Political and economic reforms in Morocco move on different tracks
Several months after the July 1999 ceremony in which King Mohammed VI had succeeded his father, Hassan II, as Morocco’s head of state, his first-ever one-on-one interview with a Western journalist was conducted. Speaking to Scott MacLeod, Time magazine’s Cairo bureau chief, he declared: “Morocco has a lot to do in terms of democracy.”
But then the king qualified his statement: “The daily practice of democracy evolves in time. Trying to apply a Western democratic system to a country of the Maghreb, the Middle East or the Gulf, would be a mistake. We are not Germany, Sweden or Spain. I have a lot of respect for countries where the practice of democracy is highly developed. I think, however, that each country has to have its own specific features of democracy.”
The new king, who today is 38 years of age, boasted an impressive training for the job that had been thrust upon him. In 1985, he obtained his B.A. in law at the Rabat Mohammed V University, with his compulsory research project focusing on "the Arab-African union and the strategy of the kingdom of Morocco in matters of international relations."
In 1987, he obtained his Masters degree in political science, and, to complete his training, he underwent several months of training in Brussels with Jacques Delors, the then-president of the European Commission. In 1993, he got the title of Doctor in law at the French University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis for his thesis on "EEC-Maghreb Relations."
In an authoritarian society such as Morocco, the prospect of even a quasi-democratic monarch appeared like a breath of fresh air. And, judging from several of his initial acts, it seemed as if Mohammed VI had been sincere in his praise of democratic principles.
One of the first things he did was fire Driss Basri, the interior minister who was seen by many Moroccans to stand behind some of the worst excesses during Hassan’s 38-year rule. He also created a commission to provide four million dollars in compensation to victims of political torture and permitted the return of many of Morocco’s political exiles.
In fact, he appointed a former exile to be his prime minister. Abderrahmane Youssoufi, a secular socialist, took over the reigns of government and immediately began implementing a program of educational and judicial reform.
But, in recent weeks the mood of optimism that had swept over Morocco’s liberal society has been dashed. With the apparent consent of the king, the prime minister has begun a managed campaign that, on the surface at least, has stopped the country’s slide towards democracy.
Last month, three publications were outright banned — the independent French-language publication Demain and two other weeklies, Le Journal and Assahifa. What instigated the action was the publication of a letter in Le Journal, accusing Youssoufi of involvement in a failed 1972 coup attempt against the late King Hassan II. The other two newspapers substantiated the contents of this letter and also exposed an alleged drug smuggling conspiracy involving senior political and judicial figures.
Then, during a television address marking UN Human Rights Day, King Mohammed VI promised to build a constitutional and democratic monarchy. But, as he spoke, police violently restrained hundreds of human rights activists rioting outside parliament and arrested more than 40 protesters.
At present though, the collapse of the Moroccan government’s resolve to reform the political system does not seem to have affected its program to liberalize the country’s economy. In fact, the latter recently received a tremendous boost by the successful partial privatization of the national telecommunications operator. In late December, multimedia giant Vivendi Universal paid $2.2 billion for a 35-percent stake in Maroc Telecom, representing the largest single foreign investment in the North African state’s history.
With that one single deal in the bag, Morocco’s income from foreign direct investments is expected to jump more than five-fold in 2001 from an average of $400 million per annum over the past decade. In fact, prior to the Maroc Telecom deal, FDI inflows had been on the decline—contracting by 44 percent in the first half of 2000, compared to the corresponding period of 1999.
The importance of the Maroc Telecom deal extends way beyond the country’s telecommunications sector. Bankers believe that, with the influx of foreign capital into the country, the agreement will increase buoyancy in the local money market and provide the impetus for a reduction in short-term interest rates. The kingdom’s foreign debt is now expected to drop below $15 billion this year, compared to $15.3 billion at the end of 2000.
Furthermore, Maroc Telecom receipts will also help the 2001 state budget to reach its target and maintain the deficit at roughly three percent of GDP. This is certainly better than the deficit of six percent of GDP, which had been forecast were this deal to have fallen through. Over the long term, analysts also believe that the deal will enable Morocco to attract new foreign investors and high technologies to modernize its agricultural-based economy.
But there is a downside to the Maroc Telecom deal, and that is massive reduction in staff that will inevitably take place as Vivendi strives to enhance Maroc Telecom’s competitiveness and productivity. And it will not be long in coming. In an effort to cut the firm’s operating costs, 14,000 staff will soon be laid off.
The Maroc Telecom downsizing will add new members to Morocco’s growing community of unemployed. The official jobless rate currently stands at 14.2 percent, but the real rate is most probably considerably higher
And it is here that differing paces of political reform and economic reform could play havoc with the still fledgling rule of King Mohammed VI. When interviewed by Scott MacLeod, the king expressed understanding about the limits of power. “I do not think that it is right for me to be the only recourse for Moroccans,” he said.
“First of all it is impossible. Unfortunately, I cannot do everything. Unfortunately, on the one hand, and fortunately, on the other. People have grown more mature; they know that we must work together. I think that this is the future of Morocco: People need to feel more involved. I do not have a magic wand, and I will never have one. It is better this way. The new generation knows fully well that everyone needs to be involved.”
But, with increasing numbers of frustrated unemployed on the streets, the level of discontent towards the state authorities may ferment further. And, in the absence of strong political support, King Mohammed VI may find it difficult to sell tough, albeit necessary economic reform. ¯ (Albawaba-MEBG)
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)