Foreign Policy

Posted By Avi Spiegel

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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).   

But, 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. 

Perhaps 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 the 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 reject them.

The 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.

The 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.

Most 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 oppose it. 

It 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."

After 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?  

Yet, 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. 

This 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.

They 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.

The 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. 

This 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. 

AviSpiegel is an assistant professor of political science at the University of San Diego and is completing a book on the rise of young Arab Islamists.


Posted By Avi Spiegel

As turmoil swept one Arab country after another, Morocco seemed to offer a distinctive opportunity for peaceful reform initiated by the government and overseen by a popular monarch. But the dreams of Moroccan exceptionalism may soon be dead, or at the very least battered and beaten, like the thousands of protesters taking to the streets of the North African kingdom. Police brutality and repression has reached new heights. And, as has been the case elsewhere, the more police beat them down, the more the protesters of this Arab Spring seem to be picking themselves up and persisting.

Despite all the Moroccan regime has done to hold itself out as unique, its tactics are beginning to appear jarringly familiar. First, it tried denial (Morocco, officials told us, was immune to volatility). Then it tried belittlement (the king first called the protests "demagoguery"). It even tried reform (the official results of a constitutional commission are due out this month). And now, as rationale for a bloody crackdown in May (which injured dozens and killed one), the government has reverted to a favorite authoritarian pretext: the specter of Islamist manipulation. 

"The Moroccan government has nothing against the February 20 Movement," the Communications Minister said, using the popular name for Morocco's version of the Arab Spring protest group. "But we suspect its members are being manipulated by the Islamists and the movements of the left." The minister went on to point the finger at one group in particular: the illegal Islamist movement, Al Adl Wal Ihsan or the Justice and Spirituality Organization (JSO). But this should be seen for what it is: one more tactic designed to put off demands for reform. I spent two years on the ground studying JSO and the slew of other Islamist groups in Morocco, and recognize this as a familiar ploy. 

In Morocco, as in every country in the region, Islamists represent a diverse, evolving, and messy field. The term "Islamist" could reasonably be applied to the banned JSO; or to the legal political party, the Party of Justice and Development (PJD); or to a bevy of illegal Salafi oriented groups. It could even pertain to the monarchy itself, which claims direct descent from the Prophet Mohammed and assumes the role of "Commander of the Faithful." As one of PJD's early founders, Mohammed Yatim, once noted: "Our problem in Morocco is not in establishing an Islamic state. Theoretically and constitutionally, this state is already [one]." 

It is not "Islamists" in general that the government has a problem with, but rather simply the ones that openly challenge the status quo. In a divide which echoes the cautions of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the early days of that uprising, the legal party, PJD, has largely remained ambivalent. Many of its members still cling to the increasingly anachronistic conviction that political change is most effectively pursued from within the system. This has been that movement's hallmark since (or, indeed, as a basis for) its licensed admission into the electoral system in 1997. While PJD shares historical and ideological commonalities with the Muslim Brotherhood, it has also spoken fawningly of Turkey's AKP Party, with whom it shares its very name (in Arabic).

The JSO, by contrast, has wholeheartedly embraced the Arab Spring. Because JSO is largely unknown outside Morocco, it is an easy target. For years as the largest opposition force in Morocco, JSO may very well be the least understood Islamist group in the world. It has certainly belied casuistic categorizations of religio-political activism. The JSO is illegal but nonviolent, repressed but thriving. Its members boycott elections, but are also politically engaged. And while nonviolence is one of the group's three core precepts, it has not shied away from calling for the overthrow of the Moroccan regime and for an entirely new constitutional system. Such sentiments were, until this year, almost unheard of in Morocco. 

The JSO was officially formed more than three decades ago by Abdeslam Yassine, who now serves as its spiritual guide or murshid. Despite Yassine's background with the prominent Boutchichiya Sufis, his writings are as varied as they are prolific, engaging with Sufism, Salafism, and even Marxism. Young members have been known to cite both Yassine and Samuel Huntington in a single sentence. While the group is organized, in part, like a traditional Sufi brotherhood, it also functions increasingly like a modern political party, replete with a political wing (or "circle"), official spokespeople, complex organizational charts, internal elections, and multiple websites.   

As is often the case with illegal movements, estimates of JSO's size are notoriously unreliable. PJD's secretary general once shrewdly speculated that his rival only had around 5,000 followers; authorities have suggested that it's closer to 50,000.  I've even heard JSO's own activists invoke the word "million." The actual number of both members and supporters probably doesn't exceed 200,000. 

But regardless of the precise figure, JSO is the only group that has had past experience in mobilizing multiple and simultaneous unpermitted protest marches in cities throughout the country, similar to the kinds now seen. As far back as 2005, a young activist in the group bragged to me about their unmatched prowess at text messaging and web-based mobilization: "We can bring thousands to the streets at the press of a button. No one else can do that here." (Indeed, the one person killed in recent protests was a member of JSO.) So, while the February 20 movement is a wide compilation of voices from the left to the right, it is no coincidence that its anti-regime marches would include JSO. But news of JSO involvement would only be shocking to those outside Morocco.

