RABAT, Morocco — Tens of thousands of Moroccans marched silently through the streets of the capital towards an ocean-side cemetery Friday during the funeral of the country's biggest opposition figure, an extraordinary show of support for a man who dared to directly challenge the nation's powerful kings.
Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine founded Al Adl wal Ihsan, the country's largest opposition movement, in the 1980s, and publicly criticized then-King Hassan II not only for running a corrupt, overly Westernized government, but also for taking on religious titles such as Commander of the Faithful.
The Islamist leader spent a decade under house arrest and was freed only when the old king died and his son Mohammed VI released him, but Yassine never retracted his criticisms.
Analysts noted that even with the movement's strong show of force, its future is unclear now that its 84-year-old charismatic leader has died. Whether it will join mainstream politics or remain an outside force of criticism in this North African kingdom of 32 million people remains to be seen.
Even the fact that the funeral service was held in the capital's main mosque and Yassine, who died Thursday, was buried in the official cemetery was symbolic, said Mohsine el-Abbadi, a professor of sociology and religion at Rabat International University. It was as if the state was trying to co-opt the legacy of the longtime outside agitator.
"The choice of the cemetery was very important," he said. "They put him in an official area to prevent the building of a mausoleum that people could visit because in his death he might be more dangerous than alive."
Yassine had lived and worked in Sale, Rabat's gritty, lower-income twin city across the river, and while alive he refused to play the political game and moderate his criticism of the monarchy – a criticism no other political movement dared make until the Arab Spring movements of 2011.
When secular and left wing youth took to the streets on Feb. 20, 2011, inspired by the Tunisian revolution, Al Adl wal Ihsan joined them. It provided much needed organization and foot soldiers to the campaign for greater democratization and an end to political corruption.
"They were much more disciplined than the left," recalled Omar Radi, an activist from the February 20th movement who often coordinated demonstration with Al Adl wal Ihsan, which means Justice and Spirituality. "We would agree on things like slogans and the leftists would never respect the decision, but Al Adl always did."
The movement's discipline was on display Friday first during the mosque prayers and later the funeral march, with activists wearing badges ensuring people prayed in straight lines and then marched only in certain areas.
At least half-a-dozen large tour buses filled with riot police also were on hand and the vehicles were parked to block certain routes, forcing those in the procession to walk outside the old city walls.
As the procession started, the estimated crowd of 20,000 at the mosque soon swelled into much more, with men of all ages and social classes silently walking behind the van carrying the coffin in a display of support that far outweighed even the largest protests held by the February 20 movement.
After a moderate Islamist party was elected to power in November 2011, Yassine's movement withdrew from the pro-democracy protests and took a wait and see attitude. Despite an opposition party being in power and the constitution having been amended, nearly all authority in Morocco still resides in the king and his court.
The movement's guidance council will meet in three months to select a new supreme guide, who his expected to be one of three or four leading members. Then it will be up to him to decide whether the movement attempts to become a legal political party or remain on the sidelines of politics.
The total membership of Al Adl wal Ihsan is unknown, but estimated to be at least in the hundreds of thousands.
"The most likely scenario is that the situation will continue the way it is, with no war and no peace with the state and no official recognition," said analyst Maati Monjib, who described Yassine as the most powerful opposition figure in Morocco since the disappearance of leftist politician Mehdi Ben Barka in 1965.
"He was the only person who could have assembled 500,000 people against the regime, but he never did because he feared a violent escalation or civil war," he said.