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Monday, December 5, 2011
Morocco's Islamist Prime Minister
By Avi Spiege
first elected Islamist party to take over the reins of government in the Arab
world arrived in the unlikely location of Morocco. The Party of Justice and
Development (PJD) finished first in the November 25 elections, gaining 107 of
395 seats in parliament. Their leader, Abdullah Benkirane, will now ascend to
what was once considered an unthinkable position for an Islamist: he will be
the country's next prime minister.
Moroccan case challenges conventional wisdom about contemporary Islamists and
contextualizes qualms about what they might do next. The PJD originated as an
offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. But while the Brotherhood only formed
an official political party in 2011, their Moroccan brothers have been
contesting elections and navigating party politics since 1998. Far from being
revolutionary or even incendiary, Islamists of the PJD rose to the top not by
challenging the status quo, but rather by skillfully and pragmatically abiding
by it, even at times bolstering it. Their rule will likely be no different.
first time I visited the headquarters of Morocco's main Islamist party was in
2006, a year away from its second full run in parliamentary elections. I was
greeted by the unexpected sounds of laughter, as three young activists sat in
the corner of the courtyard poking fun at a more senior member. "If you
could have any ministerial position in government," one asked him,
"which one would you choose?" Before he could answer, a voice from
the distance shouted, "Why not Minister of Tourism!" And then the
chuckles began. It was funny for them because back then it seemed so farfetched
-- farfetched that the king would ever deign to ask them to serve as the public
face of the country, especially overseas. They would, another joked, more
likely scare away visitors then beckon them.
Moroccan monarchy's gamble on limited political reforms is what made these
daydreams a reality. When authoritarian leaders across the region this past
year were folding or doubling down, the king of Morocco opted for watered down
reform. Beginning in March, in an effort to co-opt local protests, government
officials in Morocco told anyone who would listen that the king was going to
great lengths to share his immense power. They then heralded his constitutional
reforms that would, for example, ensure that the king would actually appoint
the next prime minister based solely on election results (rather than deciding
himself, as has been known to happen).
in fact, the actual constitutional changes approved in a popular referendum in
July left the core elements of monarchical supremacy intact. Every Moroccan --
regardless of his or her political views -- will readily admit that the king
still runs the show. Anything resembling a budding democracy, or even a
constitutional monarchy on the model of Spain or England, is still a long way
away for this North African kingdom.
because the political reforms proved so limited, the elections that followed
exhibited neither the enthusiasm nor the dynamism of its neighbors in the
region. Many activists opted to boycott. Turnout was low at 45 percent. The
percentage of spoiled ballots, on other hand, was high (some estimates suggest
up to one third).And both of these
figures were not drastically off from where they were in 2007. Such a managed,
limited democratic façade did not bother the PJD. Throughout the last decade,
these Islamists readily went along with what can only be thought of as a
puppeted political process. Authorities allowed them to participate in
elections, but very clearly set specific limitations on their behavior. The
palace, for instance, permitted the PJD to campaign, but state media regularly
lobbied against its efforts. The party could field candidates, but it was often
told how many seats it could contest, especially in 2003, following bombings in
Casablanca. Also, the Moroccan government devised an electoral system so
complex and multilayered that it became close to impossible for any single
party to garner an outright majority. Nevertheless, the PJD ignored nay saying
from other Islamists in the country; they chose to embrace elections instead of
PJD were just as submissive when it came to the supposedly revered role of
religion. When the palace intensified pressure against "religious
parties," the PJD eschewed the label "Islamist." They opted,
instead, to call themselves a party of "Islamic reference." They also
agreed not to campaign in mosques. In fact, before the interior ministry
permitted them to take part in elections in the late nineties, the party had to
agree to certain ground rules. Most significantly, the king at the time, Hassan
II, made clear that they would have to avoid "heresy" -- by which he
meant, in language obvious to all citizens, there would be no religious
challenges to the regime.
