Morocco Makes Peace With Its Past

Proof that an avowedly Islamic regime can move from authoritarianism to democracy.

RABAT—If you want an antidote to the photographs of policemen beating demonstrators and girls dying on the streets of the Iranian capital, take a drive through the streets of the Moroccan capital. You might see demonstrators, but they’re not under attack: On the day I visited, a group of people stood outside the parliament politely waving signs. You might see girls, but they will not be sniper targets, and they will not look like their Iranian counterparts: Though there is clearly a fashion for long, flowing head scarves and blue jeans, many women would not look out of place in New York or Paris.

Welcome to the kingdom of Morocco, a place that, in light of the last two weeks’ events in Iran, merits a few minutes of reflection. Unlike Turkey, Morocco is not a secular state: The king claims direct descent from the prophet Mohammed. Nor does Morocco aspire to be European: Though French is still the language of business and higher education, the country is linguistically and culturally part of the Arabic-speaking world. But unlike most of its Arab neighbors, the country has over the last decade undergone a slow but profound transformation from traditional monarchy to constitutional monarchy, acquiring along the way real political parties, a relatively free press, new political leaders—the mayor of Marrakesh is a 33-year-old woman—and a set of family laws that strives to be compatible both with sharia and international conventions on human rights.

The result is not what anyone would call a liberal democratic paradise. One human rights activist painted for me a byzantine portrait of electoral corruption involving “mediators” who “organize” votes on behalf of candidates. Others point out that if the demonstrators I saw at the parliament had been Islamic radicals or Western Saharan guerrilla leaders, rather than trade unionists, the police might not have been quite so blasé. Though women have legal rights, cultural restraints remain. A tiny fraction of the population reads newspapers, even fewer have Internet access, and somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent of the country is illiterate in any case. As a result, election turnout is very low. Political posters feature symbols, not words.

Yet in at least one sense, Morocco truly stands out: Alone in the region, the Moroccan government has admitted to carrying out political crimes in the past and has set up a “truth commission” along South African and South American lines. Beginning in 2004, the commission investigated crimes, held televised hearings, and paid compensation to some 23,000 victims and their families. The crimes in question—arbitrary arrests, “disappearances,” torture, executions—occurred during the reign of King Hassan II, who died in 1999. The truth commission is the creation of his son King Mohammed VI. But although this acknowledgement of wrongdoing was made possible by a generational change, it did not require a regime change. There was no revolution, no violence. The king is still the king, and he still has his collection of antique cars.

The result of the truth commission’s work is a kind of social peace. Not everybody likes the monarchy, but even its opponents concede that the break with the past is real: If nothing else, people feel it’s safe to speak openly, safe to form civil rights groups, safe to criticize the electoral process, even safe to complain about the king. Saadia Belmir—a Moroccan judge and the first female Muslim member of the U.N. Committee Against Torture—told me that despite obstacles, “we can now build the future on the basis of our good understanding of the past.” Controversially, perpetrators were allowed to fade into the background. But the crosscurrents of anger and revenge that might otherwise have marked the young king’s reign have subsided.

Is this a model for others? The Moroccans think so, and they have quietly “shared their experiences” with African and Middle Eastern neighbors. Belmir told me an informal group had been working on setting up a truth commission in Togo; others hint at Jordan, though of course that’s unofficial. They all hasten to point out that their formula—slow transformation under the aegis of a (so far) popular king—doesn’t apply everywhere. One thinks wistfully of the shah of Iran and of what might have been.

Still, watching the extraordinary range of clothing and skin colors on the Moroccan streets, one takes away at least one thought: Transformation from authoritarianism to democracy is possible, even in an avowedly Islamic state, even with an ethnically mixed population, even with the presence of a jihadist fringe. More important, it is possible to acknowledge and discuss human rights violations in this culture, just like everywhere else. Just because much of the Arab world lacks the political will to change, that doesn’t mean that change is always and forever impossible.