North Africa, West Asia

Political Islam in Morocco: a royal affair

The recent events in Morocco prove that Islam, even political, remains the affair of the monarchy which has secured foreign support through an ambitious African and religious diplomacy.

Sarah Wolff Abelhaziz Hlaoua
6 April 2017
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King Mohammed VI of Morocco in the Royal Palace in Rabat, Morocco. Picture by Balkis Press/ABACA/PA Images.

The new Prime Minister Saadeddine Othmani, nominated by the king, just before his Islamist Party executive could decide internally about its leadership, has accomplished his mission. Unlike Abdellilah Benkirane, head of government from 2011 to 2016, victorious in the legislative elections of October 2016 and dismissed by the king in march 2017, Othmani a psychiatrist and former Justice and Development Party (PJD) Foreign Minister, has successfully formed a coalition government with 5 other political parties. In doing so, he yielded to the Palace's requests to share power with the Socialist Union of the Popular Forces (USFP) that only won 6.19% of the votes. The Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM) that came second in the legislative elections and the Istiqlal, that came third in the elections, are however excluded.

A hegemonic monarch and discredited political parties

By taking up the political initiative, the king proves that he remains the master of the political game. It sends a strong signal to the Moroccan political parties especially since the adoption of the 2011 constitution, when the country has evolved from a constitutional monarchy to a parliamentary monarchy.

According to article 47, the head of the government is no longer appointed arbitrarily by the king but within the political party that won the elections for the House of Representatives. The constitution retains the role of arbitration for the king and contributes to weakening and discrediting political parties. Lacking the majority of seats, the PJD had an impossible mission: to form a coalition with parties close to the ‘Makhzen’ (term that designates the king and the Moroccan royal notables and people close to power) such as the National Rally of Independents (RNI), a liberal party, headed by the billionaire and former Minister of Agriculture Aziz Akhannouch.

The decision of the monarch to nominate Othmani, preempting the initiative to the national council of the PJD a few days before their internal meeting, weakens the legitimacy of the institutions and disqualifies the role of political parties already precarious in the eyes of the citizens. As a guarantor of the constitution, the king renews its legitimacy and weakens political parties perceived as unable to form a government. A strategy already well established since Mohammed VI had dismissed the USFP leader Abderrahmane Youssefi in 2002, in favor of a technocratic government.

Thus, despite a semblance of political pluralism, and the reforms initiated since 2011, traditions and religion continue to limit the autonomy of the political field. Benkirane's deference regarding his dismissal, but also the speed with which his successor Othmani formed a coalition government, confirms the loyalty of the political parties to the monarchy. This allegiance is renewed every year in the Ba'ya ceremony, which celebrates obedience to the monarchy.

The Islamists as indispensable allies

The interference of the king with the internal management of a political party is seen as a risk for the democratic transition (see here). However, the monarchy did not want to reproduce the Egyptian scenario which saw the removal of the Islamists from power. The king excluded this scenario, given the pressure of the Arab uprisings, and the still ongoing demands of civil society as expressed by the 20 February movement.

The Islamists remain indispensable allies since 1.6 million Moroccans voted for the 'party of the lantern'. Morocco is a two-speed society, with growing inequalities. Neoliberal policies have benefited the richest, and created precarious working conditions. The survival of the regime and the guarantee of social peace therefore depends on respecting the results of the election.

Since its accession to power, the PJD has pursued a pragmatic policy of supporting the monarchy, without calling into question its religious legitimacy, and pursuing incremental reforms. It gave birth to an urban Islamist elite and seduced the middle classes. It is also the only party that attracts the vote of supporters of Salafists and movements such as Al Adl Wa Al Ihssance (Justice and Spirituality), that advocate civil disobedience and challenges the king’s status as Commander of the Faithful.

A strategic kingdom in an unstable region

The monarchy’s interference in domestic politics, occurred a few days after Morocco’s historic accession to the African Union. Armed with an immigration reform that has regularized 21.000 sub-Saharan migrants since 2014, Morocco has been entrusted by its African partners with the migration dossier. Although violence towards migrants continues, as well as restrictions on their access to the labor market, Morocco has acquired the image of a regional leader. The country also remains a strategic player in the global fight against terrorism. It relies for this on an ambitious religious diplomacy that promotes Sufism and a model of moderate Islam through the Institute Mohammed VI for the formation of imams, morchidines and morchidates, created in 2014, and the Mohamed VI Foundation of African Ulema launched in 2016.

The regional stability offered by Morocco in the heart of an unstable Maghreb should however not distract it from the timid democratic reforms initiated. Let’s hope that Moroccan citizens and European partners will remain vigilant and lucid on this subject.

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