Democratisation as a learning process: the case of Morocco

Mohamed El Hachimi*
Department of Political Science and Public Law, Ibn Zohr University, Agadir, Morocco

Morocco did not experience any radical/revolutionary change in 2011 and it does not seem to be following the conventional steps of the transition paradigm (Liberalisation, breakthrough, and consolidation). However, this situation does not necessarily mean the country is stuck with the status quo. It can be rather analysed as a third way of democratisation, referred to sometimes in the Moroccan political context as ‘the Moroccan exceptionalism’, and it is shaped by several factors that are specific to the Moroccan society, inter alia, the political culture, the prevailing value system, the nature of the party system, etc. In light of the above, the paper focuses on two interrelated aspects of the evolutionary democratisation process in Morocco: It analyses the history and origins of the current unprecedented cohabitation between the king and an Islamist chief of government, and the extent to which this cohabitation is likely to pave the way for a more democratic power-sharing. It also examines its implications for the practical functioning of the system (in terms of the emergence of a Moroccan specific polity, by focusing on, e.g., democracy-learning).

Keywords: democracy-learning; democratic knowledge; transition; Moroccan political regime; democratisation; Islamists

1. Introduction

There are institutional and political peculiarities inherent to Morocco. Researchers have very rarely considered them in their studies of Morocco.1 The process of political reform in Morocco was not a mere reaction to the criticism directed by the Bush administration against Arab authoritarian regimes in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 (Ottaway and Chou- cair-Vizoso 2008, 2). Additionally, the Moroccan reform agenda predates the outbreak of the Arab Spring. The emergence of the 20th February movement, which is usually considered as the Moroccan version of the Arab Spring, was not entirely a response to the Tahrir Square pro- tests. It seems that the temporality of the so-called Arab Spring does not entirely apply to Morocco (Dupret and Ferrié 2014).

The article tries to show that democratisation in the Moroccan context should be considered the outcome of a long process of maturation and interaction between key actors and institutions, resulting in a specific experience of ‘democracy-learning’, the key term and theme rightly chosen for this special issue. Morocco did not experience any radical/revolutionary change in 2011 and it does not seem to be following the conventional steps of the transition paradigm (lib- eralisation, breakthrough, and consolidation). However, this situation does not necessarily mean the country is stuck in the status quo. Rather, it is suggested as a ‘third way of democratization’ which may apply to the Kingdom, sometimes referred to as ‘Moroccan exceptionalism’. This ‘exceptionalism’ is shaped by several factors that are specific to Moroccan society, inter alia, the political culture, the prevailing value system, the nature of the party system, etc. This article analyses the current cohabitation between the king and an Islamist head of government, and then examines the implications of this cohabitation and maturation for the practical function- ing of the political system. The article does this in order to explore what Sadiki introduces in this special issue as ‘democratic knowledge’ and ‘democracy-learning’.

2. The political reform in Morocco in the light of the transition paradigm

The main purpose of this section is to question the adequacy of the transition paradigm in illumi- nating the reform process in Morocco. To this effect, this process will be analysed in the light of two differentiating elements that allow distinguishing the democratic transition from the other modes of political reforms. The first element is related to the temporality of the process of reforms. In fact, democratic transition has to be situated in a short temporality. Otherwise, the prolongation of this intermediate phase would mean, as Hermet (2001, 288) suggests, that the democratic project has got stuck. What is certain is that Moroccans are not totally passive and are increasingly becoming part and parcel of the process of change. To an extent, this gradually modifies the situation noted by Willis about politics remaining the ‘preserve of the elites’ not only in Morocco, but also in the Maghreb in general (Willis 2012, 70). The events of 2011 more or less show that some input from society in terms of contribution to the ‘construction of the post-independence state’ as a political process formerly entirely occupied by elites (Willis 2012, 70) is slowly showing signs of popular participation, and the 20th February movement, among trade unions, political parties, students, etc., is one example that is relevant to gradual democracy-learning.

As for the second differentiating element, it relates to the degree of irreversibility of the tran- sition process.

2.1. The temporality problem

The first clue as to the inadequacy of the conventional pattern of the transition paradigm to the case of Morocco lies in the temporality problematic. The literature on democratisation focuses on the cyclical dimension of the transition (Carothers 2002). The latter is conceived as a process that spans a period with a beginning and an end, between the break-up of the former unde- mocratic regime to the emergence of a democratic regime (Azouzi 2006, 107). This theoretical requirement of the transition paradigm is often confirmed by empirical research, especially with regard to the third wave of democratisation in Latin America and some countries in Eastern Europe (Huntington 1991; O’Donnell and Shmitter 1986).

In Morocco, unlike the third-wave transitions, it can be safely argued that any attempt to study the process of reforms through the prism of the transition paradigm is likely to face two chal- lenges. The first one lies in the absence of what some researchers call a breakpoint, or the zero point (Elmoumni 2006, 11) of the transition process. That is, an event or a series of events that can be considered as a beginning of the transition process. In this regard, it is clear that the 1992 and 1996 constitutional revisions or the alternance granted in 1998, generally invoked by the official rhetoric of the transition, does not mark breaks in the functioning mode of the Mor- occan regime. Far from being a breakpoint, these events can be interpreted as moments of bifur- cation marking readjustments of the regime to adapt to its evolving environment, rather than as premises of any democratic transition (Elmoumni 2006, 11).

