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Managing Morocco’s Islamists – Professor Hussein Solomon

November 10, 2016

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Managing Morocco’s Islamists

By Hussein Solomon

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 4 (2016), Number 5 (November 2016)

That radical militant Islamism is on the rise in Africa is without a doubt. Whilst authorities and the international community concentrate their security apparatus on the likes of Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Somalia’s Al Shabaab, it should be borne in mind that even after the military defeat of these groups, the pernicious ideology of Islamism will still remain. Recognizing this fact, the Moroccan government has embarked on a policy to tame and co-opt its own Islamists – the Justice and Development Party or PJD.

The government and the PJD were compelled to embrace each other as a result of a number of factors. Polls demonstrate that conservative Islamic values resonate amongst Moroccans. Given the deteriorating political and economic situation, specifically as it relates to the disaffected youth languishing in poverty and alienated from an authoritarian monarch, King Mohammed VI, it is unsurprising that radical Islam has gained adherents in the country. This was self-evident when in May 2003, five suicide bombers attacked tourist and Jewish sites in Casablanca. Scores were either killed or injured. This attack was the work of the Moroccan Islamic Combat Group. Members of this group soon became part of a larger grouping – Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Other Moroccans have found the Islamic State more appealing and more than 1500 have joined its ranks.

King Mohammed’s rule came under fire from other Islamists too. The Justice and Charity party is a non-violent Islamist party which has demanded a civic state, popular sovereignty and minority rights. The Palace has also not found itself unaffected by the Arab Spring protests which swept through the region. Moroccan youth were at the forefront of protests from 20 February 2011. These protests compelled the king to surrender some of his powers to the prime minister and concede that the prime minister was to be the leader of the majority party in parliament.

In an additional measure to deflect popular discontent regarding the deteriorating economic circumstances as well as the constrained political conditions, the Palace sought an Islamist ally it could co-opt. The choice of an Islamist party reflected the conservative Islamic values Moroccans subscribe to as was alluded to earlier. It was DrissBasri, a former Minister of Interior, who authorized the formation of the United and Reform Movement which eventually morphed into the PJD. At the same time, the Palace ensured that it defanged and domesticated the PJD before it was allowed to contest legislative elections. A central pillar of the PJD, for instance, is its support for the monarchy which has ruled the country for 350 years.

AbdelilahBenkirane, the Secretary-General of the PJD who went on to serve as Prime Minister following the party’s electoral success has also been compelled to embrace moderation and compromise with the authorities. To understand the moderate option embarked upon by Benkirane one needs to understand developments in North Africa. In neighbouring Algeria, a civil war consumed the country for much of the 1990s. This followed the military aborting an election which the Islamists were set to win in 1992. More recently the ousting of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood from power after a year of inept rule as well as the Islamist Ennahda’s retreat from political power in Tunisia made clear to the PJD that they need to adopt a gradual approach towards the Islamization of their society and not scare of other elements of society – notably the military.

This gradual approach was reflected in the various elections the PJD participated in since 1997. Despite increasing its votes, and delegates, with each successive election, the PJD restrained itself seeking to earn the trust of the Moroccan political establishment. For instance, in the 1997 poll, the party only fielded 140 candidates, instead of the 325 for all districts. This gradual approach certainly paid dividends in that by 2011 the PJD secured the most amount of votes and Benikrane went on to become Prime Minister. In October 2016, the PJD secured another victory obtaining 125 seats out of 395 with Benikrane seeking to secure the support of some smaller parties to form a government.

The question however is how successful is this politics of co-option? Have the authorities managed to tame the Islamist threat the kingdom is faced with? In truth, the embrace between the Palace and the PJD has always been an awkward one with distrust exhibited by both sides. For instance, the secular Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM) came second in the October 2016 polls achieving 102 seats to the PJD’s 125. The fact that PAM was formed in 2008 by a close adviser to King Mohammed VI suggests that in order to ensure that he is in control the King is playing off conservative Islamists with secular modernists. Moreover, the legitimacy of the electoral process itself has come under scrutiny given the litany of voting irregularities in the October 2016 polls. Khalid Adennoun, spokesperson for PAM, complained of 50 voting irregularities concerning the PJD in Tangiers. The PJD, for its part, expressed concern when one of its candidates was attacked and wounded in Rabat. In the process democracy itself has been debased with much of the electorate losing faith in the political system. Voter participation, therefore, was at a record low of 43 percent or 6,750,000 voters.

There is however a broader point to be made as it relates to political Islam. Proponents of political Islam promise clean and responsive government. The PJD when assuming the reins of power in 2011 promised economic development , better and more numerous employment opportunities and a war on corruption. In reality, as with many secular parties it has failed to deliver. Their time in power was characterized by rising unemployment set to become worse as the economy contracts. In addition, they have failed to halt corruption. Indeed, they themselves have been mired in a string of scandals. Members of the PJD have been involved in a drugs bust as well as a land-grab deal. In addition, two of their vice presidents have been found in sexually compromising positions.

The PJD has demonstrated that Islamist parties in power operate no differently from any other political party. Unfortunately, this reinforced the more radical Islamists’ message that the system itself is corrupt and needs to be torn down; that the PJD should never have participated in the political system in the first place. Far from managing and co-opting the Islamist threat, Morocco’s example may well fuel the fire of jihadism further.

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