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In other parts of the Muslim World, religion and politics just might be working

Government spokesman explains Morocco’s country’s view of government: “We are a political party with an Islamic reference, not an Islamist party”
Moroccan protesters take part in rally for International Workers Day on 1 May 2014 (AFP/FADEL SENNA)

RABAT, Morocco - As a new wave of court convictions hits Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, one year after the forcible eviction of President Mohamed Morsi from power, an Islamist-led government is celebrating 30 months of uncontested rule at the other end of North Africa. “We call it reform within stability,” explains Mustapha al-Khalfi, Morocco’s minister of communications and the government’s official spokesperson, as he sums up a record of gradual change.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, the euphoria of 2011 may be a bitter memory. Even as militant groups are rampant across large swaths of Iraq, most Islamists with a moderate vision of how to bring change, have seen their hopes dashed in the last three years. In Tunisia, the Ennahda party gave way to a technocratic government earlier this year, after a crisis with the secular opposition. In Libya, Islamist parties still have strong representation in parliament, but in a country that is increasingly fragmented by regional militias, the very concept of government is flaky. In Syria, moderate Sunnis who took up arms in the battle for change find themselves outgunned by extremists.

Things are different in Morocco. Protests over unemployment regularly fill the pavement outside parliament in Rabat. Bloggers and journalists who question taboos, especially the role of the monarchy, still risk arrest and prison. But Islamists lead the government and the country is almost entirely devoid of political violence. Foreign reporters and critics of the regime can meet openly and without reprisals. 

The country has relatively few Salafis, and many of them have been integrated into the system. In 2012, King Mohamed VI pardoned several leaders of a group which was jailed for inspiring a series of suicide bombings in Casablanca in 2003 and left 45 people dead. Three months ago, the king attended a mosque in Tangiers, where the sermon was given by Mohamed Fizazi, one of the jailed sheikhs who recanted. The event was seen as a symbol of reconciliation and integration. Mustapha Ramid, a lawyer who defended some of the jailed jihadis, now heads the justice ministry in the Islamist-led government.

Analysts explain that the short-term reason for Morocco’s three years of calm since the Arab Spring is that, unlike Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which brought in an Islamic constitution that alienated many Egyptians, Morocco’s main Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (PJD), is forced to operate in coalition with other parties. This reduces any radicalism.

The deeper reason for stability, is the overwhelming power of the monarchy, which establishes the  rules for the country’s politics. In the 1970s and 1980s, Hassan II used massive repression against critics and would-be reformers. In his later years, he added more subtle methods of co-opting potential opponents. His son, Mohammed VI, who inherited the throne in 1999, has followed these tactics. After street protests broke out in the first flush of the Arab Spring, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, it was the king rather than the Islamists who proposed a new constitution in the summer of 2011. It obliged him for the first time to appoint the head of the largest party as prime minister after national elections.

Yet this step towards normal parliamentary practice is undermined by other provisions stipulating that no party can obtain more than twenty percent of the seats in parliament, regardless of how many votes it wins. Mohammed al-Boukili, a senior member of the independent Moroccan Association of Human Rights, says “the French advisers and the US embassy didn’t want a centre-left government.  They were very active in opting for a moderate Islamist government. They saw the PJD was organised and had roots in the poor zones because of their charity mechanisms.”

The Justice and Development party was known for being politically conservative. In February 2011, it urged its supporters not to join anti-government street protests. When it took office in January 2012, after winning the elections, it took the traditional elite party, Istiqlal, as its main partner. After Istiqlal provoked a crisis by withdrawing its ministers last summer, the PJD gave portfolios to another centre-right secular party.

“This is not an Islamist government. It’s a coalition of the PJD with three other parties,” said Abderrezak al-Hannouchi, a senior official at the National Council of Human Rights. The council is one of many new institutions mandated by the king to bring Morocco into line with United Nations’ and other international norms. It writes and distributes reports on issues such as conditions in prisons and children’s protection centres, or the treatment of migrants.  But, unlike the older Moroccan Association of Human Rights, which takes no Moroccan government funds, it does not take up individual complaints of abuse or injustice.

