A polling station in Morocco (photo: dpa)
Interview with Fouad Abdelmoumni

''The Islamists Are Astonishingly Open''

Morocco's parliamentary elections on 25 November 2011 were won by the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD). So what are the challenges facing the new government? And what does the future hold for the "20 February" protest movement? Martina Sabra discussed these questions with the human rights activist Fouad Abdelmoumni

Abdelilah Benkirane is Morocco's new prime minister. This is the first time that your country has had an Islamist head of government. To date, the Justice and Development Party (PJD) has put up a rather mediocre performance at communal level. Were you surprised by the PJD's good result in the parliamentary elections on 25 November?

Fouad Abdelmoumni: For many Moroccans, the PJD is still an attractive and credible option – more credible, anyway, than the other parties, which have discredited themselves by their close ties to the establishment. But you must also bear in mind that the PJD only gained a quarter of all parliamentary seats, and that voter turnout in the election was extremely low. There are 24 million adults in Morocco, only 13 million of whom were registered to vote. Out of these 13 million, only 6 million actually voted, and only 4.5 million of these votes were valid. Also, many Moroccans boycotted the election or posted invalid ballot papers in the ballot box.

What are the challenges facing the new Moroccan government? What, in your view, are the areas most in need of attention?

Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane (photo: picture alliance/dpa)
King Mohammed VI recently appointed Abdelilah Benkirane prime minister of Morocco following the victory of Benkirane's moderate Islamist Justice and Development party in the parliamentary elections on 25 November 2011

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Abdelmoumni: The only real progress in recent decades that has actually made a difference to the population as a whole has been in the supply of drinking water and electricity. In all other areas Morocco has fallen well short of its possibilities. We have been continuously sliding down the United Nations' Human Development Index for years. The biggest problem by far, along with deficiencies in the healthcare system and social security, is the poor quality of education in schools.

A great deal of money has been invested in the education sector. Why has the situation still not improved?

Abdelmoumni: It's true that a lot of schools have been built. But the quality of the teaching has not improved. On the contrary, it has got worse, which is also one of the reasons why we still have a very high rate of illiteracy: over 40 per cent. Anyone who can possibly afford to do so sends their children to private school. Over the past five years, the percentage of primary schools that are privately run has doubled. Many young people who have gained a school-leaving certificate still don't have the qualifications they need to find work.

And yet Morocco's general economic data for the past few years has been good?

Abdelmoumni: It depends on how you look at it. The fact is that on an international level, we are scarcely able to compete. Our balance of trade shows that we export only half as much as we import. The most important reason for this is that we have a weak industrial sector. The competition is stronger than we are – not only Asian countries but also Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia. At the same time, the state is consuming vast sums of money. The palace, the political parties, the bloated bureaucracy; the army, which consumes 7.1 per cent of the annual GDP compared to the international average of 1.9 per cent. We are squandering billions in the Western Sahara. The stalemate in the relations with our neighbour Algeria is costing us around 2 per cent of our GDP every year. The system we're living under doesn't work at all!

A class of schoolchildren in Fez, Morocco (photo: picture alliance)
According to Fouad Abdelmoumni, the quality of teaching in Moroccan schools is diminishing, despite the fact that large sums of money have been pumped into the education sector in recent years

​​In recent years, all of this has been concealed by good economic conditions the like of which we have never had before: political stability, good weather, high foreign investment, an unusually high influx of money sent by Moroccans living abroad, and a flourishing tourism industry. Good harvests and big housing and infrastructure construction projects have boosted employment. Now, however, we have largely used up our reserves, and direct investment has fallen dramatically.

Renault, for example, had effectively withdrawn from the country; the only way it could be persuaded to remain in Morocco was by offering it massive concessions. If you examine the deal more closely, all Renault is really investing now is its name; the lion's share of the capital is Moroccan. And the high speed train between Tangiers and Casablanca is effectively a gift to French Prime Minister Sarkozy, to ensure that France continues to vote in Morocco's favour when the Security Council makes decisions concerning Western Sahara. It's pure corruption.

