OUJDA, Morocco — The head of Morocco’s parliamentary opposition says he wants to use cultural programs, education and jobs as weapons to fight growing Islamic extremism, if his party wins a national election Friday.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Ilyas El-Omari, secretary general of the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), called for investigations into the funding behind state-accredited associations he believes are involved in radicalizing youth.
“Are you telling me a young man who couldn’t even afford a coffee now has enough money to fly to Syria?” El-Omari said Saturday in the city of Oujda.
El-Omari suggested the north African kingdom’s moderate Islamist-led government is responsible for allowing the radicalization of Moroccan youth, especially in his northern region of Tangiers-Tetouan-Al-Hoceima.
He described the region, governed by his party since regional elections last year, as heavily marginalized and “the biggest source of clients and adherents to Islamic State and extremism” in the country.
Terrorism experts estimate that more than 1,000 Moroccans have joined the ranks of the Islamic State group and other extremists in Syria, as the Syrian war has attracted radicals from around the Mideast and the West despite government efforts to stop them.
Morocco’s coalition government is led by PAM’s main election rival, the Islamist Party of Justice and Development. Under the mandate of the PJD, the state has doubled down on fighting extremism, taking credit for dismantling nearly 30 cells this year.
PJD officials didn’t respond to calls seeking comment on El-Omari’s criticism.
Friday’s legislative elections will determine the makeup of the government in Morocco, a key U.S. ally in the region, though major strategic decisions are made by the royal palace. Security is among voters’ concerns in the parliamentary contests.
The PAM is widely regarded as close to the palace. It was founded in 2008 by Fouad Ali El Himma, a childhood friend and current royal adviser to King Mohammed VI. El-Omari denies that the party has any unusual links or access to the monarchy, citing a number of current royal advisers who have previously established ties with other political parties.
While public opinion polls are banned ahead of elections in Morocco to avoid swaying voters, support for the PAM was evident at a rally Saturday in Oujda, where thousands attended.
“According to our internal polls, we are expecting to lead the election results among the opposition parties,” El-Omari said.
El-Omari accused the Party of Justice and Development of “political and economic failures” since coming to power five years ago, and criticized it for recent sex scandals that have dominated national media headlines.
Two major figures from the PJD’s ideological arm were reportedly found in a “sexual posture” in a vehicle in August. Fatima Nejjar and Omar Benhammad have since resigned and are currently facing charges for allegedly engaging in relations outside of marriage.
While critical of the scandal itself, El-Omari insisted that Morocco doesn’t need morality police.
“I’m modern. I’m not against relations outside of marriage,” he said. “I’m against a law that criminalizes them.”