Morocco’s first free-market activist calls for pushback against radical Islam
RABAT, Morocco — Nouh El-Harmouzi never thought of himself as a revolutionary. But there he was, standing on a raised platform in Tahrir Square last year, getting ready to preach economic freedom to throngs of Muslim revelers in Egypt.
El-Harmouzi is Morocco’s first bona fide free-market activist. He took a deep breath and laid his cards on the table.
The Arab Spring had just claimed its biggest scalp: Hosni Mubarek, Egypt’s president, stepped down from power in the face of hundreds of thousands of protesters. El-Harmouzi — his name “Nouh” is pronounced “Noah,” like the Hebrew Bible’s boat-building patriarch — was in Cairo teaching young people how to build a civil society in a post-revolutionary country.
“I went to Tahrir Square,” he told The Daily Caller Wednesday at a hotel in Morocco’s capital city, “and I told them: ‘Be aware: Civil society, civil states — not military states. You have an opportunity after 50 years of absolute misery.’”
In his flip flops and casual shirt, El-Harmouzi doesn’t look like a Middle Eastern political evangelist. But on a breezy, starlit night above the din of a jazz pianist, the young economics professor from Ibn Tofail University explained what it was like to step up to the microphone in a chaotic Cairo — and why Moroccans are handling the Arab Spring in a dramatically different fashion.
“They had a big stand where people were talking,” he recalled. “There were Islamists saying ‘Death to USA,’ and communists saying ‘We want to build big factories for the workers.’ But no one like me.”
Nancy Ibrahim, a BBC Radio reporter based in Cairo, was with him. “I tell her, ‘this is crazy.’” El-Harmouzi said. Ibrahim offered to try to get him a few minutes in front of the crowd, using her press credentials. But amid a sea of adrenaline and more than a few Muslim Brotherhood higher-ups, he wasn’t optimistic.
Ibrahim, he told TheDC, “is 1 meter and something tall.” Striking a bodybuilder pose and puffing his cheeks out, he added, “Everyone else there is like this.”
Tom Palmer, a vice president at the Washington-based Atlas Economic Research Foundation, was with him as well. He dove into the crowd with a video camera and maneuvered to the front, near the makeshift stage.
“There were people in beards all around, and I thought ‘they are going to kidnap him,’” El-Harmouzi said in hushed tones. “But he was there at the right moment when they gave me the microphone.”
He didn’t let his precious minutes go to waste. The Egyptians got an earful.
“I told them we believed in freedom of speech and liberty,” he recalled. “‘You spent a lot of time winning it. Now try to build a civil state, not the Sudanese model or the Iranian model. Don’t come back to this.’”
And afterward? “I was extremely happy to be alive and to make it to the airport.”
El-Harmouzi’s economic philosophy makes him decidedly an odd duck in the Arab world, but he’s unapologetic.
At this year’s convention of the National Rally of Independents, a center-right political party, he was asked to give a presentation about social justice. “You can’t just take from the rich,” he told them. “You have to understand why one is rich and why one is poor.”
Being wealthy doesn’t mean you stole from the poor, he added. “Maybe the poor man does not work. Maybe the rich man made something wonderful.”
The party is the closest thing Moroccans have to U.S. Republicans. But “they did not — underline not — want to hear this,” El-Harmouzi said Wednesday.
The National Rally of Independents was leading in the polls until the day before Morocco’s national election last November. But on election day, the Justice and Development Party, an Islamist party known by its French acronym “PJD,” came out on top, winning 27 percent of the seats in Morocco’s parliament and controlling a coalition government. (RELATED: What Barack Obama can learn from Morocco)
Business leaders fret about an Islamist government that has so far put cultural and religious issues ahead of economic reforms. But El-Harmouzi is from the professorial class, and spends his time around students whose optimism is obvious and infectious.
He’s not worried.
“Some want to keep religious conservative ways,” he told TheDC. “They want to keep the women down. They think it makes them strong.”
“But the PJD are economically more classically liberal than the other parties, including the National Rally of Independents,” he said, using “classically liberal” as a stand-in for a free-market ideology.
“Their ministry of education said two days ago that we have to privatize universities.”
Morocco’s Islamists favor free trade, El-Harmouzi explained, “because Islam is more economically [free-market] than a lot of other systems. In Islam, you have to pay your tax and then you are free to do what you want.”
That freedom, he cautioned, doesn’t extend to non-Muslim “infidels.”
“You must grovel and present the tribute,” he said. “You can’t give it to someone else. You have to show up yourself … In the Quran, you have to pay that in a humiliating way.”
With Islamists running the government, the tension between religion-driven social engineers and economic reformers is a very real part of the Moroccan political soup. And it’s Morocco’s King Mohammed VI who keeps Islamists in check, and keeps the cauldron from boiling over.
“Equilibrium in Morocco is guaranteed by the king,” El-Harmouzi said.
“Even if the PJD says ‘A’ and the king does not, then that is it. The PJD is insignificant against the power of the king.”
Still, Morocco’s freely elected government is in place for the next five years.
“I criticize the PJD, but I encourage them,” El-Harmouzi said. “I am against Islamists. I am against the Islamization of Morocco. But I am for your economic freedom. So I am a watchdog. I have the freedom to disagree with you, but I will encourage you if you are for economic freedom.”
One step he endorses is a complete rethinking of government subsidies, like the payments that keep gasoline prices artificially low.
Subsidies are like the kiss of a stork, he said. “You want to kiss your babies, but you peck, peck, peck and poke their eyes out. Good intentions but unintended consequences.”
The ruling PJD cut fuel subsidies this year, raising gas prices. This is politically “very courageous,” El-Harmouzi insisted. The party is “willing to be criticized for going against the grain.”
“We need painful and courageous reform in this country, unfortunately.”
The PJD’s leaders, he predicted, will continue to push economic reforms as long as it benefits them. “They want people to say ten or fifteen years later that it was the Islamists who modernized their countries,” he said.
“We need to give them time. It will be painful, but we need to give them time.”
While El-Harmouzi waits, he’s strategizing. He manages the Atlas Economic Research Foundation’s Arabic-language website, and he is preparing to launch the Arab Scientific Center for Studies and Humane Research — Morocco’s first free-market think tank.
And he runs a five-day “Summer Freedom School” in Egypt each year for 40 to 50 like-minded activists at a time. He teaches them economics. Other professors add sociology, philosophy and other disciplines.
“If we don’t find classical liberals in Arab countries,” he said, “we need to create them. To organize them. To train them.”
And Morocco, he acknowledged, needs to push back against radical Islam with all its might.
“We do not want the culture of Muslim Brotherhood, Wahhabis and Salafis, nor of suicide bombers and superstition,” Morocco’s first crusading free-marketeer said. “We want the culture and the open mind … of scholarship, openness, science, rationalism and freedom.”
Editor’s note: Americans who want to contribute to Nouh El-Harmouzi’s new Moroccan free-market think tank can do so by donating to the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and writing “For Arab Project” where the form allows you to “designate my gift to [a] specific Atlas program.”