Sunny, Modern, Morocco; Don't Look Now, but a Bit of Europe Has Come to the Maghreb. What Next-Full-Fledged EU Membership?

Newsweek International, October 9, 2006 | Go to article overview

Sunny, Modern, Morocco; Don't Look Now, but a Bit of Europe Has Come to the Maghreb. What Next-Full-Fledged EU Membership?


Byline: Emily Flynn Vencat

Leila Ahlaloum, 25, is the very image of a modern European career woman. She works as a manager in a chic hotel, goes clubbing most weekends and, like many singletons, is on the prowl for Mr. Right. With her designer clothes and hip sunglasses, you'd never suspect she's a mainstream Muslim in an Islamic North African country. But as much as Leila represents a Western archetype, she's also the personification of modern Morocco. "Of course we love our own culture," says Leila, who lives in the cultural capital of Marrakech. "But ours is now a European way of life."

What a transformation. It's been 50 years since Morocco declared independence from France, yet the country has never been more European. The change can be seen in the sleek nightclubs opening in Marrakech and glossy tourist resorts springing up along Morocco's sunny Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts. But it shows far more powerfully in the widespread adoption of European political, judicial and financial reforms, which are reshaping Morocco's record on everything from immigration to press freedom and women's rights. "Without a doubt, the country is the freest it has been in its history," says Theodore Ahlers, the World Bank's Morocco country director. "It's completely integrating with the rest of the world."

Morocco's metamorphosis owes much to its dream of one day joining the European Union. Former King Hassan II made this explicit 20 years ago, though at the time the ambition seemed almost laughable. This had less to do with the fact that Morocco lies in Africa, not Europe, and more to do with its record on human rights and lack of democracy. Today, no formal request for Moroccan membership sits in Brussels, but Prime Minister Driss Jettou tells NEWSWEEK: "We want to be the southern rib of Europe." For the European Union's part, says Benita Ferrero-Waldner, EU commissioner for external relations, "We already have a very, very close relationship with Morocco, and we're studying giving them even more advanced status."

Signs of Morocco's European-style openness are everywhere. The current government is the most democratic in the country's history. Next year's elections are expected to produce a popularly elected prime minister for the first time--previously, leaders of government were appointed by the king--and Morocco's notoriously poor human-rights record is getting a makeover. Cases of torture and arbitrary arrest are down dramatically; there are fewer political prisoners. "We see Morocco as a mixed picture--which is a very favorable comment," says Joe Stork, a deputy director of Human Rights Watch. Earlier this year King Mohammed VI won praise after his groundbreaking Equity and Reconciliation Commission criticized the torture and brutality that were commonplace under his father's 44-year rule. "We are all committed to never, ever again," says Jettou, though it should be noted that the commission declined to name names.

Women's rights are now among the most progressive in the Arab world, with recent reforms to the Sharia-based family law giving women equality within marriage, the right to file for divorce and the ability to pass their citizenship onto their children. The press has unprecedented freedom, with magazines publishing once-censored accounts of the royal family's finances and internationally respected film festivals freely screening controversial work. Attesting to the practical reality of these sweeping changes, prominent Moroccan writer and political dissident Abdelmoumen Diouri returned home after 35 years in European exile last month.

Diouri's homecoming from France is a metaphor for Morocco's renewed relationship with Europe as a whole. Ties between the two date back millennia to a time when North African Moorish rulers controlled Morocco and Spain alike. But the gap between Morocco and Europe--a mere 14 kilometers at its closest across the Strait of Gibraltar--later turned into a schism reflecting historical Catholic-Islamic clashes.

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