On October 6, as the sun was setting behind the monumental 13th-century gate of the old city of Sale, the Party of Justice and Development was organizing its last rally for Morocco’s parliamentary elections. Sale lies across the Bou Regreg River from Rabat; it is the capital city’s less affluent twin, and a stronghold of the PJD, an Islamist party that has headed the country’s government for the last five years. “Say ‘Inshallah!’” yelled a man tasked with warming up the crowd, clapping his hands above his head while a catchy pop song extolling the party and its struggles blared from loudspeakers. On the esplanade in front of the gate, several thousand supporters seated on rows of white chairs were diligently waving flags with the party’s logo, a lamp. Veiled women snapped selfies.
Morocco’s last parliamentary elections were held in 2011, when, just like Tunisians, Egyptians, and others in the region, people took to the streets demanding more democracy and less corruption in a series of demonstrations dubbed the February 20 movement. King Mohammed VI responded quickly to the protests by raising salaries and promising a more liberal constitution. The PJD supported the king and was allowed to compete freely for Parliament, winning the greatest number of seats.
After that, Morocco took neither the Tunisian nor the Egyptian route: It didn’t move any closer to democracy, and it didn’t slide into strife and chaos. Alongside the oil-rich emirates of the Gulf and the kingdoms of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, it’s one of the few countries in the region to have passed through the Arab Spring and its aftermath largely unscathed. Morocco is a quiet place, often overlooked in a region marked by turmoil. Today this stability is intriguing to many, who wonder: Is it the product of lucky circumstances, a sign of exceptionalism, or a mirage? The kingdom’s political system has proven remarkably adept at containing and negotiating demands for change—but for how long?
The 2011 Constitution did little to change the balance of power among Morocco’s branches of government, with the monarchy far outweighing the rest. And the Islamists’ entente with the palace has been an uneasy one. Across the region, the crushing of popular uprisings has led to deeper authoritarianism and the rise of jihadism. In a polarized landscape, the tide has now turned against Islamist parties and political compromise. People here mention “the Egyptian temptation,” referring to the military coup that ended the Muslim Brotherhood’s tenure in Cairo in 2013. In the run-up to Morocco’s election, the largely anti-Islamist press conducted a relentless campaign against the PJD, uncovering an extramarital affair between two leaders of its social movement and accusing the group of accepting money from Qatar.
When the PJD’s leader, Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane, took the stage in Sale, he denounced the “below the belt” attacks on his party and spoke of “men of power” who try to buy or intimidate voters. “Thank God the country has changed,” he added; now the people are the ones who decide. He defended his party’s record of the last five years, when it pushed through necessary but unpopular economic reforms, but admitted that it had largely failed to rein in the pervasive corruption or improve the quality of public services. Benkirane promised to do better if returned to power, to deliver “decent schools, hospitals, courts” and to make the average citizen feel “this is his country.” The banner beneath the stage exhorted voters to give the PJD “a chance to continue reform.”