Will the War in Gaza and ‘Normalization’ Spell Trouble in Morocco?

In the Moroccan capital of Rabat, on February 6, with the media and civil society members present en masse, the powerful Islamist movement Al Adl wal Ihsane (Justice and Charity, in English) issued a new – and decidedly democratic – political manifesto. The country’s authoritarian monarchy, the timing is disastrous. Worse still is that Adl wal Ihsane, an illegal but tolerated organization also known as AWI or simply Jamaa, now wants to be anti-theocratic.

It’s a punch in the gut for a royal palace already reeling from the outbreak of the Palestine-Israel war. Seven months ago, a robust popular protest movement was triggered by Israel’s attack on Gaza. In the kingdom’s major cities, people in the streets are seething with anger and demanding the immediate severance of diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv. The regime’s response is that Israel may be Morocco’s only real military support against its Eastern neighbors, namely Algeria.

Why would AWI’s political and ideological about-face cause so much concern among the monarchy’s backroom strategists?

The answer is twofold: first, the organization’s pivot opens up the possibility of a lasting alliance with the left and, more generally, the entire opposition camp, both secular and modern, including conservative elements; second, the AWI is a mobilizing force behind the pro-Palestinian protestors, who also have a natural affinity with the left, broadly speaking. The manifesto could thus bring these elements together in a more sustainable and structured political coalition.

Simply put, they could form an opposition front, which is precisely what the Monarchy has feared most, especially since the Arab Spring.

Put into a corner

The monarchy sees itself as keepers of the Islamic faith in Morocco. It also presides over the Supreme Council of Ulemas – the highest collective religious authority in the country – which until even a few years ago defended the use of the death penalty against anyone who renounced Islam. And it is because of these archaic aspects that the kingdom is essentially a medieval theocracy, one that lies right at the doorstep of Europe.

Medieval with regards to its socio-political and cultural structures, but armed to the teeth and with the most modern techniques for control and repression, the Moroccan monarchy sees Jamaa as its main rival in both politics and religion.

The situation in Palestine, combined with the fact that the Moroccan king presides over the pan-Islamic Al-Quds Committee, which is supposed to defend Palestine, has made things untenable for the palace vis-à-vis the Moroccan people. Even wealthy families from the Imperial Cities (Fez, Marrakesh, Meknes and Rabat) and former ministers are taking to the streets demanding, alongside the demonstrators and AWI, that the Monarchy stop normalizing relations with Israel.

It would be one thing if the regime, in addressing the Moroccan elite and the foreign partners on whom it depends, could dismiss the demonstrations as having populist-racist overtones. But even that’s not an option given the involvement of high-profile, Jewish-Moroccan figures such as Sion Assidon, Raymond Benhaim and Jacob Cohen. Assidon, for his part, is among the leaders of a formal, pro-Palestinian movement that’s been in place for decades already.

In recent months, that movement seems to have emerged as a kind of national front against a monarchy that’s been painted into a corner over a single issue: its ties to Israel. But that’s an oversimplification of what in reality is far more complex political situation. Still, it’s a compelling image, and one that is reinforced by AWI’s timely pre-democratic and pro-Palestinian manifesto, which promises to give the movement an even more united and popular base.

Charting a new course

At a time when the regime’s authoritarian turn has, in large part, blocked political life in Morocco, the manifesto spells out a new strategy and puts an end to AWI’s non-engagement in the national political arena. In sum, the country’s largest Islamic organization is demanding a government that answers to the people. In doing so, they’ve sparked a lively, national debate that transcends not just the country’s traditional divisions, but also the current circumstantial street movement.

More specifically, the AWI declared a lasting commitment to a pluralist parliamentary system and political modernity. The announcement sent a shockwave through the ranks of the pro-Makhzen political class, as members of the Moroccan establishment – those who support the Makhzen, meaning “state” or “government” – are known. Regime backers will have to find another way to keep relegating the AWI and contain its massive social and political influence, which could eventually translate into a sweeping electoral triumph.

Such a victory would force the palace into a shared-power scenario that would be far more difficult to manage than the one in place between 2011 and 2021, when the Justice and Development Party (PJD) led the government. That’s because the AWI has made it clear it won’t accept any arrangement that denies the ministerial government proper executive power. Jamaa insists, furthermore, that the cabinet Aanswer to the parliament, and that the latter be elected directly by the people. They want a system, in other words, that puts Mohammed VI in the same relative position as Charles III.

