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Trip Reports


Visit to Morocco

28 April - 2 May 1999

May 1999


* This Secretariat Report is presented for information only and does not necessarily represent the official view of the NAA.


1. The Mediterranean Special Group (GSM) visited Morocco from 28 April to 2 May 1999. The visit brought together 26 participants, including 17 members of the GSM, led by their Chairman, Mr. Pedro Moya (Spain).

2. During its stay in Morocco, the GSM had meetings in Rabat with members of the government and the parliament, including the chairmen of both chambers and the leaders of the parliamentary groups. A session with a group of academics at the Hassan II University was held in Casablanca. A one-day visit to Western Sahara, which included meetings in Laayoune and Dakhla, completed the programme.

3. The purpose of the GSM's visit was to gather information about the country's current political and economic situation, as well as about its foreign policy, with specific attention to the NATO Mediterranean Dialogue Initiative. Mr. Giulio Mario Terracini's draft Report on Security in the North African Region [AS 139 GSM (99) 6] served as a reference for the questions discussed during the visit. In particular, the members expressed their interest for the new government of the "alternance", which has initiated several reforms in the sectors of justice, education, social and urban development. With regard to regional security issues, the visit to Western Sahara gave members the opportunity to meet local Moroccan authorities and members of the civil society as well as representatives of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).


4. All Moroccan members of parliament and government officials stressed the importance of the improvement of the Moroccan democratic political system produced by the constitutional reform of 1996. This amendment of the constitution provided for an electoral cycle every six years to a bicameral parliament. The Chamber of Deputies, the lower chamber, is elected by universal suffrage on the basis of a first-past-the-post system, whilst the Chamber of Councillors, or upper chamber, is indirectly elected by the municipalities, professional organisations and trade unions. In the last political elections of November-December 1997, the Koutla, a coalition of left-wing and nationalist parties, won the majority in the Chamber of Deputies, while the centrist coalition, led by the royalist Rassemblement national des Indépendents (RNI), obtained control of the upper chamber. The new government, nominated in March 1998, reflected this result: Mr. Aderrahmane Youssoufi, a respected leader of the largest party in the lower chamber, the Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires (USFP), was appointed Prime Minister, and most ministerial posts went to the Left; however, the royalist forces maintained the interior, foreign affairs, justice, Islamic affairs and other minor portfolios.

5. The new political system and the "alternance" government, according to most of the people the GSM encountered, has given a new impetus to the country's political life, encouraging decentralisation, enhancing civil liberties and promoting a "culture of pluralism". Islamic movements, mostly moderate, are integrated in the political system and represented in parliament. According to the socialist Chairman of the Chamber of Deputies, Mr. Abdelwahed Radi, who served 22 years in the Moroccan parliament, this democratic "upgrade" (mise à niveau) - an expression used by many officials during the visit - has made Moroccan society more open and free, thus reinforcing political stability. However, it is clear that the monarchy still has a hegemonic control of the political scene, and its role appears essential for the overall national stability. Even if he has limited his own authority, the King still presides over the cabinet and formally appoints and dismisses the government.

6. With regard to human rights, Morocco has reportedly improved its record, easing restrictions on political expression and interference in trade unions. In addition, the new government has worked to reduce the executive influence on the judiciary. These developments, already described in the US State Department 1998 human rights report, were stressed by Mr. Omar Azziman, the Justice Minister, as well as by Mr. Driss Basri, the veteran Interior Minister. Significantly, the latter recalled that the present human rights ministry was initially created as a department in his own ministry. However, when questioned about alleged human rights abuses committed by Moroccan security forces in Western Sahara, Mr. Basri strongly denied the accusations and explained that Morocco is not a "police state", as some observers had portrayed, having a police force of only 35,000 for a population of 30 million. He also admitted that some "auxiliary" forces, a sort of military police, are deployed in Western Sahara.

