August 1, 2007

US War on Terror: Reactions from Morocco’s Civil Society


‘Terror’ and ‘civil society’ are two highly controversial concepts that lack analytical precision. Both are highly value laden, terror is inherently negative and often used to defame one’s opponent;[1] civil society is inherently positive, originally associated to the self-image of European bourgeois society in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Both concepts are analytically related, as the successful implementation of ‘civility’ in societies negates or, at least, reduces the possibility of the use of terror as a means to an end. It is therefore not a surprise that the so-called War on Terror included an instrumentalist approach aimed at democratization of the Middle East and North African (MENA) region by strengthening civil society. This was not only because of civil society’s idealization as a bulwark against terrorism, but also as the lack of democracy, and US support to authoritarian rulers in the Middle East as part of its traditional containment policy, have been identified as one of the underlying reasons for the rise of terrorist groups in MENA. The result has been the ‘hybrid character’ of the Bush administration’s foreign policy toward the Middle East since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, as Singh so well observed:

Metaphorically, Jacksonianism and Wilsonianism had been melded into a new hybrid, one unafraid to project American power and American values – indeed one that saw the combination as inextricably linked for the preservation of American security. In this regard, the traditional biases of foreign policy approaches were subverted. The Bush Doctrine embraced liberal idealists’ faith in (American) values, agreeing that the form of domestic regimes bore directly on their foreign policies and that ‘democratic peace’ proponents had it right.[2]

Especially in MENA, this Wilsonian twist of the ‘Bush doctrine’ was reinforced with what Singh called ‘hardheaded, realist means to yield idealism without illusions,’[3] referring to the US willingness to use force and unilateral action if necessary.

This short essay seeks to illustrate that it may not necessarily be the inconsistency of the US approach to fight terror that is likely to lead to failure, but the particular character of the Middle East international system where both strategies have been applied. The reason is that both aspects of the War on Terror met a particularly fragmented regional system marked by what international relations scholars termed a long history of penetration by European colonial forces before the rise of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and by the US since the early 1990s.4 A particularly weak state system meant that suspicion if not hostility to increasing US ideological and military penetration which the War on Terror entails, is not so much articulated by weak state leaders and regional alliances (such as the Arab League, Gulf Cooperation Council, Arab Maghreb Union). Rather societal organizations that often make the penetration of the Arab system by the US and its traditional ally Israel their main mobilizing force, have become the main protagonists of this resistance using Islam as their main ideological resource (Hizb’allah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, and other emerging Islamic parties and movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt). Ironically, as this article seeks to illustrate using Morocco as an example, this also includes those organizations that the US is primarily interested in promoting, civil society and pro-democracy organizations that are crucial in supporting the Wilson-inspired democracy promotion agenda.

Moroccan Civil Society and the War on Terror

In Morocco as elsewhere in the Arab-Muslim world, the confusion of the so-called War on Terror with anti-Muslim, anti-Arab policies is paramount, especially as they relate to US policies towards the Arab-Israeli conflict and US policies in Iraq. When Richard Perle, a leading Republican figure and former assistant secretary of defense mentioned as early as in November 2001 Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Libya, Somalia and North Korea as possible target countries, included in ‘phase two’ of the War on Terror (after Afghanistan), all but one of these countries were either Muslim or Arab.5 The religious and civilizational connotation of this observation has been crucial. In addition, the rhetoric of human rights as part of universal values that the US now projects, as well as ‘democratic transitions’ as part of its War on Terror, smacks of hypocrisy when secret prisons are reported to have operated in Morocco, the European Union, and elsewhere, not to mention conditions in US run prisons in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay – beyond national or international protection and control.

On the other hand, the attitude of Morocco’s civil society towards the War on Terror goes beyond simple anti-American rhetoric and is multifaceted: First, Morocco’s foreign relations have been constructed as generally pro-Western and moderate, rendering Morocco a natural US ally. In addition, Morocco experienced acts of terror in May 2003, which traumatized not only a secular elite but large parts of the population, rendering Moroccans hostile to ‘terrorism’ – loosely defined. Second, a large number of Moroccan nationals were involved in terror acts in Madrid and elsewhere, raising questions as to Morocco’s strategy for preventing its nationals from being involved in acts of terror. The Moroccan government reacted with an important public relations campaign that has at its core ‘Ne Touches Pas A Mon Pays’ (Don’t Harm My Country), creating an internal enemy that transcends Morocco’s ‘civil’ society. The aim was to first discourage Moroccans from being involved in acts of terror, second to create consensus concerning the punishment of transgressors – those 2,000 Islamists that had been kept in prisons without fair trial in the aftermath of May 16, 2003, the date of the Casablanca bombings that killed more than 40 people. As a result, it should have been fairly easy to build upon pro-US sympathies in its War on Terror. However intrinsic problems of US foreign policy have prevented this from materializing.

