On a January night 20 years ago this month, tanks were rolling down the Avenue de A.L.N in Oran. At first I was simply concerned that they would knock down our venerable building by mistake when one of them stopped to make a U-turn in front of the American Consulate, where we lived.
Then I realized what was happening. Democracy was in the process of suffering a severe U-turn in Algeria, and the consequences of the January 1992 overturning of the Islamist FIS-won parliamentary election would be far-reaching and violent. The Algerian army's move led to a lost decade through the rest of the '90s, and endemic insecurity in some areas means that Algeria is still on many countries' travel advisory lists.
How ironic, then, exactly two decades later, that the Moroccan Islamist PJD Minister of Foreign Affairs, Saad Eddine Othmani, has just accomplished his first trip abroad since his party won the parliamentary elections of November 2011 and parliament approved the formation of the PJD-led government this week. His trip was to Algeria - the first for a Moroccan foreign minister since 2003.
Back in Oran, I remember an FLN loyalist opining in the early Nineties, "the Moroccans have yet to have their revolution." As a proud Algerian nationalist, he obviously felt that things were just fine in his country, thank you, and that Morocco was changeless. This was before the Islamist electoral victories of June 1990 and December 1991 challenged his complacency.
Okay, so now change has happened, peacefully, in Morocco. Morocco in 2012 has done what Algeria refused to do in 1992: accept the results of elections which gave victory to an Islamist party.
That said, some observers still reserve judgement on the Moroccan dalliance with political Islam. The country's population pressures and high unemployment make for a volatile mixture in a region where sparks fly. And yet, the contrast with Algeria, faced with an elected Islamist majority in January 1992, is striking: in Morocco, no one appears to fear an Army backlash, or voices the concern heard in Algeria twenty years ago. Those concerns? That the FIS would be a "one man, one vote, one time" party. The FIS never got a chance to disprove that supposition.
Moroccan Minister of Communication, government spokesman, and PJD political bureau member Mustapha El Khalfi spoke January 27 at the Tangier HEM - Haute Ecole de Management - "Université Citoyenne," HEM's series of lectures on a variety of hot topics. El Khalfi, who spent 8 months as a Congressional intern in Washington and was at Johns Hopkins SAIS (he also attended, in his previous role as a jounalist, TALIM's 2010 April Seminar), was to talk about democracy and political Islam. He did, but in reassuring terms, preferring to talk about "democratic Islam."
In his view, the difference between Algeria in 1992 and Morocco in 2012 is that two decades ago, the Islamists in Algeria threatened the existing order, and presented themselves as a radical alternative. Certain sectors of Algerian society - especially the military - felt threatened. Whereas the PJD is a businesslike player, as well as being part of a wave of moderate Islamist parties in the mold of Turkey's ruling AKP.
Some Moroccan news outlets have created unrealistic deadlines for the Benkirane government, demanding tangible success within the usual 100-day grace period or political honeymoon. After Algeria's FIS won local and regional elections in June 1990, their subsequent 18-month record of municipal governance was the subject of criticism by those looking for them to fail - but Algerians again gave the FIS their vote in December 1991. Until the Army stepped in, cancelling the second round.
100 days, 18 months... Morocco's many challenges will take years of concerted effort at the national, regional, and local levels, and in a variety of key sectors: health, education, environment, employment, to name a few. At least the current consensus is that Morocco's first freely-elected government is a "player." Businesslike is a good point of departure.