As for the second challenge, it is related to the fact that even if one of the events mentioned previously can be considered a starting point for democratic transition, it still remains difficult to identify the stage that the transition has reached so far. This ambiguity can be explained by the unpredictability of the course of democratic evolution in Morocco’s politics. Ultimately, this unpredictability, which remains the hallmark of the political life in Morocco, seems to be anti- thetical to the ‘chronological requirements’ of the transition paradigm which implies an agenda clearly defined and agreed upon by the key actors within such a process.2

2.2 The irreversibility problem

The strategy of partial reforms adopted by the Moroccan regime during the last two decades has paid off in terms of improving its image abroad, and integrating its opponents in the national pol- itical arena. This improvement can be seen in many annual reports of international organisations on the fight against corruption, freedom of the press, and economic competitiveness.

Based on reports of Transparency International, Freedom House, and the World Bank, a signifi- cant improvement seems to have taken place in the early period of the reign of King Mohammed VI on the indexes of transparency, freedom of the press, and economic competitiveness. Thanks to the efforts of the first government formed by opposition parties – referred to in Morocco as the alternance government – in the fight against corruption, Morocco has moved up from being ranked 45th in 1999 to 37th in 2000 (Transparency International 1999). In addition, significant progress was observed in terms of the freedom of press index, as well as that of economic com- petitiveness (Freedom House 2013; World Economic Forum 2014).

The reforms initiated by the Moroccan regime since 1990 may constitute a liberalisation phase with the goal to prepare the regime for a democratic transition, two main characteristics of these reforms stand by. Firstly, it is important to note that the monarchy institution, which has always known how to master the chronology of the introduced reforms, is the actor that has usually granted them. This is not to underestimate the role played by the opposition, especially the ‘Koutla parties’, but to stress the largely unbalanced exchange between the opposition and the monarchy. Secondly, this unbalance has permitted the monarchy not only to have control over the reform agenda, but also to alter cycles of both liberalisation and de-liberalisation of the political field. For example, at the level of civil liberties, the liberalisation measures that were taken starting from 1990 (creation of the Advisory Council of Human Rights (ACHR), release of political prisoners, establishment of the Independent Arbitration commission, and creation of Equity and Reconciliation commission (ERC)) appear to have been emptied of their effects by the wave of measures that have been taken since 2003 under the label of fighting terrorism. Similarly, the hope that was fuelled by the appointment of a politically affiliated Prime Minister in 1998 evaporated when a technocrat was appointed after the elections of 2002. The same flux and reflux phenomenon can be observed at other levels of the state–society relationship: a return of repression of protests (for instance, 2007–2008 protests in Sefrou and Sidi Ifni, as well as the use of violence against the protests of graduate unemployed youth), intimidation of the independent press, restrictions on freedom of expression, etc.

However, this alternation of cycles of liberalisation and de-liberalisation should not be con- sidered an exclusive property of the Moroccan case. Beyond Morocco, it is one of the most salient features of the political reforms in many other Arab authoritarian regimes, in which liberal- isation is ‘a cyclical’ process (Diamond 2010). In an attempt to explain the lack of democracy in the Arab world, Larry Diamond wrote:

When pressure mounts, both from within the society and from outside, the regime loosens its con- straints and allows more civic activity and a more open electoral arena – until political opposition appears as if it may grow too serious and effective. Then the regime returns to more heavy-handed methods of rigging elections, shrinking political space, and arresting the usual suspects.

Based on this perspective, it seems that these are the kind of political systems where authoritarian rulers ‘retain the almost absolute control of the constitutional architecture and can alter liberaliza- tion and de-liberalization phases’ (Kienle 2001, 54). In such situations, it is extremely difficult to expect that the liberalisation measures may create significant disruptions in the operational mode of authoritarian regimes, much less in terms of power distribution. Sadiki correctly talks of the reduction of politics to what he calls ‘electoral fetishism’ (Sadiki 2009). In other words, states use cosmetic elections but without democracy. In this regard, the Moroccan political regime can be considered as one of the hybrid regimes that occupy the grey zone (Carothers 2002, 9).

In order to avoid the political and economic ‘chaos’ which may result from pursuing the first option, the late King Hassan II opted for a cautious liberalisation of his regime. He conducted an institutional and political realignment that was oriented towards achieving two antithetical objec- tives. On the one hand, he had to liberalise the regime in order to narrow the circle of internal dissidents and calm down criticisms from the European neighbours (creation of the Advisory Council of the Human Rights (CCDH), The Independent Authority of Arbitrage, the ERC, the reform of the family code, the granted alternation in 1998, etc.). On the other hand, parallel to these opening signals, the regime seems to have deliberately locked the political system. This new strategy consisted of a proliferation of constitutional safeguards (the revised constitution of 1996),3 and all the necessary measures taken by the regime in order to establish a kind of de facto separation between real power (exercised by the palace) and the government that exer- cises a residual power granted by electoral competition. From this perspective, the Moroccan regime can be classified as a semi-authoritarian regime, inasmuch as it appears to be determined to maintain the appearance of democracy without exposing itself to the political risks that free competition entails (Ottaway 2003, 9).

From the analysis above, it can be concluded that the reforms initiated by the Moroccan mon- archy mismatch with the theoretical requirements of a transition paradigm; these reforms cannot be considered part of a survival strategy of the monarchy either. However, they seem to be mani- festations of a different ‘normal’ mode in a type of political system whose institutions, norms, and logic ‘defy any linear model of democratization’ (Brumberg 2002, 56). Ultimately, in the absence of a genuine force for democratisation from below, the reforms initiated from above are not able to constitute a real source of democratic change. The authoritarian regime seems prepared to contain any ‘democratic slippage’ (Ferrié 2006) that may result from these liberalisation initiatives.

