Islamic Party Confident in Morocco

An activist campaigns in a Moroccan village ahead of today's election. The Islamic Justice and Development Party expects to add seats.
An activist campaigns in a Moroccan village ahead of today's election. The Islamic Justice and Development Party expects to add seats. (By Eve Coulon -- Bloomberg News)
By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 7, 2007

CASABLANCA, Morocco, Sept. 6 -- Saad Eddine el-Othmani, the head of an Islamic party expected to triumph in Morocco's parliamentary elections Friday, mentions the economy and economic development seven times in the course of a 20-minute conversation. He mentions Islam only once, in passing.

After an introduction, Othmani reaches out to shake a woman's hand -- a quick reflex that marks him as a moderate Muslim man.

Asked this week about how strict a view his Justice and Development Party takes of Islam's role in daily life, a party official simply pointed to campaign ads featuring the party's dozens of female candidates, many of them without the head scarf increasingly being worn by women in some parts of the Muslim world.

"We are not a religious party. We are a political party," said Othmani, 51, a slight, bespectacled man who was a psychiatrist before he entered politics.

Othmani acknowledges that his political inspiration -- like his aspirations -- comes from Turkey, where an Islamic-based party last month gained control of Turkey's presidency, in addition to the parliament and the prime minister's post. The Turkish organization, also called the Justice and Development Party, retained power by playing down religion while proving itself capable of the basics of government, including boosting the economy and tamping down corruption.

Bridging black sub-Saharan Africa and the continent's Arab north, Morocco is far less developed than Turkey. About 40 percent of its almost 34 million people live in poverty, and the economy waxes and wanes in large part depending on the success of each year's crops.

The country, a sultanate that became a kingdom, lags far behind Turkey politically, as well. Campaign events for Turkey's Islamic-guided party are massive affairs with laser light shows. By contrast, one of Othmani's final campaign rallies this week took place in a dark vacant lot in the heart of Casablanca. Sand and trash blew among the audience -- men in shabby clothes cradling young boys on one side, veiled women on the other, cuddling girls. Plainclothes government security officials lurked on the fringes of the crowd.

Perhaps fittingly, Turkey's Islamic-based party has a light bulb as its symbol, while Morocco's has an oil lamp.

If Friday's election goes as leaders of Morocco's Justice and Development Party predict, Othmani hopes to see his party move into the government for the first time.

Whether it does -- and what might happen next -- is crucial, and not just for Morocco. Morocco was the birthplace of the Islamic extremists behind the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which killed 191 people. Bombings in 2003 and this year killed at least 40 people in Casablanca, an Atlantic coastal city where concrete-block development sprawls into the countryside.

For Morocco and other Muslim countries, the key issue in the rise of Islamic political parties is whether their success will defuse extremism or only give it a role in government. In 1992, Morocco's neighbor Algeria canceled elections that an armed, extremist Islamic party was poised to win. The thwarted extremists retaliated by launching a full-scale, decade-long civil war that left 150,000 people dead.

For Othmani, the need to give moderate Islam a political voice is clear. In an interview at a Casablanca hotel Thursday, the last day of campaigning, Othmani faulted the Bush administration for backing away from its calls for democratization in the Middle East after the fundamentalist Islamic party Hamas won parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories and the Muslim Brotherhood gained ground in elections in Egypt. By "supporting the dictatorial states and regimes in countries that are counter to democracy," U.S. policy "nourishes terrorism" in the Middle East and other Muslim regions, said Othmani, who was wearing a suit and tie after a day of canvassing Casablanca's markets in his shirtsleeves.

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