7. The economic situation of the country was discussed frankly with Moroccan parliamentarians and members of the government. The new executive has committed itself to a strict budgetary discipline and to significant structural reforms. However, it is generally agreed that high unemployment coupled with an oversized public sector and a slow privatisation process represent the most serious challenges for a country that has joined the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership Initiative. High unemployment is also generally seen as the main reason for young Moroccans migrating to EU countries. Moroccan officials stressed the need for more international regulations against illegal migration and closer co-operation among Mediterranean countries in order to deal with this problem in a constructive way. A serious lack of infrastructure and the dependence on foreign energy resources were also highlighted by many officials. Moreover, with illiteracy reaching 50 % of the population (48 % of which is under the age of 20), the government is planning to significantly improve the education system.


8. Apart from the question of Western Sahara, which will be dealt with separately, the foreign policy agenda of Morocco is quite diversified. On one hand, the country pays great attention to the political situation of the Arab world and particularly of the Maghreb. On the other hand, Morocco has set its sights on the gradual economic integration with the EU starting from 2010 and actively participates in all dialogue initiatives in the Mediterranean (NATO, WEU, and OSCE).

9. Mr. Adeslam Znined, minister delegate for the Maghreb, Arab and Islamic world affairs, together with Mr. Radi and other members of parliament recalled the important role that King Hassan II played in the Middle East peace process and stressed the need for a closer co-operation between Rabat and the EU on this crucial issue. With regard to the Maghreb, some officials mentioned the recent hand over for trial of the Lockerbie suspects by Libya as a significant and positive development for region. Mr. Youssef Tahiri, Minister of Energy and Mines, declared that this event might even revive the Arab Maghreb Union, which has been inactive for a long time. Fewer comments were made regarding the situation in Algeria and none on the outcome of the recent presidential election in that country. Mr. Znined explained that the Moroccan government is working to improve relations with its neighbour. However, others admitted that Algerian support for the Polisario in Western Sahara still represents a serious obstacle to the normalisation of the relations between the two countries.

10. Morocco's strong commitment to the EU Euro-Mediterranean Partnership Initiative is indisputable, even if some members of parliament are not certain that trade and foreign investment will increase sufficiently to justify the costs of the country's necessary industrial conversion. All Moroccans strongly emphasised the need for some sort of economic assistance from European countries, in the form of either a conversion of the external debt or an increase of foreign investments, public and private.

11. On the international scene, Morocco appears to be one of the most reliable friends of the West within the Arab world. Mr. Znined recalled the Kingdom's strong support to the Western alliance during the Gulf War and the participation of Moroccan troops in IFOR and SFOR in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He also expressed the government's satisfaction over the developments in the NATO Mediterranean Dialogue Initiative which took place in the February 1999 meeting in Valencia. Mr. Radi and Mr. Jallal Essaid, Chairman of the Chamber of Councillors, expressed the profound satisfaction of the Moroccan parliament concerning its participation in the NATO PA's activities as a parliamentary observer. Critical positions towards the West in general, and towards NATO in particular, were expressed by some of the academics at Hassan II University in Casablanca. Apparently, after the end of the Cold War, Europe had lost interest in North Africa, considering it less "attractive" - both economically and politically - than Eastern Europe.

12. With specific regard to the current crisis in Kosovo, members of the government expressed mild approval of, or sympathy for NATO's action against Yugoslavia. Mr. Znined emphasised the fact that Kosovars are discriminated in their country for mainly religious reasons. Among Moroccan parliamentarians, some expressed critical opinions about NATO's strategy. Mr. Abdelkader Bayna, leader of the USFP group in the Chamber of Deputies, declared that NATO's air strikes had only accelerated the ethnic cleansing policy of the Serb government in Kosovo and that the entire population of Yugoslavia would finally be the real victim of the war. The academics at Hassan II University expressed their concern over Kosovo setting a precedent for the future of international law. They fear NATO could become a sort of "military arm" of the United Nations or an instrument for the United States to extend their "hegemonic control".


13. The visit to Western Sahara was scrupulously organised by the Moroccan hosts. To conduct the 24-hour trip, a special aircraft was provided, which allowed the delegation to hold meetings in both Laayoune and Dakhla on the same day. The NATO PA members were warmly welcomed in the provinces by local administrators and representatives of the Saharawis. Mr. Brahim Hakim, itinerant Ambassador of HM the King of Morocco for the Western Sahara Provinces, was introduced to the members during the meeting with Mr. Basri, and accompanied the delegation throughout the entire visit.

