The Middle East Channel

The unknown Moroccan Islamists

As turmoil swept one Arab country after another, Morocco seemed to offer a distinctive opportunity for peaceful reform initiated by the government and overseen by a popular monarch. But the dreams of Moroccan exceptionalism may soon be dead, or at the very least battered and beaten, like the thousands of protesters taking to the streets of the North African kingdom. Police brutality and repression has reached new heights. And, as has been the case elsewhere, the more police beat them down, the more the protesters of this Arab Spring seem to be picking themselves up and persisting.

Despite all the Moroccan regime has done to hold itself out as unique, its tactics are beginning to appear jarringly familiar. First, it tried denial (Morocco, officials told us, was immune to volatility). Then it tried belittlement (the king first called the protests "demagoguery"). It even tried reform (the official results of a constitutional commission are due out this month). And now, as rationale for a bloody crackdown in May (which injured dozens and killed one), the government has reverted to a favorite authoritarian pretext: the specter of Islamist manipulation.

"The Moroccan government has nothing against the February 20 Movement," the Communications Minister said, using the popular name for Morocco's version of the Arab Spring protest group. "But we suspect its members are being manipulated by the Islamists and the movements of the left." The minister went on to point the finger at one group in particular: the illegal Islamist movement, Al Adl Wal Ihsan or the Justice and Spirituality Organization (JSO). But this should be seen for what it is: one more tactic designed to put off demands for reform. I spent two years on the ground studying JSO and the slew of other Islamist groups in Morocco, and recognize this as a familiar ploy.

In Morocco, as in every country in the region, Islamists represent a diverse, evolving, and messy field. The term "Islamist" could reasonably be applied to the banned JSO; or to the legal political party, the Party of Justice and Development (PJD); or to a bevy of illegal Salafi oriented groups. It could even pertain to the monarchy itself, which claims direct descent from the Prophet Mohammed and assumes the role of "Commander of the Faithful." As one of PJD's early founders, Mohammed Yatim, once noted: "Our problem in Morocco is not in establishing an Islamic state. Theoretically and constitutionally, this state is already [one]."

It is not "Islamists" in general that the government has a problem with, but rather simply the ones that openly challenge the status quo. In a divide which echoes the cautions of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the early days of that uprising, the legal party, PJD, has largely remained ambivalent. Many of its members still cling to the increasingly anachronistic conviction that political change is most effectively pursued from within the system. This has been that movement's hallmark since (or, indeed, as a basis for) its licensed admission into the electoral system in 1997. While PJD shares historical and ideological commonalities with the Muslim Brotherhood, it has also spoken fawningly of Turkey's AKP Party, with whom it shares its very name (in Arabic).

The JSO, by contrast, has wholeheartedly embraced the Arab Spring. Because JSO is largely unknown outside Morocco, it is an easy target. For years as the largest opposition force in Morocco, JSO may very well be the least understood Islamist group in the world. It has certainly belied casuistic categorizations of religio-political activism. The JSO is illegal but nonviolent, repressed but thriving. Its members boycott elections, but are also politically engaged. And while nonviolence is one of the group's three core precepts, it has not shied away from calling for the overthrow of the Moroccan regime and for an entirely new constitutional system. Such sentiments were, until this year, almost unheard of in Morocco.

The JSO was officially formed more than three decades ago by Abdeslam Yassine, who now serves as its spiritual guide or murshid. Despite Yassine's background with the prominent Boutchichiya Sufis, his writings are as varied as they are prolific, engaging with Sufism, Salafism, and even Marxism. Young members have been known to cite both Yassine and Samuel Huntington in a single sentence. While the group is organized, in part, like a traditional Sufi brotherhood, it also functions increasingly like a modern political party, replete with a political wing (or "circle"), official spokespeople, complex organizational charts, internal elections, and multiple websites.  

As is often the case with illegal movements, estimates of JSO's size are notoriously unreliable. PJD's secretary general once shrewdly speculated that his rival only had around 5,000 followers; authorities have suggested that it's closer to 50,000.  I've even heard JSO's own activists invoke the word "million." The actual number of both members and supporters probably doesn't exceed 200,000.

But regardless of the precise figure, JSO is the only group that has had past experience in mobilizing multiple and simultaneous unpermitted protest marches in cities throughout the country, similar to the kinds now seen. As far back as 2005, a young activist in the group bragged to me about their unmatched prowess at text messaging and web-based mobilization: "We can bring thousands to the streets at the press of a button. No one else can do that here." (Indeed, the one person killed in recent protests was a member of JSO.) So, while the February 20 movement is a wide compilation of voices from the left to the right, it is no coincidence that its anti-regime marches would include JSO. But news of JSO involvement would only be shocking to those outside Morocco.

