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Africa

Moderate Islamist leader to head new government

Text by Priscille LAFITTE

Latest update : 2011-11-29

After his party's success at parliamentary polls, Islamist moderate Abdelilah Benkirane (pictured) has become Morocco’s new prime minister. A look at the leader’s decades-old quest for power.

Abdelilah Benkirane, leader of Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD), has become Morocco's new prime minister after his moderate Islamist party won 107 of parliament’s 395 seats in the North African country’s Nov. 25 poll. Having won over voters at home, Benkirane, 57, now seems eager to reassure international observers.

The elections were the first since a July referendum that transferred some of King Mohammed VI's near absolute powers to parliament and the prime minister. Benkirane was widely expected to be called on by the king to fill the new government’s top job.

Known for his fiery speeches on television, Benkirane’s sudden rise to prominence was met with some reserve abroad. The US State Department said on Nov 28 that it was cautiously watching how the PJD would operate from its new position of power.

However, Benkirane’s tame statements to the international media after his party’s victory echoed the moderate tone of his recent election campaign at home. On Nov. 27 he told FRANCE 24 he would defend a "controlled democracy" and "better governance".

Turning on the charm offensive

Meetings with members of the Moroccan business community were a priority during Benkirane election drive. The country’s entrepreneurs tend to be secular and socially progressive.

In late October, Benkirane addressed the General Confederation of Enterprises of Morocco. His message to them was that Islam is a religion that favours market-friendly economics, even if it is concerned with a just distribution of wealth.

The charismatic leader also met with Women’s Tribune, an NGO championing women’s rights in the country. He told the NGO, which seeks to increase the participation of women in politics, media and business, that he would root out corruption by appointing “men and women of competence and integrity” to top government posts.

Benkirane also avoided addressing social and religious mores on the campaign trail. “People will ask you again and again the same questions: will you forbid bathing suits on the beaches? Will you close up the bars?” Benkirane warned party members in Rabat this summer, according to the Moroccan weekly Tel Quel.

“Tell all these people that we are the candidates that will tackle much larger problems, such as unemployment, health, education and justice,” Benkirane insisted.

Political awakening

While Benkirane now presents himself as a moderate Islamist, the past includes a different snapshot of the man. In the 1970s, he made this political debut with Chabiba Islamiya, an underground Islamist movement that violently targeted leftists.

Benkirane says that he decided to abandon terrorism in the 1980s, but not before his association with Chabiba Islamiya landed him in prison twice. He then decided that political action was only useful within the established rules of the state and its institutions.

Founded in 1981, his Al Jamaâ Al Islamiya, loosely translated as the The Islamic Group, was rebranded as the Unity and Reform Movement (MUR) in 1996. Shortly after, the doors to political legitimacy opened in the form of parliamentary elections.

Benkirane and his entourage joined the People's Constitutional and Democratic Movement in 1997 and won nine parliamentary seats.

Blossoming in the Arab Spring

Despite its different incarnations, Benkirane’s political camp has never shed its conservative tenets. The leader is remembered for his anger over a female journalist who wore jeans and a t-shirt to parliament. He also fought against King Mohammed's reform to change the status of women.

While Benkirane eventually accepted the reform, which has offered Moroccan women more equal treatment since 2003, the PJD leader still rejects the equal distribution of family inheritances between sons and daughters.

In 2004 Benkirane was even replaced at the head of the party by a more moderate and conciliatory figure, Eddine El Othmani. Benkirane reclaimed the party’s top post in 2008.

While this year’s wave of Arab revolts never hit Morocco with full force, it has nonetheless played to Benkirane’s favour. In 2011 he campaigned on the theme of political reform in the wake of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, but with guarded fervor.

“The problem in Morocco is not the regime,” Benkirane told FRANCE 24 after his party’s success at the polls. “The government should just enjoy its freedoms and resolve its problems, and no longer turn to the King to find out what moves forward and what doesn’t.”

Date created : 2011-11-29

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