Why Morocco's Unification and Reform Movement is unique in the region

Mohammed El Hamdaoui likens the Islamic Unification and Reform Movement (URM) in Morocco, of which he is the President, to a football team. "If you look at the structure of a football team there is a defence, and the defence is the movement. Then there is a midfield, which is the associations and the civil society. Then there is the attack in the front, which is the political party. The main striker, who plays the role of securing the goals, is the prime minister. So it's very natural that you hear more about the party, because they are in the forefront, and you will hear very little about the movement, which is the defence in the back."

It is believed that the variants of political Islam that exist across the region began with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, yet one of its shortcomings, when in power, was that it didn't make a clear distinction between its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Movement (FJP) and its social movement, the Brotherhood itself. Moroccans do things differently. El Hamdaoui stresses his movement's relationship with Morocco's leading Justice and Development Party (JDP) is "strategic" and "complimentary", yet "distinct."

The JDP is a political party, he says, whereas the URM functions more like an NGO with a focus on social and charitable projects. "We do not concern ourselves, participate in or involve ourselves with political affairs," he adds, smiling. "Many of the party's decisions we read in the newspapers; that's how we learn about them."

Sometimes the movement takes different stands to the party on certain issues. Scholars of the movement who preach in the mosque are prevented from being members of the party and the views of the party are not allowed to be propagated in the mosques. "The mosque is a place for everyone," says El Hamdaoui. "We don't want to create the atmosphere that one party is being favoured at the expense of another. We have a position on big issues but we do not intervene in the minute affairs of politics, opposition and government."

El Hamdaoui says there is no organisational link between the URM and the Muslim Brotherhood. "Morocco is one of the few, perhaps the only Arab country that does not have a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood," he says. "However we have benefitted from the experience of the Muslim Brotherhood."

He says they have also been influenced by the Jamaat-e-Islami party in Pakistan and the Islamic movement in Turkey; even the moderate Salafis. "So our experience is a Moroccan experience and it was built by Moroccans. We have no reservations in terms of benefitting from other experiences, but there has not been the replication of any other experience in Morocco. This is what distinguishes the Moroccan experience from the other Islamic movements in the east."

He points out that, historically, Islam in Morocco was sometimes referred to as "Islam of the West", meaning the growth or the development of Islam in Morocco, the experience of Islam in Morocco, was different from that of the central Arab lands. "Morocco did not come under the rule of the Ottomans who ruled Algeria, Tunis, Libya and Egypt, for some time. It had a different historical experience and this is why we see the way things have developed here. We are an integral part of the moderate approach to Islam."

Is that one of the reasons why the Moroccan movement has escaped the Arab Spring relatively unscathed, whereas groups in Egypt and Libya haven't?

"Certainly, yes," he confirms, "because we are speaking about the specific circumstances of Morocco; we have a monarchy and we have an Islamic movement. When the uprising started in Tunisia, Egypt and other places there was a social movement in Morocco which was referred to as the Movement of the 20 February. But we in the Islamic movement, we differed from the people who led this 20 of February movement because during that process it was proposed that the system should be overthrown. And we were, we are, against the overthrow of the monarchy."

He believes that Morocco's history shows that the monarchy guaranteed the unity of the country. "It is better to have differences within this system, between the different parties, rather than go into the unknown and challenge the system and try to overthrow it." The Islamic movement, he suggests, proposed a third way, which was change within stability. "They rejected corruption, they rejected tyranny, but the change, the process, must come within stability." Yet El Hamdaoui admits that this third way wasn't accepted by all members of the party; some of the young members took part in the 20 February protests.

Besides these measures taken during the Arab Spring, under El Hamdaoui the URM has established a number of networks and associations in civil society with regard to women, children and students. It has given its support for the arts and moved beyond the level of charitable work to supporting projects on a grassroots level. The movement is now a member of a Mediterranean and North African forum which promotes peaceful dialogue and combats extremism in Africa.

With these achievements behind him, in approximately one month there will be elections for a new leader of the movement and El Hamdaoui will stand down. He has served two five-year terms, the maximum for someone in his position. According to the current president, there is nothing in the laws of the movement that prevent a woman from becoming leader. In Casablanca, a woman led the movement for two years, though it has never happened on a national level. So perhaps his successor will be a woman? El Hamdaoui simply shrugs his shoulders and chuckles.

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor