RABAT, Morocco — On the first day of my visit to the kingdom of Morocco as part of a delegation of Arab journalists, outstanding political and economic issues seemed highly heated. That is, "relative to Moroccan standards, not those of Egypt or Syria."
There was heated talk within the media and among parties after Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane, a member of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (JDP), described some of his political opponents that he felt were stalling the reform process in the country as "demons and crocodiles." There was — and remains — a fear among Moroccans regarding reform measures involving the so-called "compensation fund," which subsidizes fuel and sugar. Contrary to the government's claims, this support doesn't necessarily go to those who deserve it.
It was the date of the monthly meeting in which the prime minister appears before the House of Representatives to answer important questions. The only question posed was: Why has the cost of living risen and how can we preserve the purchasing power of citizens? Benkirane responded with force, listing measures taken by his government to control prices. He then faced a television camera — moving the session on-air, in accordance with the law — to address the Moroccan people. This move bypassed the deputies and angered some.
At the end of this long day, we met with Benkirane in the government's headquarters. We asked him a number of tough questions, including questions about his party's relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and his advice to the Brotherhood in Egypt. We also questioned him about the "Islamization of Morocco," the "ghosts of the Tunisia experience" and the closed border with Algeria. The questions were short; it was late in the day and his fatigue was apparent. His responses were brief but clear.
Here is the full text of the interview:
Al-Masry Al-Youm: To begin, we'd like to know about your [JDP's] experience as Islamists in politics?
Benkirane: The Islamic movement in Morocco has its own ideology; we have nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood as some claim. In general, we are opposed to the idea of interfering in people's private lives. The people are in need of reform and must obtain their rights. Moroccans have known Islam since ancient times, and are characterized by a deep love for the family of the Prophet Muhammad. They were able to build a modern state and maintain stability; and since the beginning have engaged in the logic of the times. They have always preserved their Islamic character, although no one can claim that they succeeded in achieving this balance 100%. For us, as an Islamic movement, we emerged in our modern form in the 1970s. We first entered politics as the Popular Democratic and Constitutional Movement, which later became the Justice and Development Party. This party first ran for elections following in 1997, and won nine seats in parliament. In the next elections in 2002, following the death of the late King Hassan II, we won 42 seats. In the 2007 elections, during the reign of King Mohammed VI, we won 46 seats. Yet when the winds of the Arab Spring arrived, the party won 107 seats and formed the government commissioned by the king.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: The coalition government is led by four parties, how is its work going internally?
Benkirane: We are currently engaged in reform within the coalition government, which includes the Istiqlal Party, which came second in the elections; the Popular Movement Party, which was originally a part of the JDP and later split from it; and the Party of Progress and Socialism (previously the Communist Party). The atmosphere within the government is very positive. Following the elections, the new secretary-general of the Istiqlal Party assumed his nature position within the majority that formed the government. The government agrees on the state's major approaches, which have not changed. We are committed to ensuring a positive atmosphere that is serious, fair and transparent. I cannot claim that we have succeeded 100%, but we are still at the beginning of the government's second year. We are still at the beginning of the road, but are working within the framework of the new constitution. This constitution manages the state's affairs and gives first priority to the institution of the monarchy, which is given complete religious and military leadership; it has sovereignty and represents the state. Meanwhile, the government now has its executive powers.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: How have you distinguished yourselves among what have become known as the Arab Spring states?
Benkirane: At this stage, our country is characterized by the decision we have taken as sons of the Arab Spring, whereby we decided not to take to the streets, realizing that this would not achieve stability for our country. Yet at the same time, we decided to continue with reforms, which the king has responded to. We are not alone in this matter — there are other political parities cooperating with us. We achieve more when the people do not take to the streets in an intense manner, as happened in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria. Yet at the same time, reforms are on track. Today we are being tested as a state, a government, and a party, and have been both positively and negatively affected by what is happening in the East. Yet within Morocco, despite the challenges faced by poverty, the reform train is moving little by little. Strikes hit their peak last year, but have now decreased and nearly ended. Thus far, there have been no teachers strikes and doctors have gone back to work in public hospitals. Previously, doctors had work in the private sector as well, but they are no longer allowed to hold two jobs. Employment no longer happens as a result of protests or under pressure from the street; rather, jobs are advertised and potential employees must submit applications and undergo testing. Opportunism, using connections with officials, and bribery are no longer valid criteria for employment in Morocco. The country is working to correct conceptions and develop a system based on competence, merit, integrity and transparency. This is a new approach for Morocco.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: The issue of support, or what has become known as the "compensation fund," is putting pressure on the Moroccan economy. Citizens fear what has been said about canceling support programs for the poor and giving them cash instead. This would lead to a significant rise in prices. What are your comments?
