The MENA and Southeast Asia regions have undergone and continue to undergo massive political transitions.  Differences in the process and outcomes of their transitions can be viewed through the lens of a “civil society infrastructure” and the qualitative differences in both these regions. This essay series engages a variety of issues regarding the roles and impact of civil society organizations (CSOs) in these two regions during the transition and pre-transition periods as well as in instances where the political transition is completed. Read more ...

If you do not know what a tamaniyatoun is, then you were not in Morocco this past spring. Two events explain why tamaniyatoun became part of the Moroccan vocabulary and a trending item of debate on Facebook and Twitter: the presentation at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival of the Moroccan movie Much Loved, which deals with the flourishing prostitution market in Marrakesh; and Jennifer Lopez’s concert at the Mawazine Festival, a festival under the patronage of the king. Both Loubna Abidar, the lead actress of Much Loved, and Jennifer Lopez designed imaginary eights with their backsides by shaking them,[1] albeit before very different audiences. While Loubna Abidar’s tamaniyatoun could be watched only by searching for excerpts online as the film was banned by the government, JLo’s performance took place in front of a live audience of more than 160,000 and was broadcast on the Moroccan channel 2M. The debate that followed was centered on expressions such as “moral values,” “the dignity of Moroccan women,” and “the image of Morocco,” on the one hand, and freedom of expression, individual liberties, and women’s rights, on the other.

Though the furor over these two events appears merely to illustrate the far-reaching debate in Moroccan society over social mores and values, it is indicative of political dynamics at work. When a moral controversy arises in Morocco, the two main actors of the official political stage carefully play their specific role. On one side, the Party of Justice and Development (PJD), the party that leads the Moroccan government and as such is accountable to the electorate, reliably endorses the Moroccan majority’s socially conservative attitudes in order to fulfill its electoral mandate. On the other side, the king fully exploits his wider room for maneuver by adopting, according to circumstances, either a progressive stance or a conservative one. While the rhythm of moral controversies sets the tempo of the official political game and shows that Moroccan society is still very much conservative, the largest Islamist opposition group, the Justice and Charity Association, seeks to escape its marginalization within the civil society sphere.  

It has become clear that the big loser in the tamaniyatoun debate, at least according to the modernist minority, is the PJD. Never mind that the broadcast of JLo’s concert did not fall within the government’s purview,[2] the PJD-led government was accused of adopting a double standard by banning the movie while allowing the concert to be aired.[3] In order not to be perceived as complacent, the PJD requested an investigation into the channel’s management. When the PJD’s request was rejected by the media regulator, it seemed that the PJD’s main achievement was to be accused of being a spearhead of conservatism.[4]

The significance of the PJD’s endorsement of socially conservative attitudes must be understood within the context of other issues within the kingdom, namely the king’s decision to initiate a public discussion regarding the possible loosening of the country’s abortion law. Indeed, despite the fact that the debate about abortion finds its roots in Dr. Chafik Chraïbi’s work[5] and that the minister of health had previously launched a national debate on this issue,[6] the king’s move was perceived as the decisive boost. As was the case during the reform of the family code in 2003, the king took up a women’s rights issue and in doing so was perceived as the most progressive political actor in Morocco.[7]

Whereas initially the cleavage between progressive and conservative Moroccans was limited largely to the political sphere, efforts to redefine the moral codes of the public sphere soon spread to society at large. In mid-June 2015, in the city of Inazgane, two women were arrested and charged by the police with gross indecency after they were assaulted by merchants who considered their clothes immoral.[8] A few days later, only the intervention of the police saved a transgender woman from being lynched by a crowd in Fez.[9] Both cases ended with the authorities pursuing the aggressors. Furthermore, the head of the government made clear that the state would not tolerate any citizen’s law enforcement.[10] The Inazgane affair in particular sparked a national debate that reached a peak when demonstrations were held in Casablanca, Rabat, and Agadir. People attending the rallies were concerned about what they perceive as growing conservatism in Moroccan society. Once more, the definition of individual liberties, particularly those related to women and sexuality at large, define the boundaries of two Moroccan societies. Morocco seems nowadays as divided as during the debate concerning the reform of the family code, with the majority of progressive Moroccans counting on the progressive role of the monarchy to protect them.[11]

