Democracy Day Came and Went, but in Morocco, Reform is Here to Stay

Edward M. Gabriel (Ambassador to Morocco, 1997-2001)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Gabriel’s special to Middle East Online.

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As the sixth annual UN International Day of Democracy came and went this past Sunday, the sad fact is that times are tough for democracy across the Middle East and North Africa. Syria remains locked in strife; unrest continues in Egypt; and violence persists in Libya. Elsewhere in the region, countries struggle to establish democratic practices and institutions to live up to the promise of the Arab Spring.

Fortunately, one country, Morocco, has a different story to tell. As others in the region labor to find a peaceful path forward, express themselves freely, or simply create a functioning government, Moroccans are engaged in a process of open dialogue and debate that has been a hallmark of the country’s continuing progress on democratic, social and economic reforms. Many of the major reforms instituted in Morocco since King Mohammed VI ascended the throne in 1999 have been accomplished through this patient, thoughtful process, including the reform of family law improving women’s rights in 2004 and the 2011 Constitution. Moroccans are asked to tell their government what needs to be done to improve their lives, and they appear to be listened to.

The most recent demonstration of democracy in action in Morocco is the Economic, Social, and Environmental Council (CESE), created to assess how to improve and create more efficient and “effective access to basic human, economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights in Morocco’s southern provinces,” which includes Western Sahara. The CESE project is part of major structural reforms launched by Morocco to build on previous reforms and consolidate democratic practices, sustainable development, and good governance.

CESE addresses five challenges: “boosting the economy; consolidating social cohesion and promoting culture; enhancing social inclusion and consolidating the fight against poverty; ensuring effective protection of the environment and sustainable territorial development; and defining responsible, inclusive governance.”

Over the course of many months, in 50 meetings, the CESE project heard direct – and frank – testimony from more than 1,000 ordinary citizens, business leaders, union officials and civil society activists about social, economic, political and good governance issues, as well as what needs to be done to address them. The Council also reviewed extensive research on the state of development and on potential frameworks for improvement.

CESE’s first report, released this March, noted progress in health, education and basic services, but it also pointed out administrative, political and social problems that need further reforms. The Council will issue a final, comprehensive report, by the end of 2013, addressing these issues and providing recommendations for concrete next steps.

Meaningful steps towards democracy may be elusive in much of the MENA region, but Morocco is maintaining its steady progress, based on open debate and consultation with ordinary citizens, that has marked its path to reform for decades.

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