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Right Turn
Posted at 05:55 PM ET, 03/22/2011

EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Taieb Fassi Fihri (Part 1)

It often seems that all of the “Muslim world” is in flames. This morning, as the United States and its allies continued the war in Libya, Bahrain’s political discussions seemed to be at a standstill and protesters in Yemen were demanding regime change, the foreign minister of Morocco, Taieb Fassi Fihri, was in Washington for meetings at the State Department.

I sat down with him for a lengthy interview. The French-educated minister spoke fluidly on Morocco’s domestic situation, the turmoil that surrounds Morocco and what Morocco can do to help ease Muslim countries along the path toward more democratic, affluent and stable societies.

The war in Libya has dominated the news this week. Privately, Moroccans and other Muslim countries fear that if Moammar Gaddafi survives, it would be a disaster for the region. Progress and stability in the region would be impaired if Gaddafi remained, and efforts to work on joint economic projects and to combat al-Qaeda would be stymied. But it is a delicate subject for Morocco and its neighbors. The foreign minister speaks precisely: “We note that the Arab League expressed a common vision. Two had reservations . . . Syria and Algeria. The U.N. Security Council goes forward, and we have to respect it.” The U.N. resolution, he told me, “talks about the need for a cease-fire. It talks about the need to take all necessary measures to protect civilians. There is an appeal for political dialogue. There is humanitarian relief. The Libyans didn’t respect it.” He said, “Some said the no-fly zone is not sufficient.” The view that additional military action was needed to achieve the aims of the U.N. resolution is one he “can respect.”

But Morocco will not take the position publicly that regime change is required. “We count on the wisdom of the people of Libya to select the right way for its own benefits,” he said with diplomatic exactitude.

As I have reported previously, overshadowed by the series of uprisings that began in Tunisia was a breakthrough speech by King Mohammed VI that kick-started an ambitious constitutional reform process in Morocco. Fassi Fihri explained that the key to the reform is “regionalization” — pushing power and responsibility down to local elected officials. If completed, this would be Morocco’s fifth constitution. He said, “The [reform] committee started last week. This committee will be in touch with political parties, trade unions, and civil society including youth.” He dismissed the notion that the reform was purely the result of peaceful demonstrations in Morocco last month. In fact, the latest constitutional reform process began in 2009. However, those familiar with the reform roll-out confirm that the demonstrations certainly may have affected the timing of the king’s speech. The former minister acknowledged, “Naturally we took into account the need of society and of youth and the importance of independent powers — the judicial power, the executive power and the legislative power — with an elected prime minister.”

Peaceful protests have continued, most recently on Sunday. The foreign minister seemed pleased by them, declaring that “the people want to see reform concretized, but not outside the monarchy system.” And it is the presence of a unifying figure in a 400-year-old monarchy that has allowed Morocco to escape the fate of its neighbors. Fassi Fihri called it a “dynamic monarchy, an old one – only the Japanese is older.” And so while protests may have played a part in the timing of the speech, what was perhaps most telling was the absence of calls to change or discard the monarchy.

But Morocco is in a tumultuous neighborhood. The concern is that despite the internal dynamic, tourism, which remains a primary source of revenue, and foreign investment will be harmed. As the foreign minister put it, “people put everyone in the same basket.”

Morocco remains a poor country, although the economic reforms instituted by the king continue to address the poorest areas of the country and infrastructure building proceeds apace. Which comes first — economic or political reform? The foreign minister said, “No country can work on one leg. We have heard that the most important thing is security and stability and to forget economic development.” But he discarded that view. “Each society need to progress. Wealth has to be shared [in Morocco] regionally and between the classes.” He gestured across the table, stretching one hand in front and then the other. “First one leg, and then the other,” he observed.

For Morocco, the right approach is clear. He said, “Political reform in Morocco is important to maintain our domestic system and [to be] this model.” The model he refers to is Morocco; the audience is the Muslim world. He is quick to say, with a twinkle in his eye, “because we are modest,” that Morocco is “unique, [its system] is not exportable and not imported.” However, he said, with a good-hearted shrug, Morocco can help. “We have this experience that we can share with Tunisia and Egypt,” he said. He stressed that it is the job of the United States, the Group of 8 and Morocco to help Morocco’s neighbors move toward greater freedom and stability. “This is possible in Tunisia and Egypt, but there are still many risks of counter-revolution and Islamists kidnapping the revolution.” The memory of Iran’s 1979 revolution is still in “our mind,” he explained. “The Islamists freeze all possible [secular] revolutions,” he said.

Fassi Fihri said that he had met with Robert Zoellick of the World Bank to discuss Morocco’s needs as it moves to a more representative and localized system of governance. The foreign minister contended that the World Bank and other bodies can help, as they did with “Mexico and Indonesia in terms of technical assistance.” He conceded, “We have made progress on corruption but we are conscious that we have this phenomenon.”

The king also has another tool in his arsenal, namely his status as “commander of the faithful,” the highest religious authority in the country. Progress on women’s rights is a prime example. In 1998, leftists in parliament attempted to increase rights for women. Protests a million strong broke out. “The country was divided between the modernists and the conservatives,” Fassi Fihri recalled. Each side used Islamic precepts to discredit the other. Fassi Fihri recounted, “Then the king reacted. He said, ‘Okay, as commander of the faithful, I would not authorize something that is forbidden, but I have the authority to authorize anything not in conflict with the precepts.’ ” A committee was organized and produced a report to change the family code and provide legal rights for women. The king made 11 changes, some deletions and some additions. By each change, a quote or a teaching from the Koran was appended. So, Fassi Fihri concluded, “The conservatives can’t act against the commander of the faithful!” Of course, not every Muslim leader has a progressive application of the Koran.

In Part 2 of this interview, the foreign minister talks about Algeria, the Polisario Front and the future of North Africa.

By  |  05:55 PM ET, 03/22/2011

 
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