The U.S. government, for one, has not had much luck or interest in figuring the group out. A classified 2008 cable to Washington from the embassy in Rabat -- released via Wikileaks -- revealed that diplomats couldn't even figure out what to call the group (was it Justice and Charity Organization or the Justice and Spirituality Organization?). The authors also seemed shocked that JSO "may be moving toward political participation" --even though the formation of its "Political Circle" had taken place a full decade earlier. This confusion was understandable. The embassy admitted that it had not had any communication with the group for at least seven years -- because the last time they tried to make contact with JSO, the Moroccan government "protested." In a practice that has become only too common, the U.S. relied on a foreign government to determine which of its nationals it would engage.   

Like most everyone in Morocco and the Arab world, JSO is still figuring out how to adjust to this new political context. They are no longer the sole opposition force in the country. They are now merely part of a much larger force for change -- and they are no longer operating in the shadows. Don't forget that it was only six years ago when Nadia Yassine (a spokesperson for the group and the founder's daughter) was brought to court for simply suggesting in a newspaper interview that Morocco could function as a "republic." Moreover, until this year, JSO was alone in calling for the king to relinquish his position as Commander of the Faithful; now such a message can be seen on protest signs. JSO's new role in the spotlight has, at least, sparked it to state publicly its goals more firmly than ever before. Nadia Yassine declared last week that her movement favored a "civil" over a "religious state." Such statements are reassuring, but still tell us little about the policies they would actually promote. 

The Moroccan government says that JSO is using the Arab Spring -- the call of democracy -- to further its own nefarious agenda in hopes of splintering the February 20 movement. But spokespeople for the February 20 movement have responded that they won't be manipulated by anyone -- and that the group, even while including Islamists, was "peaceful," "open" and "independent." JSO, for its part, says it is simply being used as a scapegoat to justify a violent crackdown. But one thing is certain: if the regime engages in bloody crackdowns, the protests will only continue. It cannot pledge reform one week and then kill protesters the next, even if the marchers include prominent "Islamists." 

Avi Spiegel is an assistant professor of political science at the University of San Diego and a fellow at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas, Austin. He is currently writing a book on young Islamists and the Arab Spring.

Posted By Avi Spiegel

When the famed author Paul Bowles first caught a glimpse of Morocco, he quickly became convinced it was a "magic place." 

The Moroccan government long ago embraced this fantasy, selling itself as a bastion of calm in a troubled region, the Arab world's model of reform. And American policymakers bought it. In sentiments repeated regularly by her successors, Madeleine Albright called the North African kingdom a "leader in democratic reform" -- boasting that "other countries are moving in the right direction, but Morocco is showing the way." 

If Morocco's political system was our model all this time, then perhaps our standards were too low. Having the least-worst record of democratization in the region should never have been enough. Every time the U.S. government lavished praise on Morocco, we sent a message to all Arab citizens: This was the most they should ever hope for. 

In fact, even in the midst of this Arab spring, there was not a lot of reason to be optimistic about the prospects for reform in Morocco. Immediately following the largest day of protests on February 20, King Mohammed VI seemed unfazed, dismissing the ambitions of the country's youth and saying simply that he would not succumb to "demagoguery." Most assumed he would proceed largely as he has for the last decade: pay lip service to democracy, but let ambivalence rule the day -- and focus instead on economic development and the cultural and religious foundations of the monarchy itself, to forestall revolt. 

After all, reform in the country has been stalled for quite some time. The country's most recent national elections in 2007 were noteworthy not for who voted, but for who abstained. Spoiled ballots reached their highest level in Moroccan history. That number should have struck even the passing observer. Over a million Moroccans took the time to stand in line at polling stations just to send a message: Their "democracy" did not live up to their standards. 

A year later, in 2008, in scenes that would seem all too familiar today, young Moroccans marched against rampant unemployment and for more open governance. This took place most dramatically in Sidi Ifni, a small Moroccan port town where I once served as a Peace Corps volunteer. After protesters brought the city to a standstill, security forces initiated a wide scale crackdown. Al Jazeera's local bureau chief was brought to court for allegedly exaggerating police abuses. His source was jailed. 

The king, though popular and relatively progressive on social issues, has held complete control over the political system, with the ability to appoint prime ministers or even dissolve parliament. A local newspaper has taken to calling the head of a major political party "the king's shadow." Indeed, it is no coincidence that the word most commonly used by Moroccans to describe the palace is makhzen, or warehouse -- for the bulk of the power of the country's major institutions has remained tightly stored within its confines. 

But that was until last week, when it suddenly and astonishingly appeared that the contents of that warehouse might actually be about to be distributed, that Morocco may now finally be serious about trying to chart a different course. In a dramatic TV appearance Wednesday, March 9, the king appeared -- at least at first glance -- to meet nearly all the protesters' political demands. He unveiled a series of sweeping constitutional reform proposals, including those that could potentially make way for a stronger separation of powers, more independent judiciary, and a freer, more powerful, and more democratic parliament. 

Why is the king's speech so significant? Unlike their presidential counterparts, Middle Eastern monarchs will not fall; they will more likely fade away. But, thus far, none of them have been able to show how that might conceivably happen. Debates over power sharing -- over the formation of legitimate constitutional monarchies -- are already unfolding in other previously unyielding monarchical regimes such as Bahrain and Jordan. 

