Morocco sees the rise of ’acceptable’ Islamist party

Lahcen Daoudi is a curious kind of Islamist. A top leader in Morocco’s Party of Justice and Development, a legal Islamist movement emerging as a political force, he fights off suggestions that he wants to Islamise society, blaming his secular rivals for spreading false rumours. “People cannot eat from Islamist slogans. They come to us because they want solutions.”

A good-humoured, economics professor and opposition MP, the clean-shaven Mr Daoudi looks younger than his 59 years and repeatedly bangs his hand on the table to emphasise his points. The PJD’s objective, he says, is to improve “productivity” and “efficiency” in a country of 30m people reeling from massive youth unemployment in urban areas and a literacy rate of just over 50 per cent.

“The government is simply not performing,” he says. “If it were, Moroccans wouldn’t be looking for an alternative.”

Barely eight years after it was officially created from an existing party and a collection of Islamist associations, the PJD is emerging as a powerful alternative, with a good chance of winning legislative elections schedule for the second half of next year.

A leaked poll conducted by the US’s independent International Republican Institute earlier this year showed that up to 47 per cent of the electorate were leaning towards the party. A second just-concluded IRI poll is believed to confirm this.

The party’s rise is in line with the trend across the Arab world, where Islamist groups are capitalising on their image as honest movements dedicated to social justice and riding the wave of discontent with existing regimes and discredited secular parties.

But what makes the PJD’s experience all the more significant is that it is seen by the US as an acceptable interlocutor, unlike the Palestinian Hamas or Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

As Washington grapples with the empowerment of political Islam that is the consequence of its drive to democratise the Arab world, it appears to have found in the PJD a rare Islamist party it can engage with.

The PJD, which now has 42 deputies in the 325-seat parliament, benefits from US assistance and training programmes available to parties in Morocco. During a private trip to the US this month, Saadeddine Othmani, the PJD’s secretary-general, met an American deputy assistant secretary of state. His trip was part of an international charm offensive launched by the PJD and it followed visits to France and Spain.

“It is in the interest of Morocco that the world community knows the PJD. I don’t want investors to flee because of us,” says Mr Daoudi, pointing to the economy’s dependence on tourism and foreign investment.

That Morocco is a monarchy, where King Mohammed VI still holds the main levers of power and both the government and the parliament have limited authority, makes the risk of a PJD victory next year more palatable to the US.

Moreover, unlike Justice and Charity, probably the largest non-violent Moroccan Islamist movement, the PJD does not challenge the legitimacy of the monarchy. A moderate Islamist party is also seen as a buffer against al-Qaeda-inspired groups that have sought to mobilise impoverished Moroccans. It was a group of young men from the slums of Casablanca, the country’s financial hub, that launched the May 2003 suicide attacks against western and Jewish targets.

But if the PJD has been successfully building bridges with the outside world, it remains controversial at home, where politics outside the palace have been dominated by the leftist Socialist Union of Popular Forces and the nationalist Istiqlal.

Government officials and secular rivals accuse it of spreading a radical ideology through its press while putting on a moderate face to the world. Nabil Benabdallah, the government spokesman, says that the PJD goes against the vision of modernity promoted by the king, including a 2004 code that strengthens women’s rights. He points to demands by PJD-affiliated associations for the banning of Marock, a daring new film directed by a young woman and showing scenes that ridicule praying and fasting.

Well-organised and recognised even by rivals as hard working, the PJD is not monolithic, although the most radical within it have been gradually pushed out of the top positions.

Mustafa Ramid, a popular MP from Casablanca, has openly criticised Mr Othmani’s trip to the US, for example, and says he is against Marock. He has also called for the palace to play the role of arbiter and says he sees little point in joining or forming a government when the institutions have so little power. “My fear is that under the current system we will not be able to deliver,” he says.

The debate over the PJD has intensified in recent months as the party has adopted a more assertive attitude. The Islamists lowered their profile after the 2003 Casablanca attacks, which led to a torrent of criticism that the PJD was contributing to a climate of intolerance. The attacks also provoked a new law banning political parties based on religion, leading the PJD to emphasise that it was no more than a party with “Islamic references”.

Party officials have indicated that they are likely to contest elections across Morocco next year, departing from a more gradualist approach adopted so far that saw them field candidates in less than 60 per cent of constituencies in 2002.

Controversy was fuelled by the IRI poll. The palace was reported to be rattled by what it saw as American meddling in Moroccan affairs while political rivals considered the poll a confirmation of their worst suspicions – that the US was secretly promoting the PJD.

Mr Daoudi says he is gearing up for a difficult election year but urges Moroccan secularists not to deepen the polarisation in society. “It will be a year when the PJD is demonised,” he says.

“But the PJD is a barrier against radicalisation. If you crush it, it is not you who benefits, it’s the others, the radicals.”