There was no “Arab spring” in Morocco.

In this elegant western tip of the Islamic Arabic world, things were done differently. The country’s reigning dynasty -- in power since the 17th century -- preempted public pressure. Last June, King Mohammed VI introduced a reform to the constitution that was adopted by referendum. It moves the country in the direction of democracy, gives more power to the parliament, and establishes the authority of the future prime minister with regard to the palace, even if the sovereign remains the supreme decision-maker on all things political. 

And yet again, in Morocco -- as in Egypt and Libya and Tunisia -- the Islamists have gained ground. Political Islam is the big winner of the legislative elections that were held in Morocco this past weekend. And for the first time in the country’s modern history, its number one Islamist, Abdelilah Benkirane, is slated to become prime minister. The date of these elections will be remembered, both in North Africa, and in Europe.

One can of course always pick apart the numbers, and point out that of 21 million potential voters in a country of 32 million, only 13 million registered to vote and less than a third of those placed their ballots for Mr. Benkirane’s party. But democracy held sway, and it would be misplaced to question the victory of the Justice and Development Party (JDP), which now holds 107 of the 395 seats in Morocco’s parliament.

There as elsewhere, the Islamists are garnering the fruits of many years in the opposition. They have the great merit of having built up a social aid network when the corrupt state apparatus was failing the country’s poorest people. When election day came, JDP took all the big cities, where the poor are crowded into ghettoes.

Is there a hidden agenda?

And at the same time, they also geared their rhetoric to the times, in a country that is very much open to the outside. The Islamists expressed real determination to fight corruption, focusing on “social” problems; and though they don’t espouse a defined economic doctrine, the party came across as rather free-market oriented on economic issues.

Is this progressive face masking a different political agenda? Is their intention to make Moroccan society bend to the rigors of fundamental Islam? On such “societal” questions, and on the crucial issue of the place of women in society, the JDP has never hidden its reactionary stance.

It fought in vain against the left and the palace on the issues of moving the age of marriage for girls from 15 to 18; limiting polygamy; and male guardianship of female family members. Call this what you will – conservatism or fundamentalism – but don’t lose sight of it.

Mr. Benkirane should be busy right now creating an alliance with the left to form a government. His will be a historic responsibility: to prove that the Islamists are up to the task of governing a country as diversified and complex as today’s Morocco.

Read the original article in French

photo - M.Angel Herrero