Each August 20, Moroccans commemorate the return of the late Sultan Mohammad V from his exile to Madagascar by French colonial authorities. The scion of a centuries-old throne, he went on to lead his people to independence in 1956 and establish the modern state which his grandson, Mohammed VI, now leads.
This year, as is customary, the present King gave a speech. In describing Morocco's place on a continent in flux amid a world in turmoil, he spoke to the scourge of terrorism and the challenges of development; the meaning of patriotism and the duties of Moroccan emigres; and the importance of reconciliation and renewed partnership, whether between nations or among religious faiths.
Many Moroccans were moved by the speech in ways that are not easily explained to outsiders. It could have been the gentle ruler's assonant evocation of a galvanizing narrative of Moroccan oneness that still resonates, even among the youngest generations. It may have been the plain old-fashioned sight of a head of state reading a speech, flanked by family and a flag -- no teleprompter, no fancy production values. But in addition to striking a chord among his own population, he also made some points with broader political significance in Africa and beyond.
It was noteworthy, for starters, that the King made a point of stressing the longstanding ties of amity between Morocco and its neighbor, Algeria, engraved during some of the moments in history that mattered most to both countries. He noted that the period of postcolonial resistance in Africa "was characterized by coordination and solidarity between the leaders of the Moroccan resistance movement and the Algerian Liberation Front. The Moroccan resistance movement provided moral and material support to the Algerian revolution which, at the time, was facing a fierce campaign by colonial forces seeking to quash it before it celebrated its first anniversary. That uprising and that solidarity breathed new life into the Algerian revolution, and the two countries also played a major role in the liberation and independence of Africa."
These remarks are meaningful in the context of longstanding tensions between Algeria and Morocco. They date back to Soviet days and still fester now in the Saharan desert -- where an Algerian-backed militia, the Polisario, remains armed to the teeth and steadfast in laying claim to half the map of Morocco. But there are indications that Algiers in recent months views the conflict's role in destabilizing North Africa and the Sahel, coupled with economic malaise across the region, as reasons to join Morocco in settling the matter under UN auspices. It would seem that in his Saturday speech, King Mohammed VI wanted to send a signal to the Algerian government that he welcomes the opportunity to mend strained relations.
The remarks also tied into a lengthier discussion of Morocco's growing role in the broader continent of Africa. As I have previously noted, over the past three years the King has paid numerous and repeated visits to countries small and large across the African continent. Accompanying him were teams of Moroccan industrialists, social entrepreneurs, security sector personnel, and religious leaders. From Mali to Senegal to Ivory Coast, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea, these whirlwind deployments have been translating into new infrastructure and human development projects, business investments, security partnerships, and support for moderate Islamic leadership strands as a counterweight to extremist groups. Earlier this summer, Morocco made a landmark decision to send its own delegation to the African Union, after having departed the organization 30 years ago in protest over its support for the Polisario.
In his speech, the King segued thematically from the statement of outreach to Algeria to his broader aspirations for pan-African integration. "For Morocco, Africa means more than just being part of a geographical area, or having historical bonds with the continent," he said. "Africa also means sincere affection, appreciation, close human and spiritual relations as well as tangible solidarity. ... Morocco does not view Africa as a market for the sale and promotion of Moroccan products, or as a continent for making quick profit. We see Africa as a forum for joint action, for promoting development in the region, and for serving African citizens." He also reiterated Morocco's commitment to tending to the needs of refugees in his country from south of the Sahara.
The subject of terrorism came up as the King transitioned from the issue of migrants to his own country to the relationship between migration and terrorism in Europe. In a first for an Arab leader in recent memory, the monarch called upon Moroccan diaspora communities in Europe and elsewhere to "remain firmly committed to their religious values and to their time-honored traditions" in confronting terrorism personally. He urged them, as well, to serve as "staunch advocates of peace, concord and co-existence in their country of residence." Though perhaps unique for an Arab leader, the statement was also of a piece with numerous efforts waged by the Moroccan monarchy to appeal to its own diaspora to reject violence and terrorism. Another example was this program, aired on Morocco's Essadisa Islamic satellite television network, based on the proceedings of an anti-extremism conference at a Moroccan mosque in Frankfurt, Germany:
After denouncing the recent killing of a French priest in Normandy by Islamist extremists, the King took the opportunity to advise that "Islam commands us to take good care of the people of the Book" -- meaning, Jews and Christians. "As ignorance spreads in the name of religion," he said, "Muslims, Christians, and Jews have to close ranks in order to tackle all forms of extremism, hatred, and insularity." These were words fitly spoken on behalf of a country in which traditions of Islamic tolerance are woven into the social fabric and embedded in state policy.