The U.S. government, for one, has not had much luck or interest in figuring the group out. A classified 2008 cable to Washington from the embassy in Rabat -- released via Wikileaks -- revealed that diplomats couldn't even figure out what to call the group (was it Justice and Charity Organization or the Justice and Spirituality Organization?). The authors also seemed shocked that JSO "may be moving toward political participation" --even though the formation of its "Political Circle" had taken place a full decade earlier. This confusion was understandable. The embassy admitted that it had not had any communication with the group for at least seven years -- because the last time they tried to make contact with JSO, the Moroccan government "protested." In a practice that has become only too common, the U.S. relied on a foreign government to determine which of its nationals it would engage.  

Like most everyone in Morocco and the Arab world, JSO is still figuring out how to adjust to this new political context. They are no longer the sole opposition force in the country. They are now merely part of a much larger force for change -- and they are no longer operating in the shadows. Don't forget that it was only six years ago when Nadia Yassine (a spokesperson for the group and the founder's daughter) was brought to court for simply suggesting in a newspaper interview that Morocco could function as a "republic." Moreover, until this year, JSO was alone in calling for the king to relinquish his position as Commander of the Faithful; now such a message can be seen on protest signs. JSO's new role in the spotlight has, at least, sparked it to state publicly its goals more firmly than ever before. Nadia Yassine declared last week that her movement favored a "civil" over a "religious state." Such statements are reassuring, but still tell us little about the policies they would actually promote.

The Moroccan government says that JSO is using the Arab Spring -- the call of democracy -- to further its own nefarious agenda in hopes of splintering the February 20 movement. But spokespeople for the February 20 movement have responded that they won't be manipulated by anyone -- and that the group, even while including Islamists, was "peaceful," "open" and "independent." JSO, for its part, says it is simply being used as a scapegoat to justify a violent crackdown. But one thing is certain: if the regime engages in bloody crackdowns, the protests will only continue. It cannot pledge reform one week and then kill protesters the next, even if the marchers include prominent "Islamists."

Avi Spiegel is an assistant professor of political science at the University of San Diego and a fellow at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas, Austin. He is currently writing a book on young Islamists and the Arab Spring.

Avi Spiegel

The Middle East Channel

Palestine’s White September

Historical dates often emerge by sheer coincidence. In 2009, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad formulated an operational goal for his tenure: by 2011 he wanted to build institutions that would justify the proclamation of a Palestinian state. This would not just have symbolic value, as PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat's statement in 1988, but would carry practical implications. Fayyad's efforts have commanded international admiration. The West Bank is indeed run in a way that meets many criteria for successful statehood. As opposed to the past, funds are used responsibly and accounting standards are transparent. The security forces -- originally trained by U.S. Lieutenant General Keith Dayton -- are remarkably effective. Both the Palestinian population and the Israel Defense Forces rely on them more than ever. Hence, September 2011 began to crystallize as a realistic date for the founding of a Palestinian state.

Fayyad's 2011 deadline for the declaration of Palestinian statehood had acquired enormous importance, even though Fayyad never connected it to the bid for U.N. recognition. It has provided Palestinians with a political horizon and a strong motivation to try the route of peaceful resistance and reliance on the international community's support for the new state. The idea of turning to the U.N. for recognition of Palestine seems not to have been a long-term strategy; it emerged as an option faute de mieux, in the absence of negotiations, and without reasonable hope that Netanyahu has the will or the mandate for a meaningful Israeli compromise.

Such is the irony of history. The Palestinians may have more or less stumbled into the idea of requesting U.N. recognition. But whether they realize it or not, they are currently in the driver's seat of history. The question is whether they will use their historical opportunity or whether they will suffer from a failure of nerve, as recent reports indicate.

Talk about this bid has built enough momentum to be something of a fait accomplit in international diplomacy and among pundits. President Obama has publicly opposed such a move repeatedly and even raised it as an issue with European leaders. It will undoubtedly put him in an unpalatable position. As U.N. General Assembly President Joseph Deiss explained, full membership in the U.N. can only be achieved when there is a majority recommendation from the U.N. Security Council, where the U.S. has Veto power.

