Moroccan islamists: From clandestine action to the government

To understand the Moroccan Islamist scene, we need to examine the lives of four men.

By Irina Tsukerman and Anis El Okbani

Doctor Abdelkrim Khatib, his daylight sides and his shadows

Doctor Khatib is reputed to be the father of Moroccan Islamism, as the the PJD (Justice and Development Party), the first “institutional” Islamist party, grew out of his MPDC (Democratic and Constitutional Popular Movement) Party. It is thanks to him that the Islamists of the PJD were able to infiltrate the political spectrum and then to act as phagocytes engulfing and consuming every political party and organization in their way until they at last dominated politics. 

This man, the first surgeon in Morocco of Algerian origin, has had an extraordinary career. He was a former resistance fighter who once headed the liberation army, served as a minister and president of parliament, and enjoyed unusual proximity to the Palace (Lalla Meriem, his mother, was so close to the royal family that she was buried within the walls of the Palace) and the Makhzen (the royal system in Morocco) while simultaneously becoming a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood organization. Dr. Khatib asserts that the monarchical system is best for Morocco, a position not held by most Islamists.

Fatah’s perceived normalization with Israel, such as the coordination between the Palestinian Authority and IDF on security issues after the Oslo Accords, led Dr. Khatib to break with Yasser Arafat in favor of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas.  

A Turkish Islamist, Necmeddin Erbakan, was rumored to have had a hand in his party’s formation. While PJD is close to Erdoan’s AKP, the latter was founded much later.

Abdelilah Benkirane: socialist turned Islamist

The seemingly seamless transition from leftism to Islamism should be noted.

A former member of the Chabiba Ittihadia (socialist youth) and anti-monarchist movement of the 1970s, Abdelilah Benkirane now espouses the Islamist doctrines of Chabiba Islamya (Islamic Youth), which was co-founded by Abdelkrim Moutii. Moutti is today a Libya-based fugitive from Moroccan justice for his involvement in the assassination of socialist leader Omar Benjelloun and Saudi justice for his subsequent role in the siege of Mecca.

Despite this scandalous background, Benkirane brought PJD, in an alliance with three other parties, to power in the shadow of the Arab Spring in Morocco in 2011 and stayed on as Prime Minister through 2017. Benkirane claimed to be a liberal democrat who is not obsessed with women’s modesty issues, but rather as a defender of the rights of Muslims to practice their religion. This is the same moderate persona pioneered by Erdogan’s AKP. But the veneer wears thin quickly. While AKP feigned reasonableness and even supported ethnic minorities, especially the Kurds, who were previously persecuted by nationalist and Kemalist governments, in due time the tables turned. Whether always their intention or necessary as a distraction from economic corruption and mismanagement, AKP has turned aggressively vocal in support of Islamism, encouraging and enforcing the theocratic takeover of every part of the government and society. Under Benkirane, PJD followed the Turkish AKP model, but Benkirane came off as a modern man who would abstain on infringing on civil liberties. Nevertheless, over time, Islamist voices gained greater and greater platforms and followings, thanks to the organized PJD efforts on the local level.  Instead of merely using demagoguery to raise PJD’s appeal, Benkirane used the idea of the party’s distinctions from the other failed corrupt political experiments, and claimed to empower constituents. This is what moved Moroccans to vote for the PJD in 2011.

Sheikh Ahmed Raissouni

Ahmed Raïssouni is a Moroccan Islamist who succeeded Doha-based Egyptian Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi as the head of the powerful World Union of the Muslim Brotherhood. He is a religious leader close to Qatar and Tariq Ramadan, who is in the crosshairs, in both the Moroccan and Saudi Kingdoms.

Tariq Ramadan, grandson of the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder, is an Islamist scholar accused of rape by multiple women, including of Moroccan descent, in France  He was suspended from his Oxford University post following a litany of accusations, but nevertheless launched a center on feminism! The Muslim Brotherhood, whose cause Ramadan elliptically and in the most porous post-modern prose advances, is a designated terrorist organization in Saudi Arabia and several other MENA states.

In Morocco, Sheikh Raissouni’s name is associated with that of the Unity and Reform Movement (MUR) – the ideological matrix of the Justice and Development Party (PJD), which he co-founded and directed from 1996 to 2003, along with Saad Eddine El Othmani, current head of government, and Abdelilah Benkirane.

For years, the PJD and the MUR have worked together: first, on policy platforms, and second, through preaching. Raïssouni is in charge of this second mission (spreading Islamism through the mosques) and of the management of the Islamist newspaper Attajdid.

