Association of Concerned Africa Scholars Review (previously: Bulletin)
ACAS Bulletin 77: North Africa and the Horn in the Vortex of the US War on Terror

Political Islam in Morocco: The Case of the Party of Justice and Development (PJD)

August 2007

The impact of America’s War on Terror on the evolution of the Moroccan democratic initiative and especially on its impact on the moderate Islamic Party of Justice and Development (PJD) is important to comprehending the current political conditions in Morocco. This analysis will look at the evolution of the PJD since the Casablanca bombing in 2003 and will explain how this event has created new political dynamics between the government and the party.


The moderate Islamic Party of Justice and Development (PJD) was founded by Dr. Abdelkrim Al Khatib, a politician known for his sympathy with the Monarchy, under the name of the MPDC (Popular Democratic and Constitutional Movement). The party was known for its political amnesia for many years until various members of a clandestine association Chabib Islamia (Islamic Youth), who later formed the MUR (Movement for Unity and Reform), joined the party, with the blessings of former interior minister Driss Basri. In 1988 the party officially became the PJD. Some scholars argue that the PJD name was inspired by the Turkish Party of Justice and Development. The Moroccan party differs from the Turkish PJD, however, in its brand of liberalism and modernity.

On September 27, 2002 during the legislative elections, the PJD took 42 out of 325 seats, winning most of the districts where it was represented. Since 2004, the party’s leader has been Saadeddine Othmani, a charismatic and a well respected politician. The PJD accepted the political game by participating in the political system and recognizing the institution of the monarchy, unlike Al Adl Wa Al Ihssane (Justice and Spirituality), a radical Islamist Organization that has refused to participate in the process of democratization that Morocco is going through.

Before the 2003 Casablanca bombings, the party used to publish harsh criticism and violent diatribes targeting Morocco’s opening to Western values in the MUR’s newspaper Attajdid (The Renewal). Since 2003 the party has been redefining its criticism and gives the appearance of having softened its political stances by adopting a more moderate rhetoric. Under pressure from the palace, the leaders of the PJD were urged to redefine their political discourse and to embrace the politics of modernization that constitute an important ideological tool for the new monarchy. Because of Mohammed VI’s agenda to develop a modern state with viable democratic institutions, Morocco became an attractive country to Western Europe and to the United Sates. As stated by Marvine Lowe,

As one of a handful of Arab countries which Washington can comfortably consider a friend, Morocco is viewed as a cornerstone for the American policy of promoting democracy in the region. Caught between the process of democratization and the growing momentum of political Islam, Morocco is a place that anyone concerned with the future of democracy in the Arab world should be watching closely.

The complication of the political games in Moroccan national politics should be understood within the context of the social and the economic strategic vision adopted by the palace and the government. It should also be articulated in the global context of the war on terror and of its impact on the evolution of the Islamist parties in Morocco. In order to grasp the evolution of Moroccan society toward a democratic stage, we should look at this evolution in its historical dimension.

After the death of King Hassan II, known for his autocratic and authoritarian regime, Morocco has gone through drastic political changes. In the last years of his reign, Hassan II’s political openness was crucial to the changes that were going to take place after his death. By offering the post of the prime minister to Abderrahman Youssoufi, the opposition leader of the socialist political party, Hassan II understood the historical necessity of change and of creating a new political atmosphere adapted to the liberal tendencies of his son. The heir to the throne, Mohammed VI, a well esteemed prince known for his political and democratic openness, took over in a smooth political transition. The regime change brought hope to the people of a country who were accustomed to living in a state of fear and insecurity under the ideology of the Makhzen. The Makhzen ideology, incarnated in the person of the interior minister Driss Basri, was based on oppression, humiliation and violation of the most basic human rights. In the early 1990s, Hassan II launched a political project that allowed opposition parties to freely participate in the new political process to pave the way to a smooth transition to the heir of the throne.