Benkirane: My government inherited many problems, with the "comensation fund" at the forefront. This fund costs the state treasury 55 billion Moroccan dirhams ($7 billion), which is equal to a quarter of public expenditure. We spent over 21 billion dirhams ($2.5 billion) on diesel fuel subsidies; for every liter of fuel we spend 4 dirhams on subsidies. There is also a problem with public transport and the transport of goods; how can we support this alone in order to withdraw support for private fuel transport. We are considering many ideas amid the political balances in which we live. There were increases in fuel prices a few months after the government was formed, and society held us responsible. However, there were not protests and we provided 5 billion dirhams from our budget [to aid oil subsidies]. And those who benefit from the compensation fund are not those who need it most. Nearly 50% of the fund goes to only 20% of citizens, while 20% goes to 50% of citizens. We want to target the groups that are most in need of support. This will gradually assist citizens in buying goods and improving their economic situation. We believe that reform should be gradual, and will take nearly four years. Yet the thing that is unavoidable is that this fund cannot continue; goods must be subject to their real prices. If not, we will be forced in the near future to divide the Moroccan budget into two: half for the compensation fund and the other half for government employees' salaries. In this case, we would have no other resources to run the state or for investment and development. Furthermore, we have a crisis regarding the pension fund, which is nearly bankrupt.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: It is well known that the ideological origins of your party, the JDP, are linked to the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. What is the relationship between your party and this group?
Benkirane: We do not belong to the Muslim Brotherhood and we have no organizational ties with them. We have our own vision, our own ideology and our own institutions. We are fundamentally convinced that people did not vote for us because we are Islamic or because we will apply our Islamic logic; rather, they voted for us because they believe that we are a political party with an Islamic basis. However, there is not relationship between us and the movement [Here he is referring to the Islamic "Unification and Reform" Movement, from which the JDP emerged — M.R.]. Days and months have passed without us seeing the head of the movement or the party. We realize that the Moroccan people voted in order for us to assume the role of solving their problems. We are faced with a stubborn reality, there are problems in the education, health, and work sectors, as well as in the compensation and pension funds. These are problems that are awaiting solutions. These solutions are based on the government enjoying credibility and being capable of explaining things to the people. We cannot provide them with what we do not have. Such is democracy; if we succeed we will stay in place, and if not we will leave without a fuss.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: There are those talking about your Islamic program and the so-called "Islamization" of the state. Any comments?
Benkirane: There is no need to Islamize society because society is already Islamic. We are here to address some of the systematic imbalances in society, and this does not include Islamizing society. Moroccans did not vote for us so that we could call on men to grow beards and women to cover up. Within the party, there are fathers, some with daughters that wear the veil and others with daughters that do not. Humanity will not regress. We do not believe in interfering in people's personal lives. We feel that this is wrong, un-Islamic and no longer possible. The time of imposing one's beliefs on others has ended. If what we have is better than that of others, inevitably it will succeed. It's not our problem to follow-up on what girls are wearing, as long as it is within the bounds of decency and respects general morals. Times have changed. Families that were hesitant to send their daughters to school five years ago, now will agree to let her be a flight attendant who flies to the farthest reaches of the earth and spends days away from home. They have adopted a new logic and a new life. If we thought that we could protect our children through precautions, we would be delusional.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: So why is there only one woman minister in the government?
Benkirane: There are 67 female members of parliament; among those, only seven were directly elected. The remaining 60 female MPs came as a result of a law that ensures a female presence in parliament. Our conviction stems from the idea of gradually implementing solutions. Today in parliament, 40% of JDP members are women, yet it is not logical to put a percentage of women in the government similar to that of somewhere like France, where women entered political life early on and gained experience. In general, the presence of even one female minister in the government — and she is from the JDP — is something technical. Other parties participating in the government did not appoint any female ministers. Our appointment has no hidden intentions or goals.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: What is your advice to the Muslim Brotherhood "ruling" other countries? What is your message to them?
Benkirane: It is not my right to comment on anyone's performance. As they say: "With power comes great responsibility" and "everyone knows what is best for himself." I will, however, offer advice to those "from the East with whom we share an Islamic viewpoint." I say: We must stress that it is not fair to attack these parties' experience with such ferocity, when they are still in their first or second year of rule and we are demanding that they solve problems that have accumulated over 60 years. The people's choice in electing these parties was not a mistake. I would advise the Brotherhood to not give justifications or reasons for protest, which could disrupt the reform program.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: The issue of the Moroccan Sahara is one of the major crises that exists between you and Algeria, and as a result the border is closed. Is a solution in sight?
Benkirane: The issue of the Sahara is one of the issues that lie ahead, and it has no basis and is unfounded. Its heroes were a group of misled students. Their return to their homeland — Morocco — has been delayed. Former Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi embraced them and nurtured sedition (against Morocco) within them. At first, they were calling for liberal demands, but Gadhafi, with the support of Algeria, adopted them and distorted their views on their homeland. In Morocco's view, the Sahara issue is an issue involving a people, whereas our brothers in Algeria consider it to be an issue of a state or a regime. The events that are occurring in the regions should push everyone to reconsider many related issues. The truth is that there are no problems between the Moroccan and Algerian peoples. If the border is opened and the issue is resolved, everyone will realize that all of this was contrived and false. We hope that the issue will be resolved soon, and I pray that God will guide our brothers in Algeria. Moroccans have exerted the greatest effort in this regard, and proposed an autonomy initiative within a framework that is satisfactory to the Moroccan people. I spoke with UN Envoy Christopher Ross with candor and clarity, and called on him to be diligent in finding a solution within the framework of historical and political realities.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: What are the repercussions of what happened in Tunisia following the killing of Chokri Belaid, an opponent of the Ennahda Movement?
