From Egypt to Morocco: Islamist witch-hunts move westward

Events in Egypt and Morocco may set a dangerous precedent for Islamist leaders and their opponents.

Moroccan Minister for Foreign Affairs, El Othmani gestures as he sits in his car, in Jerez de la Frontera
The Islamist Party of Justice and Development's muted response to the Egyptian uprising, characterised by foreign minister Saad-Eddine El Othmani's muted response to the situation, have put Morocco's Islamists in a difficult position [Reuters]

A people can only outwit their oppressor if they’re morally superior

A cradle of humanity
shall we say
It’s hardly surprising
here or elsewhere
that predators are recruited
from this very cradle

But you could say
that the oppressed
are eager to usurp
the oppressor
to punish in turn
those who came first
or else themselves”

Abdellatif Laabi (Far from Baghdad, excerpts)

Despite its sobriquet of “umm ad-dunya” (the Mother of the World) being historically misplaced – that title more accurately belongs to Iraq, to whom famed Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laabi’s elegant verses above are originally dedicated – Egypt truly continues to play a role second to none in shaping the hearts and minds of the rest of the Arab world.

Revolutionary zeal has rapidly traversed the upward channels of the Nile, and has found fertile ground here in Morocco, quickly igniting some heated skirmishes between Moroccan Islamist activists and secular liberals. And in Rabat, just as in Cairo, the aftershocks may not bode well for the ostensible mandates of freedom and democracy that inspired these uprisings in the first place.

At first glance, interestingly enough, the official Moroccan response to the latest throes of the Egyptian revolution – both within palace and parliament – was relatively tame. With few reservations, King Mohammad VI swiftly granted his imprimatur to interim Egyptian President Adly Mansour. As for the parliament, official responses were more ambiguous, but ultimately remained understated.

The Islamist-oriented Party of Justice and Development (PJD) – currently the ruling party in the Moroccan parliament, did not adopt an official stance on the latest Egyptian uprising: a declaration made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, headed by PJD leader Saad-Eddine El Othmani, gives no categorical position either in support or opposition to the coup, but more generically stresses the need to preserve Egypt’s “national unity,” and for Egyptians to finally realise their aspirations for freedom and democracy. Similarly, the opposition Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM) was somewhat opaque in its response, expressing in an official statement its “deep regret” for the jolt to the democratic experience endured by its sister nation Egypt.

Inside Story: The king and the constitution

But in their ambiguity, both parties allowed themselves the breathing room to cause some serious contention on the parliamentary floor. In the case of the PJD, El Othmani’s relative silence on the matter allowed the party to remain prudently aligned with the monarchy – and by extension its regional allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who applauded Morsi’s removal – while simultaneously giving senior elements in his party the opportunity to stir up their discontents.

Indeed, the ideological and apostolic arm of the PJD, the Harakat al Islah wa’l Tawhid (Reform and Unity Movement), discarded all pretences for such caution vis-à-vis the monarchy: in a video statement, the Movement’s former president, Dr. Ahmad al-Raysuni, condemned Morsi’s ouster as a ‘scandal’ perpetrated by demagogues claiming to be democrats.

Similarly, high ranking leaders of the PJD proper, like Mohammad Radi Ben Khaldoun, President of the PJD’s international relations wing, used the official silence of their party to express their outrage over what they deemed a military coup in Egypt. Following suit, the PJD’s youth organisation staged a vigil of protest in Rabat decrying Morsi’s overthrow. At every strata of the party, moreover, its condemnations were couched in the same terms: what transpired in Egypt was not simply a military coup, but a coup against democracy, and against legitimacy (shar’iyya, in Arabic). 

It is precisely that clarion call for ‘legitimacy,’ moreover, that allowed the oppositional PAM to stage a harsh attack against its PJD interlocutors. Though its official statement does express its regret at the growing pains currently facing the Egyptian democratic process, that same missive offers a glaring series of caveats. First, it reiterates that true democracy cannot be inconsistent with the demands of political pluralism. Pursuant to that, it declares that the ‘intervention’ carried out by the Egyptian military was a measure designed to protect democracy and its relevant institutional framework in Egypt.

And while such an intervention may seem unlawful at face value, the necessity of this measure underscores the need for any political system to have some safety valve in place to safeguard against political exclusion or authoritarianism. Absent of such a safety valve, so the argument goes, the only available means of preserving democracy – and ultimately legitimacy – in Egypt was through military intervention.

This doublespeak in the PAM’s official platform gave its leadership the breathing room to respond harshly to PJD criticism of the coup. In particular, it allowed a handful of PAM parliamentarians the opportunity to manipulate the events in Egypt as evidence of the Islamist-oriented PJD’s ideological affiliations with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood more broadly.

Castigating the PJD youth organization for being far too sensitive to an overseas concern, junior PAM parliamentarian Mehdi Bensaid expresses his surprise that PJD youth wouldn’t instead concern themselves with issues that actually affect them as Moroccans – like economic and social justice concerns, the proper implementation of the new constitution, and the like.