The main problem with post-9/11 US foreign policy – the Bush doctrine – remains its core assumption that rules such as multilateralism that apply to the rest of the world need not apply to US foreign policy. Although this has been a constant in US foreign policy, the idea that the world needs a strong US that leads it, regardless of criticism or inconsistency, has been given even more importance by the Bush administration: As President George W. Bush put it to the graduating cadets at West Point in 2002 ‘America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge – thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.’[6] From the perspective of MENA countries, this meant that the US military hegemony is being regarded as a significant threat to national sovereignty and nationalist sentiments, reinforced by the occupation of Iraq and the virtual military hegemony that Israel has enjoyed with the isolation and then occupation of Iraq since the early 1990s. The irony of this is that ultimately, the US continues to rely on partners and therefore multilateralism, even if it has the power to impose its views more so than other states. This is illustrated by its long-term strategy of dealing with global terror.

As part of its War on Terror, the US uses a two-fold partially inconsistent strategy of targeting a potential Islamist anti-American resurgence by repression – thereby lending support to authoritarian states – and creating a civil space inside Arab-Muslim countries in which conflicts can be articulated. Strengthening civil society, an independent media, as well as constructive dialogues between Islamists, state actors, and secular organizations has become part of a strategy of creating civil, ultimately less unruly, controllable space.

To achieve the latter, more long-term objective, the Bush administration significantly increased development budgets including projects that aim at ‘democratization.’ Although Morocco has traditionally figured high on the list of US aid recipient countries in the Arab world, second only to Egypt, towards the end of the 1990s US Overseas Development Aid (ODA) was at the same level as that of Germany, accounting for approximately 4.5 percent of overall ODA that Morocco received.[7] The increase of the budget from US $ 10.250 million in 2000, to US $ 19.107 million in 2006 illustrates that especially after the Casablanca attacks of May 16, 2003, Morocco has moved higher on the list of US preoccupations. This includes the democracy promotion agenda as for the first time USAID prioritizes ‘Government Responsiveness for Citizens’ in its 2004 Strategic Plan for Morocco.8 In 2006, ‘Government Responsiveness for Citizens’ (read democracy promotion) takes with US $ 6.440 million about one third of overall US ODA.

It is here that civil society’s response to the US War on Terror is crucial: as recipients of increasing aid, organized groups outside of the immediate reach of the state – the independent media, Islamic groups and political parties, as well as human rights organizations – are highly sensitive and critical to US strategies in the Middle East but at the same time attracted to the increasing attention with which the US is wooing them. In addition, despite constant official reaffirmation that the Moroccan-US friendship agreement dating from the late 18TH century is the longest, unbroken of such treaties that the US has with any other foreign country, the Moroccan population is very influenced by anti-American sentiments due to events in the Middle East.

A short survey of the Moroccan press indicates this point: Out of 100 articles reviewed by the French embassy that appeared in the Moroccan press in 2006 – using two keywords: ‘International Affairs’ and the ‘United States’ – around 60 percent of all articles deal with Iraq, Israel, prison conditions in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and are generally hostile to US policy in the Middle East including its War on Terror. Articles that are not related to these topics deal with a Free Trade Agreement that Morocco signed with the US, a visit by the then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in February 2006, increasing security co-operation between the US and Morocco, or the US ‘manipulation’ of Morocco’s electoral process by publishing a pre-election survey that grants the Islamist Parti de la Justice et du Développement (PJD) 47% of votes.[9]

What is striking is that the US receives very little or no attention by the media if it does not relate to Arab-Islamic affairs, i.e. Iraq, anti-Islamism, and the Arab-Israeli conflict, or to issues that involve Morocco directly. This means that US Middle East policies that strengthen the US presence in the Middle East ultimately undermine US policies as they relate to its more long-term strategy of its War on Terror, including its aim to officially support Morocco’s democratization process. Whereas former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared to the Moroccan media that ‘the voice of His Majesty Mohamed VI is that of reason, modernization, and tolerance’, adding that ‘reforms in Morocco illustrate that democracy and tolerance are perfectly compatible with Islam,’[10] protests in front of the parliament organized by Morocco’s leading human rights organization Association Marocaine des Droits Humains (AMDH) brandished the visit with the following slogans: ‘No To Morocco’s Integration In The US Imperialists’ Security And Military Plans’, and ‘Guantanamo: A Crime Against Humanity.’[11] Interestingly, both articles appeared in the same issue of the government newspaper Le Matin du Sahara et du Maghreb, indicating high level disagreement with US policies in the Middle East.

In addition to these possibly predictable protests by human rights organizations that are outside of the established political field (and subject to repeated repression by the Moroccan state), broader criticism also includes more integrated groups with links to the government. In September 2006, a government circular to foreign embassies in Morocco asked for the end of support for civil society organizations other than those that are officially sanctioned by the Moroccan state as public utilities (utilités publiques). Programs that include support to civil society should be run by the Moroccan state. Although details of the circular have not been spelled out, and it has caused great confusion among local NGOs, in its initial response the Moroccan journalists’ union Syndicat National de la Presse Marocaine (SNPM) advocated greater control of embassies’ involvement in civil society, as the risk of manipulation was seen as great. Its secretary-general Younès Moujahid specifically targeted the US embassy and an important aid program with which journalists should be better trained and supported. In his opinion, the US was ‘infiltrating’ the Moroccan media in order to improve the image of the US in Morocco, and to use Moroccan journalists against the Moroccan state in disputed issues. According to the newspaper At-Tajdid, the journalists’ union SNPM and the Moroccan human rights association AMDH prepared a document that calls for a boycott of the US embassy in Rabat in order to limit their impact on the autonomy of civil society.[12]


