Morocco’s Stability in the Wake of the Arab Spring

May 23, 2013

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, many hoped that the authoritarian regimes in the North African states of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Morocco would be swept from power and new democratic governments would replace them. Yet the transition from the old authoritarian rule to a new democratic order has not been smooth. Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have all seen a sharp rise in political instability, security problems, social unrest, and above all a growing presence of Islamist militants. These developments occurred even though these governments held successful elections in the past two years that brought Islamist parties to power for the first time, mainly in coalition with other national or secular parties.

In Algeria and Morocco, the results have not followed this paradigm. In Algeria, political reforms are not yet complete,[1] and the country’s Islamist party was crushed during parliamentary elections in May 2012. In Morocco, King Mohammed VI announced major political reforms, including a new constitution that eliminated many of the entitlements and privileges he previously enjoyed. During the subsequent elections in November 2011, the Islamists came to power, yet unlike developments in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, the rise of the Islamists in Morocco did not bring turmoil.

Although it may still be premature to judge the outcome of Morocco’s Arab Spring, there are a few clear lessons from the way that the country has conducted its transition into what is promised to be a more representative government that follows democratic principles. This article argues that the Moroccan “spring” provides a recipe for other countries in transition to follow, especially in terms of achieving a gradual change or reform without much bloodshed or instability. Morocco’s smooth transition can be best explained by the monarchy’s willingness to allow moderate Islamists to function as a legitimate political party. Morocco’s Islamists, for their part, have also shown maturity by accepting a measured, step-by-step reform process, instead of calling for a total change of the regime, as was the case in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Morocco’s Version of the Arab Spring
Morocco avoided much of the Arab Spring violence because the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) had been a recognized opposition party in the years before its rise to power in the November 2011 elections.[2] This is in stark contrast to the Islamist parties that came to power during the Arab Spring protests in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. In Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was a banned organization. In Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s Tunisia, the Ennahda movement was proscribed and its leaders driven into exile. In Mu`ammar Qadhafi’s Libya, the Muslim Brotherhood fared no better.[3]

Only in Algeria did a legal Islamist party exist, the Movement of Society for Peace (Hams). Hams was even represented in the government as a junior partner until it decided to join the opposition ahead of the legislative elections in May 2012. Hams, watching developments in neighboring countries, may have thought that the Arab Spring would bring it to power in Algeria. Instead, Hams and a coalition of other Islamists were soundly defeated, according to the official election results.[4] Hams’ election loss may have to do with the fact that it previously collaborated with the Algerian government. The opposition, therefore, may not have considered Hams capable of bringing real “change” to society since the party worked with the government for so many years. Even though Hams eventually joined the opposition, voters may have perceived that as an opportunist decision—only joining the opposition once they thought that the Arab Spring in general favored the Islamist party in elections.[5] The opposite was true in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, where the Islamists were persecuted by the old regimes; when the Arab Spring swept these governments from power, the Islamist parties were the main beneficiaries.[6]

In Morocco, however, the old government has remained in power, and the Islamists have succeeded as well. The PJD in Morocco, while always recognized as an opposition party, did not play a role in previous Moroccan governments, which may be why it was so successful in elections. Voters did not view the party as “corrupt” or as “collaborators” with the regime. Another factor that may have played to the advantage of the PJD relates to the way it responded to protestors’ demands in 2011. The PJD pursued a measured approach with how it pushed the king for reforms; it did not cause instability or invite a harsh response from the regime. In Tunisia and Egypt, in contrast, protestors demanded a total regime change.[7] In Libya, the demands were the same, and eventually the protests evolved into a full-fledged war. Yet in Morocco, the PJD showed a willingness to meet the king half-way by accepting his concessions despite some protestors’ demands for total regime change. It is not clear how much power the king was initially willing to concede, but the king and his advisers may have realized that their reforms had to be deep if they wanted to avoid developments in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, where both governments were completely toppled.[8]