To take full advantage of the opportunity presented by the ouster of an Islamist president in Egypt, key elements within the PAM are attempting to establish a concordance between Morocco’s ruling Islamist party and the most retrograde aspects of global Islamism

Every party or intellectual in Moroccan society, he continues, is free to voice an opinion on the events unfolding in Egypt – but the PJD leadership stands alone as taking such positions as personal attacks on the party. Why is the PJD hiding behind words here? Why do Abdelillah Benkirane, Morocco’s PJD-affiliated Prime Minister, and his ‘brothers’ (Ikhwan in Arabic) incessantly prattle that they have no relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood (known more generally, fortuitously enough, as the Ikhwan), when they are in fact a national branch of the same international organisation? He concludes this elocution by reiterating PAM’s opposition to the marriage of religion and politics on the one hand, and to military rule on the other.

Strong words for sure, but the point is clear: to take full advantage of the opportunity presented by the ouster of an Islamist president in Egypt, key elements within the PAM are attempting to establish a concordance between Morocco’s ruling Islamist party and the most retrograde aspects of global Islamism.

In subsequent skirmishes in parliament, PAM leaders double down: if the PJD were so ardently opposed to this purported military coup in Egypt, undergirded by their belief in democracy and legitimacy, then why their outright silence (sukoot) at countless other military coups throughout Africa and Latin America in recent memory? Was the lack of a Muslim Brotherhood presence in those countries reason enough for them to lose interest in such lofty principles?

As a caveat, this larding of the PJD with the Egyptian Ikhwan may be a creative strategy to make parliamentary gains. With the resignation of the Istiqlal Party from the PJD-led parliament, many in the PAM are calling for early elections. Perhaps, then, this furore over the PJD’s purported marriage to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is a simple pretext to expedite – and win – an unexpected call for elections. In so doing, PAM could make a strong political comeback well before the anticipated 2016 renewal of parliament.

But more likely is that this is a clever and calculated attempt by secular forces in Morocco – which include members of the Socialist Party, the Istiqlal Party, as well as PAM – as in Egypt, to manoeuvre the tide of revolution to outright repress Islamist activity. By repeatedly emphasizing a connection the PJD and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Moroccan secularists are setting the stage for the marginalization of Islamists from Moroccan political life tout court.

The problem is that Islamism as a global movement cannot be neatly wrapped up into this or that package. Whatever similarities exist between the Moroccan PJD and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood are ultimately superficial. Whereas the latter has for the better part of its history been harshly repressed by the Egyptian state – which played no small role in its turn to violent extremism – the Moroccan PJD has never faced state repression.

Indeed, the PJD is, for whatever its flaws, a wholly institutionalised Islamist party, fiercely loyal to the Monarchy. While it is indeed a party inspired by Islamic activism, its allegiance to the King as the “Commander of the Faithful” has largely forced it to curtail attempts to overtly Islamise Moroccan society. Forcing its marginalisation, as the Egyptian historical experience with the Ikhwan clearly demonstrates, can very quickly compromise that inclusivity.

Plus, it is not altogether clear that Moroccan secular liberals decrying this supposed connection between the PJD and the Egyptian Ikhwan are being altogether honest or sincere in their condemnations. Much as they accuse the PJD of being only opportunistically concerned with values of democracy and legitimacy – which may very well have merit – it is worth noting that the PAM leadership has been somewhat selective in its invocation of those same precepts with respect to Egypt.

Which is to say, for all the PAM’s decrial of the PJD’s silence at every military coup that has recently transpired in the region – outside the one that concerns its bed-fellow Muslim Brotherhood – PAM and its leadership instead adopted a wait-and-see stance during the Egyptian revolution in 2011. Crowds of protestors flooding Tahrir Square, risking life and limb under the shackles of Mubarak’s authoritarian grip, and for the establishment of democracy and legitimacy for the Egyptian people, did not find representation in a single one of the party’s official statements.

Declaring open season on Islamists of all stripes is a deeply risky enterprise. Doing so, without drawing any meaningful nuances among them – be it in Egypt, Morocco, or anywhere else in the Muslim world – can only lead to their marginalisation, and ultimately to their radicalisation. In Morocco and elsewhere, otherwise institutionalized Islamist activists, upon being shunned from legitimate politics, will ultimately find no alternatives but to take on the garb of reactionary fundamentalism.

If its reception in Morocco is any indication, the events unfolding in Egypt may set a dangerous precedent elsewhere in the Muslim world: in overthrowing a democratically elected – yet admittedly inept and increasingly authoritarian – Islamist leader, in the name of preserving democracy, the latest throes of the Egyptian revolution may encourage its neighbours in the Muslim world to similarly deny Islamist movements full and transparent participation in democratic politics. The results, at least in a post-Arab Spring Morocco, would be nothing short of devastating. 


Daanish Faruqi is the editor of the recent book From Camp David to Cast Lead: Essays on Israel, Palestine, and the Future of the Peace Process (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, April 2011), and is currently a Fulbright scholar based in Morocco.

Follow him on Twitter: @daanishfaruqi

Dr. Mohsine El Ahmadi is an associate professor of political sociology at the Cadi Ayyad University of Marrakech. His latest book, co-edited with Stuart Schaar, is The Birth of the Arab Citizen and the Changing Middle East.

Follow him on Twitter: @elahmadim