Morocco’s secular-minded establishment wants to squeeze the country’s biggest Islamist party out of the political mainstream, a step that risks strengthening religious extremists.
Morocco has earned a reputation as a stable, moderate reformer during the first decade of King Mohammed’s rule, leading to a tourism boom and improved access to markets and financial aid from neighbouring Europe.
In that time, the moderate opposition Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) has embedded itself in the North African country’s political landscape and has become the third largest opposition group in the parliament.
But the Makhzen a group of powerful business and political figures who dominate the ruling royal establishment has vowed to take the wind out of the PJD’s sails and drag the kingdom in a secular direction.
The moderate Islamists say that could lead to resurgence in the kind of radical sentiment that contributed to coordinated suicide bombings in Casablanca in 2003 that killed 45 people.
“If you shut the door of participation in the face of moderates, you reinforce the current of violence,” said PJD deputy chief Abdallah Baha.
“Those Islamists who might join the PJD would look to other alternatives including bad ones.”
Abderrahim Bahsen, a political analyst, said moderate Islamists appeal to Moroccans who want Western-style democracy with an Islamic cultural reference.
“Disagreement with reform-minded Islamists does not justify their isolation, which would only bolster extremists,” he said.
The Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM) the brainchild of Fouad Ali el-Himma, a friend of the king and the country’s former security chief is being used by the secular-minded elite to marginalise the moderate Islamists.
“The Makhzen aims to kill two birds with one stone: bring political parties together against a common enemy and enhance its credibility as a fighter of Islamic fundamentalism in the West’s eyes,” said Ahmed Reda Benchemsi, editor of liberal current affairs magazine Telquel.
The move against the PJD suggests a change of strategy because previously it was embraced as a mainstream opposition party with popular support, albeit staunchly loyal to the king who remains all-powerful as head of state.
Now PAM leaders are branding the PJD an “obscurantist party” trying to turn Morocco into a purist Islamic state by stealth.
“We are ready to work with all parties, but not the PJD because it is different,” said senior PAM official Hassan Benaddi.
Political analysts are certain that PAM plans to exclude the PJD from the next government. They say the party’s leaders and liberal and secular allies will fill the top cabinet posts after 2012 parliamentary polls.
“The Makhzen hates improvisation in politics. They do not want to face surprises. So they plan things years in advance,” said Abdesamad Belkebir, editor of current affairs monthly Al Moultaka and a professor at Cadi Ayyad University in Marrakesh.
Analysts said PAM has a two-pronged strategy to limit the PJD’s influence assailing it as enemy of individual rights and stopping it forming a coalition with other parties.
They say that by blocking the PJD’s political expansion, Morocco’s establishment will entrench closer cooperation with the wealthy European Union, which awarded Morocco a new “advanced status” in bilateral relations in 2008.
“Morocco is keen in King Mohammed’s second decade to show an image of modernity that emphasises respect for individual rights,” said political analyst Mohamed Darif. “So it needs political players who fully embrace a modern and westernised culture that puts it at ease with the West and investors.”
PJD officials say they have already begun to feel the heat.
“We have felt tension and indirect pressure against us. They want to sabotage the PJD’s ties with the palace and other political parties,” said Mustapha Khelfi, editor of Islamist-leaning daily Attajdid.
Pic: King Mohammed of Morocco