Amidst Brewing North African Turmoil, Morocco Shines

Touching down in Casablanca early Saturday morning, I found Morocco abuzz with the news of Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution.”  I also rediscovered the precious value of this diamond in the rough — a rare jewel in a region that has been dominated by autocratic rulers and rocked by populist uprising.

Of the five countries that comprise the Arab Maghreb — Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania, Algeria, and Libya — Morocco may very well be the most important; it is determinedly on the side of American and European political interests and is a stable, moderate constitutional monarchy whose beloved king, Mohammed VI, places high premium on the welfare, security, and freedoms of the Moroccan people.

It is impossible to spend any time here and not notice the vast social and infrastructural developments underway. They are a source of great pride amongst the citizenry. In early January, Morocco’s State Secretary in charge of territorial development announced the allocation of an unprecedented $6 billion for the development of rural areas and the implementation of a rigorous program aimed to fight against sub-standard housing. As part of the 2011 Finance Act, the country is also on track to create a series of tax exoneration measures that will spur affordable housing and revitalize a struggling middle class deeply affected by the world economic crisis.

Shortly before the new year, the African Development Bank approved a EUR 393 million loan for a Morocco rail project that will increase rail traffic fluidity and reduce journey times between two of Morocco’s most frequently visited cities, Tangiers and Marrakesh. And, weeks later, the Moroccan government announced plans for 500 additional youth centers throughout the country. The facilities, 450 of which already exist, seek to combat extremism and violence by providing positive environments for Moroccan youth at a nominal cost. Aiming to expand the selection and breadth of extra-curricular activities, the centers will offer opportunities for partnership, employment, job training, health care, as well as space for theater, outdoor sports, and music.

Then, just last week, as protestors ravaged the streets of Tunisia and Algeria, Moroccan Economy and Finance Minister Salaheddine Mezouar lauded the work of the National Initiative for Human Development (INDH), saying that five years after its inception, Morocco had added more than 3,000 revenue-generating enterprises and created nearly 40,000 job opportunities for its citizens. “We have already seen some significant results from the field," said Mohamed Medouar, the lead on the World Bank’s National Initiative for Human Development support project. Between 2001 and 2007, rural poverty decreased from 36% to 14%. According to the World Bank, an estimated 46% of Moroccans say that their livelihoods have improved with 62% claiming greater access to infrastructure; 58% say they have greater access to socioeconomic services.

Most remarkably, since 2003 Morocco’s unemployment rate has dropped from a staggering 19% to just over 9%, putting this developing country on par with the United States.

Meanwhile, political unrest and popular dissent swirl around the crown of North Africa. Within hours of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's fleeing the raucous uprising against him, hundreds of Egyptians stormed the streets of Cairo in a portentous display of a looming revolution. One man set himself ablaze in a copycat protest, echoing the incident that sparked the Tunisian revolt. Riots in Algeria led to self-immolation of four men who were devastated with poor economic conditions and in Mauritania’s capital city, Nouakchott, witnesses say a 40-year-old man doused himself in gasoline while sitting in a car in front of the presidential palace, setting himself on fire in a horrifying display of despair. In nearby Libya, frustrations over government incompetence and corruption led to street protests where hundreds of citizens ransacked vacant housing projects. Fueled by YouTube and Twitter, the violence and lootings spread to other cities including Bidaa, Darna, and Sabhaa.

Here in Morocco, all is calm. The buzz of an occasional motor scooter and the distant echo of the peaceful call to prayer are reminders that today, this Maghrebian monarchy is much different than its North African neighbors. In the darkness of revolution, it is a strong, guiding light.

Photo Credit: Nathan Lean