Democracy can weaken Al Qaeda

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.

However, I saw commitment behind reform last fall when I met and queried parliament member Mbarka Bouaida, Marrakech mayor Fatima Zohra El Mansouri and social activist Aicha Ech-Channa. All three women described their daily efforts to reduce poverty (down from 15 percent to 9 percent in the past decade) and increase the power of Moroccan citizens in a country that increasingly encourages women leaders.

Poverty is still a major problem in Morocco. Tens of thousands of people in the city of Marrakech lack access to plumbing or electricity. But slow progress is better than none.

To discourage extremism, Morocco’s national council of Ulemas promotes a tolerant, peaceful Islam. The king’s pioneering mourchidate (female counselor/scholar) program was established to train women to perform many tasks of imams and counsel worshippers in mosques across the country.

Today, Moroccans do enjoy greater democratic freedoms and political participation in a multi-party parliamentary system. Reforms continue, with plans to overhaul the judiciary system and combat corruption. Workers are free to unionize, the right to protest is guaranteed, women’s rights are greatly improved in a recently revised family law, and Morocco hosts more than 12,000 non-governmental organizations.

Since 2003, Morocco has had relatively few attacks and no civilian deaths from terrorists. Vigilance remains high. Last month, Morocco dismantled an Al Qaeda terror cell in the disputed territory of Western Sahara. In December, it uncovered an Al Qaeda-linked smuggling ring to traffic cocaine from South America into Europe.

Unfortunately, according to a new report from the International Center for Terrorism Studies (ICTS), the regional threat from terrorism is on the rise.

Attacks by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other terrorist groups in the Maghreb and Sahel jumped 558 percent since 9/11. There is growing evidence AQIM is recruiting Polisario Front members from Algeria, and others disaffected by the appalling conditions in refugee camps in Algeria.

Intelligence reports also confirm Al Qaeda has linked with Latin American cartels to traffic drugs across the Atlantic through West and North Africa into Europe. And ICTS reports that AQIM is poised to take advantage of unrest in North Africa in its efforts to destabilize the region.

This poses a “grave concern,” the report says, for North Africa and a broad “arc of instability” stretching from Somalia on the Red Sea to Western Sahara on the Atlantic. Al-Qaeda’s rise in Africa also threatens its ultimate targets in Europe and the United States, and requires increased security cooperation among Maghreb and Sahel nations.

The sooner people across the Middle East and North Africa region believe they have a stake in the future of their countries, the sooner terrorists will be denied fertile recruiting grounds, and these societies will become more resilient and stable to overcome the challenges ahead.

Alison Lake is a staff writer at The Washington Post, who has written recently on Western Sahara and terrorism in North Africa for the Post and Foreign Policy magazine.