Rabat, Morocco — A little over a year ago, a young fruit vendor in Tunisia poured gasoline on himself, struck a match, and committed suicide. He was protesting thuggish policemen who had confiscated his goods, but his self-immolation helped ignite a series of uprisings across the Arab world in 2011.
One by one, the people of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya toppled their rulers. In Syria, Pres. Bashar al-Assad is struggling to suppress a growing popular revolt, and has even earned the ire of the normally spineless Arab League. In places where secular rulers prevailed for decades, Islamists are part of coalitions now trying to seize the reins of power. How worried should we be that the new political forces might turn out to be even more repressive and dangerous than the ones they replace?
The evidence so far is mixed. In Tunisia, the major Islamist party Ennahda claimed a victory in the October parliamentary polls with 89 seats in the 217-member body. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the ultra-conservative Salafists jointly won about two thirds of the vote in the second round of polling for a parliament that will help draft a new constitution. A ruling-party leader in Algeria says Islamists could take up to 40 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections scheduled for next May. When an Islamist party was poised to win elections in 1991 in Algeria, there was a military coup.
The military in all of these countries is likely to react differently to the rise of the Islamists. The consensus is that their rise represents a reaction against corrupt, autocratic government, and they should be given a share of power, which will force them to confront the essential democratic need for compromise.
Just this week, the deputy chief of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt told a rally in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh that his party will not tighten rules on the consumption of alcohol or take other steps to curb its sale in hotels and stores. “No citizen who makes a living from this field should be concerned,” Essam el-Erian told voters as the country prepares for a third round of elections in January. It’s a smart move. Tourism is Egypt’s top foreign-currency earner, accounting for more than a tenth of GDP and employing one in eight workers.
But the most promising model for encouraging moderation among Islamists as they enter government comes from Morocco, a nation of 32 million people that has long led the Arab world in adopting an outward-looking world view not mired in hostility to Israel. A month ago, the country held new parliamentary elections in which, for the first time, it was stipulated that King Mohammed VI would automatically name the head of the party with the most votes as prime minister.
The Islamic Justice and Development Party (PJD) surprised many by coming in first with 107 of the seats in the 395-member parliament. The king promptly appointed the PJD’s leader as the new prime minister. It will be the first time the party has been in government since it began contesting parliamentary elections in 1997.
Nabil Zaki, an expert with the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, says that the most savvy Islamist leaders know the people will not accept them if they adopt extreme policies. Bakr compares the Islamists to a black box: Voters didn’t know exactly what was inside, but they were willing to take a chance Islamists would make life better. “If the moderate Islamists ally with the liberals, the situation will be promising in one way or another, but the prospect isn’t clear yet,” Bakr said. How they handle the touchy issues of the rights of religious minorities and the role of women in society will provide clear evidence of their political intentions.
So far the signs are that, in Morocco, the Islamists want to prove themselves as responsible players in government. They won popular support in the November election by crusading against corruption, by, for instance, publishing the names of members of parliament who would collect their salary but rarely show up for debates.
The author of the PJD’s party platform, Khalfi Mustapha, is crisp and clear when explaining his party’s aims. “We want economic growth, more foreign investment, and gradual and genuine reform of government institutions,” he tells me. Specifically, that includes reducing the top corporate-tax rate to 25 percent from 30 percent, while raising the minimum wage slightly. He supports the free-trade treaty in place between the U.S. and Morocco and is open to privatization and deregulation. At the same time, his party has a touch of populism about it, so don’t expect anything like a supply-side tax program.
I ask him what influences from other countries helped shape his party’s platform. He surprises me by telling me how much he learned about the U.S. while he interned on Capitol Hill in Washington for a Democratic congressman. Mustapha isn’t shy about saying that he freely borrowed from many sources. “We like many of the pro-family social policies of the U.S. Republicans, and many of the economic policies of the moderate U.S. Democrats,” he tells me. He also found things to like in the policies of Turkey’s ruling Islamist party, the AKP, which has presided over an economic boom in that country. He also had praise for the family-leave policies of Nicolas Sarkozy, the conservative French president.
Even if the Moroccan Islamists had designs to radically alter society, they would be severely circumscribed by the new constitution, which, while opening up elections and public debate, also leaves the conduct of foreign policy, oversight of intelligence agencies, and control over the military in the hands of the king. The extensive cooperation between Morocco and the U.S. on counter-terrorism is expected to continue.
Indeed, if any figure in the Middle East has shown an agility for keeping ahead of popular discontent and radical Islam, it is Morocco’s King Mohammed, who has gradually loosened his complete control of the country since assuming power upon the death of his father, King Hassan, in 1999.
The palace’s first reaction to a street vendor’s suicide in Tunisia was to give every subject the right to place a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk and sell goods, even goods as mundane as used shoes and nuts. But that didn’t forestall the arrival of street protests earlier this year. On February 20, tens of thousands of people stood in the pouring rain to demand reforms and the dismissal of the government. They took their name “the February 20th Movement,” from the initial day of their protests.
Again, the palace moved swiftly to respond, prompting some wags to observe that the monarchy wants to be charge of everything, including revolutions. “I want this reform,” King Mohammed told his people in a nationwide TV address on March 9, announcing he wanted a new constitution approved by voters. While the new constitution is clearly a more liberal document, there are conservative remnants. Article 46 specifies that “the person of the king is inviolable, and he is to be treated with respect.”
Nonetheless, respect for the king in this country is genuine enough that an overwhelming 98 percent of voters approved the constitution last July. That in turn triggered last month’s fresh elections for parliament, which saw a respectable 45 percent of eligible voters turn up at the polls. They ignored calls by the February 20th protesters to boycott the vote, though a significant number did leave their ballots blank or spoiled.
But despite that, the election clearly represented a step forward for Moroccan civil society. “It shows reform can move forward, and the monarchy is aiding and opening up that process,” says Ahmed Charai, the publisher of the weekly Moroccan newspaper L’Observateur. Even critics of the regime have mixed reactions to the palace-led reforms. Driss Ksikes, a Moroccan playwright who was convicted of “defaming Islam” in 2007 for writing a book about Moroccan jokes, says he now expects the Islamist party to team up with other conservative forces to form a government. “That would mean somewhat less corruption and more budgetary discipline,” he says. However, accompanying that, he expects a slightly stricter interpretation of sharia law, which already forms the basis of Morocco’s legal system. But he predicts the February 20th movement will gradually grow in strength, and that liberal forces will rebuild their position and eventually provide a greater challenge to the Islamists.
The Obama administration’s reaction to the Moroccan elections has been sketchy and incomplete, with most officials completely preoccupied with events in less placid nations ranging from Libya to Syria. The State Department’s response was encouraging but perfunctory. It was left to Congress to show concrete support for Morocco’s progress. In December, it agreed to allow U.S. foreign aid to be used for the first time in Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony that was taken over by Morocco in 1975. That move resulted in years of conflict with the Polisario insurgency, which has sought independence for the region. The U.S. move is a sign that it is now beginning to accept Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, so long as the region has clear autonomy in local matters.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the House Foreign Affairs Committee chair, says she is encouraged by the example Morocco is setting on how to implement gradual reform. “It is an important strategic partner, and last month’s elections in Morocco were another important step toward building a more democratic and inclusive country,” she told Congress as the bill expanding aid efforts to Morocco was passed.
No one expects that the road to reform will go smoothly in any Arab nation. But for all of the gloomy predictions that the Arab Spring will create a string of anti-American, radical Islamist regimes, there is some evidence that a more pragmatic, less disruptive future is also possible.
— John Fund is a conservative writer and columnist and author of a new edition of Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy.