At a time when the United States is struggling to devise an “Arab Spring” policy and is running low on strategic allies (as Egypt evolves as a wild card rather than a reliable ally), Morocco’s deputy foreign minister, Youssef Amrani, was at the Brookings Institute to talk about the Middle East, the U.S-Morocco relationship and more.
The soft-spoken diplomat has a degree from Boston University and more than 30 years in Morocco’s foreign ministry. In a 30-minute interview I asked him why he is in the United States. He answered: “I’m here to strengthen this relationship between Morocco and the United States.” Indeed, he doesn’t conceal his aims. “We’re ambitious and want to move toward a larger partnership, more strategic.”
Relations between the United States and Morocco are solid, but what Amrani’s kingdom is after is a more comprehensive relationship rather than simply a discrete list of agreements. His country is looking for “political dialogue, joint dialogue,” he explains, on a whole range of issues concerning Africa and the Middle East.
There is good reason for both sides to work cooperatively. Amrani is quick to remind me, “We bring some vision from Africa and from the Arab world.”
Morocco is attempting a peaceful transition to a constitutional democracy while also devolving power to local authorities and modernizing its schools and judiciary. Along with a family code that provides for greater rights for women, Morocco is trying to accomplish in a decade what took centuries in Western Europe.He recalls that for 10 years Morocco has been working for reform under the auspices of a reformist king, Mohammed VI. “The king had the leadership to promote reform,” he explains. This meant that both economic and political reforms were required. “It was his top priority, “ Amrani said. The dual track of political and economic reform included the realization that Morocco must “share values with the West, democracy and free trade.” He then launched into a defense of free markets that would make U.S. economic conservatives blush. Today the most important factor, he told me enthusiastically, is the private sector. When he told me that is “where the jobs are,” he sounded a bit like Bibi Netanyahu, also a Western-educated Middle East leader who understood private-sector growth was the key to economic success.
When we turn to the Middle East more generally, he is, well, diplomatic. Morocco has traditionally been reticent about offering advice or serving as a “model” for the region. He won’t comment on the specifics of the Egyptian election, but he did say, “To be successful it needs civil society, political parties and political will.” He continued, sounding much like some Brookings Institute fellows: “Egypt needs leadership, needs the association of all the Egyptian sensibilities [an inclusive political system] and development of institutions.”(I wonder if the Obama administration has thought about Egypt this systematically.)
Syria is a far different situation, of course. He began with a caveat: “We must be respectful of national sovereignty.” But then he added that that Syrians need “their own system based on democracy and respect for human rights.” He said, “There is no choice but to speed up the process.” He warned that bloodshed “only encourages extremists.”
Indeed, evidence of opportunistic extremists abounds. He cited Iraq. (“The country was collapsing and al-Qaeda came in to create instability.” And he ran through the situation in Mali, where a failed state allowed a separatist, extremist movement to take hold.
There is a reason, of course, that Morocco is so concerned about the vacuum into which extremists rush when regimes break down. Morocco has been struggling to reach a resolution of the dispute over the Western Sahara, which the Polisario, a popular-front type terror group, seeks to make into an independent state. The United States has praised Morocco’s proposal for autonomy, but the Algerian government (where camps of refugee are held in camps run by the Polisario) has balked. He says, “Now we need compromise, pragmatism . . . We need countries to be engaged to find a solution.”
There is urgency for Morocco in resolving the dispute, not only to alleviate the humanitarian crisis but also to head off the toxic alliance that has developed between the Polisario and al-Qaeda of Islamic Maghreb. “It is a major security threat,” he says of the Polisario-AQIM partnership. “Not only for Africa and the Maghreb, but for Europe.” The brew of drug trafficking, human trafficking, kidnapping and terrorism, if allowed to bubble over, has the potential to undermine governments throughout the Maghreb and beyond.
I ask him what the United States should be doing in the Arab world more generally. “What I say will surprise you, “ he begins. “We should do our own homework first. We need order in our own countries. Then we can ask for partners to help us. ” He cautioned again, “Help should accompany these reforms to support transition [to democratic rule].”
Morocco hasn’t generally been a political football in the United States. Politicians from both parties have praised the new constitution and urged that the autonomy plan be implemented. Amrani said, “We have a stable relationship that transcends political parties.”
Amrani vouches for shared values between the countries. In doing so it is hard not to see Morocco as the exception to the rule of violence, extremism and anti-Western sentiment in the Arab world. Maybe the U.S. should take him up on his suggestion for a “strategic partnership.” The U.S. can use all the help in the Middle East it can get these days.