What a strange world this is. The best opportunity for political change was in Tunisia, but it was lost, while Morocco faced a looming threat but turned it into an opportunity. That was enough to keep Morocco — alone among Arab countries — on the path of reform, whereas Tunisia got lost along the way by battling over the spoils, normalisation and adjusting to reality.
Morocco succeeded at a lower cost, with a government with limited powers. Tunisia failed despite the heavy cost and despite the regime brought to power by the revolution in order to achieve its goals.
Success here means the vitality of the experiment, the correctness of the path and the advancement of the country. With steady steps towards reform and renaissance, it was driven by a clear national project carried by a serious political current honest in its commitment to the nation and its people, under the kind of firm leadership the absence of which has always led to the failure of Arab political experiments.
Strict norms govern the success and failure of such experiments and the rise and fall of nations. Anyone who studies the Islamist experiment in Morocco will find substantial differences between what has happened there and what has gone on amongst its regional counterparts. These differences are themselves the secrets of success, avoiding the pitfalls that brought down or hampered the other Islamist experiments.
The distinction began early and covered both goals and methods. There is a genuine reformist Moroccan political current that distinguished between the movement and the party almost from the beginning. The reformist choice split the connection between the project and actual governance. After all, the goal is reform and not reaching or holding on to power.
The leaders of the current Islamist movement stuck to this and rid themselves of the obsession of establishing a state or Islamic caliphate which has permeated the thought, plans and work of Islamist movements for decades, driving them in other, disastrous, directions, limiting diversity and innovation within them to methods, tactics and rhetoric.
Morocco's Justice and Development Party (PJD) adopted a methodology of reform within the framework of stability, while putting the national interest first and relying on public, legal work, maintaining clarity in presentation, principles and decisiveness in all situations. Such a methodology is unique to the Moroccan Islamists in almost all of its elements. Their counterparts vacillate between change through any means and stability at any cost, with performance dominated by opacity and hesitation, which is what has prevented them from reaching and holding on to leadership positions.
The faction focused on Morocco early, taking root in Moroccan soil and coordinating the project, discourse and even appearances within Moroccan culture. The national dimension trumped the global dimension, so the project avoided the pitfalls and mazes of regional and global contradictions, forces and suspicions.
Moroccan Islamists abandoned ruling as a goal, so ruling was no longer the cornerstone of the organisation's objectives. They built themselves another organisation in which reforming society and advancing the country became the goal and standard of evaluation; ruling (and even the party itself) were only the means.
By abandoning rule as a goal, the importance of the organisation as a tool declined, and the faction saved itself from the painstaking efforts that exhaust groups of this kind. Instead, it focused on recruitment, maintenance and fortification. It was also careful for the discourse to focus on the nation and the people. Efforts were concentrated on convincing people of the project and the method.
In developing such goals, the leadership of the Islamist faction rid itself of the pressures that often lead other groups to become static or head towards chaos. They rid themselves of any need for secrecy and in turn saved themselves from being destroyed. They were able to expand their social and political platforms and, as a result, they gained more credibility.
The "secret" that sets the Moroccan Islamist faction apart is its honesty and commitment to nationalism and protecting the people. It is also humble and carries out democratic practices not only within itself but also with others. Its leadership insists on remaining honest and true, no matter what the cost. There is also a value-based clarity and transparency when taking a stance on issues.
Placing the nation and the people's interest at the top of the list of priorities is more than just a marketing ploy meant to advance the party. On the contrary, it is a matter of importance and value that the Islamist faction believes in wholeheartedly, whether in government or opposition.
Justice is difficult to achieve; it can only be attained by those who fortify themselves with honesty and bravery when in power. The leadership must be willing to make many sacrifices, which can sometimes lead to the party's loss of popularity. Sometimes these sacrifices are necessary for national liberation and for serving the interests of the people in the long run.
The PJD was tested as a ruling party and it succeeded, but the moment of success during the election was a moment of growth not a moment in which the target was reached. It did not experience a moment of euphoria and relaxation nor did we see any changes in its attitudes or behaviour. The party began to mobilise the people immediately and bring the necessary level of interest that was necessary for reform on important issues. The beginning of this period was the most successful part of the party's test which paved the way for further growth and success. Very simply, it adopted a work ethic that was based on efficiency and was committed to transparency. As a result, the PJD gained a great deal of credibility with the public. In fact, public confidence in the party strengthened its position within the government and allowed it to win important battles within the reform process.
Many political experts believe that transparency is important if a party wants to achieve political success as well as have the proper individual to represent the party, government or country in the international arena. If this is missing, the political process will undoubtedly lead to failure.
For example, the coalition government led by the Justice and Development Party faced many random strikes over the reduction of wages. The party dealt with this issue through negotiations and reviewed its raft of policies for the first time in years.
