Morocco’s capital, Rabat, a city of approximately 3 million people, epitomizes a country in transition. Not quite Western, not purely Muslim. Still traditional, although more affluent and integrated with the West than much of the Muslim World. It is a place where a king retains his palace and his people’s affection, yet it nevertheless is slowly — too slowly for some — modernizing the political and social life of the country. Signage and conversation are in both Arabic and French, only one sign of the centuries-old relationship with one of two colonial powers (Spain being the other) that once ruled Morocco.
I happened to arrive on the day of the annual music festival, which has been held for the last 10 years. The event with its large outdoor stages is free and therefore a magnet for young people. There is traditional Moroccan music, but also an international stage with European and American performers. A representative from the Moroccan government emphasizes this is an outward manifestation of the country’s affinity to the West. With the brush of the back of his hand he suggests Moroccans are signaling that strict Islamism is not for them. Many young women still wear a hijab (headscarf), but with jeans, jewelry and stylish sandals, and couples stroll arm in arm in the centuries-old souk (open market).
The city is lively and bustling on a Sunday, with crowds walking along the marina that feeds out into the Atlantic. But in the transition to a 21st century, constitutional monarchy is not without strains. Shantytowns that have largely been eliminated in the rural southern part of the country still pop up along the roadway between Casablanca and Rabat, while huge modern apartment construction sites are omnipresent. (The plan is to remove all the shantytowns by 2015.) Although Morocco remains a poor country, in the capital huge homes behind walls reflect that for professionals, business people and government officials, life is certainly comfortable, although not opulent.
Morocco is noteworthy these days because it is a country in transition and is transitioning more or less peacefully. That’s not the norm for the Muslim World in the past few years. And while human rights, economic and social development and political modernization (professionalizing a newly independent judiciary, for example) are challenges, it is at least moving in the right direction. Morocco is unique in many ways — its ties to Europe, its Berber culture, its established monarchy and two successive kings inclined toward reform are hardly common in the Muslim World. Whether that can be duplicated elsewhere in the region is still a question, but it (along with Tunisia, which has moved swiftly toward democracy since its Arab Spring revolt) nevertheless suggests that modernization and Islam (with a lighter touch) are not mutually exclusive.
I’ll continue to post on Morocco during the remainder of the week and occasionally on other topics as well. As previously noted, my hotel and air travel are being paid by a Moroccan think tank, the Moroccan Institute for International Relations. My observations are strictly my own.