Following the adoption of a new constitution last summer, Moroccan voters delivered their verdict: the current government is in the hands of the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD). The party enjoys a commanding majority in the present ruling coalition, a third of all parliamentary seats, while its secular, leftist and royalist opponents are divided—at least for now.
Yet the situation in Morocco today is markedly different from Egypt, Tunisia and other countries where Islamists dominate or rule. Morocco’s new Islamist-led government did not come about as the result of a revolution. Rather, it was Moroccan king Mohammed VI himself who designed the new constitution, which cedes most domestic authority to an elected prime minister. He is the only Arab leader in this season of upheaval to have engineered a democratic transition.
The king enjoys the legitimacy and credibility that enabled him to make these changes due to the exceptional history of the Moroccan monarchy: his grandfather spearheaded Morocco’s struggle against colonial rule, and his father braved a Soviet-backed coup and assassination attempts to enable the rise of unions and civil opposition. The young king, for his part, has devoted the last thirteen years to fostering civil society, promoting the rights of women and minorities, and ushering the monarchy’s erstwhile enemies on the Left into government. Though Islamists now hold the reins of authority, their power is strictly provisional, as in any democracy, because a system of checks and balances is in place to assure the rotation of power, subject to the will of the majority.
In Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, the new Islamist elites have only just emerged from years of underground revolutionary activism. By contrast, in Morocco they gradually have been inducted into the mainstream by a watchful government over the course of a generation. Along the way, they have learned about and embraced the logic of consensual rule and civil discourse.
Morocco’s Islamists won this year’s elections on an electoral platform of cooperation with the West, tourism and global commerce, a moderate foreign policy and individual rights. They will now be held accountable to an electoral base demanding the fulfillment of these promises. Whether Islamists in other Arab countries prove committed to the same democratic principles is a matter of chance; in Morocco, it’s the outcome of a history of moderation.
No Sure Thing
This contrast can serve as a barometer for analyzing conditions in other Arab countries. There are hopes for good governance in Tunisia because the Islamist al-Nahda party has proclaimed the Moroccan PJD a model worthy of emulation. Al-Nahda leaders have signaled their respect for the ancien regime’s insistence that secularism and Islam can coexist and encouraged the population to hold them to this principle. By contrast, Egypt’s Salafis and elements within the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood call for a total break with former president Mubarak’s policies: they assert that a renewed conflict with Israel should be a prime directive, even at the expense of the effort to heal the country’s many domestic woes.
To be sure, there are valid concerns about the political future of Morocco as well. Liberal and progressive parties face an uphill battle in competing with Islamists in the marketplace of ideas: they have not yet articulated an alternative formula for reconciling Islam and progressivism, and in their complacency, they have become internally fractious. They need to roll up their sleeves, form their own coalition, and make the case to voters that they embody Islam’s inherent liberalism.