3. Islamists and moderation as part of the democracy-learning process

Moderation of Morocco’s Islamists is part and parcel of what is called ‘Democracy Learning’ in this special issue. I choose the term ‘moderation’ over competing terms such as ‘deradicalisation’. It is more positive and central to a long-term process of learning democracy in Morocco. There are at least two main approaches to analyse the current unprecedented cohabitation between the mon- archy and the Islamists of the Party of Justice and Development (PJD). One possible approach is to focus on the relationship between the PJD and the regime. Such an approach is likely to allow a better understanding of the process of political integration of the Islamists and the long way they have come from the ranks of opposition to the ministerial portfolios in the government of His Majesty. However, such an approach may risk isolating the PJD’s political thought and attitudes from the social, political, and institutional environment that contributed in shaping them over time. Interestingly, unless the environment in which the PJD, like any other political party, has been interacting with is taken into consideration, it is hard to elucidate the way it has evolved over time. Indeed in addition to the monarchy and the PJD, this environment includes other actors, embracing different ideologies that should be taken into account when analysing the ideo- logical and political evolution of the PJD. In this regard, it is worth noting that theories of the sociology of organisations often stress the necessity to analyse the behaviour of actors in light of their interaction with the other parts of the system. To do so, a second approach consists of looking to the cohabitation between Islamists and the monarchy as an outcome and manifestation of what is referred to in this article as ‘the Moroccan Collective Political Mind’. This means a set of values, ideas, beliefs, non-written rules, habits, etc., which are shaped by and shape the rheto- ric, political thinking, and behaviours of the Moroccan political elites, and their relations with each other and with the masses. In this respect, the process that led the Islamists of the PJD to integrate state institutions should be seen as an outcome of the way in which opposition parties have interacted, over time, with the monarchy as the central actor of the political system. It can be assumed that the moderate Islamists of the PJD have built their political agenda on some kind of capitalisation on the outcomes of the conflict between the monarchy and the leftists, especially during the 1960s and early 1970s.

3.1. Hassan II’s regime and the Left: confrontation leads nowhere

A few years after Morocco gained its independence, the conflict over power between the monar- chy and its opposition caused the country to enter a political vicious circle. This conflict reached its climax when each protagonist tried to eliminate the other, hence causing the country to enter into a vicious circle of violence during the 1960s and 1970s. This period is often referred to in Morocco as ‘les années de plomb’ or the years of the lead.4 When Hassan II inherited the throne from his father in 1961, he adopted a softer style of repression that blended handsome rewards and harsh punishments. His preferred tactic was to neutralise potential power contenders through incentives such as generous land grants, business deals, and offers of well-paid govern- ment positions. The nature of Hassan II’s rule was largely seen as a regime which ‘uses modern institutions to preserve medieval political authority’ (Maghraoui 2001a). Indeed, Hassan II’s skill lay in the fact that, as Campbell has argued, ‘he could co-opt members of various parties, squelch dissent, crush enemies, and still be regarded by many as a beloved monarch’ (Opgenhaffen and Freeman 2005).

In this regard, it is worth noting that the 1960s and 1970s witnessed the worst abuse against perceived or potential enemies. Trade unionists, Marxists, intellectuals, farmers, Islamists – anyone suspected of being critical of the monarchy – could potentially be subject to a wide range of punishments, often just for the ‘crime’ of a rumoured political affiliation. The political situation in Morocco worsened in 1970 and 1971 when two unsuccessful coups d’état provoked wide-scale arrests, military trials, and executions of those thought to be involved. In 1973, 58 members of the armed forces who received prison sentences were transferred to the notorious secret detention centre of ‘Tazmammart’, where they were held in conditions that led to long, slow deaths. The trials themselves were mostly conducted without any traditional guarantees of fair trails and, by all accounts, were sham proceedings. Punishment was meted out broadly, sometimes drawing in family members who were imprisoned together for decades at a time.5

Moreover, the problem of the disappeared people reflects one of the methods that were system- atically used by the Moroccan state to get rid of its opponents, no matter what their political affiliations were. Indeed, because of the climate of fear that characterised the rule of Hassan II during the ‘years of the lead’, very little information about these violations was made public. Although it was obviously unbalanced, the confrontation between the monarchy and the leftist opposition resulted in a zero-sum game. Neither did the king succeed in eliminating his leftist opposition, nor did the latter succeed in its endeavour to overthrow the monarchy deemed a reac- tionary regime. However bloody this confrontation was, it had the merit of causing a significant change in the way each one of these two parties conceives the other, therefore serving as an oppor- tunity for each to learn how to cope with the other. On the one hand, the monarchy realised that what it considered an enemy turned out to be a socially deep-rooted opposition. On the other hand, the leftists became cognizant of the fact that what they considered a reactionary, tradition- alist, and conservative regime was actually a multi-century monarchical system that had strongly shaped the nation’s political culture. The main characteristic of this political culture lies in the distinction between the king as a person and the monarchy as an institution. Consequently, as Maghraoui argues, while the overwhelming majority of Moroccans may consider the king person- ally unfair or unjust, they nonetheless identify with the monarchy as a symbol of national unity and legitimate form of governance (Maghraoui 2001b, 75).

