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Democracy can weaken Al Qaeda

Opinion: Morocco's reform is effective regional model to combat terror.

Moroccan demonstrators
Moroccan demonstrators show their support for Egyptians pressing for democracy. The Moroccans demonstrated outside the Egyptian embassy in Rabat on Jan. 31, 2011. (Abdelhak Senna/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON and RABAT, Morocco — As the world follows Egypt's dramatic shift in government, many are asking, “Who is next?”

Yemen and Jordan face similar unrest. Algeria just banned an upcoming demonstration. And Mauritania’s president escaped a reported Al Qaeda assassination attempt.

Arab-Muslim nations face serious economic, social and security challenges. Across the region the connection between repressive government and terrorist activity is strong. Yet in Morocco, where peaceful protest is permitted by law — and exercised frequently — the streets have remained relatively quiet, which has surprised some.

Via Facebook groups and other social media, Moroccans have expressed support for the people of Egypt and Tunisia and their efforts to change their governments and achieve a more democratic process.

Morocco stands out as the only country not to ban scheduled protests in the Middle East and North Africa region. Protesters in Morocco scheduled their own demonstration for Feb. 20, with the government’s permission.

But the right to protest in Morocco comes with a caveat. By the constitution, Moroccans may not defame their king, Islam, the prophet Mohammed or Moroccan territory. These topics are off-limits; media and citizens are in theory free to speak out on other issues and criticize their government.

Within these strict parameters, Morocco has experienced a decade of systemic reforms, many of them directed by King Mohamed VI. These social, political and economic reforms, and Morocco's focus on security have slowed terrorism’s spread in the country, especially when compared with the threats in neighboring Algeria, Mauritania and Mali.

“The best way to fight terrorism is with the help of the people themselves, ensuring that everyone has a stake in the future of their country,” said Morocco’s U.S. Ambassador Aziz Mekouar at a recent National Press Club forum on international terrorism.

No country is immune to terrorism, Mekouar said. “It can happen in the U.S., as it did on 9/11. It can happen in Morocco, as it did in the 2003 Casablanca bombings, which killed 33 and injured 100,” said Mekouar of the attack that shocked Morocco deeply and prompted more than 500,000 people to march in the streets in solidarity and peaceful protest.

Following the 2003 attacks, Morocco passed new laws and increased its focus on security and intelligence, working closely with its citizens and international partners to expose terrorist networks and stop attacks before they happened.

Second, to address underlying conditions that feed extremism, Mekouar noted, Morocco has worked to reduce poverty, increase democratic participation, strengthen social reforms and encourage the practice of a moderate Islam.

Reform in Morocco may be progressive but is subject to royal approval. The country still has far to go, and its reforms may not be easily duplicated. Morocco’s human rights record regarding prisoners and its disputed control of Western Sahara continue to be debated in international policy circles. And in 2010 the kingdom expelled several dozen Christian orphanage workers for breaking Morocco’s law against proselytizing.