Morocco’s largest Islamist opposition group, Jamaat al Adl Wal Ihsan (AWI, or Justice and Spirituality), has long had difficult relations with the monarchy.

The AWI considers the regime to be illegitimate and refuses to participate in the political process. It gambles that deteriorating socioeconomic conditions will deepen popular anger against the regime. The movement also complains about the state’s tight control of its activities and the long-standing ban on the establishment of opposition Islamist parties.

Masbah was a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center. He is a political-sociologist whose work centers on Salafism, political Islam, authoritarianism, and youth movements, with a focus on North Africa.
Mohammed Masbah

Nonresident Scholar
Middle East Center

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For its part, the regime views the AWI as both a threat to its legitimacy and, conversely, an outdated group that can only influence its own followers. It has shown little interest in reversing the ban on formal political participation by the AWI and integrating the group into the mainstream political sphere.

The death of the AWI’s founder and spiritual leader, Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine, in December 2012 created a sense of cautious optimism that relations between the AWI and the regime might improve. But that sentiment was short-lived.

Despite new leadership and a stated desire to participate more fully in the political process under the right conditions, the AWI failed to break free from its historic rejection of the king’s religious authority and Morocco’s system of governance. And, while Moroccan authorities have engaged in dialogue and negotiations with other opposition activists, they have continued to sideline the AWI and undermine what was already a limited alliance between Islamists and left-wing parties that play a key role in the opposition.

The revived cold war was evident in March 2015, when security services arrested an AWI trade union leader on allegations of adultery. He was released when the charges against him could not be proved. Later that month, tensions spiraled when Rabat officials rejected a request that Yassine’s wife be buried by her husband’s side. After much back and forth and the intervention of higher authorities, the burial was allowed to proceed where initially planned.

While the regime’s ties with the AWI have been mired in distrust, another Islamist party, the Party for Justice and Development (PJD), has found a way to work with the makhzan, as Morocco’s royal establishment is known. The PJD won a plurality of seats in Morocco’s 2011 parliamentary elections and rose to become a key participant in the government, with its leader serving as Morocco’s prime minister.

The AWI has not fared as well. And, given the group’s tough views of the regime, and the state’s intransigent stance toward the AWI, the normalization of ties between the two—and a mainstream political role for the Justice and Spirituality movement—does not appear possible in the foreseeable future.

A History of Nonviolent Opposition

The AWI, founded in 1986, represents a unique model among Islamist movements in the Arab world. Politically, it is a nonviolent, antiestablishment opposition movement. Religiously, it is close to the Sufi zawiya (order), advocating spiritual education and suhba (the guidance of a sheikh).

The AWI has been closely identified with the iconic personality of Yassine, who was a follower of the prominent Sufi Boutchichiya order in Morocco. Yassine parted ways with the order in the mid-1970s after a struggle for power with its current leader, Sheikh Hamza bin al-Abbas, following the death of the latter’s father, who had led the group.

The long-standing tensions between the regime and the AWI can be traced back to before the group’s founding, and a letter Yassine wrote to then King Hassan II in the mid-1970s demanding just rule and fair distribution of wealth in the country.

Today, the state does not officially recognize the AWI and its activities are tightly controlled. The regime’s position stems from the movement’s refusal to recognize the king’s religious authority as the “commander of the faithful” and the AWI’s dismissal of Morocco’s system of governance as unjust because, in the group’s view, all executive powers are ultimately vested in the king.

The AWI insists that it will not take part in elections, which it considers fraudulent, and that it will only participate in formal politics if the regime makes serious political reforms. It has been engaged in political activism through informal channels such as youth outreach since its inception, and it insists that it operates within the confines of the law.

But it sought to play a more active role in the heat of the popular protests that took place in Morocco in 2011. The AWI’s Youth Department joined the February 20 Movement (M20F), the main organizer of the demonstrations, which limited itself to a reformist agenda in order to avoid a direct confrontation with the monarchy. The AWI wanted to go further, and some of its leaders tried to push the M20F into taking more radical positions against the regime. But an AWI leader said the regime discouraged leftists who participated in the M20F from cooperating with the AWI,and the group’s efforts to advocate for greater change foundered due to resistance from the nonradical left. As a backbone of the M20F, the AWI also failed to improve its negotiating position with the regime.