As a result these two central actors of the Moroccan political life started a long and slow process of mutual acceptance and trust building. This process was mainly marked by their will- ingness to transcend their opposition and turn the page of their mutual exclusion in the past. The emergence of such a new political consciousness has paved the way for these former enemies to start making significant concessions. Indeed this was the starting point of what will become the first and unique experience of Transitional Justice in the Arab World so far. In this regard, it is worth noting that the transitional justice process was preceded by the introduction of a set of pol- itical and institutional reforms.6 These reforms paved the way for the creation of the Independent Arbitration Commission charged with determining different levels of compensation for cases of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance that occurred between 1956 and 1999. These initiatives culminated in the creation in 2004 of the ERC that was tasked with dealing with past human rights violations and rebuilding trust between the regime and its former opponents.

This was one of the clear manifestations of the change that occurred in the way the monarchy and the leftists perceive each other. Obviously both of them have failed in defeating one another. Nonetheless, this failure has given birth to significant success in learning how to deal with each other in a non-conflictual way. In other words, they seem to have become deeply convinced that conflict leads nowhere. This lesson could be seen as another key element that enriched the Moroccan Collective Political Mind as the positions adopted by the current leaders of the PJD towards the monarchy show. Indeed, in his response to the criticism directed against him for not fully exercising his constitutional powers, the current head of government, Mr Benkirane, asserts that:

It is me who implements the constitution. I understand it well and I know it well; the attempt to under- take reforms through conflict with the monarchy is part of the past. The USFP leaders acknowledge that one day they said that the only way to reform the regime is to overthrow it and they failed. (Ben- kirane 2014)

This statement clearly shows how the Islamists have capitalised on the experiences of the leftists

in building a rather moderate ideology.

3.2. Islamists and the monarchy: a long moderation and democracy-learning process

In December 2011, shortly after the results of the legislative elections were released, King Mohamed VI appointed Mr Abdelilah Benkirane, Secretary General of the PJD, as head of the government. While some observers characterised this appointment as an unprecedented turning point that gives the idea of ‘the Moroccan exceptionalism’ concrete content (Saint-Prot and Rou- villois 2013), others, less optimistic or more realistic, have assumed that such an event is likely to be the first step in what they considered a political manoeuvre aiming at dodging the so-called Arab Spring (Madani, Maghraoui, and Zerhouni 2012).

Regardless of what the intentions and expectations of the monarchy and the PJD were, the peaceful and smooth integration of Morocco’s Islamists is undoubtedly an unprecedented experi- ence in the Arab world. Hence, the following paragraphs seek to elucidate the process that made such an integration happen without taking into account its outcomes. In this regard, this article argues that the new role the Islamists are playing in the post-2011 era should be seen as an outcome of a long process of political learning, which has led the Islamists of the PJD to make two ruptures: on the one hand, an ideological rupture that consisted in adopting a new mode of thinking. On the other hand, they also made a political rupture that made them accept political participation based on secular rules of the game. Before addressing these core issues, it should be noted that the Islamist movement in Morocco is far from being homogenous. Pluralistic by nature, Moroccan Islamism is championed by two main groups: the PJD led by Abdelilah Benkirane, and Justice and Charity (al ‘Adl wal ‘Ihsan, JC), founded by Sheik Abdessalam Yassine (Amghar 2007, 1). However, for the purpose of this article, I will focus only on analysing what I call the PJD’s moderation learning process.

To investigate possible sources of moderation among political Islam organisations in the Arab World, a large body of social movements’ theory concepts has been applied to Islamist move- ments. One possible application would be to use the concept of framing processes to investigate one source of moderation among Islamist groups, namely the competitive intergroup framing (Marshall 2005). This approach consists of investigating the contests inherent in group framing processes, and places these in the larger context of democratic and Islamic frames in order to uncover the dialectics between increasingly moderate groups and processes of intergroup frame contestation. Yet such an approach cannot be applied to the case of the PJD. Contrary to the case of Muslim Brotherhood and the Al-Wassat Party in Egypt, there was no significant com- petition between the PJD and other Islamist groups. For instance, although it had a different pol- itical stance regarding the monarchy, the JC group allegedly exhorted its followers to vote for the PJD candidates in the last legislative elections.

Given that the concept of framing processes is not adequate to the case of the PJD, this article attempts to use the concept of ‘new thinking’ in order to shed light on the PJD’s moderation process. It can be defined as ‘a change of beliefs (or the degree of confidence in one’s beliefs) or the development of new beliefs, skills, or procedures as a result of observation and interpret- ation of experience (Levy 1994). The concept of Islamists’ New Thinking is perceived as a result of a process of political learning of Islamist movements. Based on Levy’s definition, it would be relevant to analyse how the Islamists of the PJD have succeeded in shifting from a type of ‘coup’ ideology to embracing political participation.

