A forum devoted to current political, economic trends, and news of the Maghreb region.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The King's Dilemma in Morocco

Morocco's King Mohammed VI sacked four ministers and barred five former ministers from ever taking official duties last year. The king's "wrath" comes as a rebuke for the government's poor performance and for "serious dysfunctions" in a five-year development plan launched by the king in 2015 to promote socio-economic development in the northern al-Hoceima region.

The unprecedented move by the Moroccan sovereign is presented as an attempt by the palace to introduce some government accountability. However, the sacking of government ministers is merely the latest example of the increasing royal emasculation of the political class, and an astute deflection from the palace's own responsibility in the current socio-political malaise in Morocco.

More importantly, the latest royal move points to a growing king's dilemma. The regime’s dual strategy of appearing above the political fray, while at the same time managing the political system and opposition forces is increasingly under duress. Through an interplay of discursive and institutional mechanisms of control, the monarchy's constant manipulation of the political party scene and civil society has removed the buffer between the royal institution and the people, and has exposed the palace to direct scrutiny.

This "political earthquake", as many in Morocco have called the royal decision, comes a few months after the king's throne day speech, which laid the blame for current political paralysis in Morocco everywhere else but the monarchical regime. Last July, King Mohammed VI delivered a strongly-worded opprobrium to the political elite chiding them for lack of creativity and for hiding behind the palace.

In so doing, the king cast his institution above and outside the political elite, as if Morocco was a true constitutional monarchy, where the regime is at a distance from the travails of politics. Most notably, the king didn't offer any words or vision that would appease the year-long "Hirak" protests in the Hoceima region. Instead, he later gave amnesty to some imprisoned Hirak activists in a gesture that further consecrates the regime's control of the political system and, ironically, contradicts the narrative the king wove in his speech. 

The king's decree to sack government ministers comes a few months after Morocco underwent a political crisis, which hindered the ability of former Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane to form a government due to a political gridlock manufactured by royalist political parties. This showcased the supremacy of the regime vis-a-vis the political class, where popularity and populism are reserved for the monarchy, and not for any one political leader, as Benkirane found out last March.  

In the throne day speech last July, the king lamented that: "the evolution witnessed in Morocco in the political domain and in the area of development has not led to the kind of positive reaction you would expect from political parties, leaders, and government officials when dealing with the real aspirations and concerns of Moroccans."

The monarch excoriated those politicians whose "mentalities have not evolved" to match that said evolution. But unlike what the speech leads us to believe, the monarchy is not a passive actor in the Moroccan state edifice. It is well-entrenched in the system, and has for decades fostered a patronage system inimical to transparency and accountability, and conducive to venal practices, rampant in the Moroccan state and its institutions.

The royal decision aims to deflect away from the palace's own shadow cabinet, which in fact holds most political and administrative power, and whose members are the architects of the Makhzen state and Morocco's neo-liberal policies. The kingdom may be, in the words of the sovereign, "enjoying economic dynamism which creates wealth," but that wealth has largely been concentrated in the orbit of the palace and its cronies. 

The discontent of the king is paradoxically a result of decades of monarchical control over the political system and its management of the political party scene. The regime has emptied it of any significance and created a political vacuum. 

The recycling of party coalitions in the government allowed Morocco's monarchy for years to foster a set of political practices that meet the needs of a modern state with an effective concentration of power. The Moroccan monarchy has a long tradition of manipulating opposition parties through cooptation within the formal political sphere, allowing them some stake in nominal power.

In Morocco's political system, all political parties must submit to the regime as a prerequisite for political participation. Moroccan governments historically have been subverted by the monarchy's far-reaching prerogatives and constitutional powers.

No government has had the effective political mandate to govern. This has weakened the political parties in Morocco, which for the most part suffer from a lack of mobilisation capacity. Elite consensus on the supremacy of the regime prevents political parties from directly challenging the king's power. The regime's ability to co-opt new bases of political appeal clutters the public sphere, making it less open to alternatives from opposition forces.   

The regime's manipulation of the political system is intentionally fragmented into "divided structures of contestation", as the monarchy allows select political opponents to take part in the political system while excluding others. These spheres of political contestation condition government-opposition relations and dictate the rules of the game under which the opposition plays within the formal political system. The resulting recycling of political parties and coalitions is necessary to maintain the facade of political participation.