In addition to having a moderate Islamist party in the officially recognized opposition, the king’s other advantage was that the country’s more extreme Islamist group—the banned Justice and Charity movement—refused to use violence against the regime despite its strict position on the “illegality” of the monarch as the “leader of the faithful,” as well as its opposition to the monarchy as a system of government. The movement engaged in demonstrations as part of the 20th February youth movement, but it refused to adopt violence—contrary to what occurred in Tunisia and Egypt, and then later Libya.[9]

The Justice and Charity movement was unhappy with the scope of reforms included in the new constitution, but its call for a boycott of the referendum to approve the amendments was not heeded by Moroccans; instead, they voted overwhelmingly to approve it.[10] That setback was the start of the break-up of the 20th February movement; the Justice and Charity faction withdrew from the coalition, depriving the movement from the thousands of Islamists who made the bulk of the protestors calling for regime change. Today, the Justice and Charity movement seems to be contemplating applying to become a legally recognized political party. This would allow it to push for its objectives through the ballot box instead of through street protests, as has been the case for decades.[11]

Despite Morocco’s smooth transition, there still remains significant debate about the extent of the reforms in the country.[12] Some criticize the reforms on the grounds that the king has retained too much power, especially in the military and religious sectors. Others argue that the reforms have been sufficient, especially considering how much power the king previously enjoyed. Regardless of whether the reforms went far enough to transform Morocco into a “true democracy,” the PJD remains content with the political changes, and it favors a gradual, step-by-step reform process.[13] Indeed, the PJD’s moderate approach was rewarded in the elections of November 2011: it became the lead party in the new parliament, with 107 seats, up from the 46 seats it had in the last parliament. This result allowed the PJD to form a new government in coalition with other parties, including the nationalist Istiqlal Party, which was second with 60 seats.[14]

Nevertheless, the PJD still faces significant obstacles. Morocco suffers from a rapidly growing population, limited natural resources, high unemployment especially among young university graduates, as well as geopolitical challenges, such as the Western Sahara dispute that almost caused a crisis of relations recently between Morocco and its traditional ally, the United States.[15]

It is still too early to judge whether the PJD’s handling of Morocco’s challenges has affected the party’s popularity. The only tangible indication has been the results of the partial elections that occurred in five districts to elect new members of parliament in March 2013. The PJD and its partners in the coalition government won every contested seat.[16] If that is an indication, then the popularity of the PJD-led government seems to be intact among Moroccan voters.

Will Islamists in Power Weaken the Appeal of Salafi-Jihadism?
With the Islamist party’s success in Morocco, there is hope that Salafi-jihadis will lose appeal. Although Morocco has not suffered an Islamist insurgency in the past—in contrast to Egypt, Libya and Algeria in the 1990s—there have been a few terrorist attacks in the country. In 1994, there was an attack against the Atlas Asni Hotel in Marrakesh.[17] In 2003, a series of suicide attacks rocked Casablanca, resulting in 45 deaths, including 12 suicide bombers.[18] In 2011, an attack in Marrakesh killed 17 people, most of whom were tourists.[19]

All of these attacks were blamed on cells of Islamist militants, some of whom were influenced by al-Qa`ida. In the case of the Casablanca bombings in 2003, Moroccan authorities charged a group of Salafi-jihadi clerics with influencing the suicide bombers.[20] Authorities arrested a number of these clerics and sentenced them to lengthy prison terms. All of them maintained their innocence throughout. After the PJD came to power in 2011, the clerics were freed from prison.[21] Although this approach has risks, the PJD hopes that these clerics will now participate in the political process and therefore provide an outlet for would-be jihadists to engage in the political system. Some of the released Salafi-jihadi clerics, for example, have said that they may be willing to work within the political system and may even contest elections.[22] Former jihadists in countries such as Egypt and Libya have taken a similar approach, although with disappointing election results.[23] This outlet could prevent al-Qa`ida and other Salafi-jihadi groups from recruiting a section of Moroccan society who may have become jihadists if not for their participation in the political process.