3.3. The PJD and the adoption of a new mode of thinking and democracy-learning

It can be argued that Moroccan Islamists were first influenced by some famous figures of political Islam in the Levant. Indeed the political frame of reference of the leaders of the Moroccan Al-Sha- biba Al-Islamiyya, which could be considered as the breeding ground of the current PJD, was shaped by the ideas of the Egyptian scholar Sayed Qotb. In early 1970s, Moroccan Islamists used the concepts (of ‘Al-Jahilia’, ‘Al-Hakimiyya Al-Ilahiyya’, etc.) developed by Qotb in his famous book Ma’alim fi al-Tariq (Milestones) as analytical tools to understand and judge both the society and the regime. Therefore, Islamists apprehended the rest of the society suspiciously, leaving no room for negotiation and dialogue. In this regard, Alamine Boukhbza said that:

The most important objective that was preoccupying the Islamist movement was to try to convince those who belong to Al-Shabiba Al-Islamiya that the eminent danger which threatens the Islamic action was the two communist Marxist-Leninist organisations of ‘Ila Alamam’ and ‘23 March’. Indeed, we were considering these two organisations as being influenced and infiltrated by Jews (especially Abrahaml Serfaty and Shemon Levy), hence the issue (the conflict) had an ideological and dogmatic dimension. (Talidi 2008, 23)

The first conclusion to be drawn from this testimony is that at the very beginning Moroccan Isla- mists were rather radical. They were very reluctant to undertake any kind of political participation or political action inasmuch as their ultimate objective was to Islamise the society deemed non- religious. In this, the Moroccan version of political Islam seems to have been clearly inspired by the conception of political action that was prevailing in Egypt with the rise of Muslim Brother- hood group at that time. Their relation with the state, the society, and other components of the political field was a tense one.

3.3.1. From secrecy and ‘coup’ ideology
The assassination of Omar Ben Jelloun (known for his struggle and adherence to the socialist camp) in 1975 was the beginning of a historical shift in the movement’s activism. The first person condemned for the assassination was Abdulkarim Moutia, who fled Morocco and was sen- tenced to death after evidence of his responsibility for the murder emerged. This Islamist leader has remained firm in his original purpose, and proceeded with guiding his followers from abroad to convince them to continue the confrontation with the regime. In order to achieve this goal, he has issued a magazine entitled ‘Mujahid’, calling for the overthrow of the monarchy, especially in one of the issues which carried the headline ‘Oh Horses of God Ride!’ When the authorities became aware of the danger that the issue represented, they called for an intensification of the arrest campaigns among Al-Shabiba Al-Islamiyya’.

These security measures resulted in the split of Al-Shabiba Al-Islamiyya movement into two groups: one group sided with the leader Abdulkarim Moutia, and became inspired by his revolu- tionary thought based on secrecy and coup ideology (Tozy 1999, 131). The other group rejected this ideological choice, and started a series of revisions in order to clarify their strategy, including their stances towards the ruling regime, opting for peaceful political participation, and starting to consider working in a public, legal way and shunning revolutionary actions.

At this very crucial moment, the members of Al-Shabiba Al-Islamiyya began to question their activism and ideology: Is it necessary to go through the same paths of the Islamic movements in their struggle against regimes in Middle Eastern countries? Should Islamic activists inevitably experience trials and tribulations in prisons? Is it possible to work within the framework of legal legitimacy while maintaining the uniqueness of the Islamic movement? This was the kind of questions leaders of Al-Shabiba started to ask. In fact, these questions were an expression of a feeling of community crisis experienced among the movement both at the level of regulation and at the level of ideas and perceptions (Saidi 2014 264). This ended the discussion that took place within the movement and culminated in the drafting of a manifesto on the Islamic activism, highlighting a set of principles and rules which include the rejection of armed action as a means of change, the belief that the movement is one of the components of society and one of the actors and contributors in the reform, and the refusal to enter into any confrontation with the ruling political regime (Saidi 2014, 267). Moreover, the document drafted reassured the ruling regime and confirmed the unwillingness of Al-Shabiba’s new moderate leaders to put into question the reli- gious and historical legitimacy of the ruling regime.

This chapter of the history of the movement confirms that the split within this important component of Al-Shabiba Al-Islamiyya was not caused by differences due to organisational or political positions adopted by the new leadership at the time, but it was an expression of an intellectual and an organisational rethinking.

3.3.2. Towards a new political thinking: the onset of Islamist democracy-learning
As argued above, the leadership of the new group was advocating the thesis of peaceful partici- pation, renouncing violence and rejecting confrontation with the regime, but the activists of the ‘Da’awa’ generation at the time did not accept this approach spontaneously, because of a firm and deep-rooted belief in a confrontational religious ideology. They were not interested in political participation and adopting peaceful strategies. This confirms that the group as a structure has been formed by two currents. The first current opted for confrontation as a means of establishing an Islamic state, while the other called for political participation and tried to avoid dispute over the religious legitimacy of the ruling regime. The passage from the ideology of confrontation to the acceptance of the idea of participation was made possible through the intellectual revisions con- ducted by some of the current leaders of the PJD. Two of them will be discussed in the following paragraphs: Mohammed Yatim and Saaeddine El Othmani.

In an article published in Arraya newspaper, Mohammed Yatim explains the nature of intellec- tual perceptions inherited from the period of the Al-Shabiba movement by saying that: ‘There are two visions to the Islamic activism as transformational models: the revolutionary and the civilisa- tional one’ (Yatim 1997). He asserted that the first vision rejects any form of dealing with the social and political institutions on the grounds that the adoption of its premises meant an acknowl- edgement of corruption and it could not comply with the teachings of Islam, while the second is based on participation, defending the public good that exists in society, and working to expand it as much as possible. Obviously, from the very beginning, Yatim showed his willingness to advo- cate the second vision. To this end, he has opened a broad discussion with the radical Islamic movements in order to persuade them into adopting his approach, by using an argumentation nar- rative closer to realism than to religious justification: ‘when one looks at the logic of rejection, one finds that this logic is irrelevant in our current circumstances’ (Yatim 1997). The author, as Saidi argued, has tried to distance himself here from attacking his adversaries by not using any harsh or exclusionary expressions; instead, he used a more moderate and flexible narrative in which he explains how the extremist rhetoric is irrelevant, underscoring its lack of conformity with reality rather than refuting or excluding it completely. All of this is central to the emergence of a process of democracy-learning within the Islamist movement in Morocco.

