Morocco’s stock rising in Washington
This week, and as the Arab world marked the third anniversary of the Arab Spring
You don’t need to be a Moroccan fortune teller to sense an increased political and economic traffic along the Washington-Rabat highway. U.S. officials and outside experts point to Morocco’s stability amidst regional turmoil, leading counterterrorism efforts, and an “incremental approach” to reform as keys to it securing today “strong” ties with the Obama administration, while eying a larger role across the Middle East.
This week, and as the Arab world marked the third anniversary of the Arab Spring, Morocco’s ability at evading instability stood out as one of the reasons behind improved U.S.-Moroccan relations says Vish Sakthivel, an expert on Moroccan politics at the Washington Institute for Near East policy.
Sakhtivel tells Al Arabiya News that the “problems and cautionary tales of the violence” in countries affected by the Arab Spring such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia have “strengthened the Moroccan exception rhetoric” and the perception of King Mohammed VI.
Today, annual trade between the Morocco and the U.S. exceeds one billion dollar, and oil giants such as Chevron have set up oil exploration shops in the country. Sources tell Al-Arabiya that a U.S. delegation headed to Morocco following President Barack Obama’s first meeting with the 50-year-old King last month.
Counterterrorism and Mali
More than any other issue, counterterrorism stands at the core of strengthened U.S.-Moroccan relations today. A State Department official tells Al Arabiya News that “counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries is excellent and their partnership on the United Nations Security Council over the past two years in the advancement of international peace and security, including in Mali, the Sahel, Syria, Libya, and the Middle East.”
It is the situation in Mali in particular that mostly highlighted this cooperation between the U.S. and Moroccan security services in the last few months.
The 2012-2013 conflict in Mali leading up to intervention from France to prevent al-Qaeda from establishing a safe haven has helped Morocco to emerge as a key ally to the new Malian government. Culturally, Morocco’s brand of moderate Islam is resonating in Mali. The two countries signed a “religious accord” in November to “promote the moral values of Islam and reject extremist ideology”. Rabat will also train 500 religious scholars from Mali over the next two years.
More than any other issue, counterterrorism stands at the core of strengthened U.S.-Moroccan relations todayJoyce Karam
The two countries’ historic religious ties go a long way explains Sakhtivel. “Fez and Timbuktu were once the two major centers in the Islamic West for Malikite jurisprudence and learning.”
What works in Rabat’s favor is also recent reports on Algeria mishandling the al-Qaeda efforts in Mali.
Magnus Norell, a renowned Swedish expert on terrorism, wrote last September that al-Qaeda affiliated group in Mali, Mourabitoun, is “recruiting a number of Algerians and young men from the Polisario Front -a Western African rebel group- in Tindouf in western Algeria, at the border of the disputed Western Sahara.”
He quotes several security sources in the area that the recruits from the Polisario Front are as much as 100-120 individuals, concluding that “both Algeria and the leadership of the Polisario Front have lost some of their internal control.” The inability of Algerian aging President Abdelazziz Bouteflika to visit the U.S., and the postponement of Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to Algeria after the Iran breakthrough, have given Morocco an advantage.
Reforms and regional role
A key outstanding issue has been Morocco’s request for backing from the United States to its claim of the disputed territory of Western Sahara where the Sawahiri population is expected to vote on independence. Sakhtivel sees it unlikely that “Morocco will receive a definitive US stance on the Western Sahara” adding that if that happens, Washington “could lose leverage with Algeria.”
Prior to the King’s visit, Human Rights Watch appealed to Obama to push his guest on reforms, releasing political prisoners and enabling legislation that would give legal force to the new constitutional rights mainly related to freedom of expression.
A new constitution passed in 2011 protecting the freedom of expression and allowing citizens to challenge the judiciary. The country is also embarking on a big immigration reform step that would give around 30,000 illegal immigrants a status and residency rights.
For Washington, the incremental path of reform is a step forward. The U.S. official describes them as a “step towards enhanced political rights and transparent governance in Morocco.” The official adds that “4 of the 19 articles of the constitution requiring organic laws have been fully addressed by the parliament and in his October 11, 2013 address to open Parliament’s fall session, the King urged the parliament to pass more of these organic laws.”
The U.S. official contends that “U.S.-Morocco relations following the King’s visit last month are strong.” The discussions at the White House involved a regional role for Rabat in helping with the Peace Process. "We want to be regional players of clout," Morocco Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar said in a speech ahead the meeting.
If the current trajectory of stability, economic growth, counterterrorism and anti-radicalization as well as incremental reforms holds, it promises Morocco a closer bond with the United States. Regionally, Rabat is aspiring to be a model for more openness and moderation, and help in bridging regional differences at a time of growing conflict across the Arab world.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam
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