Moroccan Interior Minister: 'Extremism is Our Primary Problem'

Article Summary
In an interview with Al-Hayat, Moroccan Interior Minister Mohand Laenser says, “We must put an end to this war in Syria quickly,” and charges Iran with “the propagation of Shiism in Morocco.”

Moroccan Interior Minister Mohand Laenser stressed that he has not deviated one inch from the law, and that his men resemble their American and French counterparts in their discipline and their good dealings with the people.

In an interview with Al-Hayat, this strong man — who is part of the Islamist coalition government in Morocco — said that his country is ready to deal with the consequences of its close alliance with the Gulf, particularly when it comes to any Iranian attack or security threat faced by the Gulf.

He expressed his belief that — despite media reports — the Moroccan monarch did not return from his Gulf tour with billions of dollars [in pledges]. Rather, these numbers represent the value of investment projects that will be carefully considered by both sides. These are not "donations." He pointed out that the Moroccan King's tour reinforced the close relationship between Morocco and its brothers in the Gulf, and said that Gulf money had played a part in previous vital investment projects in his country, relating to roads, tourism and real estate.

Regarding the possibility of Morocco joining the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Laenser stressed that Morocco did not hesitate to accept the Gulf invitation, however they asked that it be implemented gradually, lest it embarrass Morocco or embarrass the countries in the council that were hesitant regarding this offer.

He said: "What happened is that Morocco — when presented with this offer from our brothers in the Gulf states — gave it the significant consideration. We understood that this represented a privilege for Morocco and the Kingdom of Jordan. However, politically we must think about the feasibility, given that Morocco is part of another regional union."

Speaking about the relationship between the rapprochement between Morocco and the Gulf and the Syrian crisis, Laenser told Al-Hayat: "I think that these feelings of rapprochement between the Gulf and Morocco existed, even before the war and tragic events in Syria, and perhaps even before what happened in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Without a doubt what happened in Syria had had an impact [on rapprochement between Morocco and the Gulf], but it is not the basis for this. We don't want the instability and wars — which emanate solely from a religious, ethnic and political mixture — to extend to those regions that are are currently stable and secure, regions that provide a [positive] image of Arab progress and development."

The full text of the interview follows:

Al-Hayat:  A week ago, King Mohammed VI led a tour of the Gulf region, which was the first of its kind. The Moroccan press described this tour as "successful." If what they say is true, why was it successful?

Laenser:  Relations between Morocco and the Gulf are not a new thing, there are old and fraternal links between the two. However, they have not always been official. There have always been mutual visits between Morocco and the Gulf, but I think this time King Mohammed VI wanted this tour to take on an official nature. First, to respond to previous visits by Gulf leaders, especially given that of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques [Saudi] King Abdullah Abdulaziz considers Morocco to be his second home.

And secondly, the visit came at a unique time given the political circumstances, because of what is happening in Syria and the Arab region. It also comes at a unique time for Morocco,

Al-Hayat:  There are those who believe that this visit has another dimension. They see it as a new twist in Morocco's political vision. They say that in the past, Morocco's development and economic relationships depended on its European neighbors. However, following the European economic depression, they discovered that their brothers in the Arab East were more willing to stand by their side?

Laenser:  In this regard, we must acknowledge the fact that, for decades, Morocco sought to diversify its sources of development. However, it's true that what you referenced was [Morocco's] historical trajectory. There was a time when France was the mainstay of Moroccon trade — including its exports, imports and investments. Morocco then expanded to other European countries and the United States. But the fact remains that this [economic] diversity with the West never affected Morocco's relationship with the Arab East.

It is correct — and we recognize that — apart from investments, our brothers in the Arab East have provided us with generous assistance, specifically when Morocco was going through a difficult crisis in the 1970s and 1980s in certain cases. These links are old, and they have evolved from subsides to projects that benefit both sides.

Al-Hayat:  It is said that the relationship between the Gulf and Morocco is a relationship of "one-sided love," with the one side being the Gulf. Is this incorrect?

Laenser:  Of course this is incorrect. Even if Morocco's economic presence is not equal to that of the Gulf — because of circumstances that do not allow it to undertake the same kind of things as the Gulf — it cannot be denied that Morocco expresses its love on the through social, cultural, military, security and training efforts.

Al-Hayat:  The Gulf has examples of this, and has protected this [role] for Morocco. For example, Prince Khalid bin Sultan — in his book "Desert Warrior" — pointed to the special role of Moroccan participation in the war to liberate Kuwait, particularly through an experienced and highly professional combat battalion. However, regarding security — since you are the interior minister — what examples can you give us?

Laenser:  There is close and deep cooperation in the field of security, in terms of sharing experience and expertise, both from Morocco and the Gulf. Both in the past and currently, there have been Moroccan security agents who have carried out training in security affairs in the Gulf. Given Morocco's security strength, it plays a prominent role in this regard. Moreover, from time to time there are requests to employ Moroccan nationals in the fields of security and religious affairs [in the Gulf].

Al-Hayat:  Since you mentioned it, what is the extent of coordination between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in the fight against extremism?

