soon leap ahead of Morocco and then Morocco will have to put its foot on the liberalising accelerator if it wants to remain one of the front runners.
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 05/08/2011

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