Cross-Ideological Cooperation and the Justice and Charity Association

Only a few years ago the national debate in Morocco focused on different kinds of rights. In 2011, following the events in Tunisia and Egypt, Moroccans gathered all over the country to support the call made by a group of young people to reform the political system by focusing on issues such as employment, education, health, and the fight against corruption. This collective action, labeled the 20th February Movement, was a coalition movement. Along with young people mainly of libertarian tendencies, the movement was made up of groups such as the Islamists of the Justice and Charity Association.[12]

The movement’s ideological diversity represented its main weakness, insofar as the progressive side feared that a structured and powerful group such as Justice and Charity would take advantage of the protest wave in order to implement its conservative agenda. The argument that the protest wave’s outcome could be a conservative one was also used by the regime in order to hinder collective action. However, the 20th February Movement’s decision to focus on social and economic issues allowed it to create a provisional inclusive identity that could bypass the existing ideological divisions and thus demonstrate that cross-ideological cooperation was possible.[13] Nevertheless, the regime’s offer, made by the king on March 9, 2011, to reform the constitution and hold new elections appealed to the majority of political and civil society actors. In the end, the regime’s reformist attitude, albeit limited, and its surgical repression of dissent kept the 20th February Movement in check.[14]

Four years later, what is left of this unique experience of cross-ideological cooperation? While Salafis in Morocco have been increasingly included in the official political sphere,[15] the Justice and Charity Association has been marginalized by political parties and the leftist opposition, as well as repressed by the regime.[16] With some rare exceptions,[17] Moroccan political parties do not envision cooperation with the Association, in spite of the fact that it represents Morocco’s largest Islamist opposition group, and one that is willing to cooperate politically.

Indeed, despite its refusal to integrate into the official political sphere under the conditions posed by the regime, the Justice and Charity Association has shown interest in working with political parties. Since 2006 the Association has called for the need to join forces with parties in order to write a national charter that includes a series of shared basic principles.[18] And even though the Association withdrew from the 20th February Movement, its deputy secretary general, Fathallah Arsalane, later declared that the Association’s participation in the Movement had been crucial as it allowed it to test its ability to cooperate and to compromise with other political tendencies.[19]

During the past year, the Justice and Charity Association has sought new forms of cooperation with civil society actors. Three steps on this new path are evident. First, on July 11, 2014, the Association invited progressive actors belonging both to the political sphere and to that of civil society to join them after the ftour[20] for an informal debate during which issues such as liberties, forms of government, and new strategies for fostering convergence between Islamists and the leftist opposition were discussed. Second, on the second anniversary of the death of Abdessalam Yassine, the founder of the Association, various leftist activists and intellectuals were invited to join a workshop dealing with the evolution of Yassine’s theories.[21] Finally, influential members of the Association signed the “call for a national debate about hindered development”[22] and participated in the subsequent activities organized by the progressive civil society group behind the initiative.[23]


It can be argued that the cooperation between the Justice and Charity Association and progressive civil society actors has borne no fruit. At the time of writing, the group at the origin of the aforementioned call for a national debate has not produced any shared document. However, it is worth noting that this cross-ideological cooperation is still taking place and is doing so within the civil society sphere. Contrary to an official political sphere that seems able to include only the most radical expression of political Islam, such as the Salafis, Moroccan civil society appears to constitute the only space of expression for the country’s largest Islamist opposition group.

Issues related to social mores have become important focal points in the struggle between contending political forces in Morocco. While the two most powerful forces on the political stage—the PJD and the king—play their respective parts in their responses to such controversies as the tamaniyatoun debate, the marginalized Association has adapted by turning to civil society, exploring opportunities to forge cross-ideological alliances.    

Such cooperation is taking place in a political context shaped by the regime’s attempt to hinder any meaningful convergence between different Moroccan political sensibilities. Indeed, the opposition’s inability to overcome ideological rifts is indispensable to the regime, as it supports the regime’s authoritarian guardianship over Moroccan citizens.

[1] Tamaniyatoun comes from the word tamaniya, eight in (Moroccan) Arabic.

