Morocco’s indispensable role

By April 16, 2007Article, Atlantic Eye

TANGIER, Morocco, April 16 (UPI, The Washington Post) — Two explosions by Islamist cells in Casablanca in the past week should not eclipse Morocco’s crucial role for Europe and the United States.

Morocco is a strong economic partner and indispensable strategic ally. Morocco should be made a full member of NATO and have complete access to European markets.

Even though one explosion on March 11 marked three years to the date of the ghastly Madrid bombings, vigilance by Morocco’s security services prevented greater damage. Since five suicide bombings that killed 45 people in Morocco in May 2003, police have pursued an unprecedented crackdown on suspected militants. Thousands of potential terrorists and their allies — including some accused of working with al-Qaida affiliates to plot attacks in Morocco and abroad — have been arrested. While strengthening security, Morocco has continued with economic and social reforms.

King Mohammed VI of Morocco is modernizing, forward-thinking and energetic. Over the past five years he has implemented remarkable reforms in this Northern African country. The King has focused on literacy, healthcare, poverty and economic equality.

In January 2006 a ratified free-trade agreement with Morocco made it the first country in Africa to have an FTA with the United States. Hassan Abouyoub, the former trade minister and chief foreign policy adviser to the king, has described it “as the best market access package of any emerging economy in the world.” Trade between Morocco and the United States is about $1 billion per year.

At the first briefing of its type to the king’s Cabinet, Global Panel and the Prague Society brought ranking members of the Cabinet together with leaders from the Czech Republic, Germany, Romania, the United Kingdom and the United States. The Morocco Strategic Initiative represented business, the legislature, military, security, ministers and the NGO sector. Over four days, ideas were brainstormed and later presented to the King’s counsel, interior minister, the national security adviser, the deputy interior and foreign ministers and the head of the local government council.

Morocco is roughly the size of France (including Western Sahara) and California (or Sweden) excluding Western Sahara. It lies just 28km from Spain, just across the Strait of Gibraltar, bordering the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. The northern coast and interior are mountainous with large areas of plateaus. The rest of the country is inter-mountainous valleys and rich coastal planes. The highest point is Jbel Toubkal in the High Atlas Mountains at around 13,745 feet — 700 feet shorter than California’s Mount Whitney — making it the highest peak in northern Africa.

Morocco has a population of 32 million. Life expectancy is around 70 years — comparable to the west. Morocco’s population is young: The average age is 24; the U.S. average is 36. Ninety-eight percent are Muslim — Judaism, Islam and Christianity have lived peacefully together for thousands of years. Berber, Arabic and French are the principal spoken languages. Berber culture dates back some 4,000 years — predating Arabic culture in Morocco.

A crucial date will be the Sept. 7 national elections. In the past, Islamists and their allies could count on up to 30 percent of the vote, but not 30 percent of the seats. If they fall to 20 percent, it will be a sure sign that reforms in Morocco are working. Global Panel and the Prague Society are committed to joining international election-monitoring teams, the same ones that have monitored U.S. elections.

Morocco is particularly interested in issues surrounding the Mediterranean basin. Morocco has free-trade agreements with Spain, France and Italy but would like to expand these agreements. The revitalization of the Barcelona Process is a key goal.

The Barcelona Process (Euro-Mediterranean Partnership) began in 1995. An ambitious initiative, it calls for a framework of political, social and economic relations between the European Union and Partners of the Southern Mediterranean: Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestinian Authority, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey. Cyprus and Malta are now also members of the EU. The Barcelona Declaration laid foundations for a common security area, a common economic zone (free-trade area) and rapprochement between the various cultures of the zone.

A key issue that has long dogged Morocco is the Western Sahara. Moroccan Western Sahara has been on the list of U.N. non-self-governing territories since 1960, even though the restoration to Morocco by Spain in 1975 was legal. Since 1991 there has been a cease-fire in place between the Moroccan government, the Polisario Front and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Most of the territory — among the most sparsely populated worldwide — is controlled by Morocco. International powers have generally taken an ambiguous and neutral position and have pushed for a peaceful resolution.

As with most territorial issues, the United Nations’ involvement has been mostly ineffective, even counterproductive. It would be best to remove the issue from the U.N. agenda and allow the principal parties to negotiate amongst themselves — with external help from foreign experts, should the need arise.

Morocco is an inspiring and key emerging democracy. She just needs to do a better job of promoting her marvelous story.

(Part 1 of 2)

  • Part 2 “Morocco’s right to Sahara” – April 26, 2007

(UPI Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. A venture capitalist with seats in Berlin and Prague, he is a member of the National Advisory Board of the U.S. Democratic Party.)