The Maghreb’s modern Islamists must look West

Just over a year ago, the Arab Spring sparked dramatic change throughout the region. Popular movements have brought a range of Islamist political parties to power, replacing the largely secular former regimes. What that will mean for these countries, and for the region, is one of today’s central geopolitical questions.

In North Africa, two Islamist parties have come fully to power via democratic elections: Ennahda (Renaissance) in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, and the Justice and Development Party (PJD) in Morocco, both of which now lead new coalition governments.

Whereas a popular revolution produced regime change in Tunisia, Morocco underwent a peaceful transformation that left the monarchy in place. Last July, Moroccans voted overwhelmingly to approve a new Constitution that shifts executive power from the king to the prime minister, who will now be fully responsible for the Cabinet, the civil service, and the implementation of government policies.

The king retains some prerogatives, such as the authority to select the prime minister (from the parliament’s majority party) and the head of the army. Furthermore, like heads of state in other parliamentary systems, he has the right to appoint the government ministers and ambassadors, dissolve the parliament, and dismiss the Cabinet.

While the PJD’s success was based on institution-building within a constitutional monarchy, Ennahda has revolutionized the Tunisian system. But both parties won after running on a moderate platform of constitutionalism, separation of powers, civil liberties and women’s rights. This new political reality in the Maghreb will bring Europe – particularly France, the region’s old colonial master – face-to-face with Islamist governments determined to promote a new type of relationship.

But these governments have much work to do at home first. Currently, the Maghreb countries suffer from soaring unemployment, poverty and high prices for basic commodities. In response, both Ennahda and the PJD are emphasizing job creation, free trade, foreign investment and a crackdown on the corruption that has plagued their countries’ economies.

These governments’ first major test will be how they treat the tourism industry. Although Western tourism is a critically important source of employment and foreign currency in both countries, some Muslims have criticized the industry for promoting alcohol and other relaxed social conventions that threaten Islamic values.

So far, both Ennahda and the PJD have taken a pragmatic stance. They recognize that, while their supporters may be devout Muslims, they also need to earn a living; empty hotels and beaches would be economically disastrous. Thus, tourism professionals in both countries have received strong government assurances that business will continue as usual.

Islamist parties will now have enormous influence on economic policy, after decades of official separation of mosque and state. Islamic banking, for example, may soon be introduced, though some local and foreign investors argue that Shariah regulations could drive away much-needed foreign investment. There are also concerns about inexperienced Islamist officials’ ability to run finance ministries.

But the region’s Islamist parties appear to be conscious of these risks, and determined to mitigate them. They know that they need economic growth to curb unemployment and pay for social services, so they are working to bolster the private sector. In many cases, they are even advocating the kind of free-market policies that their secular predecessors favored.

Those policies should include trade liberalization. Until now, less than 2 percent of the Maghreb countries’ foreign trade has remained within the region. If the region’s new leaders can integrate their economies, a market of more than 75 million consumers would attract more foreign investment and trade with the rest of the world.

Before an economically unified Maghreb can be realized, however, inter-state conflicts such as the Algerian-Moroccan dispute over the “Western” Sahara must be resolved. Otherwise, it will be difficult even to conceive a common future – without which the economic grievances that fueled the Maghreb’s revolutions are likely to continue.

Much like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda and the PJD will have to marginalize Islamic extremists in their movements, such as the Salafists, and adopt a pragmatic approach. To succeed economically, they will need Western support – and the West will not be eager to fund radical Islamist governments.

As they negotiate the realities of modern economic life, the Maghreb’s Islamist ruling parties are likely to lose some supporters. But unless they are willing to break with the past, they will not succeed in the present.

Moha Ennaji is president of the South North Center for Intercultural Dialogue in Morocco, and a professor of linguistics and cultural studies at the University of Fez. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 21, 2012, on page 7.




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