Morocco: How Islamic will it become?


Abdelilah Benkirane, Morocco's new prime minister as the leader of the Justice and Development Party (PJD) at a press conference in Rabat on November 27, 2011, after the announcement of the official parliamentary election's results. The moderate Islamist party won the most seats in Morocco's parliamentary elections, giving it the right to lead a coalition government for the first time.


Abdelhak Senna

CASABLANCA, Morocco — Will Morocco's newly elected Islamist government force women to wear veils and forbid bars from serving alcohol?

These are the fears that panicked a select segment of Moroccan society when the Moroccan Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) won the biggest share of votes in the November elections.

These Moroccans cling to secular values and they were afraid that the newly elected government would institute radical changes to enforce Islamic rule.

Skeptics, on the other hand, said sarcastically they wished the newly-elected government would have the kind of power that they could make such far-reaching  decisions in a country where, despite recent constitutional reforms, most powers remain in the hands of the king.

While the media compared the Islamist PJD party to Tunisia's Ennahda or the Turkish Justice and Development Party, it seems that the Moroccan party, whose creation was encouraged by the Moroccan regime in the 1990s, has always been supportive of decisions made by the monarchy. For instance, the PJD party  refused to join protesters in February when they took to the streets to demand radical reforms in the country.

"The current trend in Arab societies is to elect Islamist representatives," declared the Islamologist Mathieu Guidere. "But in the case of Morocco, it is a more controlled and regulated transition than in Tunisia."

After the first demonstrations started in Morocco in February, the country's ruler, King Mohammed VI, reacted quickly by promising sweeping reforms. Under his orders, a new constitution was drafted and approved by a referendum in July by more than 95 percent of voters — such a result undermines the idea that the country is on its way toward true democracy.

In November, the PJD won the biggest bloc of parliamentary seats, 107 out of 395, the biggest win in contemporary Moroccan history. Voter turnout was 45 percent, higher than the 2007 elections when only 37 percent of eligible voters went to the polls.

In a country where many politicians pay off voters, the PJD managed to mobilize an unprecedented amount of votes, while running a clean campaign.

More from GlobalPost: Moderate Islamist party claims victory in Morocco

The party made big promises, pledging to break with the past by primarily fighting corruption and autocracy, and denouncing elected officials who benefit from the awarding of government contracts. Inspired by the AKP's example of outstanding economic performance, the party also promised a 7 percent growth rate in a country that has seen around 4 percent growth annually in the past few years and an almost 30 percent rise in the minimum wage.

Many voters who don't subscribe to the religious ideology of the party, chose the PJD to sanction other parties for years of poor governance and for failing to serve citizens. For example, Youth and Sport Minister Moncef Belkhayat has been pummeled by the media recently for abusing government contracts — allegations he has denied.

Related: Thousands of protesters continue to demand reform in Morocco

The PJD win also doesn't come as a surprise in a country that has been "Islamized" by the regime over the past few decades in order to fight the leftist opposition.

On Nov. 30, King Mohammed, accordingly to the new constitution, named Abdelilah Benkirane, the head of the PJD, as prime minister and asked him to form a coalition government. Benkirane, a man popular among Moroccans for his bluntness, his humor, his strong personality and a talent for speaking to crowds, said he will discuss matters directly with the king without going through intermediaries.

“I would like this meeting to be short to avoid people saying that I am giving you instructions or that I am trying to influence the structure of the government and the choice of ministers. Go, do your work, and after the doors of my palace will be open to you,” the king told Benkirane when he met him for the first time, daily newspaper Akhbar Al Yaoum reported.

Many Moroccans, however, don’t believe there has been real change.

Shortly after the elections, Mohammed VI nominated royal advisers, including his close friend Fouad Ali El Himma, the architect of the Moroccan political sphere in the last years, a move that was perceived by pro-democracy protesters, who for months have held signs that read “El Himma Degage,” as a signal that nothing will change.

The socialist Abderrahmane Youssoufi, who at one time was sentenced to death, was called on by late king Hassan II to lead the government in 1998, admitted his failure to implement change recently to the press. “We got the government but the power remained between invisible hands,” he said. Many fear the PJD will experience the same.

After 10 months of protests on the streets, Al Adl Wal Ihssane, the banned but tolerated Islamist party that had joined the Feb. 20 youth movement, decided to dissociate itself from the movement, and to stop demonstrating. Saying in a statement that the movement was merely a way for people to voice their demands, party officials said the protests would not lead to any significant reform in the country especially the ideal of a parliamentary monarchy.

With the Feb. 20 movement weakening, Moroccans will quickly find out if the country is truly changing or if these Islamists will allow real reforms, say observers.

“The Benkirane government, and Benkirane himself, will have to speak to the minds and the pockets of the people within the first three months," wrote Akhbar Al Yaoum's editor, Taoufiq Bouaachrine, "because the expectations are great, the street is boiling and people's patience is rather limited."

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