Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Open Lecture: Professor Mustapha El Khalfi Gives an Insider's Perspective of the Justice and Development Party

I work as an intern at a well-known American study abroad organization in downtown Rabat. For a wide variety of reasons, the majority of our students that come to study either for a semester or the entire academic year choose to take courses offered at the center rather than at local universities.  Rather than the students attending classes at local universities where most of the courses would be taught in either Arabic or French, the academics come to them, where they can be taught in English by an affluent team of professors that come from several of the most prestigious institutions in Morocco.

With the recent win of the Justice and Development Party (PJD) for the majority of seats in Parliament, our political science professor, Si Mustapha El Khalfi, has become a bit of a local celebrity at the organization. Along with his position as an academic, El Khalfi is also the director of Attajdid, a radical newspaper with strong ties to the PJD. While students say that he keeps his personal politics at bay during class lectures, he opened his lecture last Friday morning to all students and staff where he discussed in detail the background of the PJD, its political platform, and the strategies it used to win majority vote in the recent election.

A photo of Mustapha El Khalfi taken from the Attajdid newspaper website

According to Si Khalfi, the PJD identifies itself as a moderate Islamist party, whose presence in Parliament began in the 1990's and over the last 14 years it has been gaining a great amount of political success. Since the concept of a moderate Islamist party is a predominantly urban phenomena, one of the major hurdles that the PJD had to overcome in the last election was winning votes in the rural areas. With a high rate of illiteracy and poverty, the needs of rural communities tend to be very different than those from more urban and educated areas. The party had to find a way to reach the rural communities and to convince the people that the PJD would hear what they had to say and represent them in Parliament.

One of major the ways that the PJD appealed to rural and urban communities alike was through the languages used in their campaign. Si Khalfi said that while many political parties look to the "top" for guidance, the PJD believes in a bottom-up hierarchical system, where instead they look to the members to determine what issues should be addressed. Relating to this idea is language. Instead of using elevated language such as Modern Standard Arabic or French, the PJD carried out their campaign using the language of the people they are looking to represent: Darija and Tamazight. As an example, Abdelilah Benkirane, who was appointed last Tuesday by King Mohamed VI as the new Prime Minister, had speeches all over the country where he spoke charismatically in Darija. Though other political party leaders mocked him for using "ordinary language", his decision to use colloquial Moroccan Arabic helped him connect with his audience. Rather than targeting the elite, the PJD tailored their campaign to the majority of the society, the 'everyday' Moroccan. The result? The PJD was the first political party to win majority vote in Amazigh communities.

Si Khalfi cited three external factors that contributed to PJD's success:

1. The Arab Spring, and specifically the February 20th Movement in Morocco, sparked a new consciousness that spread through the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. The Moroccan people finally feel that their voices are being heard by their government and that their vote will mean something. As a result, the Moroccan regime realized that political transparency is crucial to maintaining stability and legitimacy.

2. "Street pressure", as a result of the social youth movement demanding political reforms, created an emerging democratic dynamic. In order to succeed in a post-Arab Spring political environment, political parties must acknowledge the demands of the Moroccan youth by appealing to them using their preferred mode of communication: the internet.

3. The weaknesses of other political parties acted as a major catapult to PJD success. While other parties failed to succeed in creating strong and effective street campaigns, the PJD was considered as an "alternative" to the authoritarian policies.

A poster made of Benkirane, the recently appointed Moroccan Prime Minister in response to his efforts to support the February 20th Movement

In order to create a new government, Si Khalfi noted that the three main challenges that the PJD faces are as follows:

1. Fighting the various levels of corruption in Moroccan society

2. Creating jobs, supporting small businesses, reworking fiscal policy, and focusing on economic development.

3. Improving social justice: improving the quality of the education system, creating a health care system that is accessible and affordable to all, and improving the housing crisis throughout the country, especially in rural Moroccan cities, where the rate of poverty is twice that national average.

What was interesting about the PJD's strategy for facing all of these major challenges was the role of the monarchy.  While the February 20th Movement demanded that the King's power be distributed more evenly between the monarchy and Parliament, Khalfi repeatedly stressed that in order to create democratic progress, it is crucial for the PJD to work closely with the monarchy. Furthermore, while this political platform appears reasonable on paper, the concern that I share with many Moroccans who I've spoken with is how their adherence to Islamic values will play out in their politics. For instance, when asked about where the PJD stands on the promotion of women's rights, Si Khalfi said that the PJD supports the traditional Islamic family structure while also encouraging women to work outside of the home. It will be interesting to see how they plan to strike a balance by appealing to both sides of this argument - those that want a more socially progressive political system, and those that still believe in a government that adheres its policies to Islamic scripture. Furthermore, I have heard many Moroccans expressing concern that in an effort to promote Morocco as an Islamic state, the PJD may impose restrictions on female fashion and crack down on establishments that sell or serve alcohol. With the Western world's economies in crisis and majority of the MENA region in an unstable state, Morocco is becoming an example to follow. If the PJD can promote democratization while maintaining a moderate Islamic platform, they have the potential to not only prove many Western skeptics wrong who believe that an Islamist party in power is a recipe for disaster, but also to show the world that democratic progress is possible in the MENA region.

UPDATE (1/15/12): Upon returning to Rabat, I found out that Si Mustafa El Khalfi has been appointed as a minister in Parliament and will no longer be teaching at the study abroad center.