What Barack Obama can learn from Morocco

David Martosko Executive Editor
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Barack Obama could learn a thing or two by closely watching Morocco. And the Northern African country’s new government may want to take notes when our troubled president faces re-election in November.

Morocco’s constitutional monarchy is mid-balancing-act, anchored on one side by the king and on the other by a parliament run by Islamists who campaigned on economic issues and anti-corruption promises.

Voters in Morocco’s 2011 election elevated the Justice and Development Party, an Islamist faction known by the French Acronym PJD, into a position of primacy. The PJD went from holding 15 percent of the chamber’s seats to controlling a 27-percent plurality. Its leader is now the prime minister.

Moroccans generally expected to get the best of both post-Arab Spring worlds after the movement’s protests arrived in early 2011: a moderate elected government along with none of the military uprisings and bloodshed associated with other deposed Middle Eastern heads of state.

Abdelilah Benkirane, the Islamist prime minister, came to his position under a power-sharing arrangement guaranteed by Morocco’s new constitution and, it should be noted, honored by the previously untouchable king. (RELATED: Egypt, Libya and Syria are hot messes, but Morocco’s king protects his position — for now)

The constitution guarantees, for the first time, that Moroccans are free to think, create and express themselves in any way they please. It promises to put women on equal “civic and social” footing with men. For good measure, it also declares that the king is no longer “sacred.”

But it’s one thing to scream from the minarets that you’re moving toward democracy, and another thing entirely to put it into practice.

So far, realpolitik hasn’t much materialized. And Moroccans are not a patient bunch. People who taste democracy invariably demand more of it, and quickly.

It took the new Islamist government four months longer than planned to pass a budget. The PJD held its vote over the din of protesters clashing outside with police and demanding government jobs.

When King Mohammed VI named him prime minister at the end of November, Benkirane promised a five-year plan of 5.5 percent annual economic growth. But when he presented his slate of ministers for their swearing-in five weeks later, Benkirane had revised that estimate down to 4.2 percent — the same growth rate Morocco saw in 2010.

A more realistic estimate, provided in late March by Bank Al-Maghrib, came in at 3 percent.

Four years ago, when a Google search for “Arab Spring” would have brought weather forecasts for Saudi Arabia, Morocco’s economy was growing at a 14 percent clip.

These things matter everywhere, but more so in a Middle Eastern country without its own oil supply — one that suffers from a 9.9 percent unemployment rate, imports most of its wheat and depends on tourism from belt-tightening Europeans who have their own fiscal problems to contend with.

Morocco’s Islamist government has only been in place for a half-year, so it may be too early to judge its performance. But instead of pragmatic economics, its leaders have focused on ideological priorities, leaving ordinary Moroccans scratching their heads.

First came the telecommunications minister’s proposed ban on live-TV broadcasts of poker and other gambling activity. Saeid Lakhal, a researcher who studies Islamist movements, hit the nail on the head, telling Al-Arabiya that “banning live gambling will not solve any of the problems of average citizens.”

The same minister decided that state-run television should begin broadcasting the Muslim call to prayer, five times a day.

The gambling broadcast ban never got off the ground. Undeterred, the PJD moved at the end of May to ban all alcohol advertising and most drinking in restaurants. Penalties would have included a minimum three months in jail for advertisers; media outlets that dared run a liquor commercial could have been closed for weeks or months.

Fueled by concerns that tourism dollars would dry up as bartenders hung up their aprons, businesses pushed back.

The PJD also found itself defending a Moroccan law that allows a rapist to marry his victim if he wants to avoid prosecution. In one such case, a 16-year-old girl took rat poison and killed herself in March after surviving six months of an abusive marriage to the “husband” who had raped her.

The party’s lone female minister told lawmakers in May that women’s rights groups had “politically exploited … the issue of child sexual abuse” and damaged Morocco’s reputation in the process. She also defended the practice of girls marrying their sexual assailants, arguing that “many advanced countries allow girls to marry at the age of 14.”

Even on those occasions where the PJD has tried to democratize the face of Moroccan government, one thing or another manages to get in the way. In February, Benkirane declared a war on cronyism, promising to rein in a patronage system that awarded perks like taxi and bus licenses to insiders. Instead, he delivered only transparency: The beneficiaries’ names were made public, but they kept their special government favors.

Bill Cosby used to tell a joke about his authoritarian father who would warn his misbehaving kids that “I brought you into this world and I can take you out.” With its economy underperforming, its fuel prices increasing and its unemployment rising, Morocco’s Islamist government could find itself on the outs rather quickly.

There’s a lesson in this for the White House, too. Governments that run on promises they never mean to fulfill have short shelf-lives. And leaders who misread their people’s needs can quickly find themselves unemployed.

Compared to Moroccans, Americans are old hands at democracy. But every so often something comes along to sweep away our cynicism and replace it with — all together, now — a little bit of hope. And change. Our electoral fervor in 2008 was like the optimism Moroccans felt last year as election returns came in and the whole nation contemplated its future.

Our president, like the PJD, made broad and sweeping pledges: He promised to “cut the deficit we inherited in half by the end of my first term,” “jolt our economy back to life,” “lift two million Americans from poverty,” “stop foreclosures” and “bring down [health care] premiums by $2,500 for the typical family.” He also projected 5.5 percent unemployment by now.

We all know this story’s evolution. None of those promises has magically sprung into reality. Our credit rating was downgraded for the first time. The federal government now owes more than the value of our entire GDP.

Unemployment is officially at 8.2 percent; it has shot as high as 10.2 percent, in October 2009. The current measurement would likely be 11 percent or more if statisticians included Americans who have given up on work and removed themselves from the national pool of job seekers.

While Americans have struggled, Obama has spun his wheels on ideological platforms. Where Moroccan Islamists have their anti-alcohol platform and prayer broadcasts, Obama has his green energy, union labor bailouts and racial politics.

Were Saeid Lakhal an American, he might observe that giving billions to solar energy speculators “will not solve any of the problems of average citizens.”

Obama has been too distracted by the dreams from his father to keep his eye on the ball. And Morocco’s Islamists, preoccupied with pushing religious fundamentalism, haven’t seemed to notice that voters care more about quality-of-life issues.

Both governments could be past their sell-by dates in a matter of months.

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