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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Relative Success of Islamists in Morocco

Supporters of the Justice and Development Party during a rally in September 2012 / Photo Panos Pictures
Supporters of the Justice and Development Party during a rally in September 2012 / Photo Panos Pictures

Morocco has always had a history of its own. When the Ottoman Empire swallowed up most of the Middle East and North Africa in the 16thcentury, Morocco stood firm and remained independent. After the end of colonialism in North Africa, in the 20th century, Morocco was the only country that kept its pre-colonial monarchy, while republics burgeoned all around. And as the Arab Spring began to shake the region in 2011, dictators reacted with force or nonchalance, but King Mohamed VI rode the waves of change, initiating reforms and paving the way for free elections that brought a government at least partially independent of the monarchy.

Tunisia is often seen as the beacon of hope in the region, amid the democratic setbacks and bloody wars, but Morocco should be considered one as well. The change there is indeed less radical than Tunisia’s, but the outcome is generally positive and perhaps more sustainable.

In 2011, young Arabs expressed their anger throughout the region. In Morocco, the “February 20” movement organized street protests and called for democratic reforms. Rather than crushing the movement, as didTunisia’s Ben Ali and Libya’s Qaddafi, the king decided to reform the constitution and submit it for a referendum, in July 2011. Even though the numbers resembled the usual rigged results of Arab elections (98.5% “yes,” with a turnout of 73%), and though the king retained important absolute prerogatives, such as dissolving Parliament and controlling the security sector—the Ministry of Interior is one of the country’s most important institutions—the aftermath brought credibility. In the November 2011 election, Islamists won the largest shares in Parliament (although not a majority, just 27%), and the head of the Justice and Development Party (PJD), Abdelilah Ben Kirane, became prime minister.

The PJD victory came at a time of surging Islamism: by the end of 2011, for instance, the Ennahda party won Tunisia’s election, Islamist brigades were among the strongest players emerging from the Libyan civil war, the Muslim Brotherhood was advancing on Egypt’s social and political scenes, and Syria’s fighters were gradually endorsing an Islamist discourse.

Pragmatic

But Ben Kirane’s party was similar to Tunisia only in the pragmatic strategy it used: it tried to encompass the various parts of Moroccan society. So, just as Ennahda in Tunisia reached out to the so-called “secularists,” forming a government with Ettakatol and the Congress for the Republic (CPR), the PJD built a coalition with Istiqlal, a party co-opted by the Makhzen (the pro-monarchy elite), and the Party of Progress and Socialism (PPS), the profound secularist former communist party.

Ben Kirane and his aides made it clear that their policies neither opposed the king nor attempted to transform the country into an Islamist emirate. They reiterated the idea that they were the king’s government, setting the discourse of a real constitutional monarchy (Morocco has “officially” been a constitutional monarchy since becoming independent in 1956, but the king has been an absolute ruler for most of that time). This was perhaps their smartest move and the main reason for their resilience in power, while all other Islamist governments in the region were toppled or pushed to resign.

In abiding by the rules of the game and not challenging the monarchy, they mitigated the criticism of their policies by the opposition and the establishment. In Morocco, it is still illegal to criticize the king: the PJD government is thus protecting itself by sneaking under the king’s umbrella.

This strategy, which also avoided confrontation with the Makhzen families and clients as well as the secularist forces, allowed the PJD to escape the prevailing regional counterrevolution. It also tempered the animosity of the rich and influential Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of which are open enemies of political Islam and whose influence reaches west to Libya and Tunisia.

Morocco under the PJD was able to attract international companies fleeing the agitated Arab Spring countries, mainly Tunisia and Egypt, as well as billions of US dollars in debt and foreign direct investments. Leftists and ultra-nationalists accused the party of selling the country to foreigners, but statistics and economic indicators gave the government reason for pride.

This is not to say that the PJD became part of the Makhzen, that it is enjoying the freedom of actions, or that the post-2011 era went smoothly for it.

Challenges

Relations with the king are sometimes tense, and Mohamed VI disapproved publicly of the party’s economic policies and canceled their reform of the education system.

Members of the Moroccan elite do not shy away from criticizing or mocking PJD’s leaders and members for their lack of manners and experience. The party has an audacious plan to cut energy subsidies, which will anger the richest citizens, who benefit from the subsidies for their multiple cars, mansions, high-rise office buildings, etc.

As in Tunisia, trade unions disapproved of the neoliberal economic policies of the PJD, and they staged mass protests beginning in May 2012. Young people remain angry, and disappointment with the political class has increased. Even though the economy is doing better in Morocco than in the surrounding countries, the economic crisis in the European Union (EU), the stagnation of the US economy, and the present oil-price crisis make Morocco’s main partners (EU, United States, Gulf Cooperation Council) unreliable in the future.

The security climate also remained tense, because of the unstable situation in North Africa and the Sahel. The threat of terrorism weighed heavily on Morocco, as many of its citizens joined the ranks of extremist Islamic State in 2013–2014. The Western Sahara conflict remains unresolved, with the Saharan independence movement Polisario staging rare military drills in December 2014, and the border with Algeria is a continuous source of problems, with Moroccan military deployment over the summer and actual clashes in October.

The PJD’s relative success in maneuvering Morocco’s politics should not be overstated, despite the economic progress that has been reached; nor should it be overshadowed by the difficulties that are arising. The party did, however, survive the major crisis of Islamism in the Arab world, in the summer of 2013, even as Istiqlal cabinet members withdrew from the government in July 2013 and called for early elections. Ben Kirane replaced Istiqlal with the National Rally of Independents (RNI), another “secularist” party, and carried on as prime minister. If the second government of Ben Kirane was to reach the election of 2016 unscathed, Morocco would be on track towards establishing its constitutional monarchy, with a democratic and peaceful transfer of power.