But this strategy has run its course. While it has sustained the monarchy in the past, the monarchy's constant control over the political sphere is ill-devised in the post-Arab uprisings, where the protests of February 20 and the current Hirak movement in al-Hoceima have somewhat demystified the monarchy. The duality between regime and state that the Palace has woven for decades to shield its edifice from any reproach is no longer plausible in the eyes of an increasing number of Moroccans. The monarchy’s consistent attempt to face new challenges to the state with old autocratic tools shows significant fissures. Street demands would have been absorbed by civil society and channelled through institutional mechanisms if the Makhzen, at the behest of the palace, hadn't impoverished the political scene and enfeebled its most promising actors. The king's scathing criticism of the political elite is, in fact, a critique of his Makhzen. Moroccans would welcome a true neutral stance from the monarchy, which might ease in turn the looming king's dilemma.


Saturday, April 8, 2017

Morocco’s king just named a new prime minister, in case you forgot who’s in charge


* This article appeared on the Washington Post's Monkey Cage: 

After an unprecedented five months of post-election gridlock without a government, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI dismissed prime minister designate Abdelilah Benkirane on Wednesday. Benkirane’s Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) won a plurality of seats in the legislative elections in October 2016 and appeared well on its way towards a second consecutive term at the helm of the Moroccan government. But negotiations did not go as planned. The dismissal came just a few days after Benkirane refused to acquiesce to a major alliance party’s demands to widen coalition talks and was widely seen as an attempt by the monarchy and its deep state network of elite allies, or makhzen, to regain political power. While the decision may have been unexpected, the regime’s logic is familiar. As Benkirane and his successor know well, they must play by the monarch’s rules. As it has done in the past, the regime is seeking to reconfigure the Moroccan political scene. The PJD, especially under Benkirane, may have become too popular and adversarial for the regime liking. The party has also increasingly re-engaged Moroccans politically building a formidable base, in a country where deploticization is a state policy.

After the dismissal, a palace communiqué lauded Benkirane’s service to the country, his “effectiveness, competence and self-sacrifice,” adding that the king would task another member of the PJD to form the government. Benkirane accepted the royal decision, in an austere tone: “This is our king and he came to a decision under the framework of the constitution, which I've always expressed support for…I'm going to perform ablution, pray, and continue working on the ground.”

Benkirane, as Secretary General of the party, then called for a special national council meeting of the PJD on Saturday. But before the party could gather to decide on its next move, the king further limited its options by tasking Saadeddine Othmani, the former Secretary General of the PJD and current head of the party’s national council, with forming the new government.

Addressing the press at the special national council meeting on Saturday, Benkirane resolutely declared that his government work is over. By the end of the day, the PJD national council unanimously supported Othmani’s appointment. Both Benkirane and Othmani reaffirmed the party’s dedication to its Islamic reference, belief in gradual reforms and support for the monarchy.

The palace may expect Othmani to yield to some of the demands of the palace-aligned makhzen parties led by the National Rally of Independents (RNI). Benkirane feared the proposed RNI coalition would lead to greater regime internal control, especially with Driss Lachgar’s USFP as an obstructionist bloc within the PJD-led government. The choice of Othmani suggests the gridlock was more about Benkirane than the PJD. Othmani, who was briefly minister of foreign affairs in Benkirane’s first government, is seen as more of a consensus-building politician. And though it did not immediately cause discord within the cohesive PJD, the removal of the beleaguered prime minster may be just the first phase in the regime’s attempt to re-order the political landscape and slow the pace of post-Arab uprisings reforms. Disrupting the government’s formation could eventually paves the way for new legislative elections that bring a makhzenite political elite to power.

The PJD’s 2011 and 2016 electoral successes bolstered confidence in its formidable grass root mobilization and ability to win elections. Though the PJD could have mobilized behind the revolutionary February 20th Movement in 2011, it chose to pursue participation in elections. In doing so, the PJD followed a “third way,” opting to join the political system in partnership with the palace and articulating a “refolutionary” discourse – focusing on incremental reforms rather than outright revolution.

But the party’s meteoric rise was not always in line with makhzen and palace interests. During the 2016 campaign, the populist Benkirane promoted his party as that of the people in direct contrast to the palace-loyal parties. Walking a rhetorical tightrope, the PJD expressed loyalty to the king, while criticizing the political system for tahakoum, political manipulation. In the hours before the official results of the legislative elections of October 2016 were announced, Benkirane boldly suggested the results might be subject to state manipulation. After it was clear that his party had won the plurality of the seats, Benkirane hailed the results as a victory for democracy and a further proof of public approval of his government’s performance.

