In Morocco, Islamists Learn To Work With A King

Jan 22, 2012

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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