Divide and Rule

Following the Justice and Development Party's victory in the Moroccan parliamentary elections recently, the King of Morocco may well be looking to demystify the Islamists by granting them a slice of the power pie, writes Sonja Hegasy

By Sonja Hegasy

On 29 November 2011, the secretary general of the Justice and Development Party (PJD), Abdelilah Benkirane, was appointed prime minister of Morocco by King Mohammed VI and instructed to form a government. Benkirane reported with pride that this was the first time he had spoken personally with the King.

Benkirane's moderate Islamist PJD won 107 seats in the parliamentary poll, giving it a clear majority. The result shows that the PJD has been able to consolidate its support base. For many voters from the bourgeois middle class, it was obviously the only remaining alternative to a jaded establishment.

But one should not forget that parliament was enlarged by a further 70 seats in 2011. This means that in actual fact, everyone was a winner in this election: the five major parties all increased their share of seats.

The Authenticity and Modernity Party, with a clear policy goal of realising the King's programme of modernisation, won 47 seats in this, its first ever election. The party was founded in 2008 by Fouad Ali Himma, an ally of the King. He is viewed as a symbol of the monarchy in Morocco, and many of the protests in 2011 were directed against him.

Low voter turnout

A good result, but certainly not a landslide victory: Benkirane's PJD won 107 of the 395 seats in parliament, twice as many as the second-largest party; it now has to start searching for a coalition partner

​​Official figures show that voter turnout increased slightly from 37 to 45 per cent, but only half of the Moroccan population is registered on the electoral roll. The illegal Islamist organisation al-Adl wal-ihsan (Justice and Welfare) disputes these figures and puts voter turnout at just 25 per cent.

If this is an accurate assessment, it would represent a clear vote against the King's gradual reformist strategy. Forces pushing for a profound change in Moroccan politics were unimpressed by constitutional amendments approved in a referendum on 1 July of this year. Several smaller left-wing splinter parties, the 20 February Youth Movement and the Justice and Welfare organisation all called on voters to boycott the poll.

But why is the Moroccan government only publishing seat distribution in the assembly, and not, as in previous years, what percentage of the total vote each party obtained? The PJD will have almost doubled its share, giving it around 22 per cent of the vote. This is a good result of the kind the party had hoped for back in 2007, but it is not a landslide victory.

One key change to the constitution means that now, for the first time, the King is obliged to appoint the election winner to the post of prime minister. This means that the King had no choice but to commission Abdelilah Benkirane with the task of forming a new cabinet. The Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP) is still considering whether or not it is open to a coalition arrangement with the Islamists.

No threat to the monarchy

The 20 February Youth Movement, the Justice and Welfare organisation and a number of splinter groups called for a nationwide boycott of the parliamentary elections

​​Before the poll, sceptics voiced concern that Mohammed VI could find a way to sidestep this revised constitutional stipulation. But in the euphoric mood of 2011, the PJD has actually been quite useful to the monarchy, which now feels able to allow an Islamist to take power, because this party leader has repeatedly made it known that he is loyal to the state.

This has allowed the King to gain time. The PJD does not represent a threat to the monarchy. On the contrary, Benkirane snubbed the youth movement in advance of the poll and portrayed his party as true custodian of the monarchy. This was a step too far for the Islamists of the Justice and Welfare movement, led by Abdessalam Yassine. In 2007, they called on their followers to vote for the PJD; this time, they called for a boycott.

After 35 years in politics, Benkirane has reached his goal. He was a member of the Islamist youth movement Shabiba Islamiya, a movement that was founded in the 1970s and used to advocate violence in the furtherance of its aims. For a long time, he was leader of the Reform and Renewal brotherhood. Since 1992, he has attempted several times to form a party, admittedly among conservative, pro-monarchy circles.

In 1992, for example, he turned to Istiqlal (Independence Party), which served many years in government. In 1996, he joined forces with Abdelkrim Khatib in a bid to fuse the barely-functioning party "Mouvement populaire, constitutionnel et démocratique" with the spiritual movement "Unity and Reform" to form the PJD.

This also occurred on the initiative of the former interior minister Driss Bassri. On the one hand, this allowed for the establishment of an Islamist alternative on the Moroccan party landscape; on the other, the presence of Khatib in the arrangement meant that an ally of the monarchy was involved in the process.

No wolf in sheep's clothing

A vote against the King's policy of gradual reform? At 45 per cent, voter turnout was low, even though it was higher than it was four years ago, when only 37 per cent of voters cast their vote

​​In his first statement, Benkirane stressed that Morocco has been an Islamic state for four centuries already. His chief concern now, he said, are the socio-economic challenges facing the nation. He went on to say that it is not his aim to interfere in the private lives of Moroccans and quickly backed off a ban on alcohol. Perhaps VAT on alcohol will be increased instead.

Benkirane has himself adopted four of his six children, although orthodox Islam forbids adoption in the technical sense. In the PJD's 14-page manifesto, the word "Islam" is only mentioned four times, namely in reference to local values and commercial law. Benkirane has already said on many occasions that Islam is not a static religion. He is not a wolf in sheep's clothing.

For Benkirane, the key issue here is the common good. But will he have the courage to stand up to the King on important matters such as the redistribution of wealth, just social investment or corruption? Mohammed VI may well be looking to demystify the Islamists by granting them their slice of the power pie. An audience with the monarch would be the first step.

Sonja Hegasy

© Qantara.de 2011

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

Dr Sonja Hegasy is a scholar of Islam and vice-director of the Centre for Modern Oriental Studies in Berlin, Germany.