Editor’s Note: Dr. Ahmed Herzenni is a Moroccan political activist and human rights advocate who spent 12 years in prison for promoting democratic reforms, but was chosen as one of the 19 dissidents appointed by King Mohammed VI to a Citizens Committee to draft a new constitution last Spring. Dr. Herzenni is a frequent commentator on governmental reform and most recently spoke at the Brookings Institute in Washington and the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. He lives in Casablanca. The views expressed in this article are his alone.
By Ahmed Herzenni – Special to CNN
As the world watched voters go to the polls in Egypt this week, many observers overlooked the historic elections which occurred in Morocco last Friday. The moderate Islamist PJD (Justice and Development Party) won an overwhelming victory with Abdelilah Benkirane, PJD party leader, becoming the country's new prime minister.
Campaigning on a platform of creating at least 250,000 new jobs in Morocco's hard-pressed economy and reforming the country's education process so that graduates will have better opportunities for employment, the PJD victory comes on the heels of significant political reforms initiated in Morocco, in which King Mohammed VI has ceded the role and responsibility of head of the government to the prime minister.
While the King retains control of the military and diplomatic affairs, and, as Commander of the Faithful, remains the country's undisputed religious leader, the Prime Minister must now be selected from the most popular party, and can then go on to nominate his or her own cabinet members.
What is perhaps most remarkable about Morocco's recent steps toward democratization is that they occurred without the incredible turbulence and turmoil seen in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria. Instead, the environment has, on the whole, tolerated dissent and protest, and still achieved a strong turnout of 45% of the electorate, up from 37% in 2007.
Despite threats of a major boycott of the election by the youthful February 20 movement, voters in Morocco's rural areas as well as in major cities turned their backs on the status quo, giving the well-organized moderate opposition party a significant victory, with
over 100 out of 395 parliamentary seats.
With Islamist party electoral victories at the polls in Morocco, Tunisia, and likely soon Egypt, there are many questions as to what they will mean for the next phase of the Arab spring. In Morocco, the PJD has historically been a very middle-of-the-road Islamist party.
Although it doesn't have a requisite majority of the seats, a majority rule will be achieved through a coalition with splinter moderate and secular parties. Such a coalition is possible because the PJD's political platform has been focused not on religious issues, but on a progressive commitment to improving Morocco's economy and finding work for the estimated nine million unemployed.
In addition, the PJD has explicitly made improving Morocco's relations with Europe and the United States a priority, as well as maintaining the country's strong ties with other Arab states. As one of the few countries in the region without the benefit of oil revenues, Morocco has successfully sought out partnerships and investment from the Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar, which only this week announced the closing of a $3 billion investment fund to strengthen Morocco's vital tourist industry, a major revenue source for Morocco.
At the end of the day, that Morocco joins Tunisia - and most likely Egypt soon as well - in handing governmental power to freely elected Islamist politicians is not something readily understood or appreciated by the West. To be fair, the outburst of democracy in the region has led to sweeping changes that have only just begun. And even for those living in these countries, it is unclear what the future holds.
Time is needed to see how the situation will fully play out for Morocco and the rest of the region. Undoubtedly, further democratic reforms will take place, and the political process will continue to grow and involve. But in the meantime, the elections this month may provide a model for other countries in transition and a beacon of hope throughout North Africa and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Ahmed Herzenni.