With respect to Raissouni, we can read this kind of comment: “In his productions, Raïssouni’s independence is angry, especially when he defends the separation of political and religious powers – in Morocco, King Mohammed VI is officially the Commander of the Faithful. In July 2003, in the wake of the Casablanca attacks of May 16, Fouad Ali El Himma, at the time Minister Delegate for the Interior, criticized the Islamists for having maintained a preaching activity. In an interview with the daily Aujourd’hui le Maroc, the future royal adviser personally criticizes Raïssouni for having questioned the religious function of the sovereign”. Of course, Raissouni’s ideological opposition to the idea of the “Commander of the Faithful” stems from two roots: on a practical level, the separation between the monarchy and religion would give the Islamist clergy complete control over Muslim theological discourse and indoctrination inside the country. On an ideological level, Islamists ultimately subscribe to an idea of a Caliphate, and therefore eschew national borders, and the very position of a Sovereign is rooted in the idea of a particular form of a nation state as a political reality.  

Raïssouni embodies an enigmatic figure: conservative, he presents himself as a reformist in the global Islamist and religious galaxy. He is cited in the work of the aforementioned Islamist intellectual Tariq Ramadan, whose sexual setbacks with certain “Islamist sisters” or followers may have finally finished his moderate facade, and who invited him to his Research Center on Islamic Law and Ethics (CILE) in  Qatar.

Geopolitical changes have not spared Sheikh Ahmed Raissouni, who has not always been welcomed by Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. On the contrary, soon after 2011 he resided for a time in the Saudi Kingdom and worked until 2012 with an academy of Islamic jurisprudence in Jeddah. The divorce between Doha and Riyadh-Abu Dhabi forced him to choose sides.

Raisouni chose Qatar and Turkey. He praised Erdogan and the Turkish authorities for their handling of the case of the former Saudi intelligence operative and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.  This was a new message from Raissouni and a direct attack against the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Raisouni now heads the World Union of the Muslim Brotherhood (UIOM), which is classified as a terrorist organization by the Anti-Terrorism Quartet made up of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.

Saaddedine El Othmani, the Islamist-Socialist nexus

El Othmani, the head of the Moroccan government, doesn’t like the idea of normalization with Israel, at least when speaking in a personal capacity to his party. Indeed, foreign policy is exclusively reserved to the King.

El Othmani leads the political alliance between Islamists and socialists parties. The perennial question is whether these parties are composed of political opportunists, who will migrate from one to the next depending on which way the wind blows, or if there is an ideological proximity that makes the transition relatively painless?

To be sure, the leftists and the Islamists frequently eschew the idea of national borders, and are willing to subscribe to revolutionary methodology just as much as to the democratic process, whichever is most expedient at advancing their agenda. Both also seem to embrace similar popular causes and policies, and frequently target the same enemies. 

How loyal are the hardcore ideologues of both movements to the current Moroccan model? 

Member of the “Muslim Brotherhood Clan

Saaddedine El Othmani, Abdelilah Benkirane, Mustapha Ramid, and the late Abdellah Baha, formed the central core of the PJD. In 2004, Dr Abdelkrim El Khatib decided to hand over the baton to El Othmani, a psychiatrist, who became the party’s general secretary through 2008. 

Who were his role models? The Turkish AKP and Erdogan. Othmani’s son went “home” to study in Turkey. He allowed, alongside Dr Khatib, the PJD to negotiate the delicate political period which followed the Casablanca attacks in 2003, during which “the moral responsibility of the party” was pointed out and when the idea of dissolving the Islamist party was floating in the air. Othmani is a man of consensus, except for normalization with Israel.

The political transition which was off to a bad start

The death of King Hassan II came at a time when the political transition in Moroccan electoral politics, which began in February 1998 with the appointment of a socialist prime minister, Abderrahmane Youssoufi, is was well under way. The essential reforms were being blocked. And popular discontent, in a country torn by social inequalities, continued to grow. Islamists – in retreat on the international scene – came to understand that their moment may have come. But who are the Moroccan Islamists?

Cohabitation (2011-2020) with the Islamists: an unprecedented experience. 

King Mohamed VI has well managed his cohabitation with the Islamist PJD. He mastery was on display when exercising the royal prerogative to oust the powerful leader Abdelilah Benkirane as head of the government. This was actually a popular move in the PJD. Benkirane’s “brothers” prepared and succeeded in this coup against him. A certain Othmani, known for his submission to the Makhzen, was appointed by the sovereign to replace him. Do not feel bad for Benkirane, who will still enjoy a golden parachute.

