The news that Islamists won the largest parliamentary bloc in Morocco's November 25 elections came as a surprise to some local observers who had predicted the movement would come in second or even third. But, though I do not personally identify with Islamism as a political ideology, I am celebrating nonetheless. The elections were a victory for the unprecedented democratic experiment that my country has experienced in recent months, and they demonstrated a kind of "Moroccan exceptionalism" in this season of upheaval and uncertainty.
The elections took place after the ratification of a new constitution that was initiated over the summer by King Mohammed VI. The document grants authority over most domestic affairs to an elected prime minister while maintaining the king's position as chief of the army and senior religious authority. Voting, monitored by four thousand international observers, was certified as free, fair and transparent. It received praise from Hillary Clinton as well as from the French foreign ministry. The 45 percent voter-participation rate marked a substantial increase from the 2007 legislative elections.
The Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) won 28 percent of the seats in a highly balkanized political field in which thirty-one parties participated. Their impressive plurality is testimony to the party's formidable political organization. It is indicative of the resonance of the party's stance against government corruption and mismanagement of the economy. It shows that Moroccans have been disappointed with the performance of the parliamentary coalition that has been in place since 2007. Indeed, incumbent parties must take responsibility for the country's low economic growth rate and persistent unemployment. But the PJD win also was a reflection of the party's moderation.
In the wake of widespread regional upheavals in which Islamists joined protesters in demanding—and achieving—the ouster of their rulers, the Moroccan PJD took a different approach. The party joined the country's political mainstream in supporting the constitutional reforms offered by a monarch who enjoys immense popularity with his people. In its platform, the PJD pledged its support for the struggle against terrorism, endorsed Morocco's free-trade agreements with Europe and the United States, backed the king's role as a facilitator in peace efforts between Israelis and Palestinians, and joined the monarchy in opposing Iran's nuclear and imperialist ambitions.
This is explained in part by the fact that Morocco's Islamic culture has its own safeguards against extremism. The king, in his capacity as the country's highest religious authority, has exerted considerable energy and resources over the past ten years to support moderate forms of Islam. He has encouraged the invigoration and influence of Sufism, the mystical and pacifist form of Islam, which has a long and venerable tradition in Morocco. These initiatives are enormously popular in the country, and they dovetail nicely with a growing middle class and other institutions of civil society—cultural factors that predispose growing numbers of the population to embrace a moderate Islamic identity. These achievements are a check against extremist ideologies, and those who project a strident Islamist ideology run the risk of losing support among the population.
At this writing, the announcement of a newly formed government is only a few hours away. It is widely expected that the PJD will have formed a governing majority coalition including the leftist Party of Progress and Socialism, some formerly communist elements, conservative stalwarts of the monarchy and a popular Berber party. Such an arrangement will grant the PJD the latitude it needs to govern according to its own moderate, reformist mandate, and the new prime minister, drawn from the PJD, will indeed wield formidable powers. At the same time, the historic prestige of the monarchy will continue to play a valued role in the socio-economic development of the country: The king will maintain his support for countrywide initiatives to alleviate rural and urban poverty and support institutions geared toward the empowerment of women. And as senior religious authority, he will continue to safeguard the cultural fabric of Moroccan society, the military and the security services against any tilt toward extremism.
It might be said that the election's outcome strengthened the credibility of Morocco's experiment at gradual democratization, thereby enhancing the stability and vitality of the monarchy. Now the PJD has an opportunity to prove its mettle, even as it faces the challenge of a strong parliamentary opposition and a vigilant network of civil institutions. Morocco is the better for it.
Mr. Charai is publisher of the weekly Moroccan newspaper L'Observateur as well as the French edition of Foreign Policy magazine. As an expert on Morocco and North Africa, he sits on the board of Trustees of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and he sits on the board of directors of Search for Common Ground in Washington.
December 22, 2011, The National Interest