Reacting to the rise of Islamism in his own country, King Hassan II was able to avoid many of the problems facing other Arab countries at the time by successfully playing Islamist parties against the left, whom he saw as his main opponents. These measures kept Islamist groups at bay for most of King Hassan II’s 38-year reign. However, the prominence of political Islam started to grow again in the late 1990s as King Hassan II started opening up the government to opposition parties in order to ensure an orderly succession to the throne for his son Mohammed VI. This rise in popularity and appeal among Morocco’s Islamist parties was strengthened by the political relaxation carried out by King Mohammed VI upon his ascension to the throne in 1999. As a result of the king’s new policies, such as tolerating an independent press, Islamists benefited greatly from the freedom to exploit the government’s numerous unfulfilled promises. (Howe)

Democratization After 2003

Morocco’s political openness is coupled with multiple attempts to democratize society and to enhance a spirit of responsibility, ethics and nationalism. In this political context, parties that were banned under Hassan II, especially Cheikh Abdesslam Yassine’s radical movement Al Adl Wa Al Ihsane, started to emerge as anti-establishment parties embodying dissidence, contestation and a staunch criticism of the monarchy. On the other hand, the PJD’s moderate tone allowed it to continue to enjoy popularity among a large segment of the Moroccan population. The PJD’s ideological stances and its political position within the framework of the Moroccan political arena appeal to people who are disenchanted with the rhetoric of the secular parties. However, after the 2003 terrorist acts in Casablanca, the PJD was targeted by the security apparatuses as one of the movements that contributed to the spread of a culture of religious intolerance. As stated by Marvine Howe,

The debate over the PJD has intensified in recent months as the party has adopted a more assertive attitude. The Islamists lowered their profile after the 2003 Casablanca attacks, which led to a torrent of criticism that the PJD was contributing to a climate of intolerance. The attacks also provoked a new law banning political parties based on religion, leading the PJD to emphasize that it was no more than a party with “Islamic references.”

We should wait until the legislative elections to see the outcome of governmental manœuvres to contain the propaganda machine of the PJD. Because the PJD is viewed as a moderate political party by the United States and the European Union, it benefits from the support of the international community and from a growing number of Moroccan sympathizers. In this perspective, the PJD has succeeded in promoting an ideology that condemns political violence and recognizes the centrality of the structure of monarchy. Moreover, members of the PJD embrace social initiatives that have a strong impact on voters. Its charitable associations are very involved in social work in the whole country.

According to Roula Khalaf, earlier in 2006 polls showed that 47 per cent of the electorate embraced the party’s ideology. The PJD’s rise illustrates the trend across the Arab world where Islamist movements enjoy popularity because of their dedication to social justice coupled with a staunch opposition to American imperialism and a sustained criticism of failed social policies and initiatives of the coalition government in place. It is clear to Islamic scholars that the PJD defines itself as a political party that values communications, dialogue and negotiations and condemns any resort to violence as a means to political, social and economic gains.

In this perspective, PJD leaders’ resort to an ideology of proximity is associated with the party’s harsh criticism of the government’s failure to provide jobs and security to a growing number of Moroccans. Lahcen Daoudi, one of the top leaders of the movement, an economist by training and a significant political capital for the PJD, argues that the government is not performing and that Moroccans are looking for a political alternative. They are seeking a way out that is undoubtedly associated with the party’s reformist agenda and with a redefinition of the government’s priorities and previous initiatives. As an opposition party, the PJD criticizes the amnesia of a coalition government unable to implement economic structural changes.

Despite its popular appeal, however, the PJD remains a very controversial political party. The two main secular parties, the leftist Socialist Union of Popular Forces and the nationalist Istiqlal (Independence) argue that the moderate tone of the PJD is only a strategic move to win the upcoming legislative elections. They view the PJD’s political philosophy as anchored in a radical ideological framework. If the movement succeeds in building bridges beyond the national borders, it is still subject to criticism in a culture of Islamophobia.

Government officials as well as secular rivals accuse the party of embracing a radical ideology while presenting itself to the world with a moderate face. For example, Nabil Benabdallah, the minister of communication and a government spokesman, believes that the PJD’s ideology undermines the vision of modernity promoted by the king, including a 2004 Family Code that strengthens women’s rights. The party’s reactions to Marock, a controversial movie made by a young Moroccan woman film maker, are also revealing of the PJD’s deceptive position to issues of women’s anticipation, fasting, inter-ethnic/religious relationships, etc.

