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Home >> Articles

Morocco's Future: Arab, African, or European?
By: Bradford Dillman.

Commenting on the late King Hassan II's determination to bring Morocco into a free-trade zone with the European Union (EU), a Moroccan newspaper editor asked, "Where else can we look? To the south there is famine. To the east there is slaughter. To the west is the ocean. The north is our only horizon." As Morocco redefines its place in the world in the new millennium, will it lean more toward Europe, weakening its roots in the Arab world and disassociating itself from the troubles of sub-Saharan Africa? Globalization will pull the country toward its liberal, industrialized neighbors across the Strait of Gibraltar. Nevertheless, this kingdom at the crossroads of many civilizations will continue to orient itself in many directions at the same time. Its future identity will depend on how politicians and citizens respond to global pressures for democratization, economic reform, and human resource development. By balancing and absorbing the cultural, political, and economic influences from surrounding regions, Morocco may remain one of the most peaceful, stable, and pluralistic countries in the Arab and African world.

Toward what type of political future is Morocco heading as it faces the democratization challenge? While Arab one-party regimes have clung to power by cracking down on the opposition, Morocco has taken a refreshingly different path. Its 1997 parliamentary elections were exceptionally free and fair, with an opposition-party coalition winning one third of the seats in the lower house. Fifteen political parties representing socialists, monarchists, nationalists, neoliberals, Berbers, and Islamists all hold seats in the Assembly of Representatives. The government is now headed by Prime Minister Abderrahmane Youssoufi, a veteran leftist leader of the Socialist Union of Popular Forces. Civil society continues to flourish. Few African or Arab countries have done better at cleaning up their human rights record or attracting back exiles and dissidents. The new king, Mohammed VI, has spoken frequently of the importance of reforming education and the administration, and of tackling poverty and unemployment. Many in Morocco's political elite hope he will transform the constitutional monarchy from one that rules to one that reigns. Most likely he will continue his father's policy of seeking formal candidacy to join the EU.

A significant proportion of Moroccan society identifies itself with conservative Islam. Abdassalam Yassine, the elderly leader of the Islamist party Al Adl wal-Ihsan who has been under house arrest for years, represents the radical side of this worldview. In a scathing November 1999 memorandum, he attacked the corruption and inequity supposedly caused by the late King Hassan II. Advocating a form of democratic rule under which the Moroccan people would have the freedom and right to choose their own government, he argues that the country must avoid a procedural democracy based on secularism and indifferent to Islamic moral values. But an Islamist vision of the future, such as the more moderate one articulated by Abdelkrim Khatib's Party of Justice and Development, should not be automatically interpreted as a threat to turn Morocco into another Algeria or Iran. Descended from the Prophet Mohammed, the Moroccan dynasty already has a great deal of religious legitimacy. To the extent that most Islamists press for greater political freedom, rule of law, and dramatic economic reforms, they strengthen democratization more than undermine it. Greater expression of Islam is compatible with, if not instrumental to, convergence toward European values, practices, and standards.

Many political challenges remain. The monarchy has not given up control over key policies, institutions, and appointments. The administrative apparatus is Byzantine. Political parties are internally fragmented. Nevertheless, the country is fast moving away from the coercive, unstable, and ethnically and religiously divided systems of so many Arab and African regimes. Competitive elections, protection of civil rights, and an open press seem to be pushing Morocco inexorably toward a more democratic European future.

As it faces pressures for reform from global markets and governments in advanced industrialized states, what type of economic future lies ahead for Morocco? For starters, it will retain a key African characteristic reliance on agriculture for decades to come. (Forty percent of Morocco's work force is on farms.) Primary products, such as fish and phosphates, will be important exports. And it will likely retain control of its most important link to Africa, the 100,000-square-mile Western Sahara, occupied since 1975. To do otherwise would be political suicide for any government. Moreover, in exchange for sand, minerals, and rich fishing waters, Morocco will have to continue damaging economic exchange with Algeria and diverting large expenditures to the military.

