As Monarchy Falters Islamism Rises

A recent poll commissioned by the Moroccan office of the International Republican Institute has shown that the Party of Justice and Development (PJD), an Islamist party authorized by the regime, would gain an absolute majority in the parliament if there were elections. On the face of it, it looks like Islamists are gaining popularity in Morocco. Potentially, yes…but only potentially.


Paradoxically the rising fortune of the Islamists might well play into the hands of the monarchy, which dominates Moroccan politics. As it leveraged the danger of the Communist peril to gain the support of the West during the Cold War era, it is now attempting to use the Islamist threat to justify the eternal postponement of true democratic reforms in Morocco. In Morocco as in some other Arab countries, there is a tiny, albeit influential, secular elite that dreads Islamists’ rule.


It is loath to substitute what it perceives as a “societally” liberal autocratic regime


for a “societally” illiberal democracy. In fact, the equation is much more complex. The poll above hints at this complexity. When first asked about the party they would vote for, Moroccans chose the socialist party with 13% in support. The Islamist PJD party ranked third with 9%. But more than 55% of the citizens polled claimed to be undecided. When those 55% were asked to make up their mind one way or the other, more than 66% chose the Islamist party. That gives the PJD a tremendous lead over the other parties.


These figures are interesting in that they show that the portion of the electorate that gives the PJD such overwhelming support are not diehard PJD followers. When asked about what qualities a political party should have to be effective, Moroccans cite honesty, fighting corruption, and responsiveness to citizens’ needs as the main attributes. These are attributes that a secular party could perfectly claim.


In other words, the reasons the PJD is commanding such lead in this poll are related to the failure so far of Moroccan political forces to meet Moroccans’ expectations of good governance. I am talking about political forces instead of political parties, and this includes the monarchy. One should never forget that the monarchy constitutionally monopolizes all powers in Morocco. It has been the main political force in the country almost since the independence of Morocco in 1956.


Another element of complexity is the evolution of the Islamists themselves. Their integration into the political landscape seems to have emboldened their democratic wing. A study of their work at the local level indicates that they seem to be much more concerned with applying good governance principles than with imposing the veil or banning alcohol. However, these are Islamist politicians. Their brand of conservatism can still bring about policies that curtail Moroccan individual liberties. Is that enough to justify the perpetuation of autocratic rule?


One can argue that the Moroccan regime failed to induce economic growth and promote sound redistributive policies to heal the social ills that beset the majority of Moroccans. By concentrating all powers in its hands and leaving the elected parliament only with the crumbs, it aborted the creation of a genuine political space that would allow true citizen participation. In failing on these accounts, the monarchy is strengthening the extremists’ brand of Islamism, a brand fed by the resentment of the voiceless downtrodden.


If the relative strengths of the Islamists and the monarchy are in flux, there is one kind of player that is weak and still weakening, the secular party. Again, a major insight from the above-mentioned poll is that Moroccan secular parties have lost ground not so much because they are secular but because they are not deemed to be capable of running state affairs honestly and efficiently. The harsh repression by the monarchy on some of them and the subservience to the regimes of others, are the main reasons for the secular party’s sorry state. Morocco needs strong secular democratic parties to oppose the conservative politics of the Islamists. It would give a much healthier democratic balance to the Moroccan polity than the inflammable opposition of an autocratic regime to possibly obscurantist Islamism.

Other topics:

Morocco: From Top-down Reform to Democratic Transition?
Morocco Cracks Down on Islamist Opposition Group JSA
Chris Zambelis,
Jamestown foundation, U.S.
Morocco: From Top-down Reform to Democratic Transition?
Morocco sees the rise of ’acceptable’ Islamist party
Roula Khalaf, –
London, UK
American Foreign Policy and Islamic Renewal
Abdeslam M. Maghraoui, USIP, USA
The Challenge of Democracy In the Muslim World
Will America support Islamic Renewal?
Ikhwanweb, London-UK