From this account, it seems clear that the long-term strategy of increasing civil space and associated moderate discourse inside Arab-Muslim countries is about to fail even in a country that has historically known little anti-Americanism due to its moderate official ideology and its comparative distance from the Arab-Israeli conflict. Increasingly, activities that are financed by the US are met with suspicion if not hostility. Civil society’s ‘independence’ from the state – a highly celebrated characteristic among local activists in Morocco – ever more includes independence from actors that have a strategic interest in increasing the very same actors’ visibility in the Moroccan political scene. Visits of US officials such as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that frequently praise Morocco’s ‘civil’ society and the King’s position as that of ‘reason, modernization, and tolerance’ ultimately undermine the credibility of US efforts to support Morocco’s reform process.

This means that the recent US democracy promotion strategy is being perceived as just another aspect of overall US Middle East Policy and therefore another facet of the Middle Eastern state system’s penetration. It is rejected as it is associated with US and Israeli military hegemony in the Middle East, highlighting the importance of pan-Arab and pan-Islamic sentiments that continue to be prevalent in MENA. Officially the Moroccan state as most other Arab states, continues to be part of a pro-US alliance against terror; a Free Trade Agreement with the US came into force in 2005 despite Morocco’s disagreement with the US invasion of Iraq. However, the underlying tensions are now being expressed by social groups with arguably larger margins of maneuver. The implication of this has been aptly pointed out by Ehteshami: The result of the US democratization drive seems to be that it de-democratizes the MENA even further, as its double standards only help to embolden radical and conservative forces, whilst it undermines the moderate and progressive reformers. If, as in the case of civil society organizations and other ‘democrats’, policies aim at strengthening their visibility, the first action undertaken is ‘to condemn the US superpower for its occupation of Iraq, for the behaviour of its troops and political agents there, for its unconditional support for Israel and blatant disregard for international law and norms in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and for its continuing support for many of the region’s authoritarian regimes’[13]

A last point concerns this above mentioned linkage of US Middle East policies and its War on Terror. The US made a point before the overthrow of the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein that it first needed to install a viable, democratic state in Iraq before pressuring Israel to allow the creation of a viable Palestinian state. The reasoning behind this logic was that it would be easier to pressure Israel once its ultimate threat, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, had been eliminated.[14] In fact, this policy of sequencing proved illusionary not only for the creation of a functioning Palestinian state: It only supported an Israeli position framed as fighting terrorism in the Palestinian territories, thereby lending support to the election of Hamas and increasing violence in the occupied territories. It also proved illusory because the US continues to underestimate the importance of a viable Palestinian state for its overall policy of fighting terrorism, including its instrumentalist view of civil society to achieve this aim.

(From ACAS Bulletin 77)
James N. Sater gained his Ph.D. in 2003 from the University of Durham / United Kingdom. He is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Al Akhawayn University, Morocco, where he teaches Middle East and North African politics and international relations. He is the author of Civil Society and Political Change in Morocco (New York and London: Routledge, 2007) and has contributed to The Journal of Democratization, The Journal of North African Studies, Mediterranean Politics, and The Mediterranean Journal of Human Rights with research on civil society, human rights, gender, and political participation in North Africa.

1 . David J. Whittaker: The Terrorism Reader. Second Edition. (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 8.

2. Robert Singh: ‘The Bush Doctrine’ in Mary Buckley and Robert Singh: The Bush Doctrine and the War on Terrorism; Global responses, global consequences (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), p. 18.

3. Ibid.

4. See Raymond Hinnebush : ‘The Middle East Regional System’ in Reymond Hinnebusch and Anoushiravan Ehteshami : The Foreign Policies of Middle East States (Boulder and London : Lynne Rienner, 2002) pp. 29-53.

5. Anoushiravan Ehteshami : ‘The Middle East : Between ideology and geo-politics’ in Mary Buckley and Robert Singh: The Bush Doctrine and the War on Terrorism; Global responses, global consequences (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), p. 110.

6. Robert Jervis : ‘Understanding the Bush Doctrine’ in G. John Ikenberry: American Foreign Policy. Theoretical Essays. (New York: Pearson Longman, 2005), p. 584.


8. USAID – Morocco Country Strategy Plan 2004-2008, pp. 37-46. Available at

9. See cfm.

10. Le Matin du Sahara et du Maghreb, February 13, 2006.

11. Ibid.

12. At-tajdid, September 13, 2006.

13. Ehteshami, 2006, op.cit. p. 117.

14. Hall Gardner : ‘Preclusive War with Iraq : Regional and Global Ramifications’ in Hall Gardner (ed): Nato and the European Union. New World, New Europe, New Threats (Aldershot, Ashgate, 2004), p. 282.

Filed under: ACAS Review (Bulletin), Bulletin 77