In fact, he was seeking to gain support from the rest of the Islamic movements which were likely to become either adversaries that may hinder his movement, or supporters that can be relied upon. Taking into consideration the sensitivity of the issue, the author has implicitly asked them to reconsider their positions, as they no longer take into account the circumstances and developments in the new era based on several considerations.

The first consideration is that, in fact, withdrawing from the political arena and adopting the rejection logic help the opponents of the Islamic movement, and deepen the latter’s insignificance. The fact that these opponents are keen on preventing Islamic movements from political partici- pation shows that participation is indeed a way to perform Jihad. To support his point, the author explains: ‘withdrawing from the political life, while attacking all attempts to compete with corrupted elites, is actually a collusion with the opponents of the Islamic movement. Partici- pation, then, is indeed a pressure on the corrupted people and elites’ (Yatim 1997). The second consideration lies in the fact that refusing participation is actually against the normal logic that frames the relationship between boycotting and participating. From the Islamic perspective, going out to the people promoting virtues, and calling-to-goodness, is the original approach. However, withdrawing from this mission is only an exceptional preventive approach and punitive behaviour, not the normal relationship with others. He adds that ‘Withdrawing may be desirable in case of weakness; however, withdrawing while having the ability to change the evil is in fact a failure and a negative approach because it leads to abandoning the duty of promotion of virtue’ (Yatim 1997).

As for the third consideration, it consists in assuming that accepting political participation is not conditioned by the ability to achieve complete justice and full desired reform. However, the goal is to minimise evil and reduce abuses. This situation may involve tolerating some abuses, especially when achieving some desired benefits and reforms cannot be separated from some other remaining abuses. Finally, based on his arguments developed above, Yatim draws a con- clusion according to which the issue of political participation may not fall sometimes within what is merely religiously permissible; it may actually be considered a religious obligation if linked to the big purpose of warding off evil as much as possible and enjoining as much good as possible (Yatim 1997).

The second example that illustrates the emergence of a new thinking current from within the Islamist movement is Saad Eddine El Othmani’s thought. In his attempt to persuade the radicals of Ashabiba Al Islamya to give up their revolutionary ideology, El Othmani suggested a new reading of Ibn Taymiyyah’s legacy.7 The author argued that Ibn Taymiyyah was rather in favour of peaceful participation and not a proponent of revolt against authority. This is indeed a strategy of facing the youth of Islamic advocacy movements with their own arguments. In this regard, El Othmani based his interpretation of Ibn Taymiyyah’s thought on a set of principles, inter alia:

  • .  The question of political participation and action is a purpose-based issue, not a question of restricted worship rules. If worship rules are principally restricted, politics is principally an area of permissibility.
  • .  The field of political action is an area of diligence and different opinions.
  • .  The religious provisions in the field of politics are based on abilities and capabilities and on seeking possible interest and good as much as possible; accordingly, interests vary depend- ing on the circumstances of different times.
  • .  Political action is about weighing the pros and cons of conflicting interests.

It seems from the above observations that El Othmani has sought to make political action an area of opinion and personal diligence, not an area of doctrinal provisions and controls. This does not mean that the movement is moving in the direction of separating politics from religion; in fact, the movement emphasises that the purpose of its political participation is to get closer to God.

The main conclusion to be drawn from the intellectual revisions led by Yatim and Othmani is that they played a significant role in PJD’s ideological moderation process. Indeed, these revisions did not only disarm the radicals, but also paved the way for the moderates to impose their strategy that consists of changing the system from within, by consolidating further their democratic-learn- ing process.

4. The implications of the democracy-learning process for Morocco’s democratisation

It has been argued above that, unlike other Arab countries, the democratisation process in Morocco has its own trajectory that dates much further back than the beginning of the Arab Spring. This specific trajectory explains how the Moroccan political system has learnt adaptively, over time, as outlined in Sadiki’s definition. This was done to avoid destructive conflicts. Since the second half of the 1970s, the monarchy has usually kept an open window to accommodate the claims of its opposition, which in turn made significant efforts to engage in a progressive reform process. Undoubtedly, this process of cohabitation, learning, trust building, and mutual conces- sions does not seem to be enough to bring about genuine democracy. However, it was largely suf- ficient to push the country out of the category of authoritarian regimes (Saaf 2009).