Like the rest of the Arab world, Morocco suffers from high foreign debt, unemployment, and protectionist barriers. Reforms have been slow. Despite the much celebrated Arab Maghreb Union of 1989, today only 3 percent of the Maghreb\'s total trade is between Maghrebi states, making it the weakest zonal commerce of any regional community in the world. Prospects for an Arab free-trade zone are not much better. Nevertheless, Morocco's economy has great potential, building on a tradition of entrepreneurship and private banking. Its stock market has performed reasonably well and is likely to grow much larger. Privatization, already progressing better and faster than in most Arab states, will get a boost from the projected sale of Royal Air Maroc and Maroc Telecom. The kingdom would gain little from aligning with the Middle East and Africa, the two most marginalized regions of the global economy. Its economic destiny lies with Europe. Morocco already conducts 65 percent of its trade with Europe, and the bulk of foreign investment comes from the north. European companies are buying privatized utilities and preparing to build much of the country's new infrastructure. And the number of European tourists (2 million in 1999) flocking south to the Atlas mountains and the beaches of Agadir will rise as new European tourism investments are completed.

Morocco's 1996 Association Agreement with the EU, which has just been entered into force, ties the country's future to Europe. It forces Morocco to lower tariffs progressively until by 2010 there is basically free trade. One third of Moroccan companies may fold as European industrial products enter the country tariff free, and those that remain will have to restructure and become more like European companies. If the EU reduces barriers to Moroccan agricultural exports, Morocco's economy will be almost entirely integrated with the North. The Arab world, sub-Saharan Africa, and the United States will be marginal economic partners.

The question here is, how well is Morocco bolstering its huma9n resources in an increasingly information-based world economy? High rates of unemployment and illiteracy will drag down growth. Poor public education, a lack of private schools, and a limited spread of English will hamper adaptation to the global information age. However, there is cause for optimism. If, as the World Bank and most nongovernmental organizations now recognize, the surest way for relatively poor countries to generate long-term growth is to improve the lives and rights of women, Morocco's future looks bright. Among Arab countries, only Tunisia, Lebanon, and Kuwait have lower fertility or population growth rates. Young women are marrying later and having fewer children, much as in Europe. And already 43 percent of the industrial labor force is female. Last year, Said Saadi, secretary of state for social protection, family, and children, unveiled a controversial plan to enhance women's rights by raising the minimum age of marriage from 15 to 18, preventing unilateral repudiation of wives by husbands, and making the division of property upon divorce more equitable. On March 12, Islamists organized a massive demonstration against the plan in Casablanca that was attended by an estimated 200,000 marchers. However, feminist groups staged a countermarch in Rabat that drew nearly as many participants. Arab countries have rarely witnessed in recent memory such peaceful, public expressions of identity, especially from groups advocating European-style equality.

Moreover, almost 1 million Moroccans live legally in Europe. Already channeling massive remittances to their families in Morocco, the cultural values and skills they learn in Europe will be even more widely diffused back home, as ease of cross-national communication accelerates. Every summer an astonishingly large "people connection" is formed between Europe and Morocco: Hundreds of thousands of Moroccan nationals living in Europe drive across the Strait of Gibraltar by ferry to northern Morocco. In a decade or so, they may be able to drive under the strait if plans for a massive 17-mile tunnel are followed through. Since 1979, Spain and Morocco have done feasibility studies and drilled three exploratory tunnels. An initial $4 billion railroad tunnel would bring more Moroccan goods and labor north, while bringing more European tourists and capital south. AndrÄ Azoulay, the king's economic adviser, believes the project is inevitable: "Geographically, historically and culturally, Morocco is closer to Western Europe than most of Eastern Europe. The Strait of Gibraltar is just a geographical accident."

Finally, Morocco's future depends not just on the orientations of Moroccans themselves, but also on how Morocco is viewed in the regions around it. Its continued occupation of Western Sahara still alienates some African states, and its military ties to the United States and moderation in the Arab-Israeli conflict put off some Arab countries. Algeria has a history of problems with the kingdom. But Jordan's King Abdullah II and Qatar's Sheikh Hamad, part of a new generation of Western-educated, liberal monarchs that includes King Mohammed, have every reason to forge new bonds with Morocco. European attitudes toward Moroccans are sometimes tinged with racism and, fears of illegal immigration. Spats over fishing rights, agricultural exports, and the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla have occasionally clouded EU-Moroccan relations. Yet a recent survey of French citizens revealed that three fourths have a positive view of Morocco, and 88 percent have a good opinion of King Mohammed. As Morocco further aligns its future with the North, perhaps Europeans will see a more familiar identity as they look south.

Bradford Dillman is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Koc University in Istanbul, Turkey. He is the author of State and Private Sector in Algeria: The Politics of Rent-Seeking and Failed Development (Boulder: Westview Press, 2000).

Submitted By Radouane El-Jaouhari, Staten Island, New York.

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