The American Interest

Notes on the Pratfalls of Democracy Promotion: 
The Pollbearer
A Letter from Rabat 

By Avi M. Spiegel

There is a dark, narrow corridor in Rabat’s old walled medina, past the plastic fruit, pirated DVDs, previously owned sandals and other souk castoffs, where the street beggars come to unwind. Tucked away from the hyperactive intersection of Mohammed V and Hassan II avenues, they can put down their crutches and relax with a lukewarm bowl of bissara, a gooey green fava bean soup.

When King Mohammed VI first inherited the throne nearly eight years ago, these were just the sort of citizens expected to attract the modernizing 36-year-old’s royal gaze. His interest in those less fortunate even earned him the nickname, “King of the Poor.” But now in his forties, married, with a second child just born, Mohammed VI faces a much tougher political challenge: consolidating power in the wake of the country’s upcoming elections. One recent step in that direction, however, might seem puzzling.

No political leader takes pleasure in unfavorable polls. But not many would go so far as to ban polling altogether. The government of Morocco is now considering doing just that, with a bill that would make polling next to impossible. What would compel such a draconian measure in a country long held up as the poster child of reform in the region?

It is now fashionable to blame the United States for just about any setback in the Arab world, but this time it really is America’s fault—or more accurately, one of America’s premier overseas democracy promotion organizations: the International Republican Institute (IRI), one of the four constituent parts of the National Endowment for Democracy. The IRI came to Morocco in 2002 to help foster a new era of democratization and transparency. Morocco, and especially its capital, Rabat, seemed a site for easy victories—a place handpicked by the Bush Administration to host its inaugural “Forum for the Future”, where cybercafés seem to outnumber teleboutiques, and where the former Soviet cultural center is now a thriving McDonald’s.

Instead, with the commissioning and subsequent bungling of a shocking poll on Moroccan politics, the IRI has quite possibly dealt liberalization efforts here a major setback. Nobody said democracy promotion would be easy in this thorny part of the world, but the IRI managed a trifecta of error: It helped strike a blow against all future polling operations in the country; it damaged America’s already ailing reputation and muddled its foreign policy objectives; and it alienated one of America’s strongest allies in the Arab world.

- Complete Article Available at and at Avi Spiegel home page.

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