AP Interview: Morocco's largest Islamist opposition movement warns of unrest without reform

Morocco likes to project itself as unique in the Middle East in finding a third way between revolution and repression amid the uprisings of the Arab Spring.

The nation's largest opposition Islamist group is challenging that view.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Fathallah Arsalane, political leader of Al Adl wal Ihsan, or the Justice and Charity movement, warned that Morocco is at serious risk of a popular revolt if the state doesn't recognize the demands of the Arab Spring and implement real democratic reforms.

"Things have regressed to the point before the Arab Spring and today there is a risk of serious popular revolt outside of any political structure," he said at his home in the capital Rabat. "We can't predict when the social situation will explode but what is certain is that all the ingredients already exist."

Unlike other leaders in the region beset by popular uprisings in 2011, Morocco's King Mohammed VI swiftly made promises to open up the country's politics and give greater powers to elected institutions. A new constitution was passed and then a legal Islamist party, called Justice and Development, won the right in elections to lead the new government -- making Al Adl wal Ihsan Morocco's clearest, and possibly most potent, opposition force.

But Arsalane said that nearly two years after the start of the Arab Spring, the country is moving backward, with a hereditary monarchy and its court still holding the reins of power and unaccountable to the people.

Founded in 1987, Al Adl wal Ihsan is a spiritual and political movement that has long criticized the monarchy and called for real political reform and a state based on Islamic precepts of justice, charity and good works. Its founder, Abdessalam Yassine, was one of the few who dared speak out against Morocco's previous king, the long-reigning King Hassan II, and he spent years under house arrest. The movement itself is banned, though tolerated, while its members are often arrested.

Yassine's death in December at age 84 has brought the movement to a crossroads. Most analysts expect it to take on a more overtly political character and try to become a political party. It is believed to number in the hundreds of thousands, if not more, and can be found across the country, with members ranging from blue collar workers to doctors and engineers.

During Yassine's funeral, the procession of tens of thousands of mourners from all ages and social classes flooded into the elegant streets of the capital city, shutting down traffic for much of the day — a testimony to the group's continuing strength.

In the year since taking power on promises of reform, the Justice and Development Party has made a few tentative steps to fight corruption. But for most Moroccans little has changed, and the economic crisis brought on by Europe's woes is deepening.

Arsalane said that Prime Minister Abdililah Benkirane's government is hobbled by coalition partners with close ties to the palace. And while Morocco looks fairly stable compared to its neighbors -- with Tunisia and Egypt wracked by unrest, Algeria beset by militant attacks and Libya disintegrating into warring militias -- Arsalane said that Moroccan unrest could be on the horizon if Benkirane is unable to implement meaningful reform.

"The regime should have grasped the message of the Arab Spring and made the courageous decisions to change things on all levels, political, social, economic," he said. "Instead it has been the opposite."

Morocco's economy has always been afflicted by high unemployment and, most importantly, a huge gap between rich and poor. Most people feel the system is corrupt and biased in favor of the wealthy.

Since the peaceful demonstrations of the February 20 pro-democracy movement petered out in late 2011, there have been a small but steady series of spontaneous outbreaks of violence throughout the country.

Riots in marginal parts of remote cities have flared, usually over issues like rising prices or police brutality, before being repressed after a few days -- only start up again elsewhere.

Arsalane is not alone in his grim assessment of the state of Morocco's reforms. In its 2012 report on the region released Thursday, Human Rights Watch complained about police brutality, laws curbing free speech and unfair trials.

"Judging by the text of the 2011 constitution, Morocco's leaders recognize that enhancing human rights is central to meeting popular aspirations," HRW's North Africa direct Sarah Leah Whitson said in a statement. "But judging by the practice on the ground, they have yet to grasp that words alone are not enough."

Al Adl wal Ihsan originally called for the restoration of an Islamic caliphate, but over the years the movement's message has become similar to that of other Moroccan reformers, with an emphasis on calls for democracy and a civil state.

Arsalane explained that it wasn't so much the notion of the monarchy they were against, but the fact that the institution was above the law. "The form of the regime is not important, what interests us is the contents."

Arsalane rebuffed concerns that his group would implement Islamic law. He said its adherents are firm believers in the concept of "ijtihad" -- or independent reasoning to bring medieval legal precepts in line with modern realities, something that more conservative Islamist groups reject.

Mohsine el-Ahmadi, an author of a book on the movement and professor of sociology and religion at Rabat International University, said Arsalane's group's biggest problem for the Moroccan state is its refusal to accept role of the king and his court, known as the makhzen, as the basis for the political game.

"They don't want to recognize the monarch as a legitimate ruler and that is the main problem — they don't want to recognize the historical makhzen of the Moroccan state," he said. "In that sense, they are radicals and revolutionaries, not reformists."

El-Ahmadi said that it's difficult to gauge the size of the group's support because it has never participated in elections.

But he emphasized that it is a powerful force in Moroccan society.

"Their social base is important throughout Morocco, with a strong presence in Casablanca, Marrakech and the south in general," he said. The movement is also considered the largest organized group in universities.

Al Adl wal Ihsan's future role in Morocco is unclear. While it has largely become the voice of the opposition, it at the same time has no legal outlet.

Arsalane has said repeatedly the movement would like to form a political party -- but has been denied.

"The regime isn't fighting us because we are Islamists but because we are a real opposition," said Arsalane. "The regime rejects the idea itself of having a real opposition, instead of just a docile one."


Associated Press writer Smail Bellaouali contributed to this report.