Laenser:  Morocco's policies in this area are very clear. Ever since terrorism first appeared, Morocco has condemned, resisted and opposed it. This is what led to Morocco enacting a special law to fight terrorism in 2003. Although this law drew criticism at time — because it deviated from customary practices — in Morocco we believe that extremism must be fought with determination and using specific legal means. In this sense, Morocco's policies in this context focus on the exchange of information with all friendly countries, especially Saudi Arabia. It is true that terrorism has no place in any nation, nor in any religion. Anything that could happen to us could happen to Saudi Arabia, and vice versa. Thus, preventative policies are more important than insular policies. When a [terrorist] incident occurs, it has many repercussions and causes many damages. Thus, in the context of prevention, everyone knows that the intelligence services, news agencies and those who know these movements are interested in this. This is particularly true given that these [terrorist] networks and groups exist in several countries.

In this field there is close cooperation between Morocco, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Arab East.

Al-Hayat:  King Mohammed VI returned from the Gulf with billions of dollars [in pledges from Gulf countries]. If we agree that these are investments, what can these investments bring back to the Gulf, so that it cannot be said that [these pledges] are a form of charity, as some imagine?

Laenser:  I don't think that King Mohammed VI returned from his visits with [pledges of] billions or dollars, nor with [pledges of] even hundreds of millions of dollars. Rather, he returned with project [proposals] that will be studied. Our brothers in Saudi Arabia presented projects in the fields of energy, agriculture and health. These are well-studied projects that are ready to be implemented. However, investors in these countries must evaluate these projects. No doubt there will be meetings and discussions concerning these projects, meaning that if the investor is not convinced of the potential benefits, he will not go forward with these projects.

Al-Hayat:  Does this new momentum of political engagement between Morocco and the Gulf have any relationship between the two sides' sense of imminent danger regarding the situation in the region and in Syria?

Laenser:  I think that these feelings of rapprochement between the Gulf and Morocco existed even before the war and tragic events in Syria, and perhaps even before what happened in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

Without a doubt what happened in Syria had had an impact [on rapprochement between Morocco and the Gulf], but it is not the basis for this. We don't want the instability and wars — which emanate solely from a religious, ethnic and political mixture — to extend to those regions that are are currently stable and secure, region that provide a [positive] image of Arab progress and development. This leads to a strengthening of ties, and emphasizes the necessity for more rapprochement and a better understanding of the situation.

Al-Hayat:  Yet can you really feel the gravity of what is happening in Syria at the same level as it is felt in the Gulf? In the sense that do you — despite the geographical distance — have a similar vision of the revolution in Syria as that of the Gulf? If, for example, it was agreed upon that an Arab force [would intervene in Syria], would Morocco participate?

Laenser:  No, this was not discussed. But regardless, we are on the same level of thinking as the Gulf, despite the geographical distance. But when we see that things have not yet settled down in Libya, nor in Tunisia — although to a lesser extent — we must think about all of this. We must put an end to this war in Syria quickly. Unfortunately, it has reached the point that there is not longer room for negotiations or compromise. This is what we were trying to achieve early on. Now that the situation has escalated to this level, what is happening could detonate Syria and its neighbors. Because of this, I think that it is necessary to consider the danger that this instability could lead to. We sense the danger, and we must exchange views and unify our positions, and this is happening.

Al-Hayat:  Egypt — which is the largest Arab state — had said that the Gulf's security is a red line that cannot be crossed, especially in relation to Iranian threats. For you, as the second most important Arab ally for the Gulf following Egypt, how do you view the Iranian threat to the Gulf?

Laenser:  Morocco has always supported the Gulf countries in relation to their problems with Iran. This was expressed by Morocco when Bahrain and the UAE experienced problems with Iran. Morocco has been quick [to express these views], and has paid dearly for its positions at times, because there are those who do not understand. But [these positions] come from a spirit of solidarity and consensus between Morocco and the Gulf, and also as a result of the risks that may arise for that region if — God forbid — things ignited there. Of course we cannot interfere in the affairs of the Gulf states, but our problem with Iran remains, and this involves the propagation of Shiism in Morocco, alongside some other actions. We also can't forget that extremism is our primary problem, and — whether we like it or not — is linked to religious and sectarian conflict. Thankfully, Morocco has not witnessed sectarian wars, and we do not want something like this to happen as the result of the desires of a country like Iran.

Al-Hayat:  Regarding Morocco's relationship with the Gulf, will there be any concessions for Moroccan migrant workers, after recent steps were taken to further understanding and development in the relationship [between Morocco and the Gulf]? This is particularly relevant given the fact that annually the Gulf brings in hundreds of thousands of foreign workers, and Morocco is suffering from rising unemployment.

Laenser:  This is what we are seeking, because we cannot think about integration, and the situation is not unique to Morocco citizens. It is true and we recognize that our relationship with the Gulf — even before this stage — was distinct and special. But we would like for Moroccan citizens to be given privileges in the Gulf states, similar to those enjoyed by Gulf citizens themselves.

Al-Hayat:  Arabs in the Maghreb countries are considered the fathers of the so-called 'revolution'. It was the Tunisians who brought down Ben Ali, and they represent the ideal for all those who rebelled against their governments up until today. For you in Morocco, do you view these transformations with admiration, or do you fear their achievements?

