- Political Islam Studies
- August 7, 2007
- 17 minutes read
Can Morocco’s Islamists check al-Qaida?
“The United States encourages our Islamists, invites them everywhere, and that annoys us,” complained a government source. “Morocco pleases them and worries them at the same time. They like it that we’re modernising, but the fact that we already have democracy destroys the basis of their [Samuel] Huntingdon-type theories of an Arab-Muslim nation in need of democratisation. They don’t actually want to see our progress.”
This displeasure grew with the speculation this past year that the Islamists will achieve a sweeping victory in Morocco’s parliamentary elections on 7 September. Will those predictions come true? Ask anyone on the streets of Casablanca or Rabat or travelling in a shared taxi if they’re going to vote and they laugh. Then, with some pride, they say: “I never vote! What’s the point? The political parties are all the same. Same old tricks. Same policies. It’s all rigged.” Then one or two add: “The PJD is better than the others.” The PJD is the Justice and Development Party, Morocco’s third largest, and Islamist.
Others say: “Al-Adl, they’re the only really good people.” Al-Adl wal-Ihsan (Justice and Charity) is Morocco’s foremost political and religious force. It uses Sufism to propagate its utopian vision among those at the heart of Morocco, the poor and the marginalised. It firmly opposes all violence and acts as a counter to the radical extremists. But it also challenges the legitimacy of the monarchy and is banned, though tolerated. When Nadia Yassine, one of its spokesmen and daughter of its 79-year-old founder Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine, declared in the weekly Al Usbu’iya Al Jadida on 2 June 2005 that she would rather have a republican regime, a lawsuit followed. It remains in abeyance.
The young think they are too cool to vote: only 1.4 million of a generation of 3 million new voters have chosen to enrol on the electoral register, despite strenuous efforts to get them, and all women, to vote.
Despite this apathy, the PJD are expected to be the big winners in September. Who will vote for them? Dr Lahcen Daoudi, 59, a member of the PJD secretariat general, said: “We’ll get the true PJD believers, who are against corruption, and the protest vote, and those who think why not try them out?”
Mustapha Sabik, a Casablanca lawyer, observed: “The PJD scores on transparency, and it has a seductive programme. It eclipses all the other parties by far. And it’s disciplined and, as yet, free of corruption. Also, in this most conservative of countries, it counts when someone says ‘vote for me, I’m a Muslim’.”
In the last elections, on 27 September 2002, the PJD held back, running in only 55 of 91 electoral districts. Mustapha Ramid, the hardliner among the party’s top leadership, also a lawyer in Casablanca, recalled: “It was only our second election. Following 9/11 and the war on terror, there was tension in the air. The regime and the West both looked at us with deep suspicion, and economic circles had their own reservations.” Al-Adl wal-Ihsan called on Moroccans to boycott the elections, a call that resounded among the PJD’s support base. Despite this and the PJD’s self-imposed restraint, the party tripled its representation to become the third largest, with more than 10% of the vote and 42 seats out of 325, not far behind the large historic parties: the Independence Party (Istiqlal) with 48, and the Socialist Union of Peoples’ Forces (USFP) with 50 (1).
The PJD is prudent, mindful of political constraints: it does not want an electoral result that Morocco (or the West) cannot handle. No one wants another Algeria, which descended into civil war in 1992 after the cancellation of the first round of parliamentary elections won by the Islamists of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).
The threat of terrorism has been a problem since 16 May 2003 when the Casablanca suicide bombings killed 45 and injured more than a hundred. A shocked society turned on all its Islamists, and the PJD’s existence came under threat. Mustapha Ramid said: “The minister of interior made me give up my position as leader of the PJD’s parliamentary group. That threw us into crisis.”
