Morocco: the King’s Men Return to Power, Islamists Move to the Backseat

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The coalition that formed the Moroccan cabinet since the electoral victory of the Islamist PJD party has been facing a crisis when in July 2013 the conservative-monarchist Istiqlal party withdrew from it. The exit of Istiqlal, the second biggest party in parliament, appears to have dealt a blow to the PJD, which has been leading a nation that faces a series of difficult social and economic issues, and opponents that could not wait for it to fail. At the end, however, the Islamists minimalist position in this new cabinet may actually be their saving grace.

Istiqlal’s decision this summer to become an opposition party was accelerated by the emergence within it of a new breed of leader, Hamid Chabat, who was elected Secretary General of that party on September 23, 2012 and showed no interest in dealing with the Islamists. Strikingly different from his predecessor, Abbas El Fassi, who was always part of the political system, the aggressive and politically savvy Chabat has had a more diverse experience starting as a laborer and moving on up, later on becoming head of the Moroccan labor union UGTM, mayor of Fez, and then founder of his own publication. Istiqlal’s departure from the government eventually forced a change given that the PJD was not able to govern without a majority on its side.

The situation facing the PJD led to the current, and long overdue, cabinet reshuffle, announced on October 10, 2013, in which it is now a minority participant. To compensate for the loss of Istiqlal, the PJD had to convince the liberal party RNI to join in. But acceptance of the RNI would mean major concessions, starting with Foreign Minister Saad-Eddine El Othmani, also a PJD leader, forced to give up his job, handing it over to Salaheddine Mezouar, head of RNI party.

In this new formation, the PJD, although holding the Prime Minister portfolio finds itself in a minority. Partly because the will of the Monarchy to undermine it came to fruition, and partly because within the executive branch, the Islamists could not deliver good results on the social and economic fronts. Among the issues facing Morocco is the worsening of its deficit, which now exceeds 7% of GDP. Youth unemployment remains a disruptive problem, and dealing with the future of the subsidy fund must be a priority for the new cabinet, although very little seems to have been done considering the latest budget proposal.

With the appointment of Mohamed Hassad, the Interior Ministry remains a closely guarded domain of the Monarchists, with operational functions falling on another veteran security man Cherki Draiss, who has been overseeing many security functions in the Ministry and elsewhere for many years.

Our Analysis:

At the end of it all, the government reshuffle is less about the economic development of Morocco but more about good old politics and influence. The retraction of the PJD in the new cabinet represents a temporary victory for the Monarchy, which has long sought to diminish the rising power of the Islamists, culminating with the parliamentary elections that gave them a comfortable number of seats and the King’s promise for more democracy for his people, eventually paving a greater role for the Islamists. But to execute a degradation of the PJD required two political parties to play a parallel role, in a “bad cop-good cop”-like scenario, in which Istiqlal was the bad cop, and RNI was the good one.

The move was simply to get Istiqlal to quit the coalition, making the cabinet essentially incapable of governing, and get another party to replace it if the PJD accepted its conditions. And that’s what the RNI did. Despite being known as “the party of the administration,” previous RNI leaders used to insist on distancing themselves from the Monarchy, in particular Mustapha Mansouri, its recently ousted Secretary General. But Mansouri may have been too vocal in wanting to distance the RNI from the Monarchy and restore the image of an independent opposition party. He was ousted by the so-called reformist movement headed by the now-foreign minister Salaheddine Mezouar, a person close to the Palace. The ousting of Mansouri brought back the Monarchists into the leadership of RNI, which now plays a central role in the cabinet and in the King’s efforts to reduce the impact of the PJD in national politics.

While Mezouar is instrumental in neutralizing the PJD in favor of the monarchy, his takeover of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs indicates that the previous cabinet failed to make any progress in the Western Sahara conflict on behalf of the Kingdom, in a long-standing feud that has been pitting Morocco against its enemy-brother Algeria. In particular, the US Administration has been less accommodating to Morocco, despite many supporters in the US Congress. Having been a key negotiator in the US-Morocco free-trade deal, Mezouar may be seen as more capable to sell the case of Morocco in the United States.

Fresh Start for the PJD:

Still, while many pro-PJD voices hate the idea of reduced power, by imposing its men and women in the cabinet, the Monarchy may have provided the PJD a safe exit out of trouble. Unable to manage, the PJD and by the extension the Islamist movement would have faced more anger from the population and risks losing big time in upcoming elections. This reshuffle, in some sense, gives the Islamists a much needed lifeline to reset the clock. Despite their retraction from the government, they are now in a more comfortable position to reassess their end game, strategies and tactics. For them, it is about battling on many fronts: on the social front, the PJD is still very well respected among Morocco’s working class and the poor. They are likely to strengthen their initiatives there, with focus on grassroots social works. By doing so, they will try to counter any initiative coming from their ultra-conservative foes, the Salafists that are out there causing trouble the way it is happening in Tunisia, Libya, and elsewhere. The Salafist risk does indeed exist in Morocco and a proactive PJD would help neutralize it.

On the other hand, the Moroccan Islamists are witnessing how disastrous their brothers in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere managed their respective governments with enormous backlash against them. This quiet exit could help them save their face and reassess where they stand. Overtime, the PJD will realize that its minority presence in the government may not be a bad deal after all.