Benkirane’s failures and his government’s scandals are numerous. The same goes for PJD’s associates, affiliates, and allies. On August 20, 2016, two Islamist leaders of the MUR were caught red-handed in an extra-marital relationship. More serious, between Benkirane and the palace, a crisis set in. He was criticized for his diatribes about the notorious “demons and crocodiles” and the shadow government. Benkirane even had the audacity to criticize the King’s African policy, saying “it is not acceptable for the King to go and help the African people while the Moroccan people are humiliated”.  On March 17, 2017, a press release from the palace announced his dismissal and on March 19, his unexpected replacement Othmani was announced.  Here’s an analysis of his circumstances. 

A royal message to decode

The PJD is risk-averse and committed to its conservative base. This explains its anti-normalization position, with a tacit agreement from the government coalition. 

From his golden retirement, Benkirane, surrounded by a handful of his followers, including Mostafa Khalfi, former minister and spokesman for the Benkirane government, is waging a war against Othmani.

The PJD has transformed into two “enemy” clans, but “the PJD has made good use of the resources at its disposal by placing its members and making its customers benefit from its position in power”. This is an example of how the Islamists professional manner in infiltrating the government.

A clash is not to be ruled out

The King does not have to be neutral. Constitutionally, the monarch is a stakeholder. Institutionally, the monarchy has strategic powers and is supposed to be above the parties to defend the higher interests of Morocco. 

There are a few questions worth asking in conclusion. 

What is the role of each institution of the Moroccan system in this assessment?

Who are the Islamists in Morocco who run the government and oppose any normalization with Israel?

Why for the the cause of anti-Zionism bordering on anti-Semitism are they willing to challenge the monarchy?

In particular, Othmani overstepped his boundaries in decrying the efforts to normalize with Israel; foreign policy is a province solely of the King. Othmani ultimately had to retract his comments, but opposition to normalization remains at the forefront of PJD’s official platform. Furthermore, PJD apparatchiks and affiliates have taken steps to put pressure on the Makhzen through staging publicly embarrassing stunts, such as gathering a petition of public figures in opposition to Jared Kushner’s proposed visit to Morocco, in the context of a normalization move in MENA. It bears repeating that the leftists once again joined the Islamists in signing off on this cause. Could it be that the source of financial support for both groups stems in the same place? Leftist journalists who have received assistance from PJD are known to publish in Qatar-backed press and to align with the likes of Jamal Khashoggi’s Qatar-educated editor Karen Attiah. The political, the religious, and the ideological appear to merge into one coalition of convenience.

Moroccan history is worth recalling: Egypt and Jordan were the first Arab countries to sign a peace treaty with Israel, respectively in 1979 and 1994. King Hassan II, father of King Mohamed VI, his successor in Morocco, was the secret architect of this process and of the rapprochement with Israel. Why should Morocco now take a backseat in the cause of peace because of the PJD.

The PJD’s agitation is both procedural, with the legislative approach, and structural, as the Islamist party serves as a foil to an elite draped in its reference to modernity. While its opponents claim to be respectful of the rules of democracy, many suggest that a victory for the PJD would be worrying and damaging to Morocco’s image abroad. This is a fear relayed at the highest level, according to WikiLeaks. In 2005, King Mohamed VI had in fact warned an American senator: “‘Do not be fooled [by the Islamists of the PJD, editor’s note] because they seem reasonable and kind. The United States should have no illusions about them. They are all anti-Americans.’” We can add: “And anti-Israeli.”

What if the PJD wins the 2021 elections?

The game remains open. What is certain: the next government, with or without the PJD, should make a break with its program and the people called upon to implement it. Morocco needs deep reforms and new faces. Otherwise, we fear the worst. An observation to remember: activists of the February 20 Movement, while denouncing the problems of the country’s leaders, including the royal entourage, have never touched the King. The PJD led by Benkirane, took the opportunity to gain power. Nothing excludes his return, on the basis of more violent complaints and denunciations, without sparing anyone! Make no mistake: politically shapeless and confused, the social movement which nevertheless crystallizes a rampant popular revolt against the PJD, should retain the attention of the Sovereign as a priority.

And where is the King in all this?

Rest assured, he retains the prerogatives that allow him to accomplish his dual mission: to preserve the Moroccan identity and to power the country’s forward progress. There is no room for religious extremism. Faced with the corrupt and manipulative Islamists and socialists, the Moroccan people don’t want less King, but more King. This is the message sent in the protests, the injunction “clear!”  All the truly popular protests retain their allegiance to the King, as the unifying force of the country.

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Irina Tsukerman

Irina Tsukerman is a New York-based human rights and national security lawyer and analyst. She has written extensively about geopolitics, foreign policy, and security issues for a wide variety of domestic and international publication. She has appeared on Fox Business, i24, and the John Batchelor Show, and has been interviewed by multiple Arabic language channels and publications, including Morocco’s 2M and Al Arabiya. Her writings have been translated to Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, and Indonesian.

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