PJD, in sum, seldom bit the hand that fed them. In fact, labeling such Islamist
parties as "opposition" movements might even be somewhat misleading.
For they saved their harshest verbal attacks, their sharpest criticism, not for
those in charge, but for those they competed against: Leftists and outlawed
Islamists. They sold themselves mainly as alternatives within the system -- as
substitutes to the enervated and corrupt parties of yesteryear. Once in
parliament, the PJD tried to shame these lackluster parties by taking
attendance during open sessions. It even supported punishing those members of
parliament who were absent.
significantly, unlike their Egyptian counterparts, the PJD has not displayed
any ability or even desire to challenge or confront state authority this year.
Indeed, in the midst of the Arab Spring, in the midst of the most historic
protests in the modern history of Morocco (and, of course, the region), the PJD
stood by the monarchy -- even when the other major Islamist group in the
country, the banned Justice and Spirituality Organization, led marches to
therefore should come as no surprise that when the future Islamist prime
minister of Morocco, Abdullah Benkirane, initially ascended to the position of
party head in 2008, one of the first people to congratulate him was none other
than the king himself. The monarch's praise was a reminder of the Islamist
leader's track record of working with, not against, the regime. Benkirane had
long exhibited, the king pointed out, a "desire to put the supreme
interests of the nation and just causes above all other considerations."
the PJD's first place finish this time around, Benkirane returned the favor. He
reminded citizens that the real head of state in the country is the king. He
said this, of course, in an effort to allay fears of an Islamist takeover. But
he also, in the process, managed to admit the shortfalls of recent reforms. How
democratic can a country be when the head of the winning party readily admits that
his powers are limited?
both the king and the Islamist leader gained a great deal from these results.
Benkirane, of course, earned the highest elected office in the country. But, by
begrudgingly appointing him, the king showed that he was holding firm to his
new constitution. Together, they now have an opening to put forward a new
partnership of Islamist governance: one in which a monarch imposes a
considerable check on the prospect of unbridled Islamist power.
was not a difficult sell to many young Islamists. There has been good reason,
after all, for the PJD to stand by the regime all this time. Party activists
wanted to continue to reap the spoils of electoral inclusion: the jobs, the
generous state electoral funding, the fancy party conventions, even the respect
that comes with wearing suits and campaigning for office. During my two years
of field research among young Islamists in Morocco, PJD activists would often
tell me: "We are here because we have a future in the party." In a
country of mass unemployment, where young people's futures are far from
certain, this was a powerful inducement.
also, of course, wanted to continue to hold the government positions they
already had. And they carried out these jobs in much the same manner in which
they had procured them in the first place: with disciplined pragmatism. The
party's outbursts of hysterics tend to get the lion's share of media attention,
such as when its affiliated newspaper blamed the Asian Tsunami on sinning
Asians or when Benkirane himself lashed out at a camerawoman in parliament for
her immodest attire. But, for the most part, the party's stabs at governance
have been noteworthy largely for their lack of excitement.
PJD candidates who held local office made fighting corruption and reorganizing
city finances to eliminate waste their overarching themes. When a PJD candidate
was elected the mayor of Kenitra, a city north of Rabat, one of his first major
acts in office, for example, was to digitize municipal records. His rise was
particularly telling: while serving as head of the PJD's youth wing (the
biggest of any party in the country) he also held a desk job doing tech support
for the prime minister's office -- back when the prime minister was a
Socialist. He then went on to serve as an advisor on outsourcing to the
economic affairs minister.
yearning to get to work -- more to the point, to do the work of governing --
has long characterized the party, and there is little reason to believe that
this will abate. At the headquarters following their second place finish in
2007, as party elites debated whether to join the government as a junior
partner or remain outside it, young Islamists were heard making the surprising
(and ultimately unsuccessful) case for the former. The rank and file, they
said, could not go another five years without government jobs and related
patronage. Now they won't have to wait any longer.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 05/12/2011
-Avi Spiegel is an assistant professor of political science at the
University of San Diego and is completing a book on the rise of young Arab