There is a phrase coined in 2004 by Michael Gerson, a speechwriter for George W Bush best-known for having come up with “axis of evil”, that I’ve always liked. In a speech about education, he bemoaned “the soft bigotry of lowered expectations” that he believed existed against disadvantaged children.
Over the last few days, Muammar Gaddafi has waged a vicious battle over his compatriots, hiring foreign mercenaries to take out protesters. Gaddafi, in power since 1969, is best known in the west for his eccentricity, from the voluptuous nurse that accompanies him everywhere to his habit of setting up a bedouin tent during state visits abroad. The focus on such personal foibles, as well as Libya’s alleged role in the Lockerbie bombing, has dominated the portrayal of the country. For most people around the world, Libya was Gaddafi.
The same rationale of lowered expectations can also hold for much more liberal and open Arab societies, For 15 years, Morocco has been considered the “best student” in an Arab class of deadenders. Next to Algeria’s traumatised society, Tunisia’s police state or Libya’s sheer hell, who could disagree? Morocco has made great strides since the 90s in terms of human rights, notably holding the Arab world’s first (if somewhat flawed) national reconciliation process and passing progressive laws on women’s rights.
More and more Moroccans want something akin to what they see in Britain or Spain: a constitutional monarchy where the king is head of state but does not interfere in government. Like the protests elsewhere in the region, the peaceful demonstrations that have taken place in eight cities are about dignity. Moroccans, like other Arabs, are tired of being subjects: they want to be citizens.
They would also like solidarity from the outside world, and to be seen as more than an exotic tourist destination. Outside the palm groves of Marrakech is a university where students are frequently beaten up by police; not far from Tangier’s glitzy casbah are young Moroccans who have to bribe their way to a menial job. Their voices deserve to be heard, and concentrating all power in the hands of one man – even one as popular as King Mohammed VI – is no model for 21st-century governance.