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Moroccan Ambassador: Early Reforms a Buffer Against 'Arab Spring' Protests

April 27, 2011 — Morocco's ambassador to the United States says his country is not experiencing the same upheaval sweeping other Arab and Middle Eastern countries because Rabat's constitutional monarchy implemented democratic reforms early on.

"What people are asking for in the other countries – Tunisia, Egypt, now the countries of the Middle East – we had it 20 years ago," Aziz Mekouar told a University of Virginia audience Tuesday evening in Nau Hall Auditorium.

Since February, popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have forced the leaders of those countries to cede power. Violent protests in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain are threatening leaders in those nations.

Mekouar said King Mohammed VI has improved the human rights situation in Morocco since coming to power in 1999.

"In his first speech, he said he was going to look at human rights, the issue of women's rights in Morocco," he said, adding that he delivered on his promises. As proof, he pointed to the first parliamentary elections held under his rule in 2002. "For the first time in the history of modern Morocco, they were declared totally free and fair."

Aziz said the king also created the Equity and Reconciliation Commission to review and rectify past civil rights abuses that occurred between 1956 and 2000. "I think the government paid something like $100 million" in restitution, he said. "You had the kinds of equity and reconciliation that is called transitional judiciary in other countries like Chile and South Africa."

He said the only difference was that in those countries it took a regime change to seek reconciliation. "In Morocco, it was the same regime that was taking responsibility for what had happened," he said. "The idea was we were not going to turn the page before reading it."

Aziz said the current youth protests in Morocco against corruption are also contributing to the country's commitment to continued transparency. "In March, the king made a speech and announced very important reforms to the constitution. He appointed a commission to look to change the constitution."

Aziz said the commission is working with all of Morocco's political parties, non-governmental organizations and the protesting youth to give more powers to the prime minister and parliament. "[The king] said the prime minister should always be the leader of the party with the most number of seats in the body," Aziz said – which represents a change from the current system, in which the king appoints the prime minister. "So this was a big speech. Nobody was expecting the king to go so far." The commission is expected to issue its report this summer.

Aziz acknowledged the country's free education system is failing badly, noting that only 14 students out of 100 will graduate from high school. "Thirty percent of the budget goes to education. The return on the investment is terrible," he said, adding the country must work harder to attract committed, qualified teachers.

Two Moroccan students gave Aziz small gifts at the conclusion of his speech as a token of the University's appreciation of his visit. Souheil Nadri, a third-year electrical engineering student from Fez, delivered his remarks in Arabic.

"It was my 15 minutes of fame!" he said, smiling, to his friends afterward.

Mekouar, a guest of U.Va.'s Office of the Vice Provost for International Programs  and the Center for International Studies, was taking part in the Ambassadors' Speakers Forum, which has drawn ambassadors from Japan, Indonesia and Nepal to Grounds this spring.

— By Jane Kelly

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