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Last Updated: Friday, 10 December, 2004, 14:22 GMT
Powell's final push for Arab reform
By Pascale Harter
BBC correspondent in Rabat

US Secretary of State Colin Powell
The US hopes some Arab nations will strengthen their commitment to dialogue on reform

US Secretary of State Colin Powell flew into the Moroccan capital, Rabat, on Friday for a forum which could shore up political support among Muslim allies for the US "war on terror".

The controversial US initiative will open a dialogue on political, economic and social reforms in North Africa and the greater Middle East, with economic aid from the G8 as an incentive.

The streets are being cleaned for the arrival of Mr Powell, and other signatories from Arab nations and the G8, but just two weeks ago, these same streets were flooded with more than 20,000 Moroccans protesting against US foreign policy in the Middle East.

Struggle for survival

Others, however, like Hassan, agree that there is an urgent need for political, social and, most importantly, economic reform in Morocco.

Aged 44, Hassan earns $5 a day guarding other people's Mercedes cars in a middleclass neighbourhood in the centre of Rabat.

"Seven people depend on my salary," he told me.

Hassan sleeps in a cupboard under the stairs

"My mother is a widow, so I help her, and my sister's dead so I provide for her children too. My four brothers can't find work so it's all down to me."

In the apartment block where he also works as a concierge, a cupboard under the stairs is his bed for seven days a week.

"The government don't do anything," he said.

"They don't even ask how families are surviving in this country. They need to make it possible for men like me just to be able to live."

According to the US Ambassador to Morocco, Thomas Riley, the Forum for the Future is going to help Arab governments to help people like Hassan.

"If you are going to have economic growth, the way you do that is by raising your economy to increase your trade with other countries, and obviously the biggest opportunities are with the G8 nations," he said.

"We can do some economic assistance, and that's why all of us are here - and that's why they want us to be here," he added.

'Against the US'

But not everyone wants Mr Powell and the rest of the G8 representatives in Morocco.

To the country's major opposition group, the Justice and Development Party (PJD), the notion of a US initiative to encourage democratic reforms in the region is more than self-interested - it is offensive.

"The current administration in the US is in no position to speak of political reforms, democracy and human rights, while it violates human rights every day in Iraq," says PJD Secretary General Saad El Othmani.

"We are not against democracy and reforms, but we are against imposed ideas - and the US never intervenes except for its own interest."

The PJD's views cannot be brushed off as they are not those of a small minority.

Anti-US demontsrator
Some feel the US is trying to impose its ideas

"I am against the US, against US policy in Iraq, against the oppression," one of the demonstrators told me earlier this month.

"I'm here to protest against US terrorism in Iraq," said one woman who had joined the march with her baby tied in a sling to her back.

"We are here to tell George W Bush that he is a criminal person," said another man.

Push for dialogue

How likely is the forum to achieve its goal of initiating democratic reforms in the region, faced on the one hand with anti-US sentiment, and on the other with monarchies, emirates or presidencies-for-life as the dominant model of Arab government?

Flags in Rabat
Flags of the countries participating in the forum decorate Rabat's boulevards
Keeping the equilibrium between what is left of a more authoritarian way of doing things and a transition to democracy is a most sensitive issue in Morocco, Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries, according to Gerard Latulippe.

He is country director of the National Democratic Institute, a non-governmental organisation supporting democracy in the region.

"They will accept a US initiative helping them - not imposing on them - to develop their democracy, and not necessarily at the US pace or the European pace," he says.

"But they will accept that because I see it every day, and I'm working in the field."

Concrete promises of reform are unlikely to come out of the forum on Saturday.

But what the US is hoping is that some Arab nations will at the very least step up with a firm commitment to continuing the dialogue.

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