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

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Elections in Morocco - September 2021

 Below is a panel discussion I took part in for TRT World Turkish TV’s “Newsmakers” show about the results of the recent legislative elections.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

TV Panel Discussion - Morocco-Israel Normalisation and the Western Sahara


Below is a panel discussion I took part in for TRT World Turkish TV’s “Newsmakers” show about the Morocco-Israel reconciliation and the Western Sahara.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Morocco’s Unmissed Opportunity in the Western Sahara*

In a final act by his administration, President Donald Trump announced that Morocco and Israel will normalize relations, making the kingdom the fourth Arab country to establish diplomatic ties with Israel as part of the administration’s so-called “Abraham Accords.” In exchange, the United States would recognize Morocco’s sovereignty claims over the Western Sahara and establish a US consulate in the area, the perennial pressure point of Morocco’s foreign policy. 

 The Western Sahara has been the subject of controversy, international litigation, and bellicosity since 1975 when Spanish colonial forces left the territory. The area was thereafter divided into two spheres of influence, with one part controlled by Morocco and the other by Mauritania. Immediately after Spanish decolonization, a rebel Sahrawi group in the camps of Tindouf in Algeria, the POLISARIO Front (Spanish acronym for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia al-Hamra and Rio de Oro), declared the territory's independence and unilaterally proclaimed the establishment of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. After Mauritania's withdrawal from the territory and rescission of sovereignty in 1979, Morocco quickly assumed control over the southern part of the Western Sahara. A decade of violence ensued, lasting most of the 1980s, between the POLISARIO and Morocco. The conflict ended in 1991 with a United Nations-brokered cease-fire and a planned referendum for self-determination that has yet to be conducted. 

 Old Moroccan-Israeli Relations
The recent agreement between Israel and Morocco was the culmination of months-long negotiations brokered by President Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner. Immediately after President Trump announced the deal, the White House published the full text of the president’s proclamation of US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty claims over the Western Sahara and affirmation of the American government’s belief that autonomy under said sovereignty is the only viable option moving forward. With the proclamation also came news that the United States and Morocco are concluding a military deal for highly sophisticated drones.

 Morocco has until now been hesitant about open normalization with Israel. Indeed, Morocco and Israel have had long standing economic, military, intelligence, and cultural ties dating back to the 1960s. After the 1990s Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel and Morocco even established diplomatic missions in Tel Aviv and Rabat which lasted until the 2000 Palestinian intifada when Morocco suspended diplomatic ties. However, the rupture did not deter military and economic relations. Last February, Morocco received three Israeli reconnaissance drones as part of a $48 million arms deal. Trade has also blossomed in the past few years between the two countries despite the lack of official diplomatic relations. Between 2014 and 2017, Morocco-Israeli trade topped $149 million. Lastly, droves of Israeli Moroccan Jews make annual trips back to Morocco for family visits and religious celebrations such as Mimouna. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israelis have ancestral ties to Morocco and have played a major role in maintaining solid relations between Israel and Morocco. 

 Morocco and Israel relations did not need an official proclamation, but the recent skirmishes in the southern Guerguerat crossing point between the Western Sahara and Mauritania may have precipitated Morocco to finally strike a pragmatic bargain with Israel and the United States. Last month, Morocco launched military operations in that border area in order to repel what Morocco alleged is a POLISARIO Front attempt to block the crossing point. The military actions were the first ever since the negotiated 1991 cease fire agreement. The current domestic political instability in Algeria also provided a momentous opportunity for Morocco to move ahead with the US-brokered deal. In the aftermath of the Moroccan military operations around Guerguerat, state media revived popular patriotic and nationalist feelings toward the Western Sahara. This preceded an even bigger decision by the regime to normalize relations with Israel since Morocco’s enduring Western Sahara cause trumps any sympathies for the plight of the Palestinian people. This is plainly manifested in the Moroccan media coverage, which has lauded the US proclamation as a major and historical victory for Moroccan diplomacy without mentioning the quid pro quo that sees Morocco normalizing relations with Israel. 

 An Unmissed Opportunity 
Morocco knows full well that with Trump’s time in the White House nearing its end, this may be the last and best chance to get a crucial American recognition of Moroccan assertions over the Western Sahara. The Biden Administration would not be so inclined to make such a transactional deal; still, it may well abide by the “Abraham Accords.” The Obama Administration had proposed the expansion of the UN mission in the Western Sahara to include human rights monitoring in the region and the POLISARIO-controlled Tindouf camps in Algeria. That was a major blow to Morocco as it signaled a pivotal shift in the American position away from the autonomy the kingdom had advocated toward human rights violations, a festering sore for Morocco’s government, but also an issue in the camps in Tindouf. 

