Rabat, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Islamic Justice and Development Party (PJD) broke new ground in Morocco three years ago when it became the first Islamist party to form a government. In a year of revolution across the Arab world, the PJD won the majority of seats in Morocco’s parliamentary elections in November 2011. According to a new law written into the country’s constitution, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI had to choose a prime minister from the winning party: he chose Abdelilah Benkirane.
Benkirane, a former school teacher, was catapulted into the unenviable job of fixing Morocco’s multiple economic woes. The country suffers from soaring unemployment and a rising cost of living. A fifth of Morocco’s 6.3-million-strong population live either in poverty or just above the poverty line, according to the World Bank.
Since then, the government has been working to push through key economic reforms including subsidy cuts and a shake-up of the pensions system. Progress stalled when coalition partner, the Istiqlal Party, resigned from government in July 2013 over the reforms.
Benkirane spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about getting the reform package back on track with new center-right partners, the National Rally of Independents, and how he reconciles his religious faith with his political career.
Asharq Al-Awsat: It has been a year since you formed your second government, following the withdrawal of the Istiqlal Party. What are the lessons learned so far from the current government compared to the previous one?
Abdelilah Benkirane: This year has been less tense than the first and second years. A new majority has been formed in the current government with the participation of the National Rally of Independents after the Istiqlal Party withdrew and points of understanding, regarding not only the majority but also the government, have been established.
The government, even in the past, was fairly harmonious and the new ministers worked well with each other, in unison. But in terms of the majority there was a problem in terms of who would assume leadership after the secretary-general of the National Rally of Independents was changed. Now, praise be to God, the leadership of the majority functions positively and harmoniously, which reflects on the quality of the government’s performance.
Q: Some believe that over the past three years you have set the Islamist ideology that characterizes your party aside, acting as a liberal technocrat with the aim of reducing the budget deficit and introducing economic reforms . . .
When I was appointed as prime minister by His Majesty King Mohammed VI of Morocco, I felt that I was an official responsible for running the public affairs of all Moroccans rather than a prophet with a special message. I am just a state official; I may be right and I might make mistakes while addressing people’s problems.
I found myself adrift on a ship, threatened by the reality of [the problem of falling] living conditions, particularly the compensation fund [which subsidizes fuel and other essential goods], which cost the government a quarter of its income in 2012 [57 billion Moroccan dirhams, or 6.5 billion US dollars]. I found myself facing a growing crisis in the water and electricity sectors, whether in terms of providing residents with drinking water or power, or the need for electricity in economic activity and public utilities. I also came face-to-face with the issue of pension funds, with officials warning me that unless we reform the funds, the future of pensions in Morocco will not only be under threat but will be finished altogether.
As for [Islamist] ideology, I am a prime minister elected by Moroccans to help solve their problems not to interfere in their religious beliefs and freedoms. I have not come to change people’s religious beliefs but rather to solve their problems. Being religious or not is a personal matter and religious affairs are organized by the Commander of the Faithful, His Majesty. Being religious will benefit you in terms of becoming honest. I am not an Islamist but just a Muslim, and like all Muslims [am] trying to be as straightforward as possible. I cannot claim that I have always succeeded in that.
Q: Your government responded firmly to the decision of labor unions to organize a general strike on October 29 to protest against changes to the pension system. Will there be further negotiations with these unions or have talks reached a dead end?
No, not a dead end. In fact, not all unions are the same. Some unions with political agendas and links to certain parties tried to organize a general strike but have failed. These unions are well-known and one of them is monitored by the secretary-general of the Istiqlal Party. Other unions, with whom we have reasonable ties, also called for the strike. But we criticize them for calling for an unjustifiable strike because the pension reform proposal is not final and we are still waiting for the advice of the Economic, Social and Environmental council. Once we do, we will offer to discuss the proposal with these unions in order to lay out the final formula to reach an understanding. Calling for the strike now before the final draft law is brought before the government is neither justifiable nor understandable.
Q: Some voices from within your party have begun to question the integrity of the elections, which is a strange thing given your party is the ruling party. How do you view the King’s role in safeguarding the legitimacy of the forthcoming elections?
First, I have to say that ever since His Majesty the King assumed power, no political party has appealed against the results of any elections. There were some appeals and complaints filed in courts by some officials in different elections.
According to official statements from its leaders, the Islamic Justice and Development Party (PJD) did not question the elections.
As the ruler, His Majesty the King issued a directive stipulating that the elections are the government’s responsibility. Therefore, it is natural that the elections be mainly supervised by the prime minister.
Q: How did you receive the King’s decision that you oversee the elections?
I must thank His Majesty the King. In terms of democracy, the decision strengthens the status of the prime minister, now and in the future, and that of the government as a responsible, constitutional institution.
Q: The Unity and Reform Movement (the religious wing of the PJD) has elected a new leader, Abdul Rahim Al-Sheikhi who is known for his moderation. Does this mean a breaking with the past, and the dominance of religious scholars?
Extremism is not linked to scholars. But it emerges when incorrect jurisprudence is dominant. Choosing Abdul Rahim Al-Sheikhi is a sign that the movement realizes the need for a moderate and balanced figure who is capable of managing the present situation.
Q: Morocco has not experience as much unrest as other Arab states have recently. What is the reason for this?
When the winds of the Arab Spring came, Morocco was affected and people went out in their hundreds and even thousands [to protest] in some cities. But they did not go as far as people did in other countries, namely demanding the fall of the government. It was within this context that our role emerged. We called for reform in response to the demands of the street, but also for the preservation of stability of the country and government, which is for [all] Moroccans and is not just a political regime. Moroccans have the feeling that the monarchy is a guarantee for them.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.