The lack of any significant changes within the Moroccan Islamist association al-Adl wal-Ihsan (Justice and Charity) following the death of its founder, Abdesslam Yassine, on December 13, 2012 provides insight into one of the fundamental questions concerning the group: a breakthrough in its relationship with the palace is unlikely at the moment and will not come easily, as both entities refuse to recognize each other. The group has historically defended its legality and legitimacy. And although it rejects the use of violence to reach power (nor given birth to any known radical splinter groups) and accepts—at least in theory—working within the framework of legal institutions, it has yet to secure official recognition. Even recently, despite the statements of its new secretary-general, Mohammed Abbadi, during the December 24, 2012 press conference following his election—in which he repeated the association’s “Three No’s”: “No to violence, no to secrecy, no to foreign intervention”—the state’s official position towards the group has yet to change.
Even though it is generally held to be the largest Islamist group in Morocco, al-Adl wal-Ihsan rejects direct political participation and instead prefers to remain aloof from the political scene—the group describes it as “décor” rather than genuine attempt at power-sharing. Al-Adl wal-Ihsan assesses the cost of limited political participation in this manner from the concentration of power in the hands of the king, limiting the credibility or significant sway of any government. In their opinion, then, the recent constitutional amendment only dodges popular demands and consolidates absolute power for the king, leading the group to label the Islamist Justice and Development Party-led government led as a “cosmetic” one unable to produce real change.
However, since Yassine passed away, significant structural revamping has taken place, as evidenced by the process of choosing his successor and the reshaping of the group’s structural management—as well as the new type of relationship between the leaders and the rank-and-file in the absence of the charismatic founder. The organizational restructuring was not left to chance and had been planned beforehand; the speed with which a new leadership was announced suggests that a formula for nominations and elections (as well as the new title of secretary-general) had all been prepared before Yassine’s death. The succession process for the group’s new leadership was remarkably complex in both its selection mechanisms as well as in its distribution of leadership roles. Elections took place over two stages: nominations, then a general election. The nominations were handled by the 14-member Guidance Council—each member nominated whomever he wished—and the list was narrowed down to two candidates, each of whom had to obtain two-thirds of the Guidance Council’s votes. In the general election stage, the group’s Shura Council—which includes representatives from the group’s various institutions and representatives of different Moroccan regions—then chose between the two candidates, with the winner obtaining a two-thirds majority in the first round or a simple majority in the second round.
Seeking to preserve its internal balances at this critical moment, al-Adl wal-Ihsan worked to reshape its structure following Yassine’s death. Mohammed Abbadi was elected as secretary-general—much as had been expected from to his long history with the group as a spiritual leader and activist. A member of the founding generation, Abbadi comes from a Sufi background in the Darqawia brotherhood and, like Yassine, lived through the bitter experience of government crackdowns and prison.
Meanwhile, the election of Fatallah Arsalane as deputy secretary-general emphasizes the importance of the political and organizational dimensions. As the official spokesperson of the group, Arsalane has built up a network of connections with a range of political and media figures, making him a much more visible face than al-Adl wal-Ihsan's other leaders. During recent years, Arsalane has also shown more interest in political participation.
This division and the new titles are tantamount to al-Adl wal-Ihsan announcing a new era for itself. That the group’s leader is now known as a secretary-general instead of "the supreme guide"—and that he has a five-year term that can be renewed after a performance review—is in sharp contrast to the previous system, in which Yassine was supreme guide for life. This older system again harkens back something more characteristic of Sufi brotherhoods—surprising, considering how Arsalane himself also comes from this background.
The revamp of the deputy secretary-general position also lends some insight into the post-Yassine era. First, the oversized role of the supreme guide has been divvied up amongst multiple leaders, showing that al-Adl wal-Ihsan will be managed by a group of leaders, with a larger role for Fatallah Arsalane as deputy secretary-general. Abbadi's selection as secretary-general and Arsalane as his deputy is also significant in that it indicates Abbadi is not qualified to take up the mantle of leadership alone. Rather, the universally respected ascetic veteran was chosen to prevent fractures from emerging within the organization in a succession dispute. The comments made by Abbadi himself before being elected on his inability to fill Yassine’s shoes are much to this effect.
