The Middle East Channel

The fate of Morocco’s Islamists

After Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster from power, Islamists in Egypt face an uncertain fate. But they aren’t the only ones. Developments in Egypt now pose a particularly thorny problem for groups across the Middle East and North Africa that trace their lineage back to the Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s oldest Islamist movement. Is the ...


After Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster from power, Islamists in Egypt face an uncertain fate. But they aren’t the only ones. Developments in Egypt now pose a particularly thorny problem for groups across the Middle East and North Africa that trace their lineage back to the Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s oldest Islamist movement.

Is the Islamist experiment in political participation now doomed? If my discussions with Islamists in Morocco these past two weeks are any indication, the answer, at least in Morocco, seems clear. It is not, according to them, that democratic governance is flawed, but rather it is how Morsi himself practiced politics that is problematic. Instead of tying their fate to Morsi — in the hopes of boosting the former Egyptian president’s image and thus their own — I instead heard Moroccan Islamists go to great lengths to try to differentiate themselves from the Brotherhood’s experience. 

"What do you think," I asked in Arabic, "about the situation with your brothers in Egypt?" But before I could finish my question, a leader of Morocco’s governing Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) interrupted me. "In Egypt," he said firmly, "they are not our brothers."

"Yes, we took inspiration from some of their ideas," he admitted, and "we don’t deny that we are part of the Islamist movement." But he took umbrage at any suggestion that the two groups were comparable, choosing instead to paint the PJD as the Brotherhood’s more learned, established, and experienced relative. "We’ve grown up into a mature political party; we have learned a great deal," he said.

Some faulted Islamists in Egypt for not taking time to learn more about their political system before entering it. I heard often, for example, PJD members brag about the 14 years they spent in politics, in the opposition — before they ultimately began governing in 2011. Unlike Morsi, they said, "We didn’t go directly to being president." One member noted how Morsi would have done well for himself if he had studied "Samuel Huntington’s writing on democratic transitions."

Others took issue with the way Morsi sought to consolidate power, noting that in Morocco the PJD does not "govern alone." After sweeping Morocco’s 2011 legislative elections, the PJD opted to form a broad coalition with three parties (of different ideological backgrounds). "You have to invite others to participate with you," one noted, subtly chastising Morsi. He also pointed out the obvious: in Morocco, he said, "we also share power with a king."

Finally, I heard discussions about how the political systems in Morocco and Egypt are themselves unique. "We can’t compare ourselves to Egypt," one member said, almost taking offense at the suggestion. "Yes, we’ve had human rights violations in the past, but we’ve made considerable strides in human rights here." Some pointed to Morocco’s "long history of multi-party political contestation" or its "tradition of diversity," bringing together people of different ethnic, religious, and ideological backgrounds.

To be fair, I have heard some (but not all of) these distinctions before, but rarely with this force or unanimity. Every member of the PJD I spoke to — leaders and rank and file alike — seemed to share these general sentiments.

But the PJD’s efforts to claim, as one member said to me, that they have "no relationship with the Brotherhood in Egypt" face certain complications. While not formally an offshoot of the Brotherhood (like, say Islamist parties in Jordan or Kuwait), they nonetheless exhibit what Brotherhood expert Carrie Wickham has called a "family resemblance." This applies to their histories, organization, and even ideology.

The PJD routinely, for example, invites Islamists from Egypt to its events, often looking to them for inspiration. I watched, for example, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Brotherhood’s spiritual and intellectual influence, address an enthusiastic audience of young PJD activists at an official party event a few years ago. And most importantly, whether they like it or not, most citizens and governments — in the Middle East and the West alike — routinely conflate the two groups. A newspaper in Morocco over the weekend plastered a photo of Morocco’s prime minister (and the PJD’s head), Abdullah Benkirane, warmly shaking Morsi’s hand. The caption read, in part, "Game over." PJD’s non-Islamist foe in Morocco, the Istiqlal (Independence) party, predicted that Benkirane would ultimately meet Morsi’s fate.

For their part, members of Morocco’s other major Islamist movement, Al Adl Wal Ihsan, or the Justice and Spirituality Organization (JSO), also seem to be using the Morsi case to solidify their own arguments about local politics — and to take digs against their competitor, the PJD. One member told me that Morsi’s travails proved once again how their late founder and spiritual guide, Abdesslam Yassine, was right. "He wrote decades ago," he told me, "that the military would pose the biggest challenge to groups like us." Another Al Adl member used the Morsi experience to criticize how the PJD works closely with and supports the king. "Morsi’s problem," he told me, "was that he kept too much power for himself." The implication was that too much power in one person is never constructive.

Moving forward, the greatest challenge to the PJD will likely come not from the perception that it is similar to the Muslim Brotherhood, but from realities on the ground: whether, that is, it will be more effective in overcoming the challenges that plagued Morsi. I asked PJD activists, for example, if they at least felt that their party faced some of the same obstacles as Morsi, who tried (ultimately unsuccessfully) to stamp out officials from the regime of Hosni Mubarak that sought to undermine him — those that Egyptians dubbed the "folool."

In Morocco, Benkirane admits similar problems, but has opted for different terminology — and approaches. Using his trademark folksy and populist manner, he has come to label those most resistant to change — corrupt politicians and entrenched business and financial forces — as "ghosts" or "crocodiles." They are ghosts or "evil spirits" because they are seemingly everywhere, difficult to pinpoint, and even more difficult to eradicate. The "crocodile" metaphor is somewhat more nuanced: crocodiles, as popular interpretation suggests, are easy to handle when they are little, but once they grow big, they are almost impossible to control. This, the metaphor portends, is what corruption has now become in Morocco — having reached a point where controlling it poses a serious challenge.

One PJD leader I interviewed admitted that there are people in the country who have, what he termed, "interests." But, he claimed, that one could not root them out immediately or even shun them. Once again, he preferred a gradual and conciliatory approach: you have to do deal with them "slowly," he said. "We never said we would deprive people of their interests." Plus, he said, "We can’t judge corrupt people," and he used a Moroccan saying to underline his point: "God" he says, "forgives what happened in the past."

His party is looking to the future, he said, not ready to abandon democracy in the wake of Morsi’s demise, but instead committed to improving it — to bringing about "good governance, rule of law, honesty, and ethics in politics."

But the question remains: will the Moroccan people — or even those with interests opposed to the Islamists — be willing to give the PJD the time in politics that it desires?

There are few Moroccans protesting on the streets, and Benkirane remains personally popular. But, in the long term, one Moroccan university professor was not sanguine. "We elected them — the Islamists — to root out corruption," he told me. "If they know where the ghosts and crocodiles are, then they must tell us and they must get rid of them. It is not enough just to say they are there."

Plus, he said, even more ominously, "If you don’t stop them, ghosts will always haunt you." 

Avi M. Spiegel, an assistant professor of political science and international relations at the University of San Diego, is completing a book on the next generation of political Islam. This essay is part of a special series on Islam in the Changing Middle East supported by the Henry Luce Foundation.

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