In contrast, the PJD stood out as the largest beneficiary of the protests, despite staying away from the M20F. The regime was obliged to make a series of concessions and pursue limited reforms, including early elections that were held in November 2011; after the PJD’s strong showing in the vote, the party was charged by the king with forming a new government.

But the AWI had gained nothing, and found itself neither embraced by the establishment nor by the leftist opposition. Two weeks after the vote, the AWI pulled out of the M20F.

Limited Steps Toward Change

The M20F protests did have an effect on the AWI, albeit a limited one.

The movement had long been criticized for a static organizational structure that, like the regime’s, rested on the cult of a single leader and was characterized by the absence of internal democracy.

During the last years of Yassine’s leadership, the AWI had begun restructuring with the aim of expanding its tight leadership circle and improving its institutional performance. The outbreak of popular protests in 2011 and the dynamics of the Arab Spring forced the AWI to expedite that process with a series of changes designed to infuse more transparency into the organization.

The death of Yassine at the end of 2012 further consolidated those changes. For the first time, the AWI’s Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura) instituted a functional distinction between dawa (religious outreach) and politics. Mohamed Abbadi, a founding member and close friend of Yassine, was elected to the new position of secretary-general, which was indicative of the AWI’s keenness to preserve its Sufi identity. The movement also created the position of deputy secretary-general to which it elected Fathallah Arsalane. Although Arsalane was not a member of the political daira (circle), he had long served as the AWI’s official spokesman and is said to influence the movement’s political direction.

The new structure also marked the end of an era in which Yassine acted as master and the movement’s followers were his disciples. Instead, the group showed its determination to move toward a more democratic, transparent structure in which internal consensus would be required before any action was taken. In addition, the number of members in the AWI’s political department was increased, and the department began releasing reports following each meeting of its national bureau.

Since then, to quiet its critics, the AWI has been keen to highlight its new institutional character, which increasingly relies on specialized departments to oversee certain areas. The powerful Guidance Council, which groups long-serving members and sets the movement’s strategic direction, is likely to allow the departments to make more decisions—as long as they agree with the organization’s overall strategic drive. But the Guidance Council reserves the right to strip them of these powers when necessary; while it must have given its go-ahead to the Youth Department to participate in the popular protests of 2011, for example, the decision to retreat was likely to have been made unilaterally by the Guidance Council.

To build a greater political role for itself, the AWI has also tried to open up to the public and communicate with the media. With the onset of the Arab Spring, it published statements on a number of issues—including constitutional amendments and the elections of 2011, as well as debates on women, health, and youth—which was seen as a departure from its long-standing rejection of any discussion of public policies and its habit of blaming all domestic problems on the regime.

In addition, the AWI tried to break free from the media isolation that had been imposed by state-run outlets by reactivating its website, launching an online channel, and holding regular briefings with independent print media. Despite this, it appears that many media outlets have avoided reporting about the AWI and its leaders, apparently fearful that they would draw negative reactions from the regime.

These many cosmetic organizational changes do not reflect a structural transformation within the AWI, but rather an attempt to adapt to prevailing circumstances in Morocco. Significant strategic decisions continue to be crafted by the Guidance Council, and none of the AWI’s current leaders has been able to fill the founder’s shoes.

The AWI’s insistence on a united front prohibits any public discussion of the group’s postulates, and its members have only engaged in limited internal debate about the movement’s political participation and its strategic choices. The organization’s tight structure marginalizes internal opponents and leaves them unable to effect change from within. And, because these critics do not represent a homogeneous intellectual strain, they are unable to form their own new organization and end up either joining other political groups or retiring from political life altogether.

A More Active Role

The AWI’s marginalization continued until October 2014, when it saw an opportunity to propel itself back onto the political scene by joining trade unions and non-Islamist parties in a one-day general strike called to blame the government for deteriorating economic conditions. The participation by the group’s Union Department in the general strike of 2014 marked the movement’s first major action since it withdrew from the M20F in late 2011. 

