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Moroccan government spokesperson on the democratic spring, the Western Sahara and regional cooperation

July 4, 2014 at 11:17 am

Mustapha El-Khalfi calls the Arab Spring of 2011 the “democratic spring” though it’s hard to see how it earned that name. There is a civil war raging in Syria, a return to military rule in Egypt whilst Libya is rocked by insecurity, political polarisation and public disillusionment with the political process.

Morocco is different, says the minister of communications and the government’s official spokesperson, because it chose to take a different path from the other countries, “the third way”; somewhere between a revolution and the old system of government.

It was King Mohammed VI (who claims direct descent from Prophet Mohammed (PBUH)) who put this third way forward to the nation on March 2011 in a televised speech. One month after protestors took to the streets from Tangier to Agadir for Morocco’s Arab Spring, in what is now known as the Mouvement du 20-Fevrier, the King promised the rule of law, an independent judiciary and to establish an elected government.

Six months later an early election saw the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) win 107 seats, the largest parliamentary representation, and their leader Abdelilah Benkirane became Prime Minister. Like elsewhere in the region, the Islamists were the only party with a serious following and the most organised force.

These reforms under the leadership of His Majesty Mohammed VI, El-Khalfi believes, kept Morocco stable and united whilst other neighbours suffered months of turmoil. The long-standing political pluralism in the country and the effective, active civil society also helped. He estimates there to be almost 100,000 NGOs in Morocco for everything from women’s rights and human rights to cultural and Berber’s rights and development.

Still, many believe Morocco has not progressed far enough largely because of the control the King maintains. The palace still chairs the council of the Ulema, the Supreme Council of the Judiciary, a new National Security Council and the Council of Ministers.

A recent report by Amnesty International reveals that though human rights in the country have improved significantly under King Mohammed VI, there are still reports of torture – which are largely not investigated – and ill-treatment by police and gendarmerie.

El-Khalfi explains that shortly after Amnesty’s report was released, Morocco’s Minister of Justice, Mustapha Ramid, met with representatives of international human rights organisations and activists and called upon them to appoint neutral doctors to participate in the examination of those who claim they have been tortured.

“There’s no systematic policy of torture,” says El-Khalfi. “This doesn’t mean that cases of torture don’t happen, but if they do happen the ministry is going to open a case to address this and we are going to invite three doctors to evaluate the allegations; two from the Ministry of Justice and one to be nominated by the NGOs. Just after this he [Ramid] opened four cases.

“So in a moderate way we are progressing in a gradual manner, towards more political reforms and good governance.”

If one element of Morocco’s “third way” is a roadmap of reforms, another is that the government is not strictly Islamist. Whilst the PJD won the largest parliamentary representation at the elections, they didn’t win a majority. So, unlike other Arab countries, Morocco is a coalition in which the PJD holds the top positions but incorporates a leftist party, a nationalist party and a liberal political party.

“We take into account that in order to implement the new constitution we need to integrate all political parties,” El-Khalfi says. “They need to see their views and ideas in the law; there is a culture of participation, integration, the culture of working with the others and also the culture that the reforms don’t start with us.”

El-Khalfi pauses to take a sip of his tea before recalling an interview with leading Moroccan scholar Abdullah Al-Aroui he had read before our meeting. The article stressed the need to judge the current government based on tangible results from the present, rather than distant actions from the past.

“He said what I am saying, this is a coalition not an Islamist government and if you would like to judge the government, judge it based on their acts and decisions, not based on what they are saying or what they have said in the past.”

“To be accurate, this is reality. If you would like to examine and evaluate the Moroccan experience, you should evaluate us based on three elements: good governance, social justice, and economic development. Hold us accountable and address our record based on these three goals.”

The economy, believes El-Khalfi, is a case in point. By his estimate the deficit in 2011 was around six per cent; by 2012 it had reached 7.3 per cent. “In reality that’s a signal that an economic crisis is coming; if we didn’t intervene or make tough decisions to prevent the economic crisis from happening it would have been a big problem. We made many decisions concerning the subsidies system; we limited the financial support that the government provides, and we communicate with people,” he says.

“With these kinds of decisions we succeeded in decreasing the deficit to 5.4 per cent last year, 2013, and this year maybe 4.9 per cent. This is a success, and for me it’s something that will help a lot. The chief of the government is going to the parliament to present the record of the government during these two and a half years, and what we have done. It will be an opportunity to present to the Moroccan people the measures the government took in order to prevent the country from wavering in the face of many challenges.”

During their time in power El-Khalfi asserts that the government has increased minimum wage in the administration to 3,000 dirhams ($365) per month, raised the minimum pension for the retired to around 1,000 dirhams ($120), established a fund to support people who have lost their jobs for six months and revived a fund for divorced women in which 160 million dirhams ($19.4 million) was set as a goal to reach at least 40,000 women.

“There is a health care system in place now for people who can’t afford medical care and in two years we will reach 6.5 million people, increase grants for students by 50 per cent, reach 225,000 students and provide financial aid to poor families so they can send their children to school – 825,000 in total.”

One issue that remains unresolved, however, is that of the Western Sahara, a disputed territory in the south of the country. The region has been the centre of a protracted dispute between Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisaro Front, the sole representatives of the indigenous Saharawis of the region, for many years now.

In 1975 the International Court of Justice recognised the Saharawis right to self-determination and rejected territorial claims by Morocco and Mauritania. Whilst Mauritania has since signed a peace deal with the Polisario Front and renounced all territorial claims, Morocco has not. The United Nations has attempted to hold a referendum over the issue.

