- The Washington Times - Monday, September 10, 2007

RABAT, Morocco (AP) — This could have been the election that ousted Morocco”s secular ruling class from power, giving Islamists unprecedented power in a country where Muslim women in T-shirts sip wine on the streets alongside veiled women drinking tea.

Instead, fear of the unknown appeared to trump the anti-corruption, anti-establishment message of the Islamic-leaning Justice and Development Party, or PJD, in Friday”s election, handing victory to the secular party close to King Mohamed VI.

Morocco, where cities are widely tolerant of Western customs, has seen a rise in religious conservatism in recent years that has boosted the PJD”s support, especially among poor and middle-class families worried about widespread youth unemployment.

According to preliminary results, the Islamist party won 47 of the 325 seats in the lower house of Parliament in the vote, five more than it won in the previous election in 2002. It was well short, however, of the 80 seats that the party expected.

Defying predictions, the secular Istiqlal party of the ruling coalition won 52 seats, meaning that there likely will be few shifts in the country”s direction and that ties with the United States will remain strong, analysts said.

Final results were to be announced late last night.

“We were modest,” Istiqlal leader Abbas el Fassi said. While the PJD was predicting victory before the vote, he said, “we didn”t say anything because we are confident and patient to see what the Moroccan people have to say.”

Analysts said that although the pro-Islamic party didn”t fare as well as expected, its message is spreading across the North African country of 33 million people.

“Political Islam is still a growing force, even if voters were not as enthusiastic about the PJD as they had wanted,” said Mohamed Darif, a professor at Mohammedia University and an authority on Islamic groups and extremism.

He said the PJD”s failure to win the election could frustrate hard-line supporters and push them toward more extremist groups.

The party presents itself as a bulwark against extremism, though some worry about its long-term plans. It distanced itself from some members” calls to introduce Shariah, or Islamic law, and require the veil — especially after Moroccan extremists staged the 2004 Madrid train bombings and suicide attacks in Casablanca in 2003 and earlier this year.

That violence prompted a government crackdown that threatens the king”s democratic reputation. Morocco”s largest Islamic movement — Justice and Charity, which openly advocates an Islamic government — is banned from politics. Human rights activists also say hundreds of people have been arrested and tortured in anti-terror sweeps by Moroccan police.

Regardless of the results, the Parliament”s power remains limited because the ultimate authority lies in the hands of the king and his advisers.

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