The headquarters of the Islamist party that heads Morocco's newly elected government is in a quiet Rabat neighborhood. The building, a repurposed residence, would be indistinguishable from the other houses on the narrow, leafy street if it weren't for the noisy demonstrations in front of its gates. When I visit the Justice and Development Party on a recent weekday, two groups of unemployed Moroccans have taken up positions on opposite sides of the street. They hold up banners demanding government jobs and chant singsong slogans about their right to work.
The loudest voice belongs to Khadija el-Hachimi, a cheerful woman in a headscarf, who leads the group representing the jobless aged 40 or more. She tells me many in her group voted for the PJD (the Islamist party's French acronym), but that didn't stop them from picketing the HQ. "We have to keep pressure on them, or they will turn into fat thieves, like the other politicians," she says. "We have to [remind] them about why we elected them."
The group across the street is made up of people from small towns and villages. Many are waving documents bearing the seal of Mohammed VI, Morocco's supreme ruler, who bowed to street protests and allowed the free elections late last year. The documents are letters from the King to various government departments, encouraging them to find the bearer a job. For years, the monarch has given these, with as little thought as a movie star handing out signed photographs, to subjects he encounters on visits across his kingdom. Now the people on the street are demanding that the PJD honor the royal promissory notes. "The King said they should be given jobs," el-Hachimi says. "The government has to obey."
As we talk, I'm conscious that we're being watched very closely by a vanload of policemen armed with truncheons. Later in the day, a large force of cops is called in to head off a protest march by several hundred young unemployed who are plainly much angrier than el-Hachimi's group.
It was not so long ago that the PJD cadres were the ones protesting government corruption and ineptitude and at the receiving end of the truncheons. Now in power, they're the ones under pressure to deliver quick results. "People want all their problems solved, right now," sighs Lahcen Daoudi, the new Minister of Higher Education and one of the PJD's senior leaders. "They have waited for a very long time, so the challenge for us is to get them to be a little patient." Having formed the government in January, the party has barely had time to pursue its modest election promise to bring down unemployment from 9.1% to 8% by 2016, but Moroccans seem in no mood to wait.
The PJD's predicament is familiar to the Islamist parties that suddenly find themselves in power across the Middle East and North Africa. But the Islamists have not had much time to bask in their triumph, or indeed use their power to pursue any radical agendas. Make no mistake: it's springtime for political Islam. Arabs liberated from old secular dictatorships have voted into power political parties that espouse a conservative worldview deeply informed by their faith. In Tunisia, the Ennahda party won a plurality in the late-October elections to the constituent assembly. Egypt's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, won 235 of 508 seats in parliament in elections held from November to January. A coalition led by the PJD easily trounced secular and leftist parties in Morocco. Islamists parties in Yemen and Libya are expected to do well when those countries eventually hold elections.
This is all very alarming, not only for liberal-minded Arabs who worry their new rulers may take away some cherished freedoms, but also for Westerners long used to the image of Islamists as wild-eyed, bushy-bearded reactionaries who hate modernity and embrace violent ideologies, like that of al-Qaeda. The prospect of Islamists ruling large swaths of the Arab world can seem frightening if you believe they are "a mortal enemy of our civilization," as Newt Gingrich described the Muslim Brotherhood.
But such fearmongering has proved to be misplaced. Since the collapse of dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, Islamist parties have shown themselves to be conciliatory toward skeptics, at home and abroad. They won votes not by appealing to faith but by building political alliances with nonreligious groups and embracing secular causes like fighting corruption and reforming the economy. Their hopes of succeeding in government as they did in elections may rest on their ability to steer clear of radical agendas.
If political expediency is pulling Islamists away from the extremist fringe, then the exigencies of governing are pushing them to the political center. They find themselves having to cater and answer to a much wider, more unpredictable constituency than their traditional base. Deepening economic crises and worsening unemployment mean there's little time to dwell on potentially divisive religious and social issues. The urgent need for foreign investment doesn't allow for the holding of grudges against Western countries that long backed their oppressors. And always, there's the fear that failure to meet their people's expectations can lead to the same explosion of street anger that blew away the old dictatorships and brought the Islamists to power.