Nevertheless, the threat from jihadist violence in Morocco remains. In the past few months, authorities have discovered and dismantled a number of jihadist cells in the country, reviving the memories of 2003.[24] The cells were trying to recruit people to train in northern Mali with al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).[25] These arrests reveal that jihadists are still operating in Morocco and continuing to train despite the fact that the Islamist PJD is now in power. It is not clear whether these militants have plans to execute attacks against targets in Morocco. There is concern, however, that the French-led intervention in northern Mali has made that location inaccessible to Moroccan jihadists, which might cause them to look for new targets or training locations.

These developments could lead to a similar situation as seen in Tunisia today, where despite the fact that the country is ruled by an Islamist-led government, Salafi-jihadis are openly recruiting young militants and sending them to training camps in the mountains, especially along Algeria’s borders.[26] If the jihadists in Morocco choose to confront the government, however, it will be difficult for them to achieve much popular support, especially in light of the fact that the party in power is Islamist and was elected by the people in free and fair elections. In fact, such a plan could backfire.

Camille Tawil is the author of Brothers In Arms: The Story of al-Qaeda and the Arab Jihadists.

[1] The amended constitution is still being written.

[2] The PJD was established in its current form in 1998, although its roots date back further. Its founder, Abdelkarim al-Khatib, was a prominent nationalist figure and a physician of King Mohammed V, grandfather of the current king. More information on this party can be found on its official website at www.pjd.ma.

[3] The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt entered parliament during Mubarak’s rule, but this happened when its members won seats as independents, not as candidates of a political party. In Tunisia, Ennahda was prevented from operating in the country as a political party and its members were driven into exile (or into prison) in the early 1990s. In Libya, the Muslim Brotherhood was almost totally dismantled by Qadhafi’s security services in the late 1990s after the group was discovered to have clandestine cells within the country.

[4] The name of the coalition was the Green Alliance. The Green Alliance included the Movement of Society for Peace, Ennahda and the Movement for National Reform (Islah).

[5] There may have also been an unspoken reason why voters rejected the Islamists in the elections: the Algerian people paid a heavy price during the Islamist insurgency in the 1990s and some were fearful that voting the Islamists into power might lead the country into bloodshed once more. Therefore, they may have voted for the ruling party, the National Liberation Front, to ensure stability.

[6] The Islamist successes in Tunisia’s and Egypt’s elections may have also been helped by the fact that the old ruling parties, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) and the National Democratic Party, respectively, were banned after the revolutions, and thus the Islamists did not face an established opposition. In Libya, no loyalists of the old regime contested the elections, and in any case Qadhafi had not allowed any parties to operate in Libya during his 42-year rule.

[7] The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt only lasted a few weeks, and their pace seemed to take the Islamist parties, Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood, by surprise. The protestors, who included Islamists, demanded a total “change” of the regime (the removal of Ben Ali and Mubarak), although it is not clear if this demand was made because of instructions from parties such as Ennahda and the Brotherhood. Whatever the case, the Islamist parties did not try to push for a compromise that included accepting a gradual reform from the old regimes of Ben Ali and Mubarak.

[8] Additionally, both governments were toppled despite Mubarak leading a strong military regime and Ben Ali leading a regime that was successful in both security and economic affairs. See personal interview, member of the commission that was asked by the palace to write Morocco’s new constitution in the spring of 2011, Rabat, Morocco, February 2013.

[9] The Moroccan security forces also calmed the situation by not using extreme violence against the protesters. Had they resorted to such tactics, developments may have escalated, as happened in Tunisia and Egypt.

[10] The new constitution was approved by a majority of 98% of votes, and the participation rate was 70%, according to the official results.

[11] Fathallah Arsalane, the Justice and Charity movement’s deputy leader, recently said in an interview that his group was ready to enter the political fray if the authorities allowed it. See “Banned Morocco Islamist Group ‘Ready to Form Party,’” Agence France-Presse, January 7, 2013.

[12] “The King’s Reforms Not Enough, Opponents,” BBC, June 18, 2011.