To the Moroccan king's credit, he attempted in his address to the nation what no other leader in the region has. He committed to undertake reforms proactively -- before his position was at all threatened (protests there have been far more subdued than almost anywhere else). 

And unlike Ben Ali or Mubarak, Mohammed VI's TV mea culpa was concrete, short, and to the point. His drooping eyelids and haggard appearance displayed a new regional reality: Even the seemingly safest of Arab leaders is not getting much sleep these days. 

But is a single speech enough? 

The king has taken a critical first step: He has signaled his openness to reform. And as the king changes, so should we. The hollow rhetoric of yesteryear from American officials will no longer suffice. (Even before the king's speech, Undersecretary of State William Burns this month called Morocco "a model of economic, social, and political reform.") In his address, the king pledged "comprehensive" constitutional reform to "revamp state institutions," but such comprehensiveness will require more work. 

Specifically, three things still need to happen for Morocco to offer a real road map to reform. 

First, and most significantly, the precise role of the monarchy needs to be clarified. The loudest among the protesters in Morocco, it should be noted, have not been demanding Egypt- or Tunisia-like results; they didn't want their head of state deposed or banished. The major calls, even from the largest illegal Islamist movement, focused instead on constitutional reform. 

One Moroccan blogger joked that he would be happy simply adopting an Arabic translation of the Cambodian Constitution, the relevant section being Article 7: "The King of Cambodia shall reign but not govern." 

Others have called for following the Spanish model. While the analogy isn't perfect, it is still instructive. King Juan Carlos certainly oversaw a constitutional referendum over 30 years ago, but he had less to give up: Put simply, he never ruled Spain to the same extent as Arab monarchs do. But as Mohammed VI grapples with relegating authority, he should be reminded that even a ceremonial king can be relevant. Ceding more power to a prime minister need not mean the ultimate dissolution of the monarchy. The king of Spain, for one, remains the most popular leader in the Spanish-speaking world.
But will Morocco's new constitutional monarchy be more constitutional or more monarchical? The proposals would certainly strengthen the role of the prime minister and the judiciary, but the speech included few specifics about the governing responsibilities the king will maintain. He will give up some control, in sum, but the question that remains is how much. 

The iconography told one story. Perched confidently and diminutively beside the king on Wednesday night was the heir to the throne: his 7-year-old son, Moulay Hassan (named after his grandfather, King Hassan II), in a matching black suit, white handkerchief, and tie bar. The picture broadcast on national TV sent an obvious message: The monarchy isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Young Moulay Hassan will one day be known as King Hassan III. 

But the king's words also marked the potential birth of a strong executive to reign in the monarchy. The next prime minister, the king said, will finally be appointed by the elected parties, not by him. And before being enacted, the proposed changes will be put to a referendum. Recall that after the 2002 elections, the king went entirely outside the realm of the parties to select, almost at random, a technocrat, Driss Jettou, as prime minister. In 2007, the king also selected the PM, this time at least choosing one from the top vote getter, the Istiqlal party. Moroccans, it became clear, had been voting for parties, but the king was still selecting their leaders for them. 

For genuine reform to take place, the second thing that needs to happen is tackling the problem of corruption. The king's core promises -- "invigorating the role of" political parties and lending "independent power" to the judiciary -- will be impossible without this. Unfortunately, Mohammed VI never even uttered the word "corruption" last week. Yet, recent State Department documents released by WikiLeaks expressed in writing what most Moroccans already suspected: "major institutions and processes of the Moroccan state are used by the Palace to coerce and solicit bribes." No proposed Moroccan government will ever have the confidence of the people until graft is tackled head-on. The king can initiate this process by dismantling state monopolies and speaking out against cronyism and nepotism. 

Thirdly, as the country begins the long course of political reform called for by the king, its people need to have the freedom to debate the terms of any proposed changes openly. On Sunday (just four days after the speech), police in Casablanca undertook a violent crackdown on peaceful protesters under the pretense that they planned to "terrorize citizens." 

Indeed, WikiLeaks documents accused the palace of "appalling greed" in controlling the country's wealth, but there also exists a certain amount of greed in dominating public opinion. In the past year, the Moroccan newspaper, Nichane, was forced by the regime to shut its doors after it published a poll that found that a whopping 91 percent of Moroccans approved of Mohammed VI's performance as monarch. A government spokesman declared when the newspaper ran the poll story: "The monarchy cannot be the subject of debate." But it is precisely this type of debate that the king unleashed in his March 9 address. Hopefully, these discussions can now be allowed to continue unfettered by all Moroccans -- on the streets and in newspapers. 
If -- and it's still a big if -- all these changes come to fruition, Morocco may finally have an opportunity to become the model it has always longed to be: a model, in this case, for how to gradually relinquish monarchical control. Despite all the revelry, there hasn't been one in the Arab world this year, yet. 

Avi Spiegel is an assistant professor of political science at the University of San Diego and a fellow at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas, Austin.
Bottom of Form


No comments:

Post a Comment