14. According to the Moroccan position (with no distinction between government and opposition forces), Western Sahara belongs historically to the ancient "empire" of Morocco and it was unlawfully taken by European colonial powers. Therefore, to recover these territories has been a national priority for Rabat since the end of Spanish rule in 1975, even if the International Court of Justice declared that same year that Morocco's historic claims to the region were insufficient to justify its sovereignty over it. Officially, Morocco has nonetheless committed itself to the UN-organised referendum that would permit Saharawis to decide whether the territory should be incorporated into Morocco or become independent.

15. From all the discussions with Moroccan officials it was clear that the question of Western Sahara represents a priority also for the new government. The "Moroccan" identity of the Saharawis, as well as their loyalty to the Kingdom, was emphasised in all the encounters in the provinces. The "enemies of Morocco", namely Algeria and Libya, supported the Polisario, "invented" the Saharawi-Arab Democratic Republic (RASD) and manipulated the international community on the question of the self-determination of the Saharawi people. Mr. Basri bluntly stated that "the pretended martyrdom of a people that does not exist" has to come to an end. Referring to the supposed economic interests of Morocco on Western Sahara's natural resources, the minister of energy and mines explained that the region's phosphates represent only a very small percentage of the national production. Conversely, the Assembly's delegation was extensively briefed about Moroccan substantial investments in Western Sahara, particularly in the fields of energy, telecommunications, water, transport and education.

16. Moroccans are convinced of the necessity to hold the referendum and they assure that the region, when its integration into the national territory will be ratified, will enjoy the same kind of administrative autonomy as all the other Moroccan provinces. The only obstacle to the holding of the referendum is, from the Moroccan point of view, the addition to the list of voters of some 65,000 Moroccans of Saharawi origin who left the region during the Spanish colonial rule and the war waged against the Polisario (1975-1991). The RASD reportedly contests the effective link of these people with Western Sahara and, therefore, their right to vote.

17. The delegation met the representatives of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) in Laayoune. The encounter was arranged by Mr. Ross Ballantyne of the Office of Mr. Charles Dumbar, Special Representative of the Secretary General, and Major-General Bernd S. Lubenik, Force Commander of MINURSO, briefed the members. MINURSO, established in 1991, has two principal tasks: to monitor the cease-fire between Morocco and the RASD; and to hold the referendum on the future of Western Sahara. Since no violation of the cease-fire has ever occurred, MINURSO's principal activity has been to conduct the identification process of the Saharawi voters. After an interruption between 1996 and 1997, the process was completed in September 1998, with the identification of about 100,000 voters. In the near future, a new phase of the identification process will examine the disputed 65,000. The vote, according to the last report sent to the UN Secretary General on 24 April 1999, is scheduled for July 2000, but MINURSO officials admit this is a very optimistic forecast.

18. MINURSO officials declared that if the number of voters does not rise significantly the odds were slightly on the RASD side. However, it is possible that Morocco will decide to extend the development and democratisation process to the occupied territories. In that case, many Saharawi refugees might be convinced to vote for a Moroccan administration. Another problem is organising the return of the refugees for the referendum to take place. The UN High Commissioner for the Refugees has already identified five repatriation centres, three in areas controlled by Morocco, two in RASD areas, in which 250 voting ballots will be prepared. But voting will eventually oblige many refugees to cross the 2,400 km wall that separates the two areas without the possibility of returning, despite the outcome of the referendum. It is therefore possible that some will choose not to vote for fear of retaliations.

19. Although it is clear that Morocco is sincerely committed to the referendum, it is also certain that legal, just as much as political and technical problems will certainly cause additional delay. However, Major-General Lubenik made clear that the United States and the European Union can play a determinant role in putting pressure on both sides (but especially on Morocco) to overcome the last obstacles. In conclusion, as one of the members put it, it seems fair to say that Morocco will probably never allow a referendum to take place which it is not sure of winning.

20. It is opportune to note that the NATO PA delegation was accompanied during the entire visit to Western Sahara by a group of journalists and a TV crew. Local media gave extensive coverage of the visit, and some generally positive statements made by Mr. Moya concerning the visit were interpreted by the press as an endorsement of the Moroccan position on Western Sahara.

© NATO Parliamentary Assembly

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