Report: Are Morocco’s Islamists Bucking the Trend?

Jul 14, 2014

           Morocco’s Islamists, like their counterparts in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, succeeded in elections following the 2011 Arab uprisings. But the Party of Justice and Development (PJD) has managed to stay in government while Islamist parties elsewhere have resigned or have been forced out of government. The PJD, however, faces several difficult challenges in Morocco’s political transition, according to a new Fride report by Anouar Boukhars. “The fragility of the Islamist-led coalition government, the absence of autonomous countervailing powers of civil society and labour unions, and a regional context hostile to democratic change, make it extremely difficult for the PJD to resist the different factions rooted in the palace and associated political and economic circles that refuse to give up the spoils of power,” according to Boukhars. The following are excerpts from the report.

           So far, the PJD’s strategy can be succinctly summed up as: (1) preserving the party’s unity; (2) empowering [Prime Minister Abdelilah] Benkirane to perform the role of communicator in- chief by using a straight, folksy approach to explain his party’s struggle against the enemies of change; (3) pursuing modest structural reforms that can have a cumulative impact over time; and (4) trying to improve the party’s bargaining position vis-à-vis the monarchy by building a win-win relationship with the king.

           The trajectory of political change in Morocco remains deeply contradictory and inconclusive. The PJD entered the political transition determined to reassure, build confidence and avoid confrontation with the monarchy. The good news for the Islamists is that the party has accomplished the last goal and is still hanging on to power. The bad news for the democratic transition is that the PJD spent the best part of its tenure in government buffeted by internal pressures and external shocks. 2013 was particularly a difficult year for Morocco’s Islamists in government. The Muslim Brotherhood’s collapse in Egypt weakened the PJD and the withdrawal of a major coalition partner destabilised it for months. Even the combative Abdelilah Benkirane looked like a bruised boxer forced into a defensive crouch to fend off the punches threatening to unseat him and damage the PJD. As a result, the great expectations for combating corruption and the effective enactment of the new constitution disappeared onto the back burner as holding onto power and preserving party unity became goals onto themselves.

          The hardest work of the democratic transition has therefore not yet started. Benkirane has managed to establish a strong media presence and to use it as a sort of bully pulpit to break through all the clutter and noise. This drive for the command of public attention can potentially rival the monarchy’s pre-eminence in the public scene. But it is not enough to bring about political change. The party needs to find common ground with the monarchy on issues of shared interest, but must have the courage to confront corruption and push for the big reforms like regionalisation laws, electoral laws and the right of access to information. Otherwise, if the deadlock continues, the Benkirane government may eventually have to resign, and would no longer buck the regional trend of Islamists losing power.

Click here for the full report.

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The Islamists Are Coming is the first book to survey the rise of Islamist groups in the wake of the Arab Spring.  Often lumped together, the more than 50 Islamist parties with millions of followers now constitute a whole new spectrum—separate from either militants or secular parties.  They will shape the new order in the world’s most volatile region more than any other political bloc. Yet they have diverse goals and different constituencies. Sometimes they are even rivals.

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