The royal discharge of Benkirane speaks to the regime’s deep control of the political system, which is intentionally fragmented into “divided structures of contestation” (SOCs). In divided SOCs, the monarchy allows only select political opponents to take part in the political system while excluding others. These limited spheres of contestation shape government-opposition relations and dictate the rules of the game for the opposition within the formal political system. The resulting recycling of political parties and coalitions is necessary to maintain the smokescreen of political participation.

In the past, the makhzen has toppled parties wholesale, but this time, the change is more strategic and calibrated. The palace is killing two birds with one stone, removing the source of nuisance without subverting the will of the voters, while forcing change in the PJD’s internal leadership structure.

The Moroccan monarchy has a long tradition of managing opposition parties through cooptation and confinement, allowing opposition parties some stake in power, while the monarchy and the palace shadow government are ultimately in power. In 1997, the USFP won token control of the government. But undermined by the shadow government in the palace, it ultimately lost popular support and bore the brunt of the blame for the country’s socio-economic woes.

If the PJD had opted to leave the government for the opposition, it could have jeopardized its electoral momentum and vision for gradual reforms. But the party’s decision to stay in the government is not without risks either, especially as it seeks to maintain its political standing and appease its rank and file.

As Othmani negotiates with other parties to form the government, it will be interesting to see what course the party charters for him and how much leeway he will have. Remaining in the government under regime’s rules of the game could see the PJD face the same fate as the USFP.  While Morocco has passed some nominal reforms in the six years since the Arab uprisings shook the region, this latest incident is a clear reminder of who really wields power in the monarchy.



Islamist PJD consolidates its Electoral Gains in Morocco’s Legislative Elections



*A Version of the following article appeared in the Washington Post's Monkey Cage Blog:

Last Friday, Moroccans voted in the second legislative elections since the post-Arab uprisings constitutional reforms of 2011. Some 30 parties ran in a hotly contested race for the 395 parliamentary seats, but the ruling Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) again secured a plurality. While the elections were hailed as proof of progress, they largely reinforced regime authority. The absence of a majority winner, and the continuing ideological fragmentation of the political system furthers the institutional imbalance of power between the palace and the government,
However, the limitations on political actors in Morocco may have actually created more space for the Islamist party. Many Moroccans see the PJD as a transparent and incorruptible force in Moroccan politics, and the party has used that to its advantage.

The PJD ran a grass-roots campaign, with a vast mass mobilization network of supporters, winning 125 seats in the parliament and consolidating past electoral gains. In a region where Islamist parties’ political experiments have been short lived, the PJD is on its way towards a second term at the helm of the government in Morocco. The electoral success of the PJD is a further testament to its impressive campaign machine and organization in mostly urban centers, but also due to a low 43 percent voter turnout, slightly lower than the 45 percent voter participation in the legislative elections in 2011.

Leading up to the elections, PJD leader Abdelilah Benkirane launched ads touting his party as the “party of the people,” a subtle reference to his main rival, the Party of the Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), which is seen as a palace puppet. Benkirane has continued to walk a tight rope of appearing loyal to the regime, while leveling subliminal critique of unelected shadow palace government for what he calls “tahakoum” or authoritarian political control.

Even in the hours before the Ministry of the Interior announced official results Benkirane was engaged in his usual doublespeak towards the regime when he suggested the results might be subject to state manipulation. But when it was clear that his party had won the plurality of the seats, the mercurial leader hailed the results as a “victory for democracy” and public approval of his government’s performance on major socio-economic issues.
Islamist success among low voter turnout

The PJD’s continued electoral success rested on its ability to motivate a large portion of the 15.7 million registered voters to cast their ballots for the party. But the low voter turnout is an indictment of the system of engineered elections in Morocco. The voter participation is further amplified in the context of the 28 million eligible voters in Morocco, in effect setting the real voter turnout at 23 percent last Friday. This is a particularly telling sign of Moroccans’ lack of confidence in not just the political parties but also the electoral system as a whole.

However, this low voter turnout favored the PJD political machine, which was able to mobilize their base to get to the polls. During the electoral campaign, the PJD’s strategy didn’t solely focus on its base. It sought to broaden its electoral constituencies by including Salafi Islamist candidates, one of whom, H’mad al-Qabbaj, was rejected by the Ministry of the Interior in a clear signal that the state still controls the political space and discourse.

This was a risky, albeit calculated, strategy for the PJD as a moderate Islamist party that has accepted the regime’s rules of the political game. Testing the limits of regime acceptance proved to be a point of contention between the party and its opponents, who orchestrated anti-PJD protests in Casablanca to denounce the party’s Islamist origins.