Smaller suicide bombings in Casablanca this March and April were a reminder of al-Qaida’s new franchise in neighbouring Algeria, and of Morocco’s importance as a recruiting ground for the Iraq war; violence within Morocco is at present a second-stage project. Observers admit that in a conservative and eminently Muslim country such as Morocco, the PJD can act as a buffer against al-Qaida-inspired groups that seek to mobilise the poorest and most marginalised.
No problem with Islam
This is what the United States seems to think, too. Mustapha Khalfi, a political scientist and member of the PJD’s National Council, explained: “The US needs to show that it has no problem with Islam. So it is encouraging the PJD model as a moderate Islamist model for other Arab and Muslim countries.” Abdelwahed Moutawakil, head of the political section of Al-Adl wal-Ihsan, confirmed: “The Americans regularly come to see us: they are more intelligent than the French, who often put pressure on their people here to cancel meetings. The Americans know what we can do to combat the spread of terrorism in Morocco.”
Nervous western governments regard Morocco as a test case for Arab democracy. The Hamas victory in the Palestinian territories in January 2006 and the Muslim Brotherhood’s success in Egypt in the 2005 parliamentary elections forced the US to moderate its rhetoric on the democratisation of the Arab world. Washington could scarcely have been reassured by a survey commissioned from a centre close to the Republican Party, the International Republican Institute (IRI). Based on secret polls since late 2005, the survey showed the PJD with 47% support, ahead of the USFP (2).
This was leaked in the Le Journal hebdomadaire on 18-24 March 2006. Banner headlines announced the “Islamist threat” and many held the Americans responsible. By chance the PJD’s secretary-general, Saadeddine el-Othmani, was in Washington at the time. It was then discovered that the IRI had funded a visit to the PJD from Turkey’s Islamists from the AKP (Justice and Development Party). Many differing conspiracy theories ensued, but all Moroccans agreed the US was guilty of interference in internal affairs.
On 3 April 2006 the ministry of the interior responded to the IRI furore by leaking its own polls indicating a continuation of the status quo: 62% of voters would elect four main parties (USFP, Istiqlal, People’s Movement and the PJD) and 38% would vote for other parties. The PJD made known its own more modest forecast of 26-30% of the vote, and again reassured everybody that the party did not seek a result Morocco could not handle.
The government had already moved to redraw the electoral boundaries; this reconfiguration of constituencies would affect the results by reducing the overall numbers of seats; sub-dividing key constituencies in the cities (where the PJD has its support base); and increasing the number of seats in rural areas, where the PJD does not have a strong following and where people vote on traditional or ethnic lines for local personalities (3). This redrawing of the electoral map was meant to block a PJD breakthrough – with no need for vote rigging at the elections. The party’s cooption into a coalition government, in a minor role, would be the first choice of the monarchy, but the 27 political parties, especially those on the left, seem reluctant to ally themselves with the PJD.
Nabil Benabdallah is the information minister and chief spokesman for the government headed by the technocrat Driss Jettou, in which the USFP and Istiqlal have the most MPs. He is a member of the Party of Progress and Socialism (previously the Communist Party). “All you westerners ever talk about is the Islamists! They’re all much of a muchness, moderates and extremists. We have a consensus: the results of the elections won’t change anything… I doubt very much that the leftwing parties in the present government would agree to join forces with the PJD, my party certainly won’t.”
The PDF has its offices in the tranquil, bougainvillea-filled quarter of Les Orangers, a 20-minute walk from Rabat’s parliament building. Inside the villa there is no sign of religious symbolism. The PJD’s lamp logo is everywhere, along with a large map of the country and the red Moroccan flag. The party’s secretary-general, Saadeddine el-Othmani, a monarchist who is close to the palace, extended his hand to shake hands in welcome – an unexpected gesture. “I don’t like the term Islamist,” he began. “I insist on ‘with Islamic references’, like the Christian democrats. We are liberal, but not very liberal. We are for a free market within limits. Our big problem is that for an economic opening, we need reform – administrative and judicial – and education. We need infrastructure and qualified people if we are to attract really lucrative tourism, people who come and buy homes here. Morocco hasn’t done this.”
