PM Benkirane Interview: Royal Calm in Morocco
By: Bassam Alkantar
Published Tuesday, March 5, 2013
Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane recently spoke to the press, including Al-Akhbar. Benkirane, who is also head of the Justice and Development Party, spoke about his party’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and why Moroccans taking to the streets makes him uneasy.
Bassam Alkantar (BK): Was your success in the elections part of the rise of Islamists in the Arab world?
Abdelilah Benkirane (AK): The Islamist movement in Morocco has a separate platform, and has no connection to the Muslim Brotherhood. We reject the idea of interfering in people’s lives. Peoples need to [first] obtain their rights.
The Moroccans have known Islam for a very long time, and are known for their deep reverence for Ahl al-Bayt [the family of the Prophet Mohammad]. They have also built a modern state, managed to maintain stability, caught on with modernity early on, and still preserved their Islamic character. This is a balance that no one can claim to have succeeded at achieving a hundred percent.
The Islamist movement in Morocco began to emerge in its modern configuration in the ‘70s. It went into political life through the Popular Democratic and Constitutional Movement, which became the Justice and Development Party (PJD) in 1992.
The PJD fought its first election in 1997, winning nine seats. In the election that followed in 2002, after the death of King Hassan II, the party won 42 seats. Then in the 2007 election, under King Mohammed VI, the PJD won 46 seats. As the winds of the Arab Spring were blowing in 2011, the party snatched 107 seats, and was tasked by the king to form the government.
After the election, party politics stopped and we became focused on reform efforts within a coalition government...The climate within the government is very positive. After holding elections for the post of secretary general, the Independence Party has taken its natural position within the [parliamentary] majority, which makes up a government that is in line with the major thrusts of the state.
BK: What is the relationship between the PJD and the Muslim Brotherhood?
AK: We are not affiliated with the Brotherhood, and maintain no organizational ties with them. We have our own vision, platform, and institutions. We fundamentally believe that people did not vote for us because we are an Islamist party, but rather because they see us as a political party with an Islamic frame of reference.
BK: How do you evaluate the work of the government a year after its formation?
AK: I cannot claim that we succeeded a hundred percent. After a year in government, we are still at the beginning of the road, operating within the framework of the new constitution, which gives precedence to the monarchy in religious, military, and sovereign affairs, while the government is entrusted with executive powers.
What sets our country apart at this stage is the choice we have made as contemporaries of the Arab Spring, namely, not to take to the streets. This would not be conducive to stability. But at the same time, we resolved to continue [to seek] reforms, something that the king has responded to.
We were not alone in this. Other political parties were in agreement with us, and we were able to achieve what we wanted. Indeed, people did not want to come out in force as they had done in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria, while reforms ran their course.
Today, we, in the state, the government, and the party, are facing a test. Despite the problems of poverty, the logic of reform is progressing slowly but steadily. More importantly, opportunism, cronyism, and bribery are no longer seen as criteria for employment in Morocco. Perceptions are being corrected, and normal approaches based on competence and merit, integrity and transparency are being pursued.
BK: The ruling parties are brought together by a so-called “Charter of the Majority,” but Moroccan newspapers speak of a dispute within this majority. How accurate are these reports?
AK: The government is keen on maintaining the alliance among the parties that make it up, in accordance with the approach that is based on consensus and searching for solutions in earnest.
BK: What is the impact of the situation in Tunisia on the countries of the Maghreb?
AK: Conditions in Morocco differ from what is happening in Tunisia. The relationship among the parties in the Moroccan coalition government is based on mutual accord. The former secretary general of the Independence Party has said that his ministers in previous governments had many grievances, while this time there seems to be none.
When we learned that some individuals were trying to impose certain things on others by force, out of [their religious conviction in] promoting virtue and preventing vice, we gave strict orders to the ministries of justice and interior not to show any leniency toward this.
This is because sedition occurs when everyone starts acting according to their own convictions that they then try to impose on others, when the state is the party responsible for keeping the order.
We have many reservations on the conduct of Islamist-leaning governments in the Arab world, but my sense of responsibility stops me from articulating them. I prefer to follow the old adage: “The people of Mecca are more familiar with their own mountain trails.” It is also not fair to attack governments that are still in their first or second year in office this caustically.
We stress the importance of gradual reform in the Arab world, in a manner that is acceptable to all...
BK: Is your meeting with the Iranian foreign minister a prelude to restoring relations with the Islamic Republic?
AK: We were at a pan-Islamic conference, and Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi asked to meet. We are brothers and we are Muslim, and Iran is a major Islamic country. We have longstanding relations with Iran, but Morocco severed these ties because of what happened in Bahrain. However, foreign relations and all other sovereign matters are the purview of his majesty the king, in accordance with the constitution.
BK: What of the proposal for the Kingdom of Morocco to accede to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)?
Relations with the Gulf countries are close and are based on bonds of brotherhood. Morocco is keen on developing these ties in line with an old policy...albeit it will not lead to unification in the sense that some envision.
A union in the traditional sense would be a fantasy, and we can instead become closely integrated in practical things. Europe is not a union in the literal sense, and is not one united country, albeit borders were opened, goods and persons move freely, and legislation is being gradually unified in practical steps that we are in need of.
BK: The Western Sahara conflict has remained unresolved for more than 35 years. Are there any prospects for resolving this outstanding issue through negotiations?
AK: The Sahara conflict is one of the issues that have yet to be resolved. But it is a groundless issue, and its protagonists were a group of misled students who were late to return to their homeland. Gaddafi, as a stubborn opponent of Morocco, had a role in fueling sedition among those youths who in the beginning had championed liberal ideas. Gaddafi gave them his backing with encouragement from Algeria, which continues to support them to the large detriment of the country.
For Morocco, the Sahara issue is one of a people, unlike the brothers in Algeria, who consider it an issue of a state and a regime. The developments in the region are pushing everyone to rethink many regional issues. There is no problem whatsoever between the Moroccan and Algerian peoples, and if the border is to be reopened and the issue somehow resolved, everyone will be able to know that all this was artificial and not real. We hope that the day it will be resolved is not far.
BK: What is the impact of the events in Mali on Morocco?
AK: It will no doubt impact the situation in the Sahara. We cannot imagine new states being created, and people seizing arms and oil supplies in unknown quantities and from unknown sources, and then ruling people with jihadi ideas. This logic does not belong to our time.
At the same time, we can affirm that there is no place for fragile, porous states. The Moroccan side has gone to the maximum extent possible in the Sahara issue, and proposed self-rule in a framework acceptable to the Moroccan people. We speak frankly with UN envoy Christopher Ross on the Sahara, and I have called on him to seek hard to find a solution in the context of historical and political realities.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.