Regardless of the immediate impact this relatively long democracy-learning process may have on the effective functioning of the political system, it raises several questions on its implications for the ongoing democratisation process. To what extent could the lessons learnt in and the values and attitudes shaped by this democracy-learning process constitute a platform strong enough to generate real democracy? To answer this question, it seems necessary to examine the content of the aforementioned values and attitudes as well as some of the most important political and institutional reforms that shaped them. The aim of such an endeavour is to try to determine whether these values, attitudes, and political and institutional reforms are likely to facilitate the emergence of a more democratic political configuration and eventually result in solid democ- racy-learning. In Marina Ottaway’s conceptualisation:

The transition from authoritarian to a democratic system requires a political paradigm shift, an abandoning by those controlling the government, and often also by their opponents, of old assump- tions about the fundamental organisation of the polity, the relation between the government and the citizens, and thus the source, distribution and exercise of political power. (Ottaway and Choucair- Vizoso 2008, 7)

Thus, it would be useful to know whether the values and lessons learnt by the political elites (the art of negotiating, making concessions, compromises, learning cohabitation, etc.) and reforms introduced by the monarchy (the release of political prisoners, solving the thorny issue of past human rights violations, the organisation of elections on a regular basis, the constitutional reform in 2011, etc.) correspond to what Ottaway calls ‘significant reforms’ (Ottaway and Chou- cair-Vizoso 2008, 7). In other words, the task will be to examine the nature of these reforms so as to determine if they are able to alter the distribution of power and the character of the political system (Ottaway and Choucair-Vizoso 2008, 3). However, it should be noted that while this paper borrows some of the key elements of the conceptual framework used by Ottaway, it does not fully adopt her assumptions on how to distinguish significant reforms that could lead to a ‘paradigm shift’ from simple cosmetic ones. The main problem with the criteria suggested by Ottaway relates to the required time frame for the reforms to be considered significant. In this regard, the author assumes that ‘although any precise number will be arbitrary, reforms that are not likely to have an impact within five years should not be considered as significant’ (Ottaway and Choucair-Vizoso 2008, 10). Hence, a systematic application of this time frame will undoubtedly result in considering all the values and attitudes described above as part of the democracy-learning process insignificant. Indeed, apart from the recent constitutional reform in 2011, most reforms that form this learning process are part of a dynamic triggered more than two decades ago. It seems necessary to distinguish two types of reforms, to be evalu- ated accordingly on the basis of two different time frames.

The first type includes all forms of political, judicial, institutional, and legal reforms. This kind of reforms may have some short-term repercussions on the practical functioning of a given political system. Hence, a five-year time frame seems to be relatively sufficient to evaluate their impact and, thus, to assess whether or not they are significant reforms that are likely to lead to a paradigm shift. The second type of reform consists of what this article refers to as ‘long-standing trends reforms’. This includes all kinds of reforms that seek to bring about change in terms of values, beliefs, attitudes, practices, and habits. These are deeply rooted in the prevailing mentality in a given society, which is why they are not the kind of areas in which change is likely to occur within a short period of time. Therefore, the evaluation of their impact does not make sense before the passage of period of time much longer than Ottaway’s five years. The time frame may be two or three legislatures or even more.

The Moroccan political context in the aftermath of the constitution of 2011 is full of examples that reflect the distinction between short-term reforms and long-standing trends as described above. Two examples will be discussed here. The first one relates to the constitution recently adopted in 2011 and the new political configuration it has supposedly established. Indeed, when the new constitution was voted by an overwhelming majority of Moroccan voters, this was seen as a step forward in the continuous evolutionary change towards structural democratic governance since the country’s independence in 1956 (Zemrani and Lynch 2013, 117). Some observers considered the new text a charter of human rights and good governance (Saint-Prot and Rouvillois 2013). Others went further and started to analyse the constitutional provisions deemed as the premises of the parliamentarisation of the Moroccan political system (Benabdellah 2013).

Three years after the coming into force of the new constitution, the answer seems to be controversial. On the one hand, it is very clear that the new constitution is unlikely to have any significant impact in terms of changing the nature of the political system. This is due to the fact that such a change entails a multidimensional long-term action and more prolonged process of democratic knowledge acquisition that depends not only on the texts, but also on the political culture and the balance of power shaping the current political configuration. This goes beyond the texts of the constitution which remains nothing but the tip of the iceberg. However, on the other hand, it can be assumed that the new political configuration established by the new constitution seems to presage a more democratic distribution of power. The battle over the implementation of the 2011 constitution is likely to have a significant impact on the democratisation process. Indeed, given that the reforms introduced by the constitution were not merely ‘benevolent’ acts of the regime, it can be assumed that if the democratic forces (the 20 February Movement and other civil and political movements) continue mounting pressure in favour of a democratic interpretation of the constitution, the regime may make more significant concessions in the battle over the implementation of the constitution. Hence, given that such con- cessions reflect, in one way or another, the recognition of inalienable political rights of the citi- zens, this is likely to lead to a kind of paradigm shift that precedes democracy. Furthermore, even if one admits that the new constitution was a mere cosmetic reform conducted by the regime, the latter has no guarantee of controlling the entire dynamics this reform has triggered so far. In other words, this supposedly limited and calculated reform may have some ‘unintended consequences’ (Ottaway and Choucair-Vizoso 2008, 10) on the practical functioning of the new system that may lead to reform.