For Obama, this is a catch 22.  If he doesn't use the U.S.'s veto power in the U.N. Security Council, AIPAC and Christian Zionists will accuse him of having dumped Israel. These groups, which constitute a formidable electoral power, are likely to cause considerable political trouble domestically, creating a nuisance in his reelection campaign. If he does make use of his veto power and precludes full Palestinian U.N. membership, his support for Arab democratization will no longer be credible, as the Palestinians are possibly the most serious test-case of such support. This would force the Palestinians to go through the more circuitous road of seeking recognition in the U.N. General Assembly: it would not provide them with full membership, but would give them powerful moral support, and potentially some legal means against the occupation, even though this is not yet quite clear.

The problem is that the price of the Palestinian leadership's backtracking would be enormous: with Netanyahu in power, no meaningful compromise is possible. Most of the Likud party that he heads is against a Palestinian state, and so are most of his coalition partners in the Knesset. If September 2011 goes by not with a bang but with a whimper, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad will lose whatever credibility they have acquired in their own constituency. If the moderate Palestinian leadership does not achieve a tangible success, the option of armed resistance against Israel might gain popularity, even though, as Abbas admitted, it has proven disastrous for the Palestinians. A return to violence would bring exorbitant damage to all sides involved, particularly at a time of great instability in the Middle East.

September 2011 is a train the Palestinians can no longer jump. If anything, they should build up towards this as an historical event. One of the catastrophes of Palestinian historical memory is the Black September of 1970, in which more than ten thousand Palestinians were killed in Jordan. Abbas might well claim that he is moving towards the Palestinian "White September," in which the U.N. General Assembly formally recognizes Palestine. In another ironic twist of history, Palestinians may well turn this into a historic date comparable to the status that November 29, 1947, has for Israel, when the U.N. General Assembly voted for the partition of Palestine.

Of course after the September recognition, the Palestinian leadership is likely to suffer from reprisals from Israel. Israel will probably reduce freedom of movement for the Palestinian political and business elite. Relations with the U.S. might suffer in the short run. We are also likely to see an increase in settler violence against Palestinians as they see that the international community is closing in on Israel's occupation of the West Bank.

Because Israel under Netanyahu is not likely to comply with the U.N. recognition, the Palestinian leadership will have to think about ways to maintain momentum after September. Mahmoud Abbas has already indicated that he might turn to international courts, and probably the path of non-violent resistance would gain Palestinians further points and increase pressure on Israel from the international community.

But none of this is easy to implement, and the effects are difficult to predict in the volatile Middle East. It would be understandable if the Palestinian leadership is frightened by the short-term disadvantages of U.N. recognition. Nevertheless, the price of not carrying through their plans outweighs these short-sighted concerns.

How will the U.N. recognition of Palestine impact Israel? Maybe the day will come when Israelis will realize that U.N. recognition of Palestine is crucial for Israel's long-term security and viability. But for the time being the Netanyahu government keeps claiming that it would be a catastrophe. This, even though several veteran diplomats have indicated recently, cooperation would be far more productive.

In the short run, Palestine's White September is likely to reinforce Israel's move to the right. Many Israelis will buy into the line that Netanyahu has been using lately. He keeps repeating that the conflict with the Palestinians is not about the 1967 borders, i.e. about Israel's occupation of the West Bank, but rather about 1948 -- the legitimacy of Israel's very existence. The question is what can be done to keep this backlash in bounds and to prepare the ground for a future Israeli government that is more amenable to historical compromise with the Palestinians.

In terms of the international community, European support would add significant weight to the UNGA's recognition of Palestine; particularly France and Britain will be critical. Similarly, Germany falls into this category, though because of its tragic history with the Jewish people Berlin will probably feel uncomfortable endorsing the recognition of Palestine if it is seen as an anti-Israeli move. Along with the British and French, they could make their support for U.N. recognition of Palestine along the 1967 borders conditional upon the proviso that these would now be recognized as Israel's uncontested borders as well. The latter statement is crucial because it would have the all-important effect of calming Israel's deep fears that a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders is but one step towards what some fear is a hidden goal of abolishing Israel as the homeland of the Jews.

Ideally, of course, the U.S. would join Britain and France in such a move. Ideally, Washington would refrain from exercising its veto in the Security Council, paving the way for full Palestinian membership to the U.N. This would empower a future Israeli government in convincing the settlers that the state of Palestine is a fact. It could reassure Israelis that Palestine's existence would be balanced by the reinforced international legitimacy of Israel's 1967 borders. But we do not live in an ideal world, and Obama is likely to cede leadership in the Middle East peace process until after his reelection.

Carlo Strenger is a professor of psychology at Tel Aviv University and serves on the Terrorism Panel of the World Federation of Scientists. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Fear of Insignificance: Searching for Meaning in the Twenty-first Century. He blogs at "Strenger than Fiction" on Haaretz.com.

AFP/Getty images