As a moderate state, Morocco has emerged as one of the most trusted Arab countries for the United States. Its new political culture has allowed it to occupy a leading position among the Arab nations that are in the process of modernizing their political institutions. However, this political opening is urging the palace and the government to redefine their political rhetoric and priorities. After attempts to implement a fully democratic electoral culture, the government is very aware that the radical Islamic movements might capitalize on this opening and be the first political parties to benefit from it. In this respect, new strategies and alliances have been taking place to contain the popularity of PJD and to minimize its political impact during the upcoming legislative elections. On the other hand, the leaders of the party multiply their social appearances and activities nationally and internationally to promote their political agenda. Othmani’s previous visits to the United States, Spain, and other European countries were the product of this strategy.

Leaders of the PJD are very aware of their political role in a country in the process of redefining itself. Since his ascension to the throne, King Mohammed VI has been striving to develop a strategic vision that will enhance Moroccan economic development to encounter the challenges of the 21st century. With the increase of youth unemployment, illegal immigration and drug trafficking, the PJD movement takes advantage of this historical situation to anchor its oppositional rhetoric within the framework of a country incapable of transcending its imminent contradictions. As a result, the party is well positioned to acquire the confidence of the voters.

PJD’s prospects for the future

According to national and international political observers, the PJD enjoys a very promising position in the Moroccan political landscape. Since the 2002 elections, the Islamist party continues to attract individuals from different strata of the Moroccan society. Its Islamic ideological referential is engrained within the context of a society striving to reconcile between tradition and modernity. The PJD leadership is very conscious of this fundamental polarity in Moroccan politics and culture. Since its inception as a political party, the PJD has been using a reconciliatory political rhetoric. The party tries to stay in tune with the modernizing strategies of the palace and to participate in the promotion of the ideals of an open and democratic state. Many political analysts are skeptical about the party’s ability to reconcile between these two drastic political agendas, arguing that even though PJD leaders embrace an “open” interpretation of Islam, their political success in the June 2007 elections may pave the way for more radical Islamist movements in Morocco. Some observers believe that their electoral success will certainly benefit Al Adl Wa-Al Ihsan (Justice and Charity), the most controversial Moroccan Islamist party.

However, some prominent PJD leaders urge the secularist critics to avoid deepening the polarization in society. For example, Dr. Daoudi argues that the PJD is a barrier against radicalization and weakening it will only benefit radical movements. According to Marvine Howe, this moderate Islamist party can be seen as a “buffer against al-Qaeda-inspired groups that have sought to mobilize impoverished Moroccans” such as those who were involved in the 2003 Casablanca bombings. From this perspective, one could argue that the PJD can be used by the Moroccan government and by the United States as a barrier to the development of radical violent Islamic movements that would challenge the monarchy. The US sees in this political party a promising departure from movements with an anti-imperialist and an anti-western stance. With an awareness of the evolution of fundamentalist groups around the Arab world as a result of their involvement in Iraq and Palestine, the United States is capitalizing on political parties that embrace moderation, tolerance and openness toward the West. As mentioned earlier, PJD has already taken many steps in this direction. Al Othmani’s trips to the US and Europe testify to the tendency of the party to articulate its tribulations within a moderate alternative.

As a moderate party, the PJD appeals to a variety of voters from different social and economic classes. The party’s benevolent associations are visible in the poorest areas of the big cities, such as Casablanca, Rabat, and Marrakech. The proximity strategies that the PJD has celebrated since its inception as a political organization are beneficial for a positive reputation of the party. The PJD’s good sense of organization and management is well respected by its opponents and its one of its major strengths.

PJD and the National Politics

The PJD currently has 42 out of 325 seats in the Chamber of Representatives won in most of the districts where it was allowed to compete during the legislative elections of 2002. Besides, the party participates in the government of about 60 municipalities, including Casablanca and Rabat and controls 14 municipal and village councils, including the city of Meknes. On the national level, the PJD representatives attempt to improve public services, redefine priorities for public spending, fight corruption, and reach out to the public. As reflected in the party’s title, the PJD’s motto is social justice and economic development; two major areas that need improvement in a country with a high level of illiteracy and unemployment. The organization’s electoral program has five pillars: authenticity, sovereignty, democracy, justice and development.