Morocco’s economy has averaged almost 5% growth over the past five years (8% last year, thanks to a good harvest) with development of roads, a high-speed train, housing, tourism and the large Tanger-Med port project launched in 2003. Tourism and remittances from Moroccans abroad bring in substantial foreign revenues. But the social system is lagging, with severe poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, marginalisation, and inadequate health care and education. No one disputes these immense challenges, on top of the 30-year Western Sahara conflict and global Islamic extremism.
There is consensus on a stable transition superintended by a benign monarch. Only Al-Adl wal-Ihsan challenges the legitimacy of the monarchy and, according to Abdelwahed Moutawakil, has “given up on the idea that the king means to reform in any meaningful way. He cannot be both king and Commander of the Faithful (Amir al-Muminin) . It’s as though I were to say ‘I’m a Muslim but I don’t believe in Islam’.”
The PJD is ready for a more gradual transformation of the monarch’s role, but there are differences in position among the PJD’s leaders. Until now these have done them no harm. For the party must maintain a delicate balance between a support base that calls for reform and a palace that seeks to co-opt.
Othmani admitted: “There was internal debate about joining the government in 2002. Last time I thought it was better to stay out; there were seven parties in the government already. What good could an eighth have done? The debate continues this time. It’s not said that we will be in the next coalition. It all depends on the results, on who could form a government with us, what programme could be agreed, what ministries we are offered.”
Abdelilah Benkirane, another PJD leader, closest of all to the palace, disagreed: “We’re ready to be in a coalition: we’re very open, and flexible. We should have been part of it in 2002. I said so clearly at the time. It was a grave mistake. Perhaps there wouldn’t have been a 16 May [the 2003 bombings]. Or if there had been, we would have passed through it much better, in consensus, not divided. Now it’s harder to form an alliance. Since 16 May people look at us in a different light, with fear. The state has become aggressive towards us.” He believes that the party cannot hold back as it did in 2002: “We’re no longer beginners. The people are asking for us and it would be difficult to explain why we failed to run all our candidates. Unlike in 2002, when we were strong, we no longer have the choice.”
Both Othmani and Benkirane believe that constitutional reform should follow the elections. There is a consensus between the political parties that the prime minister (at present appointed by the king) and government need greater powers, and that parliament’s second house, of counsellors, needs to be abolished or found a new role, perhaps to represent the regions. Benkirane was more cautious: “We won’t militate for reform; it has to be done with the king’s consent. That would have come already if it hadn’t been for 16 May.”
‘The king as arbiter’
Mustapha Ramid has different views. “I think our time hasn’t yet come. I see a problem about running all our candidates in this election. If we win the most seats we ought, democratically, to have a PJD prime minister. But we won’t, because in our executive monarchy, it’s the king who decides. I don’t want to govern until we have constitutional reform – we need to avoid falling into a trap. I’ve been demanding that reform for three years but I’ve been overruled. The king should reign but not govern. To make that transition, we need to move in gradual stages, with the king as arbiter. We’re doing it, but too slowly.”
The PJD, like many Moroccans, wants to see cleaner politics: an end to corruption in high places, vote buying, falsified figures, ministers there “just to fill their seats”. The Turkish AKP, with which the PJD shares a name (AKP is an acronym for Justice and Development Party) initially won support for its clean hands. Othmani said: “The Turkish PJD is an encouragement for us. It proves that a party with Islamic references can enter politics, and produce spectacular results. We have good relations and exchanges with them. But we’re more Islamic than they are and we are not a secular country.”
Morocco is in fact an Islamic state in which the king is both political and religious leader, the Commander of the Faithful, while Turkey is avowedly secular, with a powerful army that sees itself as a guarantor of the reforms introduced by Ataturk.
