The Spectacle Blog

The Moroccan Model for Reform in the Middle East and North Africa

By on 4.21.11 | 10:33AM

As the United States works to promote democratization in the Middle East and North Africa, it's important that we assist and encourage reform-minded political leaders and modernizing institutions there. Such leaders and institutions are not exactly ubiquitous in the region; still, they exist.

The Egyptian military, for instance, whatever its shortcomings, is one such modernizing institution. And that is why the prospects for liberal democracy in Egypt are markedly better than they are in, say, Yemen or Somalia.

Morocco is another North African country in which progress and reform are more likely to succeed. Morocco already has a constitutional monarchy and a far more advanced civil society than most African countries. Consequently, the government there has been far more responsive to popular pressure for democratization.

As The Economist reports, King Muhammad VI is

calling for a drastic overhaul of the constitution, echoing the protesters' main demand. Parliament and the courts, he said, would become more independent. Power would be devolved to regional councils. The prime minister would have more clout. And the Berbers, known as Amazigh, would have more rights too.

But Morocco also must cope with an Algerian-supported insurgency in the Western Sahara, a semi-autonomous region that is far less advanced, both politically and economically, than Morocco. This has led to a conflict that dates back decades, and in which the United Nations itself has been involved since 1991. At issue is how to bring peace and stability to the Western Sahara, and to what extent the United States and the U.N. should or should not intervene.

Though it's gotten too little press coverage, the issue is coming to a head this week, as the U.N. Security Council debates the role and responsibility of U.N. peacekeepers there.

The Algerian-supported insurgency, the Polisario, wants the U.N. peacekeepers to "enforce" human rights, by monitoring and overseeing the Moroccan government's administration of the Western Sahara.

The Moroccan government understandably views any such U.N. action as a not-so-subtle rebuke and also as an infringement upon its sovereignty. What's more, says the government, the Polisario, is hardly blameless. (Polisario armed mercenaries, in fact, reportedly are fighting in Libya on behalf of dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi.)

The U.N. Security Council is trying to balance these concerns by drafting a resolution that calls on all parties to respect human rights, while simultaneously respecting the sovereignty of the Moroccan government. King Muhammad VI has taken significant steps to protect human rights, as some members of the Security Council (such as France and the United States) publicly acknowledge. (The Security Council plans to vote on the final draft resolution on Wednesday, April 27.)

This approach seems to have strong bipartisan congressional support. An April 15 congressional letter to Secretary of State Clinton, for instance, extolled "Morocco's constant commitment to human rights protection" and the country's "truly unique and vital contribution to human rights protection in the region."

The letter was signed by 18 congressmen, including Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS). A "bipartisan majority in both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate," they wrote, "are committed to "resolving the dispute over the Western Sahara based on the formula of autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty."

That sounds right to me. It's important to push and prod our allies toward reform. But it's also important to respect their sovereignty and independence, their unique domestic challenges, their good-faith efforts, and their progress.

Balancing these sometimes competing concerns can be challenging; however, it is absolutely crucial to the prospects for democratization in the Middle East and North Africa.

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