The second example when exploring the resulting acquisition of democratic knowledge (as explained by Sadiki in this special issue) concerns the values learnt and the new thinking adopted by the Islamists of the PJD: this is due to the long democracy and moderation demo- cratic-learning process analysed above. Indeed they have clearly shown their capacity to learn from their failures more than from their successes. In this regard, the current leader of the PJD and head of the government has showed a great deal of pragmatism in dealing with the sensitive issue of having a religious frame of reference in a country where the king derives his legitimacy mainly from his capacity as the ‘commander of the faithful’ (Maghraoui 2001b). To prevent any rivalries with the king, Mr Benkirane made it clear that the PJD is not a religious movement (Allillou 2014). He went on to add that the PJD ‘has a religious background, but it is not a religious movement. Our role is to treat the political imbalances not the religious ones’ (Allillou 2014). In the same spirit, the PJD leaders seem to have also learnt a lesson from the confrontation between the monarch and the leftist in the past. In spite of their severe criticism directed against state institutions and some key figures of the regime, they never put the legitimacy of the mon- archy into question. When Mustapha Ramid, the then president of PJD’s parliament group, tried to put the prerogatives of the commander of the faithful into question, his suggestions were rejected by monarchists from within his own party. More recently, when Benkirane was criticised for being submissive and docile in his relation with the palace, he firmly retorted that he is seeking to compromise with the king, and that he will never tell him no whatever he asks him to do. This shows clearly that Islamists are part of the process of ‘democratic learning’ as they are aware of the fact that they can never pretend to rule the country alone. Obviously, they seem to be con- vinced that, given the current balance of power, the only way to push democracy forward is to reach a kind of sustainable cohabitation with the monarchy. This was clearly stated by Mustapha El Khalfi, the minister of communication and one of the young leaders of the PJD: ‘We are devel- oping cooperation with the king step by step … people think democracy will come as a result of conflict between the monarchy and the government. They are completely wrong. Democracy will be the result of cooperation between the two’ (Ottaway 2012).

What can be drawn from such a statement about democratic knowledge is that the political experience of the Islamists resulted in a significant turning point in their political doctrine.

5. Conclusion

The main thrust of this article is to show that the state of play of the Moroccan political system can be best understood as an outcome of a democracy-learning process. The palace seems to have learnt from its confrontation with its former leftist opponents that confrontation with the Islamists is very likely to cause a deep polarisation in the Moroccan society. Hence, to prevent such chaotic option, the monarchy opted for a long process of negotiations with the Islamists with a view to integrating them into the political sphere.

As for the Islamists of the PJD, having in mind that the conflict that opposed the monarchy and the leftist opposition in the past resulted in a zero-sum game, they opted for the adoption of new political thinking. They have since become more willing to make concessions and compromises in search of a common ground with the other components of the political sphere in a way that has enabled them to shift from the coup ideology to embracing political participation.

Three years after the new constitution came into force, it is very hard to assume that the analyti- cal tools of the transition paradigm are likely to shed much light on the future of the democratisa- tion process in Morocco. However, what is certain is that the interaction between the Islamists and the monarchy has brought to light the role of democratic attitudes derived from specifically local values and traditions of tolerance and moderation in shaping the democratisation process in the country. Indeed, the smooth and peaceful political process underway in Morocco’s post-Arab Spring era is mainly due to the long democracy-learning process through which the monarchy has learnt how to accommodate its opposition, and the Islamists have learnt how to make com- promises and concessions and how to work with the king and other secular groups in the country. This learning process seems to have important implications for the practical functioning of the system, and is very likely to foster a specific bi-cephalic polity as a way to combine monarchy and democracy in the Moroccan political context.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.


  1. With the exception of the sociologist Paul Pascon who developed the notion of Composite Society to describe the social, economic, and cultural peculiarities, which shape the behaviour of Moroccans (see Rachik and Bourqia 2014).
  2. For instance, we cite the nomination of Driss Jettou, who is a technocrat just after the legislative elections of 2002.
  3. The clearest example is the creation of a second chamber of parliament with almost the same prerogatives of the House of Representatives. It has in particular the possibility to engage the responsibility of the government.
  4. The era of violent repression in Morocco took place right after the attainment of independence from the French colonisation. The initial manifestations of state repression can be dated back to the struggle for independence that triggered regional revolts throughout the country. In an attempt to disempower the opposition, all the contending powers that had joined in the urban-based struggle for independence were subsequently subjected to strong crackdowns by the first ruler of post-independent Morocco. The northern region of the country found its anti-colonial stand quickly unrecognised in the aftermath of independence. In response to the post-independence betrayal, the region revolted against the regime in 1958, and that act produced a brutal reaction from the royal armed forces.
  5. The most not orious case concerned the wife and six children of 1971 coup leader, Colonel Oufkir, who was saidto have committed suicide just after the failed coup. His family which denied this story spent 18 years in a secret prison.
  6. For example, elections became more transparent, and citizens enjoyed increasing freedoms to criticise those who governed them, both in the press and in public gatherings. In the field of human rights, the regime decided to release some of its political prisoners. These included the alleged coup plotters held at the notorious secret prison of Tazmammart. In 1990 the king created an ACHR in order, he said, to ‘put an end to all of the allegations and to close this [human rights] file’ (Grotti and Goldstein 2005, 8).
  7. Ibn Taymiyyah, in full Taqī al-Dīn Abū al-ʿAbbās Ah. mad ibn ʿAbd al-Salām ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Muh. ammad ibn Taymiyyah (born 1263, Harran, Mesopotamia – died 26 September, 1328, Damascus, Syria). He is one of Islam’s most forceful theologians, who, as a member of the Pietist school founded by Ibn H. anbal, sought the return of the Islamic religion to its sources: the Qurʾān and the sunnah, revealed writing, and the prophetic tradition. He is the source of the Wahhābiyyah, a mid-eighteenth-century traditionalist movement of Islam. He is one of the most influential theologians who inspired many Islamist Movements in the Islamic world.


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