 Nonetheless, the Biden Administration will be even less inclined to reverse course on the Trump proclamation since it is part of a tripartite deal involving Israel which is an important domestic political issue with tremendous electoral ramifications for both Democrats and Republicans. The Biden Administration, however, could still push Morocco on issues of human rights and for a governance plan along Morocco’s autonomy plan put forth in 2007, whereby Morocco would retain sovereignty over a semi-autonomous Western Sahara. But even in the absence of acknowledgement from the United Nations and European allies of the Trump announcement, US recognition is a major diplomatic breakthrough for Morocco and a boon for its policy toward the dispute short of a referendum on self-determination. 

 The Issue of Identity 
The impetus for a referendum has somewhat diminished largely because of Morocco’s autonomy plan of 2007, which would make the Western Sahara a semi-autonomous region under Moroccan sovereignty. But the referendum in the Western Sahara has been beset by two issues: the difficulty in determining voter eligibility, and Morocco’s historical ties to the region. The conflict's resolution has depended on identifying who qualifies as Sahrawi and is thereby eligible to vote. Modern conceptions of self-determination lack the basic parameters for defining a "people" entitled to self-determination or autonomy. As with most conflicts, the dizzying number of UN resolutions on the Western Sahara conflict fail to demarcate the contours of identity, while clearly positing self-determination as a sine qua non to self-governance. This approach to the Western Sahara also reflects the United Nations’ lack of historical knowledge about the territory. Such knowledge could have enriched its understanding of the complex identity issues at stake for all parties to the conflict. 

Historically, the Western Sahara was not demarcated, and many local tribes paid allegiance to different powers. Sahrawi tribes, which had their own internal governance structure, led an autonomous life and paid allegiance to the central authority of the Makhzen, or monarchy, in Morocco. This power-sharing structure is similar to what Morocco is proposing in the Western Sahara today; under the 2007 autonomy plan, the Sahrawis would self-govern under Morocco’s overarching political authority. 

 No US administration has gone this far in this long-standing conflict in the Western Sahara. Morocco would acclaim this as a huge diplomatic achievement and is a mere consolidation of extant relations with Israel. While Moroccan King Mohammed VI has hailed the US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty in the Western Sahara, he still restated to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas his country’s commitment to a just and equitable peace and to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Domestically, Moroccans have long been as adamant about Morocco’s rights in the Western Sahara as they are against normalization with Israel. According to the 2019-2020 Arab Opinion Index, 88% of Moroccans oppose recognition of Israel by their government. However, the Western Sahara cause may just be a bit more quintessential to Moroccan identity that even the political movements with strong support of the Palestinian cause would have no recourse and viable political strategy than to toe the line in the sand firmly drawn by the regime. 

 The Western Sahara conflict will remain a contentious issue in the Maghreb region because of the absence of strong international pressure, Morocco’s intransigence regarding its historical ties to the region, and Algeria’s rejectionist posture. Arguments about Moroccan control of the territory, while valid from the point of view of international law, do not take into consideration the intricate issues of identity, sovereignty, and history that define the conflict.

*This article appeared first on the Arab Center's Viewpoints page.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Dissent in Morocco: From Abraham Serfaty to Nasser Zefzafi

*This article appeared previously on al-Jazeera, but I am reposting it in light of the news that a Moroccan court upheld the long jail terms for some of the Hirak protesters.

Today marks the eighth anniversary of the death of Abraham Serfaty, a prominent Jewish Moroccan political activist. Serfaty was an avowed communist and anti-colonial nationalist who opposed the French protectorate in MoroccoAs a leading Marxist-Leninist activist, he was first arrested and exiled by French colonial authorities in the early 1950s, then imprisoned for 17 years and stripped of his citizenship by the Moroccan monarchy in the following decades.

In 2000, he was rehabilitated after the death of King Hassan II, allowed to return to Morocco and even handed a royal advisory position by King Mohammed VI. Serfaty passed away just months before the wave of Arab uprisings hit Morocco in February 2011. His passing in November 2010 - just a month before Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire sparking the Arab uprisings - symbolically marked the advent of a new generation of protest movements in Morocco.

Unlike the formally organised and ideologically motivated opposition forces that Serfaty led in the 1970s, the current forms and methods of activism in Morocco are leaderless, non-ideological, and often triggered by accidental events emblematic of the everyday socioeconomic struggles of the general population.

Although the expression of dissent has changed over the past decades, the reaction of Moroccan authorities to it has not. The use of institutional manipulation to stifle the persistent protests of the past eight years is not so dissimilar to tools the authorities employed back in the 1970s against the leftist opposition - a reality Serfaty would have surely lamented and criticised had he lived long enough to witness it.

The 'Makhzen' and decentralisation of social protests
In the wake of the Arab uprisings, the Moroccan monarchy was seemingly enjoying an elevated status within the political sphere which put it above political reproach. This special status had been guaranteed by the provisions of the Moroccan constitution and solidified by the historical authority of the so-called "Makhzen" - the monarchical regime and deep-state elite networks. 