Authenticity: the concept of authenticity means the revival of an Arabo-Islamic tradition. Morocco, according to the leaders of the party, is sliding toward all forms of corruption; prostitution, drugs, etc. that destroy the fabric of an Islamic society. In order for the country to meet the challenges of the 21st century, it needs to embrace an ideology of reconciliation with its historical past.

Sovereignty: Like other political parties in Morocco, sovereignty is a sacred concept that needs to be integrated in the program of any party that promotes integration and nationalism. The PJD like other major national parties recognizes the “Moroccanness” of the Western Sahara. It also promotes the integration of all the northern enclaves (Ceuta and Mellilia) to the motherland.

Democracy: Morocco is going through a period of democratization of various institutions, including the creation of a number of organisms that promote human rights. The King’s controversial revision of women’s status is articulated within this perspective. The PJD encourages these initiatives, except the redefinition of women’s status, and proposes to continue in this direction in order to build a new Morocco attractive to foreign investment and tourism.

Justice: With the empowerment of the position of the prime minister, the PJD hopes that the minister of justice will be nominated by the prime minister instead of the king. The justice ministry is one of the sovereignty ministries under the Palace’s control. If the PJD wins in the upcoming legislative elections of June 2007, and in the case that the king appoints the leader of the party as the prime minister, the question of the reinvention of a new Justice department may well be raised. The revision of the constitution is one of the most important components of the party’s political agenda.

Since becoming king, Mohammed VI took many initiatives to modernize Morocco. His development strategies encompass a variety of economic sectors. The king’s strategic involvement in these endeavors is aimed at developing the country as well as at inhibiting the rise to power of oppositional parties, especially the PJD. In this respect, the PJD will need a strong economic package to offer to voters before elections day.


The American war on terror has certainly created a tense political environment in contemporary Morocco. Due to this ideology of war, the Moroccan government has felt the obligation to redefine its relationships to the main Islamic political movements and especially the Party of Justice and Development. However, the leaders of this party continue to promote their political agenda by offering a moderate interpretation of their political platform. In the aftermath of the 2003 Casablanca bombings, the government has engaged in its own war against Islamic extremism. The idea of integrating the PJD into the government, in the event that they win in the upcoming legislative elections, has provoked deep concern in the palace and beyond.

Currently, Mohammed VI is at a historical watershed, faced with two options. His first option is to integrate into his political agenda the growing voices of change by pushing for more economic, social and democratic reforms. His second option is to continue enjoying executive power by maintaining the politics of the status quo. If the king opts for the second strategy, the PJD will have a strong chance of gaining a majority in the upcoming parliamentary elections by appealing to the disenchanted segments of the Moroccan population.

About the Author

Mohammed Hirchi teaches Arabic and French language & literature at Colorado State University. He is the author of a number of articles on postcolonial francophone literature. Currently, he is working on a manuscript on Arabophone and Francophone Moroccan women writers.


Mohammed Tozy. (1999). Monarchie et islam politique au Maroc. Paris: Presses de Science Po, Collection Références.

Marvine Howe. (2005) Morocco: The Islamist Awakening and Other Challenges. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Roula Khalaf. “Morocco sees the rise of ‘acceptable’ Islamist party,” http://www.

2 Comments to “Political Islam in Morocco: The Case of the Party of Justice and Development (PJD)”
Policy-Making on Religious Matters • Talk Morocco: November 15th, 2010 at 12:40 am

[…] the Interior Office, no “partisan” politician can be in charge of it? (I refer to the standard distinction given to so-called ministries of sovereignty, that no political party can pretend to get as a portfolio [and are reserved for the monarch's […]

Religious Policy: Revamping the Habous « The Moorish Wanderer: November 15th, 2010 at 8:32 pm

[…] the interior office, no “partisan” politician can be in charge of it? (I refer to the classic dividing line of sovereignty ministries that no political party can pretend to get as a portfolio). My advice is […]

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