But the PJD wasn’t the only success story on Friday. Its main rival, the pro-palace, PAM came in second with 102 seats, effectively doubling its parliamentary seats from 2011. While the PJD’s predicament is its doublespeak, the PAM’s quandary lies in its close association with the palace. Its founder and de facto leader Fouad Ali al-Himma is a close adviser to the king. Al-Himma’s life and formative political experiences have been informed by his palace education alongside Mohammed VI and by an equally crucial time in the Ministry of the Interior. Over his career, al-Himma has mastered the core principles of the makhzen (deep authoritarian state structure) in the kingdom, namely the division of the political scene, electoral engineering and the drowning political dissent with palace-friendly parties in the name of “rationalization of the party system.”.

The PAM’s regime ties are well-known and account for its lack of credibility among many voters in Morocco. But the palace doesn’t allow open criticism of its close association with al-Himma. When the current Minister of Housing and Urban Policy, and Secretary General of the leftist Party for Progress and Socialism (PPS), Nabil Ben Abdallah, alluded to al-Himma’s relationship with the PAM, the royal cabinet issued an unprecedented communique chiding the minister for his comments. In a carefully planned electoral system, the regime sets the boundaries of acceptable political discourse.

Especially in the post-Arab uprisings era, the palace is less tolerant of any statements linking it to the elections. Even when the statement comes from a makhzenite politician like Benabdallah – who was instrumental in state repression of the press as a minister of communication from 2002 to 2007 – the regime is reluctant to lose control of the boundaries of tolerable political speech. Interestingly, Benabdallah’s PPS, and other leftist parties, suffered the steepest decline in electoral gains last Friday.

The election results consolidate the rise of a bipolar, PJD/PAM, political party system in Morocco, while historical parties decline. Furthermore, election outcomes once again reinforce the lack of ideological consistency in the party system in Morocco. Today, no main political party has a coherent ideology: even the PJD is, at this point, only loosely Islamist.

This ideological maelstrom will inevitably bring about a fragmented, ideologically-inchoate coalition government led by an electorally confident, but institutionally weakened PJD. Lacking a majority of the seats in the parliament, the PJD’s Benkirane will once again have to extend his hand across the aisle to other parties, notably, the historical nationalist-conservative al-Istiqlal party, which came in third in the elections with 46 seats as well as leftist parties. A pragmatic party, the PJD understands the reality of power politics in the Moroccan edifice and, at times, has demonstrated its willingness to sacrifice its Islamist philosophy for political power.

The PJD electoral success illustrates the rise of a new breed of Islamism, which is almost pragmatically secular and less ideologically tied to the core ethos of Islamism. For the PJD, like Ennahda in Tunisia, Islam is not din wa dawla (religion and state) anymore. This Islamism is a strategy of political action that seeks to separate its political from its da’wist (preaching) religious movement. Decades of political learning within Morocco’s circumscribed political space created this adaption. The PJD has realized that a rigid Islamist ideology would not be conducive to their own existence and would entail, as the PJD leader, Abdelilah Benkirane told me during my field work, “rejection and confrontation yielding no results.”

This pragmatic style of governance has so far paid great electoral dividends. The challenge for the PJD will be to sustain its dual role of working within the system, while seeking to address its main challenges like corruption. Ultimately, the Islamist party’s strategy of playing “games in multiple arenas” depends on regime tolerance and the enduring appeal of its narrative of authenticity among the plurality of the electorate in Morocco.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Rise of the Sultan in Turkey is a Setback to Middle East Democracy

Turkey nearly underwent a complete democratic reversal in last week. In the early hours of the attempted coup last Friday, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used an unlikely tool to galvanize his supporters when he launched a FaceTime appeal to all Turks to descend to the streets. The Turkish people heeded Erdogan's call, showing a great deal of maturity and courage in facing the military and defeating the coup. A successful coup would have been devastating to Turkey, but an unhinged post-coup Erdogan is equally detrimental, not only to Turkey, but to the whole region’s democratic progress.

The failed military putsch against democratically elected Erdoğan is a stark example that old autocratic habits die-hard in the Middle East. The coup unmasked the reality of modern day Turkey, which has long dealt with military incursions in civilian affairs which lasted until the Turkish military memorandum of 1997, which prompted the resignation of then Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan. But Turkey’s path towards democratic progress has been dealt a serious blow despite the failure of the generals in toppling the AKP leader.