[13] The PJD, along with other groups, organized a large rally in Casablanca on May 1, 2011, in support of the reforms announced by the king in his speech of March 9. When the constitution was rewritten and the king announced a referendum to vote on it, the PJD called for a “Yes” vote. Mustapha Ramid, a top leader of the PJD, explained: “I say with all confidence that the planned constitution has clearly and to a great extent met a large part of our demands regarding reforms…therefore we decided to vote ‘yes’ for the constitution, although there are still many remarks about the chapters.” This statement is available at the PJD’s website: www.pjd.ma/news-pjd/actualite-742.

[14] The Istiqlal is a nationalist-conservative political party that led the struggle for Morocco’s independence. While a coalition between the PJD and the Istiqlal Party can be understood from an ideological point of view, what is strange about the current coalition government is the fact that it includes the Party of Progress and Socialism (the former communists). The Moroccan government, however, is currently facing a major crisis, with the new leadership of the Istiqlal Party threatening to walk out of the coalition over some political differences with the prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane.

[15] The United States circulated a proposed Security Council resolution that backed widening the remit of the UN peace mission in the Sahara, MINURSO, to oversee the state of human rights in the region. This pleased the Polisario Front. The Polisario Front calls for a referendum on the independence of their territory, which has been administered by Morocco since the 1970s. Morocco, which considers the Sahara part of its historical territories, offered the Sahrawis self-governance under its sovereignty. The United States had to drop its proposal after strong protests from Morocco and some of its allies last month.

[16] For the results of this partial vote, see Jamal Saidi, “Morocco: Coalition Government Wins Partial Elections,” Morocco World News, March 2, 2013.

[17] Roger Cohen, “Islam Radicals Are Sentenced in France,” New York Times, January 11, 1997.

[18] “Terror Blasts Rock Casablanca,” BBC, May 17, 2003.

[19] Angelique Chrisafis, “Moroccan Tourist Cafe Terrorist Attack Leaves at Least 15 Dead,” Guardian, April 28, 2011.

[20] Four of the best-known Salafi-jihadi clerics in Morocco were arrested and tried in connection with the Casablanca bombings. Mohammed al-Fizizi, Abdul-Wahab Rafiki (Abu Hafs) and Omar al-Haddouchi were sentenced to 30 years in prison, while Hasan al-Kettani was given a 20-year sentence. They all denied any role in the bombings.

[21] Al-Kettani, Abu Hafs and al-Haddouchi were all freed by a royal pardon.

[22] After his release from prison, Mohammed al-Fizazi, for example, said that he was working on the final preparations before announcing a religious education association that will transform into “a political party with a religious bent.” He is even quoted as saying that he chose the name for his party as “Learning and Work” (Ilm and Amal).

[23] In Egypt, the Islamic Group (al-Gama`a al-Islamiyya) contested the 2011-2012 elections through a political party, the Building and Development Party, which gained 13 seats in the lower house of parliament. In Libya, the former jihadists of the Libyan Islamic Fighting group (LIFG) also contested the elections of the General National Congress in July 2012, but their political parties, such as al-Watan and al-Umma al-Wasat, failed miserably in winning almost any of the seats they contested.

[24] The Interior Ministry announced on May 9, 2013, that two extremist cells that were dismantled in November 2012 were planning to set up training camps and to carry out “jihad attacks” in Morocco. See “Moroccan Authorities Dismantled Cells Plotted To Carry Out Jihadist Attacks In Morocco,” Maghreb Arab Press, May 9, 2013.

[25] “Busted Islamist Cells ‘Planned Attacks’ in Morocco,” al-Arabiya, May 9, 2013.

[26] In December 2012, the Tunisian Interior Ministry announced that it had arrested 16 men suspected of belonging to a group with ties to al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb, in the western regions of Kasserine and Jendouba near the Algerian border. See “16 Qaeda Suspects Arrested in Tunisia: Minister,” Agence France-Presse, December 21, 2012.