Morocco opposition Islamists warn of ‘explosion’

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Morocco’s main Islamist opposition group said the country is run by a shadow government and warned dire social and economic conditions could cause an “explosion” among disaffected youths.

Fathallah Arsalane, spokesman for al-Adl Wal-Ihsan (AWI) - or Charity and Justice - told AFP in an interview that his movement aspires to play a political role in Morocco where the group is banned but tolerated.

“We believe in democracy and we believe that we could become a political party but the government does not allow it,” said Arsalane.

The Sufi movement, which advocates the establishment of an Islamic state through non-violent means, has been excluded from Moroccan politics for decades for openly criticizing the king’s power and wealth.

Arsalane insisted his movement was not calling for regime change, but said the coalition government, whose appointment following the introduction of a new constitution and elections in 2011 brought real hope of change, is toothless.

“There is a shadow government that controls everything, and the members of the current government are nothing more than a front,” he said.

He also slammed the authorities for failing to improve living conditions in the North African country which is grappling with widespread poverty and high youth unemployment.

“The economic and social situation in Morocco is getting worse by the day,” said Arsalane.

“Society has changed, there are more graduates, people who are better educated but who have nothing to lose, because they have no work, no house and no future.

“If the youth explode, no one will be able to stop them, not the political parties, nor the state, nor our movement. And that is what we fear,” he said.

The moderate Islamist Party of Justice and Development that heads the government has been struggling to contain the social and economic problems in Morocco which, being heavily dependent on European trade and tourism, faces a bleak outlook.

AWI is considered Morocco’s most powerful opposition force and has pushed for reform but towards the end of 2011 it decided to withdraw from mass protests fearing demonstrations could lead to violence, according to Arsalane.

‘Justice in its broadest sense’

The death in December of its charismatic 84-year-old founder and spiritual leader Abdessalam Yassine raised speculation about whether the movement would soften its line on the monarchy and join the political fold.

Arsalane, who was appointed deputy secretary general in January, insisted democracy must guarantee freedom of expression, including to criticize the king, and said that seeking to redistribute the country’s wealth remained a key policy.

“Our motto is justice in its broadest sense, (including) justice through the distribution of wealth, since there is a group in Morocco which owns the majority of assets,” which the poorest section of society does not benefit from at all, he said.

The Islamist movement has much support among poor neighborhoods, where it operates extensive outreach programs, although the number of its followers remains hard to gauge because they are unregistered.

Arsalane indicated the group’s membership was much larger than the tens of thousands who filled the streets of central Rabat for Yassine’s funeral.

“If the state had not banned certain people from attending the sheikh’s funeral, you could have got an approximate idea about our following,” he said.

Asked about Western fears of a rising Islamist tide across the region since the Arab Spring, and the perceived failures of Islamist parties voted to power in Egypt and Tunisia, Arsalane argued they had not been given a fair chance.

He also accused outside powers, notably Qatar, of exerting a destabilizing influence by funding extremists.

“I don’t see an Islamic experience in (Egypt and Tunisia). No one has given them the chance to work. And there are attempts to thwart their efforts.”

Islamist militants have made headlines in the Maghreb region in the past year, with the January hostage crisis in Algeria, in which dozens of foreigners were killed, the occupation of northern Mali and a wave of attacks in Tunisia.

“We categorically reject these extremist groups,” he said, adding that AWI was criticized by jihadists over its support for democracy.