Furthermore, these changes also reflect that the group does not yet possess established organizational mechanisms or a strong democratic culture in its organizational promotion system and elite circulation—as is the case with al-Tawhid wal Islah (the Unity and Reform Movement), a religious-based NGO with a Muslim Brotherhood orientation and a strategic alliance with the PJD. Al-Adl wal-Ihsan still needs more time to acquire these mechanisms. The role distribution shows that the organization is—at this stage—primarily concerned with keeping internal balance its ranks unified—the greatest challenges its new leadership will face.
Yassine’s death revealed shifting relationships among different Islamist entities, and on that point, the group has made some strides in improving its relationships with other Islamist players—especially the Salafis. Even so, any kind of convergence or merger between al-Adl wal-Ihsan and the other Islamist forces remains unlikely. Most visibly, despite decades of animosity between al-Adl wal-Ihsan and the Salafis, a number of prominent former “Salafi-jihadi” leaders attended Yassine's funeral, sent their condolences to his family, and made friendly statements about the departed leader—more indicative of a transforming Salafi landscape than any changes within al-Adl wal-Ihsan itself. The group’s relationship with the Unity and Reform Movement and the ruling PJD is little changed, though. It continues to be linked to reciprocal visits on certain religious and social occasions and to coordination on certain activities (like marches in support of regional and international issues), occasional flare-ups of tension (such as when the PJD criticized Nadia Yassine in 2005 for expressing her preference of a republican system), or instances like the Guidance Council's recent letter criticizing both the PJD and the Unity and Reform Movement—which argued that participation within government institutions in the Moroccan context was “on the margins of despotism, and décor to embellish the Makhzen’s rule.”
The state’s hostility towards al-Adl wal-Ihsan can be understood fundamentally as a response to al-Adl wal-Ihsan’s attitude towards monarchy. Abdesslam Yassine described monarchy as a type of dictatorship in his book Al Minhaj al Nabawi ("The Prophetic Method")—which he based on a saying of the Prophet that predicted the formation of a “second righteous caliphate” following the demise of authoritarian monarchies. It should be noted, however, that the association’s attitude towards monarchy has begun to shift: in a recent interview, one of the group’s leaders stated that the group was prepared to accept the monarchy as long as the palace kept to the rules of democracy and ceased to interfere in day-to-day political affairs. Even so, though the group continues to reject the king’s self-styling as amir al-muminin (Commander of the Faithful).
In 2006, al-Adl wal-Ihsan released its “visions”—a collection of dreams of several of the group’s members, accompanied by statements made by the group’s leader and other prominent figures in the organization. These released interpretations and statements suggested that Morocco was on the verge of a radical transformation, which was interpreted as referring to a revolution or civil disobedience—escalating tensions yet again. But instead of going after Abdesslam Yassine, who was nearly 80 at the time, the government pursued a policy of targeting al-Adl wal-Ihsan’s organizational and financial structure, with the end goal of wearing down the group. It arrested hundreds of members, shut down several of the group’s facilities, confiscated its possessions, and cracked down on the group’s social and economic activities.
The state must understand that al-Adl wal-Ihsan’s non-participation in the political game is unhelpful to the democratic transition and a peaceful transfer of power. The palace needs to find another path other than boycotting and enter into negotiations with the group. More flexibility would also be warranted: such that the monarchy would agree to allow the group to found its own political party in return for acknowledging the king’s political legitimacy—not necessarily his religious authority—while simultaneously encouraging it to continue peaceful activism. For its part, al-Adl wal-Ihsan should be ready to explicitly state that it might accept a constitutional monarchy—and that it accepts the rules of the democratic game in Morocco.
Mohammed Masbah is a Ph.D. Fellow at Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP)-Berlin.
* This article was translated from Arabic.