BALHIRCH ABDELAZIZ wears a smile as he performs his duties as a part-time security guard in this ancient market town. But just behind the smile hides disappointment in the way his young life is turning.
Until recently a business student, Mr. Abdelaziz dropped out when he saw so many of Morocco's college graduates facing unemployment. ``I decided that given this situation I might be better off getting right into a job, even if it's temporary,'' he says.
Abdelaziz doesn't know it, but he is one of the reasons Vice President Al Gore Jr. is making a one-day visit here today. Mr. Gore will address the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade conference set to sign a trade accord tomorrow. In addition, he will meet with Moroccan King Hassan II and announce a new trade and investment program designed to strengthen historically close US-Moroccan ties.
The Clinton administration is giving special priority to Morocco as a source of stability and economic opportunity in the troubled North African and broader Mideast regions. But the administration also worries that the social challenges Morocco faces, especially unemployment, could open it to the same kind of Islamic radicalism tearing apart Algeria next door.
That's where the young Abdelaziz comes in. ``We're particularly interested in helping Morocco achieve the kind of economic growth that will open up opportunities to the large number of graduates who can't find work, and who out of frustration might turn to an extreme Islam,'' says Mark Ginsberg, US ambassador to Morocco. That concern reflects a reality that Algeria and some other Arab countries are confronting: It is educated members of what should be a country's dynamic middle class who, out of frustration, are drawn to radical Islam.
Mr. Ginsberg says the Clinton administration has developed a ``four-pillar foundation'' on which it plans to enhance privileged US-Moroccan ties:
* Working more closely with Morocco as a Mideast conciliator. Ginsberg said King Hassan has become a ``valuable adviser'' to President Clinton on the Mideast peace process, particularly given Morocco's openness to Israel. The US also wants to encourage Morocco as an example of what Ginsberg calls a ``moderate and tolerant Islam'' for its neighbors.
* Promoting US trade. Gore will formally announce the creation of a new US-Morocco trade and investment development committee, as part of a global plan to replace direct aid with trade and private investment. A $200 million sale of military equipment to Morocco reflects that shift.
* Resolving the Western Sahara dispute, which pits Morocco against the separatist Polisario organization. A UN-sponsored referendum originally set for 1992 on the disputed territory bogged down over voter lists.
* Encouraging Morocco to pursue its democratization process.
The Clinton administration recently published a human rights report on Morocco citing some irregularities in recent parliamentary elections and a referendum that claimed a 99 percent favorable vote for a new constitution. But it also noted important progress in democratization and other human rights concerns.
The administration's Morocco initiative aims to highlight a country that instead of using its unstable surroundings to hunker down is proceeding with political and economic reforms as the best recipe for prosperity.
A decade of restructuring and tight fiscal management has put the country on sound economic footing, with the budget deficit way down and economic growth expected to top 6 percent this year. A privatization program placing emphasis on small domestic investors and foreign participation is being speeded up, recently drawing the interest and dollars of American investor George Soros. On the more somber side, unemployment hovers around 20 percent, the agriculture sector has just come out of a drought, and the population of 25 million jumps by about 500,000 each year.
Moroccan officials say they hope that rekindled American economic and political interest will help Morocco diversify its international ties.
About 70 percent of Morocco's trade is with the European Union, and over the long term Morocco is looking to establish a free-trade zone with the EU. But while the US acknowledges Europe will always be Morocco's primary economic interest, it sees room to develop economic ties.
More broadly, he says, boosting Morocco's economy is an important factor in the Clinton administration's global economic security framework. If the US can help Morocco solidify and even project its stability in an unstable region, that will encourage private investment, which in turn would mean more jobs. And that should help Abdelaziz keep his smile.