Following this, the coalition focused on the state budget and worked to avoid such catastrophes happening again. The government rejected any policies that would lead to staff dismissals or tinkering and instead chose to be honest with the people by telling them the bitter truth about finances. It convinced the public that reform was necessary, even if it was a bitter pill to swallow. When a series of steps were then implemented they led to peaceful protests because there was now an understanding that there could be no reform without transparency and trust. There was a degree of conviction that there could be no peaceful progress without placing trust in the people, no matter how politically dangerous such a step may appear. Moreover, there was also the conviction that there needed to be trust placed in the government despite its many failures and despite it being prone to weakness.
With this same manifesto for advancement and certain nationalistic motivation, the government also looked at retirement policies and began to implement the necessary reforms. The issue of retirement was among the top priorities because the government was nearly bankrupt in this particular sector. The issue was a priority because it took politics back to its roots, and forced the government to deal with matters honestly and transparently. Thus, the people elected officials who were capable of dealing with this issue at a time when politics is plagued with propaganda and deceit.
Symbolic steps were taken to ensure a sense of humility within the authorities. The leader of the PJD continued to live in his modest home during his time as head of the government. He also wanted his house to be open to the people and for it to stay as long as possible without proper security. Eventually, he hired a small security team to protect him.
The latest election campaign was marked by its simplicity and the party found a place for itself amongst the people; politicians remained loyal to their trustworthy nature well after the election had passed. The deception of the people which is normal among Arab politicians in other contexts is what has led to the failure of the democratic processes elsewhere.
The leadership of the Justice and Development Party did not gain absolute control of the government nor did they grow too attached to it. More importantly, they were not influenced by outside parties in their decision-making; as a result, they were able to stick to their projects and their manifesto.
Among the more daring decisions that they implemented was to avoid placing the country in debt by not using the $6.2 billion line of credit allotted to the countries of the Arab Maghreb. Although placed under a great deal of pressure in the election, the PJD remained honest in its commitment to the way it would use public money to ensure the future of the nation and the people.
In addition, when the government found itself with a financial surplus, it used the funds to provide students with grants and scholarships. It also provided stipends to families which had lost their main breadwinner, and health insurance for the disadvantaged; it was committed to achieving social justice for vulnerable groups within society.
Internally, the party has enjoyed a unique level of success in its practice of democracy. No single individual owns the PJD and the responsibilities and power are shared evenly between many people. There is a healthy relationship between the president of the party and other members; the decision-making process is not like other parties in that it is not a mere formality. In other Arab parties, finance and foreign relations are sensitive areas and are rendered vulnerable to outside funding sources, which means that vital information is kept within a very tight circle of decision-makers. As such, he who owns the information and has the money also owns the decision-making process.
This reality is what encouraged the Justice and Development Party to stand firm in its battle for reform; it placed its trust and confidence in the people in order to ensure the success of the national project. By staying committed to a transparent democratic process in its decision-making, the leadership had nothing to fear. The honesty, humility and genuine care for the people allowed them to gain their trust despite facing many difficulties and obstacles. This led to the party becoming the party of choice among the general public although it had long been competing with many other, more experienced, parties.
The first challenge for the party was to operate in its preferred way with only partial control in order to give other members of the coalition a chance to gain experience. When it found itself leading, it was an outcome that was achieved through maturity and characterised by the high level of its performance and efficiency. Many parties within the region fail in their endeavours because they gain absolute power quite suddenly and can't cope with it.
The second obstacle that the PJD had to face came after the 2003 Casablanca bombings when it was threatened with its own dissolution by other parties. The party did not respond to these provocations but instead adopted a particular methodology and strategy that prevented its failure.
The third obstacle was the arrival of the Arab Spring in Morocco by means of calling for demonstrations on 20th February 2011. This was the most dangerous test to the party's reform approach, in the context of stability, and any other party in the same position would have favoured the party's interests by assuming easy and typical positions, such as riding the wave, assuming ambiguous positions or remaining neutral and waiting it out.
The party announced its position without delay or hesitation. It believed that the demonstrations lacked clarity and clear leadership as well as a clear platform of demands, and so it chose not to participate. Instead, the PJD remained committed to upholding the interests of the nation and saving it from instability by leading it on a historical path towards reform.
The fourth and most challenging obstacle faced by the party was combatting corruption, something that has affected many such organisations, and not allowing personalities within the party to have unlimited immunity. Many similar parties have fallen from grace by refusing to rotate power within their ranks and by allowing themselves to be influenced by international or pan-regional agendas. Such commitments place parties in volatile environments and, often, a contradictory state. For the Justice and Development Party, it was more important to maintain its identity and sense of balance by rooting its interests in national sovereignty and the people's aspirations.
There is no doubt that Morocco is still not an advanced country and that the path to reform is long and arduous. However, it is a rare success story of an Islamic party in government. This success is not attributed to reforms carried out by one huge party, but by bold and successive steps in different sectors. The reforms that took place within Morocco were radical in many ways but they upheld a form of sincerity and maintained concern for the people and national security at their core.
Translated from Aljazeera.net, 3 April, 2016.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.