In Morocco, Islamists Learn To Work With A King

Jan 22, 2012
Originally published on January 25, 2012 9:24 am

An Islamist party heads Morocco's newly elected government, part of a wave of Islamist election victories following uprisings across North Africa.

But Morocco's case is a bit different. King Mohammed VI responded quickly to a pro-democracy movement last year with a new constitution and snap elections. The Justice and Development Party, known as the PJD, won the most votes in November. Now, Moroccans ask: How will this popular Islamist party govern?

Islamists in the PJD say they are different. For one thing, they stayed away from street protests last year, when pro-democracy activists called for an end to corruption and a curb on the absolute power of the monarchy.

Another difference lies in the fact that the PJD's victory came from reform, a consequence of measures proposed by the king rather than a revolution, as in Egypt and Tunisia.

They won the most votes, but not enough to govern alone. Now, the PJD must share power with the king's closest allies.

"Our way of government is to work and to cooperate with the king," says Mustapha Khalifi, 35, the youngest Cabinet minister and a key member of the party.

When asked whether the party is Islamic, democratic and royalist, he agrees that these are "the three elements that describe our identity in the political arena."

Khalifi, a former newspaper editor, helped shape the party identity. He says he learned how democracy works while interning in a congressional office in Washington, D.C. The PJD's platform is to create jobs and fight corruption in a country where cash for favors has long been a way of doing business.

Ongoing Protests

Pressure to make progress on that platform is visible on the streets of the capital, Rabat. Three times a week, thousands of unemployed graduates march to demand jobs that Morocco's economy has been unable to create.

Abdul Rahim Momneah has been marching for more than a year.

"I have a degree, a master's degree in English. I am here, idle, without job, without dignity, without anything. So we hope from this new government to find a solution to this," he says.

More than half of Morocco's population of 32 million is under 25, and youth unemployment tops 30 percent. Last week, the protests took a dangerous turn, a reminder of protests in other Arab countries, when five unemployed students set themselves on fire; three went to the hospital.

"The demand now is really on improving the standards of living of Moroccans," says Abou Bakr Jamai, an exiled financial journalist and prominent dissident. "In all fairness, they have no way to achieve that. Even in a purely democratic system, they can't."

The PJD enters government just as the country is facing an economic blow tied to Europe. Tens of thousands of Moroccans went to work there and send money home. But Europe's financial crisis, Jamai says, is shutting down that option.

"People will probably at some point be coming back to Morocco because the situation in so dire," he says.

Morocco's Arab Spring started on Feb. 20, 2011. The movement is quieter now, but still a force, a nationwide opposition movement. Khalifi says his Justice and Development Party shares many of the same goals. If the PJD fails, he says, the party will lose the next election.

"We are under the pressure that we should deliver answers to the people," Khalifi says. "In the era of the Arab Spring, there is no choice."

And in this new era, the price of failure will come quickly, says Mohammed El Boukili with the Moroccan Association for Human Rights.

"The masses, millions of people are watching and waiting. Moroccans are patient, but it can explode," he says.

And this is the biggest pressure on the Justice and Development Party. It faces the same hurdles all the Islamist parties new to power are facing: how to govern at a time of rising expectations, how to deliver both change and stability, and — in Morocco — how to remain a democrat and a royalist.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There has been a wave of Islamist election victories in North Africa following popular uprisings across the Arab world. In Egypt, the party associated with the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood is down the most powerful voice in Parliament. And in Morocco, King Mohammed VI sanctioned elections in response to last year's pro-democracy protest; that happened last November. The Justice and Development Party won most of the votes. Now Moroccans are wondering how this popular Islamist party will govern.

NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Islamists in the Justice and Development Party, the PJD as it's known, say they are different.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

AMOS: For one thing, they stayed away from street protests last year when pro-democracy activists called for an end to corruption and a curb on the absolute power of the monarchy.

Here's another difference: The PJD's victory came from reform, a consequence of measures proposed by the king rather than a revolution, as in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

They won the most votes, but not enough to govern alone. The PJD must share power with the king's closest allies and that is how they will govern.

MUSTAPHA KHALIFI: Our way of government is to work and to cooperate with the king.

AMOS: That's Mustapha Khalifi. At 35, he's the youngest cabinet minister and a key member of the party.

So, it is right then to describe you as Islamic, democratic and royalist?

KHALIFI: Yes, the three elements that describe our identity in the political arena.

AMOS: A former newspaper editor, Khalifi helped shape the party identity. He says he learned how democracy works in Washington, while interning in a congressional office. The PJD's platform is to create jobs and fight corruption in a country where cash for favors has long been a way of doing business.

Do you think your popularity comes from, that when you want to fight corruption, you vote for Islamists because they are clean?

KHALIFI: In some way, yes. People are asking to have real answers to their demand.

AMOS: And so, do you feel that pressure?

KHALIFI: Yes, I feel it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

AMOS: That pressure is right on the streets of the capital, Rabat. Three times a week, thousands of unemployed college graduates march to demand jobs that Morocco's economy has been unable to create. Youth unemployment tops 30 percent. This week, the protests took a dangerous turn, a reminder of protests in other Arab countries. Five of the jobless set themselves on fire, three went to the hospital.

ABO BAKR JAMIA , FINANCIAL JOURNALIST: The demand now is really on improving the standards of living of Moroccans. And in all fairness, they have no way to achieve that. Even in a purely democratic system, they can't.

AMOS: Abo Bakr Jamai, an exiled financial journalist and prominent dissident, says the PJD enters government just as the country is facing an economic blow tied to Europe. Tens of thousands of Moroccans went to work there, they send money home. But Jamai says Europe's financial crisis is shutting down that option.

JOURNALIST: People would probably at some point be coming back to Morocco because the situation in so dire.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS SINGING)

AMOS: February 20, 2011 was the start date for Morocco's Arab Spring, a movement that reflects widespread discontent. It's quieter now, but still a force, a nationwide opposition movement.

Mustapha Khalifi says his Justice and Development Party shares many of the same goals. If the PJD fails, he says, the party will lose the next election.

KHALIFI: We are under the pressure that we should deliver answers to the people. In the era of the Arab Spring, there is no choice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AMOS: This is how the streets of Morocco sound today. But in the era of the Arab Spring, the price of failure will come quickly, says Mohammed El Boukili with the Association of Human Rights.

MOHAMMED EL BOUKILI: The masses, millions of people are watching and waiting. Moroccans are patient, but it can explode.

AMOS: And this is the biggest pressure on the Justice and Development Party, the same hurdles faced by all the Islamist parties new to power since the Arab uprisings: How to govern at a time of rising expectations; how to deliver both change and stability; and in Morocco, how to remain a democrat and a royalist.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.