Laenser:  This question will bring us to a philosophical debate. Sometimes, revolutions and transformations are due to a transient incident that isn't well thought out. I feel certain that the Tunisian citizen who burned himself did not think about sparking a revolution. But whatever the case, it's necessary that we realize that these revolutions — if it's correct to call them revolutions — have pros and cons.

It was a pro that [these revolutions] were a kind of shock, which awakened these regimes that were either out of touch or had a different perspective. This is what happened with the removal of Ben Ali, Gadhafi, Hosni Mubarak and Ali Abdullah Saleh. However, we must not let these pros overshadow the cons that we are currently experiencing. In my opinion this is normal, because in all revolutions — when a coincidence such as this occurs — those responsible for it do not think about how to prepare for what will follow. Perhaps this is what happened, and thus we see that some states have yet to stabilize, their economies were very much affected, and the lives of their citizens were plagued with crisis. But this does not mean that we should revert to how things were in the past.

Al-Hayat:  What about Morocco?

Laenser:  Thankfully, Morocco — by nature of it's regime and the reforms that the late king began in the 1990s and late 1980s, and then accelerated in this millennium — maybe all of this is what kept Morocco from experiencing the shock felt by others , like Tunisia and Libya, when things happened in the streets. [For Morocco], this was a natural occurrence. Street protests existed and were normal even before 2011. Moreover, Morocco listened to the people, and responded quickly to a number of fundamental demands.

Al-Hayat:  Regarding this, some felt that Morocco invented a "recipe" for saving oneself from the flood of Arab revolutions.

Laenser:  Indeed, some do not understand. They feel that the state has not done enough to respond to demands. Yet we are convinced that reform must come gradually. If reforms do not conform with the requirements of society, there is no point to them. However, there are groups that are not pleased with anything. They have other things in mind and want a complete regime change. Yet thankfully this is not the view of Moroccans, who have expressed their opposition [to regime change] in the recent referendum and on various other occasions. I think that a challenge facing the Arab region as a whole relates to how to restore stability and prevent chaos in countries whose regimes collapsed. How can we go forward with reforms?

Al-Hayat:  However, is the fact that these revolutions brought Islamists to power not a cause for concern for those regimes that did not witness revolutions?

Laenser:  The Islamists' rise to power is not a problem at all, and Morocco's experience is evidence of this fact. Transparent elections brought Islamists to the forefront, but they do not have an absolute majority. The other parties represented in parliament can form a majority without the Islamists.

Al-Hayat:  A number of analysts have pointed out that the Islamists used you (the Popular Movement Party) to ensure the success of their project to rule, despite the fact that you are a liberal party whose political ideology differs from that of your current allies in the Justice and Development Party (PJD). Is this reflective of the party line or what?

Laenser:  We are legitimate and believe in the constitution and its trajectory for Morocco, and we wanted it to be applied in practice. The PJD came first in the elections, and we could not deny its position in the elections or its right to form a cabinet. In fact, we — or any of our allies — could have opposed this, but we felt that this experience was in line with the constitution. Secondly, it gave us the opportunity to show that not all Islamists are extremists, and that they can be rulers with a religious foundation, as is the case with some European political parties. In terms of democracy, we wanted this experiment to succeed, to do away with the idea that when Islamists win in the elections, they will be Salafists who undermine the principles of democracy and basic freedoms. Thus we participated to help this experiment be a success, but we will not allow this to be at the expense of our fundamental views. Naturally, whenever there is a coalition government there must be some concessions. However, there are some basic demands — such as defending Amazigh language and culture and promoting rural development — that we do not want to be violated.

It's true that we are liberals, and partner with a formerly communist party — which is now the closer to a socialist party — and with a conservative party, however the peculiar quality of political alliances requires this. Moreover, to be honest, all governments in the world apply the principles of liberal governance to the free market and free enterprise, according to the power of this party or that. However, everyone is going in the direction of liberalism.

Al-Hayat:  Some have said that the king stipulated that the position of Interior Minister will not be given to Islamists, is that true?

Laenser:  I do not know how the king thinks, but I don't think that the Islamists are barred from any ministry. They have a presence in the ministries of justice, finance and foreign affairs, which are all important ministries. I do not have any evidence that they are barred from anything.

Al-Hayat:  Some liberals in the Arab Mashreq have accused Islamists of being democratic only for the sake of attaining power. [They say that] when they are in power, they don't respect the principles of democracy that enabled them to achieve power. As the head of a liberal party that is allied with the Islamists, how do you find them?

Laenser:  During the nine months that we have worked with them [in parliament], they have been just as democratic as any other party that we have participated with previously.

I am only telling you the facts. We are faced with a government that has a five-year term. We must monitor whether or not the situation will change. As I said earlier, this is one of the reasons that pushed us to enter into this alliance — to see that this experiment is successful — and to show that it is possible for a party with an Islamic basis to not let that basis control how it deals with public affairs. Why not?

Found in: morocco, gulf intervention in the syrian crisis, gulf

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