Saad Eddine el-Othmani, General Secretary of the Moroccan Party of Justice
and Development and Member of the Moroccan Parliament

Nathan Brown, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Thomas Carothers, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Thomas Carothers began by explaining that Islamist parties will play a significant role in Middle Eastern and North African countries experiencing political openings.  Morocco, having progressed further than many countries in the region, is closely watched by those observing political reform, along with its Party of Justice and Development.

Othmani began by echoing Carothers’s comments about the Moroccan experience, and outlining the ways in which Morocco has in the last fifteen years made slow but continuous progress on political reform.  Morocco’s strengthening of human rights and critical examination of past abuses are a particularly good example for other countries.  He also cited improvements in elections, opportunities to organize groups and build political parties, freedoms of speech and expression, and the situation of women. 

Othmani then spoke about the many political, economic and social challenges facing Morocco.  Politically, the constitution needs to be modified to give more power to the Prime Minister and the parliament.  The country must address the crisis of political parties, in which parties are fragmented, hostile, unable to organize the electorate and unable to lead real political and economic reforms.  Political institutions are ineffective and the authority of the parliament and municipal councils needs to be strengthened.  Elections need to be made more fair, as the use of money and administrative interference still pose problems.  The Moroccan administration is generally inefficient and corrupt.  Finally, the issue of the Western Sahara, which Othmani feels has wasted political, economic and financial resources of Morocco for the past thirty years, must be resolved.

Economically, Morocco is not competitive, its exports have decreased in recent years, and investment in education is poor.  The weak economy has profound affects on Moroccan society.  Poverty and illiteracy are widespread and much of the population is marginalized.  These problems are all reflected in recent increases in undocumented immigration.  They are also problems that other countries in the region face; if Morocco succeeds it will be an example for them to follow.

Othmani then turned to the subject of his own political party, the Party of Justice and Development.  He said its goals, reflected in its title, are social justice and economic development; its current electoral program has 5 pillars: authenticity, sovereignty, democracy, justice and development.  Othmani then explained what his party has done to enhance democracy and development in Morocco. 

He first spoke about democratic participation within the party.  Both regional and district level offices are apportioned through elections and conferences with all members present.  Othmani pointed out that he was elected in a conference with 1600 delegates present.  He also said the PJD contributes by observing financial transparency, pointing out that any internal corruption would have been exposed due to the close local and international scrutiny under which it operates.   Othmani then cited the PJD’s efforts to ensure that women have a strong presence in the party.  It introduced a quota system and actively encourages women to participate and take on responsibilities.  The PJD has six women parliament members (matched only by the Independence Party) and has more women in local councils than any other party; Othmani also claims that the PJD has more women members than any other party.  Finally, Othmani explained that each member is free to voice their opinions even if they are contradictory to those of the leadership. 

Second, Othmani asserts that the PJD contributes to democracy in Morocco through the actions of its parliamentary group, which he avers is recognized as one of the most serious, professional and competent.  The party closely scrutinizes the work of the government to uncover corruption and criticize aspects of the judiciary, educational system, administration and economy. 

Third, the PJD works toward electoral reform.  It has produced papers on electoral reform for both the 2002 elections and the upcoming 2007 elections.  The PJD’s suggestions for improving the 2007 elections include judicial supervision (the 2002 elections were organized and supervised by the administration), the continuation of proportional representation, a 7% vote minimum for parliamentary representation, early preparation, a quota for women, and democratic procedures for use of public media.  Othmani also said that the PJD tries to have balanced and cooperative relations with other political parties. 

Othmani went on to describe the PJD’s work at the municipal level.  The PJD participates in the government of about 60 municipalities, including Casablanca and Rabat and controls 14 municipal and village councils, including Meknes.  Locally, they attempt to fight corruption, improve public spending, improve public services, and prioritize interactions with the public.

Othmani ended by speaking about the issue of the Western Sahara, describing it as a Cold War problem that persisted beyond the collapse of the Berlin Wall.  The PJD proposed a system of regional autonomy that maintains Moroccan sovereignty but allows for local self-government.  This proposal is now accepted on both the official and popular level and will go a long way to solving what is a major problem for Morocco and the region.

Nathan Brown then discussed Othmani’s remarks within the larger context of Islamist movements in the Middle East and North Africa.  He pointed out that the goals and priorities discussed by Othmani would be fairly uncontroversial in any society, and focus on points of unity rather than division amongst Moroccan political parties.  He summarized Othmani’s message as being not that the PJD’s mission is fundamentally different than other groups in Moroccan society, but that it is an effective, disciplined party with integrity, seriousness of purpose and detailed thoughts on the issues.  Brown noted that over the course of his talk, Othmani never mentioned sharia, and mentioned Islam only once in passing.  Some observers felt the PJD rather than Hamas should have been the first Islamist movement to win an election since they are a much better model.  No one knows whether the PJD will win the 2007 elections but polls (which the PJD has actively downplayed) show them to be doing very well.    

Brown pointed out that it is not new that Islamist groups are entering the political process but what is new is that they have begun to explore much more thoroughly what it means to take part in those processes.  This has led to shifts in their thinking and rhetoric, which are reflected in Othmani’s words.  Islamist agendas are no longer restricted to cultural and religious issues but are broad and comprehensive; any Islamization is to explicitly take place through the democratic process.  Moreover, instead of talking about applying Sharia, these parties regularly talk about using Islam as a reference point.  Brown argues that the PJD has explored this idea more thoroughly and pushed it further than many other similar parties.

This shift has opened Islamist parties to several criticisms.  One comes from Islamists themselves and asserts that parties are going too far, abandoning what makes them distinctive and accommodating regimes.  The other major criticism that is made is that these movements are insincere and that they use democratic discourses for their external audiences and religious discourses for their internal audience.  Brown feels the last criticism misses the point, which is that the movements have seriously considered and debated what it means to participate in democratic politics but have not necessarily resolved all its ambiguities.  It is clear that, although the idea of using Islam as a reference point is cited fairly widely, different leaders use it in different ways.  The question is what it means in Morocco and how the PJD, potentially on the brink of electoral success, is reconciling it with human rights and liberal freedoms.  Brown concluded by pointing out that those interested in political reform in the Middle East must take into consideration Islamist movements, since as countries move into the democratic arena they are the parties best situated to perform well in elections and because they have most effectively seized the issue of political reform.