(Pomed) A recent conference, at the US Capitol in Washington, entitled “Finding a Way Forward: The U.S., Morocco and a Changing North Africa.” The panel discussion included among others Alexis Arieff of Congressional Research Services, Audra Grant of RAND Corporation, and J. Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council and Haim Malka of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Haim Malka began by underscoring Morocco’s importance as a U.S. ally as well as its importance in the broader Middle East. Morocco’s Ambassador Bouhlal followed highlighting the history of U.S.-Moroccan bilateral relations, which go back to the U.S.’s first treaty in 1787. He went on to describe recent relations as a “new chapter” in that history, with the signing of a free trade agreement in 2004 and other new cooperative initiatives. In regards to the kingdom’s response to unrest in 2011, Bouhlal credited King Mohammed VI’s history of reforms dating back to his ascension in 1999, specifically in enhancing women’s rights and in establishing a reconciliation commission to investigate past crimes by the government. The ambassador emphasized that reforms take time, and touched on future plans to reform the judiciary via a panel of 42 experts.

Audra Grant followed, calling Morocco an encouraging beacon of liberty that has come about as a result of a long trajectory of reform beginning with King Mohammed’s father, Hassan II. In her opinion, the monarchy survived the protest movement of 2011 without losing legitimacy because this sustained liberalization lent credibility to the King’s proposed reforms, undercutting a protest movement she called diverse but fractured. Grant went on to detail the significant challenges that remain including high unemployment, a mismatch between education and economic realities, a retention of monarchial primacy in politics, and diminishing confidence in the political system and the ruling Justice and Development Party (PJD). Future success of the PJD, she added, will hinge on if they can deliver on economic growth, with jobs for youths above all else.

Peter Pham then discussed the new constitution and its context, arguing that many of the grievances that led to uprisings in other countries had already been dealt with in Morocco, and that the kingdom’s historical identity as a state also helped prevent upheaval, unlike many of its neighbors rooted in post-Ottoman or colonial constructs. Highlights of the new constitution include the new identity language acknowledging the many sources of Moroccan culture, such as Berber and even Jewish contributions, as well as wording acknowledging Islam as the official religion but underscoring the freedom of worship. Pham also discussed the new limitation that the King must select a prime minister from the majority party, a major opening in politics that in his opinion opposition groups must step up to and take advantage of.

Alex Arieff followed by presenting division of power issues, saying that while the King remains the “ultimate arbiter” in Moroccan politics, his response to popular concerns marks an important departure from the past, and the changes give increased leverage to civil society pushing for more reforms. Part of last year’s changes include a number of new oversight and regulatory bodies, and Arieff stressed that it is up to the legislature to define how these bodies will operate and thus how effective they will actually be. On the U.S.’s side, the government sees Morocco as a close ally, has consistently praised reforms, and is even comfortable with the PJD. On the issue of Western Sahara, the U.S. has had a nuanced but inconsistent policy that defers to the U.N. negotiation process but resists anything that will destabilize Morocco.

Malka then asked a question on the extent of satisfaction with reforms in the country, to which Arieff responded that satisfaction is difficult to gauge. In her view, there is a tendency outside of Morocco to attribute discontent completely to the economy, but Arieff believes many Moroccans are cognizant that the country’s economic shortfalls are indicative of an opaque political system. Pham added that Moroccans are happy with the direction of reforms but not necessarily the pace, and emphasized that grievances are by no means homogenous, and differ along economic, political, regional, and linguistic lines.

In response to a question on the current state of freedom of expression and association, Grant said the three historical taboos of expression are criticisms of the monarchy, Western Sahara policy, and Islam. The lines on those issues, she added however, are really only visible when someone crosses them and the government cracks down. Arieff said tolerance of protests in the kingdom has waxed and waned, but she expressed concern that recent arrests mark a new, less lenient stance.

On the subject of regional integration, all the panelists expressed tempered expectations for major improvements in the near future, despite the economic boon it would provide. For Morocco and Algeria, Grant said confidence building measures would be a good start as bilateral animosities between the countries extend far beyond disagreements over Western Sahara.