From February to June 2011, tens of thousands of people demonstrated in many Moroccan cities against corruption and for democracy. At present, though, we're hearing very little from the 20 February movement. Does it still have a future?

Abdelmoumni: I believe it does. The 20 February movement stands for a clear "no" to despotism and corruption, and I believe that this movement will be of great historic significance.

Anti-government demonstrators waving the flag of the 20 February movement on the day of the elections (photo: AP)
The 20 February protest movement – which according to Fouad Abdelmoumni "stands for a clear 'no' to despotism and corruption" – called on Moroccans to boycott the November elections, which it referred to as a "piece of theatre"

​​Those in power have deployed all means at their disposal to weaken the movement: repression, physical violence, the fuelling of rumours, but also material and political concessions such as the creation of jobs for young academics, wage increases, and not least the reform of the constitution and the release of political prisoners. It all happened very quickly – the changes to the constitution, the referendum, the bringing forward of elections, the formation of the government. It was a race against time in which the protestors on the street – in other words, the 20 February movement – were unable to keep up. But this attempt to outrun the opposition won't bring any real changes, and it will become apparent that the political reforms have not changed anything with regard to fundamental economic and social problems.

The 20 February movement counts both leftists and Islamists among its followers, the latter predominantly from the non-parliamentary Justice and Charity movement (Al Adl wal Ihsan). Do you think the Islamists' strong showing at demonstrations and on the Internet might have scared off secular and liberal democrats of both genders and prevented widespread mobilisation?

Abdelmoumni: In my view, the powers that be have greatly over-emphasised for their own ends the role played by Al Adl wal Ihsan. They have tried to discredit the movement and foment anxiety. I believe it's right that Islamists should be part of the movement, because our society is in the process of opening up to democracy and diversity.

The development we have seen since 20 February has been quite extraordinary. For the first time there is open debate about politics and religion, about Islam and the state, about the advantages and disadvantages of different systems of government. The Islamists are astonishingly open when debating with other groups, whether modernists, secularists, Marxists, socialists or Berbers. What we are experiencing here is democratisation within the different streams of political opinion.

But shouldn't we assume that the Islamists will try to instrumentalise leftists and secular parties for their political ends and that they will abolish democracy once they have gained power?

Abdelmoumni: They are in the process of adopting the concept of democracy. That does not mean that they are abandoning their strong conservatism or the discourse about identity.

Fouad Abdelmoumni (photo: Fouad Abdelmoumni)
"I understand that there are fears. But in my opinion, it is ridiculous to place more trust in a ruler who has abused his powers for decades than in these Islamists who have never been in power before," says Fouad Abdelmoumni

​​But the political always has two levels: firstly, the level of projects and programmes, where the protagonists have to establish a clear image for themselves and compete with one another, and secondly, the "metapolitical" level, by which I mean that of fundamental political rules, such as the sovereignty of the people, the competition of ideas and programmes, the duty of accountability, the transfer of power, the separation of powers.

These rules are generally binding today, as are respect for constitutional rights and political confrontation by peaceful means. I understand that there are fears. But in my opinion, it is ridiculous to place more trust in a ruler who has abused his powers for decades than in these Islamists who have never been in power before.

What does this mean for the new government under Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane?

Abdelmoumni: The government now has to get a budget through parliament. Expenditure must be drastically reduced. This means that it will not be able to keep many of its election promises, such as the reduction of VAT on certain basic products, and it is possible that it will also have to cut subsidies. Another problem is that the Moroccan labour market is currently only able to absorb around 80,000 new workers per year, but every year there are another 250,000 school leavers in need of a job. When the moment of truth comes, people will take to the streets again. The people might then challenge the fact that political and economic power is concentrated in the palace.

Interview conducted by Martina Sabra

© Qantara.de 2011

Fouad Abdelmoumni is a freelance expert for finance, economics and development in North Africa. From 1997 to 2010, he was the director of the micro-credit agency AMANA. He is also a leading member of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH) and co-founder of the Moroccan NGO think-tank Espace Associatif. He was imprisoned for two years for political reasons under Hassan II.

Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

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