I watched President Barack Obama’s Middle East speech last week from my home in Casablanca. As a Moroccan who travels frequently to the United States, I felt the speech was historic and immensely powerful. It marked a major transition in U.S. policy: for the first time in American history, the world’s superpower is fully behind Arab peoples in their quest for freedom.
For decades, democracy activists in the Arab world blamed the United States for aligning blindly with authoritarian regimes – first in the name of the fight against communism, then in the name of the struggle against Islamist terrorism.
Arab populations were frustrated with this policy, notwithstanding their recognition of the lesson of the 1979 revolution in Iran: sometimes popular upheavals yield extremist regimes.
Now there is a sea change in the United States – and Obama appears to be signaling that his shift in policy will be backed up by aid for civil society and economic development in the Arab world’s transitioning states. This type of support will encourage liberal forces in North Africa and the Middle East to partner with America.
But important questions remain. How the United States will address Islamist political parties in the region’s emerging democracies is a problem that be closely monitored by Arab liberals like myself. In some countries such as Libya, Islamist militants are among the fighting forces, and they will undoubtedly expect a piece of the pie when the dust settles and power is shared.
American policy toward these groups is unclear to many Arabs. We know that since September 11, influential policy voices in Washington have been searching for a way of drawing a line between “moderate” Islamists and radicals espousing violence. But separating these two trends is extremely difficult, even for people who live in the region, and whether the Obama administration will succeed in doing so remains unclear.
Islamists are powerful but not the majority in any Arab country, yet they have strength beyond their numbers because their rivals, the proponents of Western liberal values, are not politically organized. This is where American aid for civil society promotion becomes important, and Obama’s speech was reassuring on this score.
For tips on civil society advancement vis a vis Islamists, the administration would be well served to consider the example of Morocco. My country proves that one can have Islamist parties in parliament but maintain a liberal ethos overall – provided there is also a leadership that promotes liberal ideals and is willing to stand up for them.
Witness this week’s music festival in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, featuring Kanye West and Shakira among many other performers. Islamists organized to ban the festival, but the king stood firmly behind it – and the show goes on. Moroccans understand that it takes a robust and unending effort to keep peaceable yet effectively keep Islamists in check.
Obama’s speech was also historic because he called for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with negotiations to begin on the basis of the pre-1967 borders. By doing so, Obama has reinvigorated the forces of moderation in the Arab world that supported the post-9/11 Saudi peace initiative. That proposal offered full diplomatic recognition of Israel by many Arab states in exchange for a withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines.
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are now forming a new, formal political alliance with Jordan and Morocco which is poised to deliver this sort of a comprehensive peace deal as soon as a settlement is reached. As young people across the Arab world reexamine the region around them with new hopes for the future, it would be enormously valuable for them to witness the establishment of the Palestinian state. It would be proof positive that America is a friend to Arab peoples across the region – and that America’s allies, including Israel, can be friends to Arab populations too.
Ahmed Charai is publisher of the Moroccan weekly Magazine L’observateur as well as the French edition of the Foreign Policy magazine. He sits on the board of Trustees of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.