The AKP has distanced itself from its Islamist forerunner, the Welfare Party (Refah) and its Islamic national vision (milli gorush) that saw Turkey as the leader of the Muslim world. The Refah governed Turkey under Necmettin Erbakan for a year until the army forced him to resign on 18 June 1997. The crisis led to the creation of the AKP, a conservative, democratic party in which religion “is on an individual basis, an essential right, but only one among others,” as Abdullah Gul explained (4) when he was prime minister, adding: “We don’t want to impose religious rules.” The AKP won a two-thirds majority in Turkey’s legislative elections of 3 November 2002 and did not change laws banning Islamic dress in state employment and universities; its women MPs do not cover their heads. It also introduced important family reforms (the husband is no longer head of the family, the wife can work without her husband’s permission). It won the Turkish elections again this July.
Benkirane acknowledged this progress: “They’re far more advanced in politics than us: we’re still in the daawa (preaching) phase. And they may be a role model, but they make too many concessions on Islam: they even serve alcohol at their official receptions, it’s shameful.” The Moroccan PJD’s moralising tendencies have prompted much debate in the press and caused concern. Mustapha Ramid has been accused of regressive remarks, which he denies. “I’m not against festivals as long as they’re not propagating alcohol and drugs,” he said. “And I’m not saying Moroccan women shouldn’t go to mixed beaches, just that they should have an Islamic choice. The same with banking, we should have a dual system. Plurality of choice, that is democracy.”
Bassima Hakkaoui, 47, an MP and member of the PJD’s general secretariat, sees dangers for Moroccan society: “How is it that people who’ve always respected Islam are no longer united around its values? They can lose their identity, and that’s dangerous.” For Hakkaoui, it is not just a matter of radicalisation, but of moral rectitude. “I don’t think tourism can bring us much unless we clean up our own act and put social structures in place. It’s nice to see tourists but not to see them bring Aids to Morocco and turn Marrakesh into a place of paedophilia and prostitution. We can’t become another Thailand. I cannot accept that image for Morocco.” To calm fears among those who do not share those concerns, Othmani evokes the PJD’s experience in local government: alcohol has not been banned, nor has tourism diminished in the municipalities they control.
The PJD has more urgent questions to address. Its rank and file, who look to Mustapha Ramid and think the party has made too many concessions to the regime (including yielding to pressure to evict Ramid from his party post in 2003), failed to endorse four PJD figures as candidates in the elections. One casualty was Abdelilah Benkirane, expected to stand in Salé Medina, adjacant to Rabat (5).
The party leadership agreed to take account of its base, and reached an internal consensus in July: the four candidates were endorsed, the party announced that it would run all its candidates and adopted a programme of social and economic reform.
Will the PJD rethink its political priorities? And what room does it have for manoeuvre? It has forged an agreement with the liberal Forces Citoyennes (which has two MPs, and to which it will cede a key constituency, Casablanca-Anfa). The PJD faces a challenge from two other Islamist parties running for the first time in September: Al-Badil al-Hadari (Alternative Civilisation), which has a progressive vision of religion, and Fazila (Islamic Resurgence and Virtue Party), which took leaders from the PJD.
Morocco’s political landscape reveals a paradox. Despite the 2003 bombings, non-violent Islamists have risen to prominence in Morocco in parallel with global jihadism. If they gained power, could the PJD act as a counter to the jihadists? Or will Morocco have to wait for a mutation within Al-Adl wal-Ihsan when its aged spiritual guide dies, which will allow it to join the political process?
Benkirane said: “I don’t know if we’re capable of acting as a buffer. Every unjust blow, in Iraq or elsewhere, makes the Salafist discourse more acceptable. Much of what they say doesn’t make sense, but some does. And they’re free to say what they like because in Morocco we have freedom and democracy – within limits. In condemning terrorism, we’re taking a political risk.”
And Lahcen Daoudi warned: “The earthquake of 16 May is creating tremors that we are still feeling. If we fail, it would be dangerous; people could turn to extremism… We cannot afford to fail.”