The Makhzen allowed the monarchy to effectively control the political process in Morocco while appearing to be above the political fray (and hence carrying no direct responsibility for immediate crises). To maintain this dynamic, the monarchy increasingly resorted to the ritualisation of the political process in Morocco, employing ceremonies, spectacles and public performances that consecrated the king's status as the arbiter and guarantor of order and stability. Through the usage of culturally and historically resonant symbols, the regime ritualised public discourse, which allowed it to extend and reproduce legitimacy.

But the popular protests that erupted in February 2011 challenged this legitimacy. As a result, the monarchy had to adjust to the pressures of the new forms of activism which the "Moroccan spring" ushered in by reviving old dissent-stifling tactics like reshuffling cabinets and holding electorally-engineered legislative elections.

Historically, the Makhzen has resorted to recycling political parties and coalitions to maintain the facade of competitive political participation. It used this same method in 2012 to respond to the popular protests; a sham opposition was given the reins of power - in this case, the Islamist Party of Justice - to serve as a counter-weight to popular dissent.

Faced with the powerful Makhzen, the opposition parties and the February 20 movement have largely been unable to achieve their aims to bring about deep socioeconomic and political reforms. Nevertheless, the February 20 movement and subsequent social protests managed to lift the veil of fear and to demystify the monarchy.

The Arab uprisings also led to the decentralisation of social protests, which moved away from urban centres to Morocco's peripheral regions which share common political and economic grievances. The rise of spontaneous organic forms of political and social activism is a hallmark of this new activism scene in Morocco.

These "non-movements" of peripheral protests in various regions of Morocco are rarely guided by an ideology or led by an organised leadership or structure. Even the emergence of Nasser Zefzafi as a prominent activist in the Rif (the northern mountainous region of Morocco) is almost as accidental as the events leading to the year-long al-Hirak al-Shaabi (Popular Movement) protests. 

The wave of demonstrations started as a result of public outrage at the incidental death of Mouhcine Fikri, a 31-year-old fisherman crushed in a garbage truck as he protested against the seizure of his fish by the police in 2016. Zefzafi's interruption of the Friday prayer sermon in a mosque in the city of al-Hoceima in 2017 was a spontaneous, not calculated, expression of anger and desperation against a hegemonic cultural and political discourse of domination.  Therein lies the novelty of current social activism in Morocco: protests emanate from shared experiences of large numbers of ordinary people carrying common socioeconomic grievances.

'Hogra': Resisting extreme injustice
The collective anger at the deteriorating socioeconomic conditions and standard of living in Morocco over the past few years has been captured by the Moroccan dialect word "hogra", roughly meaning extreme injustice.

Hogra is perceived by many as a defining feature of the Makhzen's entrenched authoritarian edifice - a cultural and political system of humiliation and scorn, which is perceived to be institutionalised and practiced by state bureaucracies towards the poor, the youth and the disenfranchised. Hogra also refers to state abuse of power and corruption by the elite. 

The growing wealth gap in Morocco provides the starkest reminder of hogra: Moroccans see the luxury cars, opulent palaces, and other ostentatious accessories of wealth while at the same time experiencing systematic subjugation and impoverishment in their everyday life. Over the past few years, civil disobedience of varying scale and form has erupted across Morocco as a way of resisting hogra, such as the ongoing protests in the remote Amazigh village of Imider against the exploitation of the village's groundwater by a silver-mining company owned by the regime's oligopoly Societe Nationale d'Investissement (SNI), the coal mine protests in the northeastern border town of Jerada, and the demonstrations sparked by water shortages in the desert town of Zagora. 

Another manifestation of these spontaneous acts of resistance has been the unprecedented economic boycott of Morocco's dairy, mineral water and fuel-distribution oligopolies that have close ties to the regime. The boycott has largely been launched on social media platforms and has been successful in raising awareness of the transgressions of Moroccan oligarchs.

These organic acts of protest have unmasked the failure of the regime's strategy of appearing above the political fray, while at the same time managing the political system and opposition forces. 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 public scrutiny.

Its increasing inability to constructively deal with social unrest has forced it to resort to the use of old oppressive methods of control. For his spontaneous act of dissent, Zefzafi, for instance, was sentenced to a draconian 20 years in jail - a punishment reminiscent of what Serfaty and other leftist activists faced in 1970s Morocco. But while Serfaty's sentence was the result of his opposition to Morocco's annexation of Western Sahara in 1975, Zefzafi and other youth protesters are imprisoned today for demanding jobs, economic development and an end to sociopolitical marginalization. The profiles of Morocco's activists today may be significantly different from the ones active in the oppressive "years of lead", but they currently face the same repressive methods of the Makhzen as their predecessors did. And, while in the past these methods were relatively effective, they increasingly appear to be failing to placate the simmering anger of ordinary Moroccans.

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.