Morocco observers were building up 2007 as a date with destiny for the still-fledgling democracy of King Mohammed VI. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for next September. Yet some question marks persist. Many recall that the 2002 legislative elections were in their day touted as the country’s first “free and fair ballot event.
That didn’t happen.
There were suspicions of obscure horse-trading owing to the 24-hour delay in giving out results – a virtual three-way tie between socialists, nationalists and moderate Islamists; and the vote was skewed due to the limitations placed on moderate Islamist participation to just over half the constituencies. Two issues which touch the Western heart at present are clearly at play: the growth of democratic values in a Muslim society, for one, and the troublesome corollary of how to deal with the popularity of Islamism. What happens in Morocco is in some ways a test case, owing to the kingdom’s special alliance with the United States.
Morocco’s moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) is viewed by the Bush administration as a kind of solution to the conundrum: its leader, Saadeddine al-Othmani, was invited to Washington last year in between opinion poll findings by the International Republican Institute that put the PJD way ahead of its rivals and close to an absolute majority. Few, however, expect such a clear victory next September. However, despite their necessary bowing and scraping after the May 2003 Casablanca bombings by Muslim extremists, and the meek acceptance of a family code that boosted women’s legal rights, the Islamists seem to be on the verge of a triumph of sorts.
A few weeks ago, the suicide bombing of a radical who was challenged by an Internet cafe owner in Casablanca, however, drew unwelcome parallels from 2003, and not just for the Islamists. The bombing took place in the city’s dirt-poor suburb of Sidi Moumen – where most of the 2003 suicides had come from. The government has since pressed ahead with a public housing scheme, but progress is slow. As in the past, the authorities attempted to blame foreign influences for the bombing. This spirit of denial hints at an identity crisis that a PJD victory could go some way to resolving. After the parliamentary elections, it will be the king who designates ministers. Legislative initiatives emanate from the palace, not from Parliament. Most major parties have clamored of late for the ceding of the royal prerogative in naming the prime minister; but not the PJD, which appears to accept that its best chance of handling any power at all depends on the goodwill of the king.
After the reverberations caused by King Mohammed’s 2006 New Year resolution to make Morocco a freer, more democratic society as he was urged to do by the wide-ranging report of the country’s ground-breaking national truth commission, analysts gloomily concede that 2007 seems likely to be the year of inaction, continuity and stasis. The palace not only has the convenient bogeyman of the Islamists to blame for taking a conservative line on reform, but this year sees Morocco resuming its diplomatic push for control of the disputed Western Sahara region.
A blueprint for limited autonomy and a move toward a more federal system of government across the country, including the former Spanish colony, is to be unveiled before the United Nations in April – notwithstanding the Security Council’s previous demands that a referendum on self-determination be held in the territory. The year in Morocco has opened with various revelations of growing Islamic fanaticism, in a country which prides itself on the moderate, mystical origins of its Malekite creed. Twenty-six members of a group based in the north of the country were arrested in January, accused of conspiring to send young radicals to their deaths in suicide missions against US-led forces in Iraq.
Dozens are reported to have made this one-way journey over the past few years, including some of the mainly Moroccan suspects named in the wanted list of the Madrid train bombings trial taking place in Spain. The government led by Prime Minister Driss Jettou is determined to make a real impact on the social realities behind such extremism by boosting the previously sluggish economy. He will be encouraged by the 2006 economic figures. GDP grew at a rate of over 8 percent last year, with tourist numbers reaching a record 6.6 million.
Total investment in housing – identified as a key issue since it emerged that the perpetrators of the Casablanca attacks hailed from one of the city’s most notorious slums – doubled from four years previously to $4.24 billion. The obstacle to meaningful democratic reform in Morocco is that there is a clearly established system of government in place, built around the “red lines of territorial integrity, the king himself, and his role as “defender of the Muslim faith. The monarch is officially a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, and since his coronation in 1999, King Mohammed has been perfectly willing to exploit the pretence of a close relationship between the monarch and his subjects, rather than encourage the emergence of civil leaders through a promotion of political debate.
The son of a tyrant, the present king aims to be perceived as a leader who governs for the people and not against them. However, he has not yet proved willing to cede authority to those who represent the people. Today’s government is built upon the presence of palace technocrats, not least the former royal financial advisor Jettou as head of government. In such a situation, political parties evaluate the pace of reform not by any universal, ideological criteria, but according to their own short- and medium-term interests. This year, the palace may end up having an easy time of it, as the PJD is so conscious of its inconvenience that it cannot stretch out its hand to demand an improved deal. Instead of being a threat, the Islamists have become the regime’s ally. James Badcockis freelance writer based in Spain who specializes in North African and Middle Eastern affairs. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR