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Morocco is the only Mediterranean country with an Islamist government and the only Arab country to emerge from the Arab Spring with a real multi-party democracy. American policy makers should take a closer look at Morocco because this seeming outlier is actually is a blueprint for reengineering U.S. policy across the Middle East.
A new strategy is urgently needed. The Syrian civil war has devoured some 300,000 civilian lives since 2011. ISIS continues to carry out brutal ethnic cleansing of religious minorities (including Christians) and sells women as slaves. Meanwhile, Yemen suffers a cruel civil war waged by remnants of Al Qaeda and other terror groups. As such, the U.S. government needs to adjust its approach. If America doesn’t change, neither will the Middle East—and America’s inertia will be measured by millions of corpses and refugees.
American and European observers misunderstand both the Moroccan model and the realities on the ground. Unlike other Arab rulers who tried to resist change during the Arab Spring, King Mohammad VI led sweeping constitutional reforms—handing over all governmental powers (except for intelligence, defense and foreign policy) to an elected government. When the 2011 elections brought an Islamist party to power, the Party of Justice and Development (known by its French-language acronym “PJD”), the world initially trembled. Within days, it became clear that the party was not going to act like its Islamist allies such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Its legislative reforms were incremental, not radical. It remained focused on jobs, economic growth and fighting corruption. While the rest of the Middle East was ablaze, the fires of Moroccan protest remained safe and controlled. As Head of Government Abdelilah Benkirane said, “The fire was sufficient to heat the bowl. Thank God, it was not enough to burn it.”
The causes of Morocco’s relative tranquility are twofold: its constitutional and legal framework, and, importantly, the Islamist party’s unique relationship with the king. Most of PJD’s leaders were careful to eschew radical doctrinal positions and always put forward their vision of religion as a determinant of social customs and values, not of political rules and regulations. They presented themselves as loyal to the monarchy and to the existing political system in the name of ensuring stability.
Mosques in Morocco cannot be places of political activity and Imams are barred from running for office under Moroccan campaign laws. The constitution has many checks and balances, making it difficult for a runaway parliament to trample on the rights of women or minorities. Further, regular local, regional and national elections enable voters to hold the ruling party accountable.
More importantly, the role of the king—which can be adapted to other Arab countries—is…