Benkirane: The situation here is different from what is happening in Tunisia. The relationship between the parties that make up the Moroccan government is based on consensus. The former secretary general of the Istiqlal Party has said that while they had complaints with previous governments, this time there are no complaints. When we were informed that some people were trying to impose their beliefs by force, through the concept of promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, we were tough, and gave directives to the ministers of justice and the interior to not indulge in this matter. If everyone acts in accordance with his own personal conviction, sedition will ensure. It is, however, the state's responsibility to enforce order.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: What about the dispute with the new secretary-general of the Istiqlal Party?
Benkirane: The new secretary-general of the party has come with new logic. We have tried to deal with the issue gently, so that we can distinguish good from bad. There have been no problems between us and the Istiqlal party since the time of the late politician Allal El Fassi. During difficult periods many parties were attacking the JDP, with the exception of the Istiqlal Party. They never attacked us once. In this new period, we cannot enter into a conflict with the party. They are our primary ally, and allies cannot argue, otherwise citizens will lose their tempers.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: You have attacked some groups with harsh words, claiming that they obstructing the government's work. Who are they?
Benkirane: It is only natural that there are those who wish to obstruct our work. There are always those who do not want the government to continue. Yet meanwhile, we are moving forwards, and Moroccan society has become aware that a change is occurring. They realize that this government wants to undertake reforms and is working hard. The government is trying its best, and this is why its popularity today is "very good." Its popularity did not decrease during the last complementary elections.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: You met with the Iranian Foreign Minister in Cairo during the Islamic summit, despite that fact that ties between Morocco and Iran and currently severed?
Benkirane: We were in an Islamic conference. It is no longer possible to request a meeting and then not meet. We are brothers and Muslims, and it was not possible to refuse to meet. This is particularly true given the fact that Iran is a major Islamic state with which we have historical ties. Morocco cut its ties with Iran because of what happened in Bahrain, but foreign relations and the resumption of relations is the prerogative of His Majesty the King. This is one of the issues related to sovereignty that are stipulated in the constitution.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: There had been talk in the past of a proposal, by which Morocco would join the Gulf Cooperation Council. What is the truth regarding this proposal?
Benkirane: Our relations with the Gulf states are based on brotherhood and close ties. Morocco is keen on developing these relations according to an already established trajectory that will continue, even if this does not lead to unity in the sense that some imagine. Searching for unity in the old sense of the word is equivalent to searching for a mirage. We can, however, strengthen these ties through pragmatic steps. Even Europe is not unified in the superficial sense; it is not a single state, despite the fact that borders are open to the movement of goods and people. We must work on unifying legislation [between Morocco and the Gulf] according to pragmatic steps.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: How have the events in Mali affected you?
Benkirane: It was inevitable that these events would affect the situation in the Western Sahara and the issue of the Moroccan Sahara. There are things that are very clear to us. We cannot allow, nor can we even imagine, that a new state will be created in the region. We cannot allow for people to take up arms and take control of oil supplies, when we don't know where they are coming from; people who exercise control through jihadist ideology. This logic does not apply to the present day, in which we have the United Nations and borders between states. At the same time, we stress that there is no place for fragile, permeable states.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: How do you view the situation of the Moroccan press?
Benkirane: There once was a time in which political work was very difficult, yet opening a newspaper was — and still is — easy. This is something with which God has blessed us. The JDP started a newspaper with a budget of only 4,000 Moroccan dirhams, which at the time was equivalent to less than $400. These newspapers allow Moroccan society to say what it wants to say, provided they do not undermine Morocco's principles, which are dear to the people's hearts. There is, however, a press law, and amendments are currently being worked upon. Yet these amendments will not infringe upon the freedom to publish newspapers. Freedom is something that should not be suppressed. While some states rely on putting heavy pressure on newspapers, Morocco does not.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: How do you view the issue of reform in general?
Benkirane: Governments that do not undertake gradual reforms can expect to fall. Had the regime of former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and other overthrown regimes, undertaken the reforms that the people demanded, things would be different today. You cannot turn a deaf ear to reform. We live in a time in which our children travel abroad and the world is connected via satellite. Culture is becoming unified towards the promotion of freedom, democracy and human rights. The best thing today would be to achieve these reforms through our own will, and according to our own temporal considerations and within a framework of consensus. This is what we are trying to do in Morocco; and this must be achieved through companionship and mutual concessions. We cannot be forced to achieve reform within a framework of chaos. The authority of the state is not disputed, and it is an essential element of stability, which the JDP and other parities are committed to maintaining. We always stress the government's keenness to maintain alliances between the parties that make up the government, according to an approach based on consensus and searching for solutions using serious logic. We also stress the importance of gradual reform, in a manner which is agreed upon by all sides, including the ruling factions, political parties, trade unions and institutions that maintain weight in society.