Mustapha al-Khalfi, the government spokesman who used to edit the PJD’s paper, goes further.  He says of his party: “We are a political party with an Islamic reference, not an Islamist party. We ask the media and non-governmental organisations to judge our work by our programme, not by stereotypes.”  He describes the priorities as, fighting corruption, promoting economic development, advancing social justice and enhancing services for the poor and the vulnerable.

If the government has an Islamist agenda, it is hard to detect it. Ministers occasionally make outbursts which reveal their beliefs but there is little follow-through. When Ramid, the justice minister, called one of the country’s most popular destinations for foreign travelers, Marrakesh, “a city of sin”, the tourism minister slapped him down. Earlier this month,  Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane,  sparked a storm on social media when he complained to Parliament about the “European example” of women going out to work and not getting married or becoming mothers. “We will continue to defend our position against this modernity that is trying to eliminate family in our lives by reversing the roles of men and women. To that we say no,” he thundered.

Like its secular predecessors, the PJD-led government has faithfully followed the International Monetary Fund’s economic prescriptions. These involve privatisation and pension reforms, as well as cutting subsidies on electricity, water and petrol as well as some foodstuffs, so as to lower the budget deficit. The World Bank says Morocco’s economy has grown at an annual average of 5 percent over the last few years and thus has reduced extreme poverty. But a fifth of the population still lives on or below the poverty line and in the cities one out of every three young people is unemployed.

State-of-the-art french trams glide silently through Rabat streets, warning pedestrians of their coming with clanks from old-fashioned bells. “But how many poor people do you see inside them?” asks a diplomat. A single fare costs 6 dirham (about 75 US cents), a high sum compared to the 40 to 50 dirham that a casual labourer is lucky to earn for a day’s work carrying loads in the market.

The PJD won a large share of its votes from the urban poor, but in Rabat’s Alkora district - a slum that the government wants to demolish - disappointment with the party is immense.  “I won’t vote for the PJD again. The situation is getting worse and prices are going up,” says Aisha, an elderly woman with a black and white shawl around her head.  Behind her is a vista of bulldozed walls and ruined roofless homes that people have tried to keep habitable by spreading tarpaulin over the top and creating curtains out of sacking. To prevent others from moving into the slum, the government destroyed the houses of residents who have been allocated flats in new blocks. “The new government came in and moved people from here by force,” says Hassan, a man in his thirties. “I voted PJD because I thought they were more pious and would be scared of God if they lied. We trusted them to be more honest than other politicians. This area is full of PJD loyalists so they should give us special help but it’s been the opposite.”

Older residents remember the time when the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP) emerged as the largest party in the 1997 elections and the then king appointed its leader as prime minister.  Described as “alternance” this “seemed to indicate a genuine shift of power” as Michael Willis of St Anthony’s College Oxford wrote in his book Politics and Power in the Maghreb. “The reality was inevitably more nuanced,” he went on. The government’s room for manoeuvre was limited by the monarchy’s role, little economic change or political reform followed, public disappointment set in and the USFP’s popularity collapsed. 

The same cycle may affect the Islamist party today.  It was created in the mid-1990s by Abdelkarim Khatib, a politician with close links to the palace, who required members to show public allegiance (beia) to the king. 

PJD ministers insist they are conducting significant reforms which will make the judiciary more independent, enshrine the rule of law, enhance women’s rights, and bring openness to government by obliging the prime minister to take questions in parliament regularly and give opposition parties more access to discussions on state TV.  Others say the process is too slow. They argue that only two of the laws needed to implement reforms outlined in the 2011 constitution have yet been passed. The press code which will prevent journalists from being jailed on free speech issues is still months away from coming into force. The  same is true of promised changes in the military court system, which should remove the army’s right to put civilians on trial.

Unlike almost all its Arab and African neighbours, Morocco is an oasis of relative freedom and social peace. But critics say the country should not only be viewed horizontally by comparing it to the rest of the region. The vertical axis needs to be examined too.

How far has Morocco risen from the despotism of the past, and what needs to change for it to rise further and faster?

Morocco has another Islamist movement that is older than the PJD. Starting from a basis of non-political Sufism, it came to prominence in 1973 when its leader Sheikh Abdeslam Yassine wrote an open letter to the king, criticising his wealth, power, and closeness to the West.  Yassine even raised doubts about the king’s Islamic credentials, an incendiary line of attack for a monarch who claims descent from the Prophet Mohammed. Yassine was put under house arrest, but was released in 2000 by Mohammed VI soon after he succeeded his father on the throne.  Yet Yassine refused to be co-opted. His movement, known as Justice and Spirituality, grew from strength to strength and independent observers say it is Morocco’s biggest political force. Around half a million people filled Rabat’s streets for Yassine’s funeral in 2012.  It went unreported on state TV and in every newspaper.