Paradoxically, proestablishment trade unions and political parties also supported the strike, arguing that it only targeted the PJD-led government, and not the regime, which they continued to support. While these groups sought to harness the strike to topple the government, some PJD leaders accused the AWI of political opportunism over its participation in the action against an Islamist-led government.

The AWI took part in the general strike for a number of reasons; chief among them was the marginalization it endured after its retreat from the M20F. By supporting the trade union protests, the movement sought to achieve three goals: to revive its trade union arm; to aggravate socioeconomic conditions to push the regime into negotiations; and to foil the PJD’s experience in power. Its participation came against the backdrop of an ongoing ideological rivalry between the two Islamist groups. Such internecine struggles are usually fierce because competitors are vying for the same sociological base, and if one is winning, the other is losing. In this case, the PJD’s continued presence in government suggests that the AWI has failed in its bid to change the regime from outside the formal political sphere.

The general strike failed to topple the government or aggravate social conditions. It did not attract a high turnout. Nor did it oblige the government to engage in negotiations. And, after that unsuccessful attempt, the AWI decided to wait for a better opportunity to return to the streets.

The Status Quo Is Likely to Persist

The balance of power between the regime and the AWI continues to tip in favor of the former. There are several reasons that the status quo is likely to persist in the near future.

First, the AWI has lost many of its adherents since 2007 as a result of their disillusionment with the movement’s “visions and dreams,” a reference to predictions made by Yassine and several other leaders in 2006 that a radical change in Morocco’s political situation would take place during that year. When nothing happened, the group lost the confidence of several of its members, who either withdrew from political life or joined other parties.

Second, the AWI has no significant political allies, and, despite good ties with some marginal left-wing groups, it is unlikely to forge new ones. Long-standing animosity between the AWI and bigger left-wing opposition parties resurfaced in the early days of the M20F, and, a few months later, the AWI parted ways with the leftists. The AWI’s relations with other Islamists are also strained, although the movement occasionally engages in social or religious courtesies with them. And the group’s centralized structure, as well as its political divergences with other Islamist groups, mean that it is not likely to form new alliances with them.

Third, the movement’s leadership is conservative and not inclined to clash with the regime. AWI leaders come, for the most part, from the urban middle class and either work in liberal professions or are employed in the wheels of the bureaucracy. They know that any escalation with the regime would not only be costly, but also yield uncertain results. They opted to tone down their rhetoric during the 2011 protests, as Nadia Yassine, the founder’s daughter, put it in March 2015, in order to preserve stability and avoid violence. And they continue to oppose the regime through peaceful means. AWI officials have called for a national unity government that would include all parties, which a senior movement leader said was the only way the group wanted to participate in formal politics, absent significant reforms on the part of the monarch.2  

Fourth, the regime’s approach to Islamists has weakened the AWI. After the 2011 election, the regime successfully co-opted the PJD, rewarding it with a place in government in exchange for its role in stabilizing the country. Some Salafists were also integrated into the political process. With these moves, the regime became confident that it was in a position of strength and could continue to sideline the AWI, which has maintained its unwavering antiestablishment stance. The palace has long gambled that the PJD-led government would appease any popular protests and validate the monarchy’s “inclusion-moderation” approach to Islamists, with supportive statements from the prime minister that buttress the king’s legitimacy. The palace continues to seek to subdue the AWI and deter it from allying with other political players.  

The AWI has existed outside the mainstream political arena for three decades. Regional changes and the popular protests in Morocco in 2011 did not turn around the relationship between the organization and the regime. In all likelihood, the current situation between the two sides will continue until one of them loses ground, and that is not likely to be the regime.

But the inclusion of the AWI in the formal political sphere is sine qua non to any genuine transition toward a pluralist democracy in Morocco. For this to occur, both the regime and the AWI will have to loosen their strained positions and launch a serious political dialogue. 

Notes

1 Author interview with senior AWI official in Casablanca, March 2015.

2 Ibid.