From Persecuted to in Power: Morocco's Islamist Party Sweeps Elections

What a difference a Spring can make. An Arab Spring. In July 2009 I was in Rabat, Morocco, on my way to interview the leader of a political party known as Justice and Development. We arrived at the party's suburban headquarters and rang the bell at a house surrounded by high walls.
"You sure this is the place?" I said to my fixer, Merieme.
"This is it," she said. "This is the number."
We were going by the number because there was no other indication on the building that this was the headquarters of arguably Morocco's most popular political party.
"We have no sign outside because the power does not allow it," the party's General Secretary, Abdelwahed Motawakil, told me a few minutes later, seated upstairs in the beautifully decorated mansion. He was referring to Morocco's King, Mohammed XI. Downstairs in the courtyard, high school students from one of PJD's many religious schools were celebrating the end of exams with songs and a feast.
"As you know, the political system, everything, is in one hand," Motawakil said. "It is a pure despotism, an absolutist system. We have some institutions like the parliament but they have no real power. That is the main source of all our troubles."
The PJD didn't recognize the king's authority the Monarchy as a legitimate political institution. For that reason, Motawakil told me, his party was being punished. He cited constant police surveillance and harassment, and the recent jailing of a party leader for stating that Morocco should become a republic.
This past Sunday, less than three years later, the PJD participated in elections called for by the same "one hand" that had kept this moderate Islamic movement under its thumb for years. Results show that the PJD won more than a hundred seats in parliament, twice as many as the nearest contender.
This is significant regionally, as it's another example of an Islamist party rapidly filling the political vacuum left by this year's popular expulsions of dictators from Egypt and across the Magreb.
Within Morocco itself, it's simply stunning. Because King Mohammed XI will soon be called upon to form his "kingdom's" next government. And his Prime Minister will come directly from the ranks of the party he persecuted, the PJD. The party that doesn't officially recognize the King.
The Arab Spring has forced both sides together. The King allowed all of this to happen out of fear that popular revolts would reach Morocco. One question now is to what degree King Mohammed XI will relinquish power to this landmark legislature. An equally important question is what the PJD will push for with its new found power.
I asked Motawakil during our 2009 interview what vision his party had for Morocco.
The PJD's role, he told me, was "to make people aware of most fundamental human right, which is the right to know to know his creator, to know God. This is something that is very important. They (politics and God) go hand in hand and cannot be separated."
That sounds squarely Islamist, on the face of it. But at the same time, Motawakil underscored, the word "justice" in the party name meant "participating fairly in the established political system."
Much will depend on the parties with which the PJD allies to form a government. What's clear is that any new government must act quickly to create jobs for young people and to reverse popular mistrust of politics in general. By some accounts nearly a fifth of all ballots cast in Sunday's elections were blank.

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