The long manifesto marks a turning point in the Islamic organization’s political discourse. With it, the AWI takes a key step forward. It goes from being a broad-spectrum (religious, social, political) opposition force, to a reformist movement that is as radical as it is anti-monarchical.

A question of semantics

The movement’s political arm (along with just about everything else in AWI) is under the almost exclusive control of a new, second-generation of adherents, one that received a more modern education and was deeply marked by the bloody civil war in Algeria and the post-Arab Spring conflicts. They tend, as a result, to favor non-violence, an approach that also draws on the organization’s Sufi origins.

The manifesto rejects the authoritarian Makhzen regime, in which the king reigns and governs unopposed, and calls for the adoption of a democratically approved constitution as a condition for AWI’s future involvement in electoral politics. In other words, the movement calls for the election of a constituent assembly to draft, by consensual means, a text that it will then present to a sovereign voting public.

And yet, the AWI still imagines working with the Alawite throne: a middle way, so to speak. The group hasn’t said so explicitly, but its vision, as implied in the manifesto, is a parliamentary monarchy. It’s a term, nevertheless, that Jamaa has shied away from due to the fact that technically speaking – and despite a resurgence over the years in authoritarian practices – the monarchy has officially been “parliamentary” since the adoption of a new constitution in 2011.

There was concern, among the AWI, that adopting the concept out loud risked alienating potential allies – from Marxists on the left to non-legitimist Islamists – who could interpret it as a surrender. The careful choice of semantics was also a way for Jamaa to avoid shocking its base, especially in the large Moroccan cities, where the conceptual tools used and adopted by sheik Abdessalam Yassine (1928-2012), the group’s founder, are sometimes treated still as sacred tenets.

Keep in mind that the regime of King Hassan II (1961 to 1999), persecuted and at several points imprisoned Yassine, who remains AWI’s most influential thinker.

Omar Iharchane, a member of the AWI’s political arm, says that the manifesto “reflects a natural evolution.” At the same time, he adds, it doesn’t make concessions to anyone, the authoritarian regime included, as evidenced by its call for an end to despotism through the establishment of a democratic regime.

Taking a hard line

Doing so in Morocco, the movement insists, will require an entire paradigm shift, namely that every person holding political power must be elected. No other source of legitimacy, be it religious or a matter of supposedly divine authority, can supersede that of being chosen, in a sovereign vote, by the people themselves.

In that way, the manifest simply ignores the Commander of the Faithful, the institution in Morocco that recognizes the moral primacy of the king and thus justifies his extra-constitutional powers. The document argues too that establishing democracy will depend on accountability and doing away with the rent economy.

AWI is thus ready to set up a political party, but doing so will mean having to kiss the Monarchy’s ring in a sense, and that’s something the movement is unwilling to do. It has no interest in backroom negotiations, even if that means being stuck in its current limbo state of being tolerated but repressed, without any formal recognition. This hard line is evident not only in the manifesto, but also in statements issued by AWI political leaders like Hassan Bennajeh and Mohamed Manar Bask.

The regime’s return to repressive tactics a few years after Mohammed VI came to power, and the bloody suicide attacks of 2003 pushed Morocco’s radical opposition to close ranks. The idea was to reduce tensions between its secular and religious currents and thus slow Morocco’s slide towards a new “Years of Lead,” as the dark period of state repression under Hassan II, from the 1960s through the 1980s, was known.

Between 2007 and 2014, the Ibn Rochd Center together with independent political figures organized approximately 10 national meetings between leaders from the left, AWI and other anti-regime Islamists. These gatherings broke down the psychological barriers that had previously separated Islamists and left-wing activists.

The Arab Spring played a major role too in pushing the AWI, however cautiously, to begin secularizing its political efforts. And its younger members – those who are taking to streets to clamor for democracy – very much sympathize with the left-wing activists and other young liberal democrats who initiated the 2011 demonstrations.

Stunned and embarrassed, the regime is keeping mostly quiet, not only bout the AWI manifesto but also in regards to the demand by streets protestors that it stop normalizing relations with Israel. In the meantime, though, its political police are stepping up pressure on AWI activists, and have arrested and prosecuted several pro-Palestine figures. Punishment in some cases has been stiff. 

Professor Maati Monjib is a Moroccan historian and human rights defender, who is a specialist in North African politics and African history. This article was originally published in Orient XXI.

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