Middle East

Future of key Morocco Islamist group uncertain

A picture taken on December 15, 1995 shows Abdessalam Yassine giving a speech to supporters in a mosque in Sale near Rabat. AFP PHOTO/ABDELHAK SENNA

RABAT, Morocco: The future of Morocco's largest Islamist group is uncertain after the death of its charismatic leader but analysts say it could play a more important political role in the kingdom.

The tens of thousands of followers who attended Abdessalam Yassine's funeral on December 14 were proof of the devotion that the founder of Al-Adl wal-Ihsan (Justice and Charity) inspired right up to his death, aged 84.

The group joined the Arab Spring demonstrations that erupted in Morocco last year, but the demands of the February 20 reform movement leading the protests were essentially secular, and Sheikh Yassine's followers eventually withdrew.

The group's withdrawal was considered a key reason for the street protests losing momentum.

But the death of Yassine -- a sharp critic of the monarchy -- could embolden the Islamist movement's youth, said Mohammed Tozy, a professor of politics.

"The contact with the street, after the February 20 movement, has excited the young Islamists, who gained a certain legitimacy... on the ground, compared with the religious old guard who clung to the sheikh," he told AFP.

Banned but tolerated in the kingdom, the secretive, austere group has shunned mainstream politics since it was founded in 1973, and the number of its followers is hard to gauge.

But it is active in many poor neighbourhoods across the north African country, and the huge crowd that gathered at the mosque in central Rabat last week reinforced the view that it is the most popular opposition movement.

Yassine repeatedly criticised the wealth and power of the monarchy, arguing that it was unacceptable from an Islamic perspective -- a view that landed him in jail several times during the rule of the late king Hassan II.

His movement, which advocates non-violent change, refuses to recognise the king's title of commander of the faithful, a key difference with the moderate Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) that came to power after an election triumph late last year.

In another sign of the Sufi leader's wide-ranging influence, Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane, who heads the PJD, visited Yassine's home after his death, an event which nevertheless was barely mentioned in Morocco's official media.

"The death of the sheikh is not likely to reduce the tensions (with the authorities), as those who succeed him have lived all their lives under him," Mohammed Darif, a professor at Casablanca University, told AFP.

The "new generation will undoubtedly seek to leave the status quo behind and become more active in the legal political arena," Darif argued.

Reflecting this activist trend, Yassine's daughter Nadia has played an increasingly prominent role in the movement, and was notably involved in the protests that erupted in Morocco last year, as uprisings swept the region.

But even if its younger members are pushing for greater participation, unless Al-Adl wal-Ihsan radically modifies its position on the monarchy, it seems unlikely that it will be allowed to register as a legal political party.

"The burning question for observers is whether the movement will reconsider a cornerstone of Yassine's thinking -- the rejection of the monarchy's religious and political legitimacy," said Myriam Francois-Cerrah, a specialist on Islamic movements in Morocco.

If it does, and the moderate Islamist party currently in power loses support for failing to bring about the changes it promised, including to tackle endemic corruption, there is a chance the palace may one day have to turn to the group.

"Charity and Justice embody Moroccan Islam, a local Islam that is Sufi in essence," said Mohammed Tozy.

"It could become a key ally of the regime in battling the Islam imported from the east," he argued, referring to the hardline Salafist movement that has gained ground in Egypt and Tunisia since their dictators were ousted.

 

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