“The advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice confirmed that the materials and information presented to the court show the existence, at the time of Spanish colonisation, of legal ties of allegiance between the Sultan of Morocco and some of the tribes living in the territory of Moroccan Sahara,” explains El-Khalfi. “Since 2001, the UN has been calling for a political solution acceptable to the parties, after the failure of the referendum.”

According to El-Khalfi, before colonialism came to Morocco, international agreements with the US, the UK, France and Spain dealt with the Sahara as an integral part of Morocco historically, legally and socially. On this basis, the Moroccan government now considers Morocco and the Western Sahara as one country.

“With this situation we have launched two main projects,” says El-Khalfi. “First, the large autonomy plan in 2007 under the Moroccan sovereignty is part of the negotiations to solve this conflict with the United Nations that described, in addition to other international forces, the plan to find a political solution as serious and credible. Second, the economic model launched in 2013 is a part of our national plan to reform. One of the goals is the natural resources for the Sahara, to be used in order to develop the region.”

Morocco’s main source of income from the Western Sahara is derived from phosphate it exports from there. Still, El-Khalfi believes that what is in the Moroccan Sahara is marginal compared to what the rest of the country holds.

“What is the percentage of the phosphate in the Sahara compared to the percentage of the phosphate on a national level? A United States geological survey emphasised that the percentage of phosphate from the Sahara within the whole of Morocco represents 1.6 per cent. Even in financial terms for the phosphate in Morocco it’s less than 10 per cent in total. So this means that the majority is in the north not in the south, and the majority of the exploration is in the north, not in the south. But even with the exploration which is happening in the south we are in our land.”

It’s not just challenges at home that the government and the monarchy face. In January, King Mohammed VI chaired the twentieth session of the Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Committee in Marrakesh. It was the first time in a decade that the 16 Islamic member states had met. The committee was initially established in 1975 to seek a solution to the status of Jerusalem; so what steps is Morocco taking now to stop the Judaisation of East Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque?

One of the matters that emerged at this meeting, says El-Khalfi, is the need to implement concrete social and economic projects on the ground and to strengthen the presence of Palestinians in the holy city. Another is to develop common positions between all Arab and Islamic countries to support the policies of the Palestinians and defend the city’s Arab identity.
“These are the main policies that have been taken,” says El-Khalfi, “and the meeting was successful on these two levels. The meeting was an opportunity to emphasise that there is a need to strengthen financial support.” By El-Khalfi’s own admission, Morocco is “the leading country” in terms of monetary contributions.

Another country Morocco maintains support for is its northern neighbour, Spain. El-Khalfi describes his country’s rapport with its European neighbour as “a good, strategic relationship”. Spain, he says, is one of Morocco’s leading economic partners. It is home to many Moroccans and was once a country of destination for West African migrants who pass through Morocco to reach there.

“At least many hundreds of thousands of Moroccans are now living in Spain and this is creating opportunities to interact and an exchange of understanding. We have succeeded in building a strategic relationship based on a mixed commission that works together to deal with certain issues. One of these issues is the issue of migration; there is security cooperation between Spain and Morocco and the European Union and we are working within these channels of cooperation to deal with all issues relating to this question.”

In September 2013 Morocco launched a new policy regarding migration in which three new laws were adopted: a law against human trafficking, a law regarding residency and a law on the right to asylum. According to El-Khalfi there are currently 8,000 African students from sub-Saharan Africa studying in Morocco, the majority of them on a scholarships.

“In the past Morocco was a land of transit, immigrants came in order to travel onwards. But now immigrants come in order to stay. This policy is based on developing a humanistic, comprehensive approach to deal with the needs of immigrants here, mainly from the sub-Saharan African countries. They have needs; they would like to work, they have kids, they need to go to schools, to go to hospitals. So we started the process of registering immigrants in all cities.

“It’s a process to deal with this problem in a humanistic way,” says El-Khalfi taking another sip from his tea. “One of the results of the policy is the decline by 95 per cent over the past 10 years in the attempts by migrants to get to Europe via boats and ships, through the Mediterranean Sea or the Atlantic. This is the result of the policy adopted by Morocco in order to prevent the use of the sea to emigrate. Ten years ago each week we had people who died during their attempts to emigrate via the sea.”

Besides Europe, Morocco is also keen to make alliances with other North African countries. On a recent trip to Tunis, King Mohammed VI called for a revival of the North African Union, an economic bloc formed in 1989 to emulate the European Union, but one which never got off the ground. It is widely accepted that the Maghreb Union has never been implemented because of disagreements between Algeria and Morocco over the Western Sahara.

“I can’t comment on the others,” says El-Khalfi, “but the policy that has been developed in Morocco is based on the fact that there is a need to revive the whole of the Maghreb Union in order to meet the economic, social and cultural challenges that are facing the people of the Maghreb Union.”

The almost 1,000 mile border between Algeria and Morocco has been shut since 1994 after a bombing in Marrakesh. “We called for the borders to be opened, but nothing happened,” says El-Khalfi.

It’s hard to see where Morocco fits in regionally. To its northeast is the dispute with Algeria which has cost the country its membership to the African Union and prevented the Maghreb Union from forming. It seems to be on friendlier terms with Spain and indeed the European Union with whom it has a trading agreement. The EU constitutes around 60 per cent of Morocco’s exports, but it is not a fully-fledged member of this economic bloc.

Saudi Arabia has recently outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist party like his own, but this is an issue El-Khalfi does not want to comment on. Instead, he says of the country’s cooperation with the Gulf Cooperation Council, of which Saudi Arabia is a member: “We have succeeded in developing an advanced strategic partnership. It’s working and has a huge impact on the economic cooperation for example. Five billion dollars is the budget of this partnership; it’s working.”