Morocco chooses Islam

The Islamic Party of Justice and Development has a chance to show the world that Islamic government can contribute to democracy and good governance.

ABDELILAH BENKIRANE meets with King Mohammed VI. 311 R (photo credit: Reuters)
ABDELILAH BENKIRANE meets with King Mohammed VI. 311 R
(photo credit: Reuters)
King Mohammed VI’s unprecedented revolutionary act of appointing as prime minister the head of an Islamic party is good for democracy.
Why? The historic appointment demonstrates, once again, as in Tunisia’s recent elections, that an Islamic party can be democratically voted into power in the Middle East, and the decision respected by the vested interests of the country.
Whether those vested interests be the army, which ruled in Tunisia under General Ben Ali, or the monarchy, which runs all arms of government in Morocco, they can let democracy flourish.
Morocco shows us an enlightened, reformminded monarchy reaching out to all sectors of society and opting for increased democracy.
Admittedly, the king continues to control everything.
But his appointing a prime minister from an Islamic party, the direct predecessors of which were both anti-monarchical and banned by the king’s late father, shows rapid democratic progress.
In appointing the leader of the party with the largest number of votes (the Islamic PJD), the king is seen to have kept his word and abided by his new Constitution, even though the party achieved only 107 out of 395 possible seats.
Critics of the outgoing government claim that democratic progress has been far too slow, and some protest that only 45 percent of the electorate voted, according to official figures.
That’s a low figure, but it is an 8% improvement over the 2007 election, and it is an especially impressive accomplishment, in light of the Movement of 20 February call to boycott the election. The Council of Europe’s observers declared the elections fair, and there was no associated violence.
Churchill claimed that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. But after speaking to many voters, it is clear to me that an Islamic-led coalition is perhaps better placed than any Moroccan government of recent times to carry out necessary reforms. Why? Precisely because the Islamic parties have been kept out of all previous coalitions, the progressive PJD is relatively untainted by corruption, at least at this moment.
GOOD FOR Morocco also, therefore, because it needs stable, democratically endorsed rule, to combat major problems of poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and corruption. The population is over 31 million now, around three times greater than what it was at independence in 1956. And about a third of the population is under 18 years old.
The average GDP per capita is under $5,000 per year, and around 15% of the population live under the poverty line. Much needs to be done.
The PJD’s secretary-general will succeed in setting up a Islamic-led government with a stable majority. Stability is a “consummation devoutly to be wished” among the slings and arrows of today’s Middle East.
The appointment by a moderate monarch supported by the West of an Islamic prime minister sends a message to the world that there need be no clash of civilizations, and that Islam can live happily with Western democratic norms.
This can give a shining example to other nations in need of urgent reform, such as Egypt, and many other Arab potentates. Jordan’s Abdullah II, for instance, following Mohammed VI’s example, has also promised to appoint as premier the head of the party winning the most support in elections.
Why do I have such faith in this Islamic Party of Justice and Development (PJD)? Abdelilah Benkirane, the PJD’s bearded, 57- year-old secretary-general, said that the PJD is “open to everyone” and will change its program to appease coalition partners. Outgoing Premier al-Fassi of the nationalist Istiqlal party is expected to join the coalition with his 60 seats. He has described PJD’s victory as “a victory for democracy.”
The Union of Socialist Progressive Forces (39 seats) is also expected by many to join the coalition.
If so, a coalition of these three parties alone will have a clear majority.
“Our program’s core will have a double axis,” Benkirane told the international television station France 24 “democracy and good governance.”
This bodes well, if implemented. His party has pledged tax reform in order to take more from the rich and improve the kingdom’s deficit.
Outside Morocco, the PJD is considered a moderate Islamic party, and has made it clear it will neither ban alcohol nor impose the veil.
From a European perspective, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe hit the right note by stressing “One cannot ask that every Islamic party be stigmatized. That would be a historic error. On the contrary, we must talk to those who don’t cross our red lines, namely respect for elections, the rule of law and human rights.”
However, in Morocco itself, the PJD is thought by some of its opponents to be highly conservative.
King Hassan II, father of the current monarch, even banned one of the PJD’s progenitors.
PJD’s critics claim it changed its policies on the surface after the 2003 Casablancan bombs, only in order to cultivate a moderate image for electoral advantage. Other Islamists were convicted for those crimes, and the PJD did not wish to be tarred with the same brush. Also, it seems the PJD was instrumental recently in preventing a Freedom of Conscience clause from being inserted in the new Moroccan constitution.
Nonetheless, if any party has the will to combat corruption and vested interests, it is an Islamic party untainted by participation in previous administrations. How far its wings will be trimmed by its coalition partners remains to be seen.
Mohammed VI’s new inclusiveness is one all Middle Eastern leaders should adopt.
The writer runs a UK-based international law office and is a frequent commentator on North Africa.