[2] “HACA Refuses Benkirane’s Request to Take Action against 2M TV’s Jennifer Lopez Concert,” Morocco World News, July 7, 2015,

[3] “Allowing Jennifer Lopez, Censoring Much Loved: ‘Striking Hypocrisy,’” Morocco World News, May 31, 2015,; and “Jennifer Lopez and the Double Standards of Morocco’s Islamists,” Al Araby, June 2, 2015,

[4] “PAM Party Denounces PJD’s Attempts to Encircle Art and Creativity in Morocco,” Morocco World News, June 6, 2015,; and “Jennifer Lopez Concert: Morocco TV Escapes Censure,” BBC, July 8, 2015,

[5] Zenab Achraf, “Chafik Chaïbi is Leading the Charge for Safe, Legal Abortion in Morocco,” Huffington Post Maghreb, May 15, 2015,

[6] Soraya El Kahlaoui, “Maroc: debat brulant sur l’avortement en attendant l’arbitrage du roi,” Le Monde Afrique, March 17, 2015,

[7] “King Mohammed VI Calls Government Draft Law Abortion,” Morocco World News, March 16, 2015,; “Abortion in Morocco: Will the King Approve a Progressive Law?” The Guardian, May 15, 2015,; and “King Orders Morocco’s Abortion Laws to Be Loosened,” The National, May 16, 2015,

[8] Ashifa Kassam, “Moroccan Women Cleared of Gross Indecency for Wearing ‘Too Tight’ Skirts,” The Guardian, July 13, 2015,  

[9] “Trans Woman Brutally Attacked by Mob in Morocco,” Gay Star News, July 1, 2015,  

[10] “Head of Government Reacts to Controversy over Gay Man Assaulted in Fez,” Morocco World News, July 3, 2015,  

[11] F. Cavatorta and E. Dalmasso, “Liberal Outcomes through Undemocratic Means: The Reform of the Code de Statut Personnel in Morocco,” The Journal of Modern African Studies, 47, 4 (2009): 487-506.

[12] T. Desrues, “Mobilizations in a Hybrid Regime: The 20th February Movement and the Moroccan Regime,” Current Sociology 61, 4 (2013): 409-423.

[13] Desrues, “Mobilizations in a Hybrid Regime.”

[14] This surgical repression is ongoing. See Maâti Monjib, “Setups and Slander against Morocco’s Dissidents: Sex, Drugs, Money, and Videos,” Jadaliyya, April 14, 2015,

[15] Vish Sakthivel, “Are Morocco’s Political Salafists Committed to Peace?” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, August 12, 2013, and Imad Stitou, “How Morocco Plans to Contain Its Salafists,” Al-Monitor, June 18, 2015,

[16] Mohammed Masbah, “The Ongoing Marginalization of Morocco’s Largest Islamist Opposition Group,” The Carnegie Middle East Center, June 3, 2015,

[17] The Democratic Path Party’s stance regarding the need to rise above the division between modernists and conservative forces to create a common front to effectively counter the regime stands as an exception, yet it has been widely criticized. See Chawqui Lotfi, “Morocco’s Justice and Charity Party and the Left,” Jadaliyya, April 4, 2013, . Mohamed Sassi, a leading member of the Unified Socialist Party, also stands as an exception. He stated that without the participation of the Justice and Charity Association a meaningful transition to democracy would not be possible. See
“La Gauche vs Al Adl wal Ihsanne: Pour ou Contre le Califat?” Zamane, October 10, 2014,

[18] M. Madani, Le paysage politique marocain (Rabat: Al Kalam, 2006).

[19] Interview with Emanuela Dalmasso, Rabat, March 6, 2012. Arsalane also stressed the limitations of the 20th February Movement insofar as it was forced to focus mainly on practical issues, such as the management of demonstrations, and that it was boycotted by the majority of Moroccan political parties.

[20] The meal served to break the fast during Ramadan.

[21] Abdelwahed El Moutawakkil, head of the Justice and Charity Political Circle, introduced the workshop. For more about Yassine’s theory and Justice and Charity’s theoretical developments, see El Moutawakkil’s Ph.D. thesis, “Al-Adl wal-Ihsan: An Explanation of its Rise and its Strategy for Social and Political Reform in Morocco,”

[22] This initiative must be understood as an answer to the king’s speech delivered on the fifteenth anniversary of his accession to the throne. The king, for instance, asked: “Having perused the figures and statistics contained in the said studies, and which highlight the development of wealth in Morocco, I wonder, as do all Moroccans: Where is this wealth? Has it benefited all Moroccans or only some segments of society?”

[23] The text of the call and the list of signers are available at  For an overview of the group’s activities, see

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