While most attention will be focused on the Friends of Syria meeting held in Marrakesh this week, US officials will also hold meetings with the Moroccan government and should keep in mind that political reform will ultimately be essential to stability there. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns will attend the Syria meeting on December 12, in place of Secretary Clinton whose illness prompted her cancellation, and he will use the opportunity to meet with officials for strategic talks building on the US-Morocco Strategic Dialogue launched on September 13. 

Secretary Clinton and King Mohammed VI were scheduled to meet in order to discuss the Mali and Syria crises, humanitarian concerns, and bilaterial ties in business and economics, including initiatives resulting from the recent US-Morocco Business Development Conference held in Washington.  This agenda reveals a stark reality: attention to needed political reform is eclipsed by economic and security considerations in the US-Moroccan relationship.

Although President Obama said in May 2011 that “it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy,” this is not in fact the policy of his administration when it comes to countries that have not experienced massive popular uprisings. Although Morocco did not experience a regime change, it is no stranger to the social, political, and economic pressures that toppled its neighbors, and has experienced protests demanding transparent and accountable political institutions developed through a democratic process. Morocco’s partnership with the United States might indeed improve regional security in countering the threat of al-Qaeda and grow its domestic economy, but without responsive political institutions in place, improvements in these areas will not be sustainable.

When the Arab awakening protests came to Morocco in February 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commended King Mohammed VI for his response, as he promised reforms instead of launching a violent crackdown. “In many ways, the United States looks to Morocco to be a leader and a model,” Clinton said. The opening meeting of the strategic dialogue three months ago marked the signing of a memorandum of understanding, stating the commitment of Morocco and the United States to the “…principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations, to human rights and to the ideals of peace, justice and democracy…”

Secretary Clinton underscored the continued support of the United States in Moroccan efforts to translate Morocco’s political reform commitments into actions in her opening remarks at the first session of the dialogue. Yet despite this hopeful rhetoric, thus far there is no action plan to operationalize this intention on the Moroccan side, nor has the United States frankly acknowledged the ongoing human rights abuses, rampant corruption, lack of transparency, and lack of credible political life in the country.

The official narrative of the Moroccan Arab awakening is that the king placated the protestors’ demands for democracy by graciously initiating historic constitutional reforms. The king’s constitutional reforms do not significantly alter, however, the power structure of the political system.  Although the prime minister is now selected from the largest party in parliament, the King retains most of the real decision-making authority; he has the power to appoint and dismiss government ministers, the right to dissolve parliament, and can influence legislation by power of decree.

Meanwhile, violations of personal freedoms and rights continue, for example infringements on the freedom of speech. Reporters Without Borders recently voiced concerns about the increasing number of violations against freedom of speech and information in Morocco, which is ranked 138 out of 179 countries in their World Press Freedom Index. Recently, a journalist’s credentials were revoked by the Moroccan state because the journalist portrayed the monarchy’s role in elections in what the government deemed an unprofessional manner. Despite the pro-rights orientation of the 2011 constitution, there are still many legal tools used to suppress freedom of expression. For example, Article 41 of the Press Code mandates five year prison terms for speech that “undermines the Islamic religion, the monarchical regime, or [Morocco’s] territorial integrity,” or that is offensive toward “His Majesty the King, and the royal princes and princesses. ” Violations do not stop at limitations upon free speech; the Moroccan justice minister conceded in September that there have been cases of abuse at recent protests. Some protestors, affiliated with the opposition February 20 Movement, testified that they had been tortured and beaten by police while in detention.

Despite these troubling conditions, there is little pressure from the United States for Morocco to engage in substantive reforms and improve protection for freedoms. The section of the US-Morocco memorandum of understanding discussing political dialogue is encapsulated within the security section, and there is no discussion of political reforms or democratization. At the first session, the agenda of the political working group devoted only fifteen minutes to discussion of the reform agenda in Morocco, including the promotion of political reform, development and stability; ten minutes for the discussion of government transparency; and an additional ten minutes for the discussion of human rights. 

The Moroccan monarchy currently has some time to undertake reforms that might blunt the edge of future dissent. A recent Gallup poll shows that in countries like Morocco, where major revolts did not take place, citizens believe that countries that experienced revolution in the region are less safe, have worse economic propsects, and weaker governance. But it would be wrong to become complacent about stability in Morocco, as the country suffers from many of the same ills—youth unemployment, corruption, lack of accountable government—as did Tunisia and other countries that had uprisings. The Moroccan case is an opportunity for the United States to put its rhetoric into practice and try once more to promote evolutionary rather than revolutionary change. 

Sarah Wade is an intern at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.