“All political parties have tried to reform the system from within and failed. Why should we pursue the same path in order to fail too?” asks Motaouakal Abdelouhad, a former school teacher who heads the Justice and Spirituality’s political section. Explaining why the movement boycotts the elections, he says, “You make promises you know you can’t deliver. You lose credibility and that’s the most dangerous thing for a political party.”

His movement is not allowed to have its own newspaper or work through mosques, where all imams are appointed by the minister of religious affairs (who, in the current Islamist-led government, is from a secular party).  Instead, the movement uses the time-honoured technique of raising awareness of political issues through word of mouth, door-to-door campaigning, and contacting college students. “We believe it’s important to reform the individual in order to change society. We insist on education,” he says.  The message sounds similar to that of the Gulen movement in Turkey, but Abdelouahad explains that the  analogy is false because “we believe we can participate in politics if we have the right circumstances. How long can people wait?” he asks.

“In February 2011 there was a possibility of an explosion here, but the king managed to handle problems by changing the constitution. It was only a postponement of what needs to be done: rising unemployment, external debt, 500,000 taking the baccalaureate each year and not enough jobs. A stifling environment encourages violence. He is not against the monarchy on principle. The issue of a monarchy or a presidency is one of form, not of content. You can have a monarchy like Spain or the United Kingdom and people are happy. In Morocco the monarch takes the main decisions and is not accountable.” A European resident of Rabat, who observes politics closely, puts it starkly: “The trouble with this country is that everything that appears independent isn’t independent.”

Even if the system underwent genuine reforms, Abdelouahad says that coalition government is the only answer. “We should have a pact to work out reforms. It’s impossible for any one party to solve the problems,” he explains. He contrasts the Islamist Ennahda party’s inclusive approach in Tunisia with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which tried to rule alone and was not cautious enough, he believes.

The Justice and Spirituality movement’s critique is partly echoed at the secular end of Morocco’s political spectrum. Mehdi Lahlou is a professor at the National Institute of Statistics and Applied Economics. He split from the USFP in protest of its decision to go into government on the king’s terms in 1999, and now is a leading member of the United Socialist Party, formed in 2006. The party boycotted the 2011 elections. He calls the PJD “palace Islamists” and says “the Islamists are doing what the king wants them to do.  He uses them to provide himself social protection. In Morocco the Arab spring stopped very quickly and the Islamist government is staying longer than they did in Egypt.”

He criticises the new constitution for keeping the king as the ultimate source of executive, legislative and judicial power, and holding back the country’s political development. His party is not calling for a republic, but a parliamentary monarchy like in Spain where the king has a role as head of the army. He also criticises the king’s opaque business interests, his ownership of chunks of the economy and the palace’s use of licences and contracts to co-opt prominent people into the ruling elite. “We want to make a separation between the political and the economic sphere as well as between the religious and secular sphere,” he says. “I’m not telling you anything revolutionary.  We say to the king this is the way to protect yourself and your family. We are protecting the king more than the Islamists are. We take a very long view. They take the short view.”

It is no surprise that views like Lahlou’s are not given time on TV talk shows in Morocco. He believes one reason for the public’s disenchantment with “alternance” is that there is little or no difference between the main parties on economics. They all favour the neo-liberal model. On this he also attacks the Justice and Spirituality movement, which shares his rejection of the current political system. “The Islamists have no understanding of economics. They believe in the free market, supply and demand, competition and no regulation,” he says.

Mustapha al-Khalfi, minister of communications, says that four factors explain Morocco’s stability: political pluralism and the wisdom of the mainstream parties in refusing to join revolutionary movements; the effectiveness of civil society; the consensus behind a road map for reform via the new constitution; and the central role of the monarchy in leading the reforms.  “We’re not here to challenge his Majesty but to work under his leadership in co-operation with others.  We’re not going to succeed unless we do it in a gradual manner. The monarchy is not the problem.  It’s the solution,” he declares.

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