When Erdoğan came to power in 2003, Turkey and the rest of the world looked at the Turkish experience as a model for Islamic democratic rule, that maybe the Kemalist secular principles could coexist with the AKP’s Islamist ethos, and that a secular-Islamist synthesis was possible under robust legal and institutional mechanisms. Erdoğan’s popularity was all the more enviable when he presided over an impressive economic growth. In the Muslim world, Erdoğan became the symbol for democratic renewal under an overtly Islamist banner and a populist pan-Islamic leader who has been a staunch critic of Israel, the rallying cry for all Arab and pan-Islamic demagogues. Erdoğan’s opposition to Sisi’s coup in Egypt, and the brutal regime of Assad made him a champion for many in the Arab world. Erdogan has also been so successful among Muslims in advancing a religious discourse that he was even compared to medieval Muslim ruler, Salah Eddine (Saladin) who conquered Jerusalem during the Crusades.

Erdoğan’s pan-Islamic popularity remained unchanged even when he started displaying a penchant towards autocratic rule. In the years preceding the coup, Erdoğan launched a relentless campaign against his opponents within the confines of Turkish democratic institutions, orchestrating sham trials known as Balyoz (Sledgehammer) whereby hundreds of high ranking officers were jailed and/or removed from the military. Using the parliamentary majority of the AKP, he steered the country towards an executive presidential system and was elected president in 2014. Erdoğan repressed all who dared to oppose his sultanistic ambitions in Turkey and appeared truly to be the only game in town. Indeed, in his interview with al-Jazeera Tuesday, Erdoğan revealed that he was utterly surprised when he first heard of the coup from his brother-in-law as he was vacationing in Marmaris. Some say he was always expecting this coup; but was not sure when this attempt would take place.

But in his state citadel, Erdoğan has always harbored a not so secret fear of one formidable opponent, a former ally turned nemesis, the Muslim preacher and scholar Fethullah Gülen. Gülen, who fled Turkey in 1999, and is in the US in a self-imposed exile, is the spiritual leader of an order that runs several organizations and some 146 charter schools in the US. The Hizmet-Gülen movement is largely known for its interfaith message of peace and tolerance around the world. But his supporters in senior bureaucratic and judicial positions in Turkey are said to constitute “a parallel structure” aiming to depose Erdogan’s government.
In the days after the failed coup, Erdoğan has notably singled out Fethullah Gülen as the main culprit behind the coup, and has started what amount to a purge of the court system and the police force, in addition to almost one-third of the military establishment.

Thousands of military officers, security officers, judges, police officers have been arrested. Erdoğan has just declared a state of emergency for three months, his government suspended its adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights, and has issued a travel ban against all academics
Erdoğan’s post-coup plan is to dismantle whatever little democratic gains Turkey achieved in the past. The failed coup and Erdogan’s popularity have given him a “carte blanche” to mold the Turkish State in his image, cleanse the political establishment of the “parallel structure”, and tame the military once and for all. The scope of the purge will be devastating for Erdogan’s opponents in the state institutions, and Gülen will have to fight the narrative that he was behind a coup that most Turks, even the anti-Erdoğan crowd, opposed.

Beyond Turkey, Erdoğan’s revanchism is a setback to the cause of democratic progress in the region. Arab liberals have almost unanimously extolled the Turkish president and justified his post-coup policies. Facebook status updates and Twitter posts have almost all endorsed Erdoğan providing various rationale for his attempts at eroding Turkish democracy, ironically in the name of democratic legitimacy and street popularity. Commitment to principles of the rule of law, individual freedom, and the liberty of the press that Arab liberals so arduously fought for are deemphasized right now. In their blind support of Erdoğan, Arab liberals’ and democracy activists’ commitment to democratic principles has largely taken a backseat to retribution.

But the jubilant statements about Erdoğan and the triumph of the will of the people mask a bitter reality that Erdoğan has charted an autocratic course that will be almost as devastating to Turkish democracy as a military junta would have been. Erdoğan still has time to reverse some of his reprisals and to promote legal, measured means for prosecuting coup plotters. The failed coup should not be a “gift from God”, as Erdoğan let slip in his first appearance after the coup in Istanbul, to settle score with rivals and opponents.

The path to democracy is fraught with uncertainties, but most democratic transitions in the context of Latin America and Eastern Europe in the last two decades of the 20th century came through negotiated pacts within the political elite. This assumes that the elite class is inclusive even of those that are diametrically opposed ideologically to prevalent political or social views. The whole sale purge of Erdoğan’s rivals bodes ill for the institutional progress of Turkey and the region. Turkey used to be a model for the region, perhaps now, we should look for another model elsewhere. Maybe Tunisia still holds some of that hope for a Middle Eastern democracy.