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Could the military coup against the Islamist government in Egypt impact the fate of Justice and Development party (PJD) in Morocco? Two years ago, several commentators drew analogies between the youth movements in Egypt and Morocco.  Some even predicted that 20th February Movement would play a major role in the future political process in Morocco. The gradual shrinking of the protests following King Mohamed VI’s appeasing speech on March 9, 2011, however, showed that the movement was unable to sustain itself or continue to mobilize public opinion for a long time. The movement lacked both a political vision and strong organization. More importantly, the movement embraced a revolutionary rhetoric and allied itself with radical political entities (from the perspective of the establishment) such as Adl Wal-Ihssan and the Party of the Unified Socialist Left, and thus estranged itself from mainstream opinion. The public feeling was that political reforms could be conducted peacefully in order to avoid the chaos and destruction which accompanied similar uprisings in Libya, Yemen, and Syria.

The spectacular victory of the PJD in the 2011 elections was a direct outcome of this peaceful process. The new constitution which had been approved in a referendum in July of the same year, introduced significant reforms further empowering the Parliament and the government and limiting some of the traditional prerogatives of the king (see my earlier post on the Moroccan Spring November 2012). Though not wholly satisfactory to the vast Moroccan public, the constitution was an important step toward establishing democratic institutions. It signaled a reprise of reforms initiated by the king as early as 2000 when he had come to power.

Though PJD won 107 seats out of 395, it was necessary for the party to make serious concessions to other parties in the coalition. This was the first crucial difference between the Egyptian party of Freedom and Justice and the PJD. The PJD declared that its mission was to consolidate the status quo and work hand in hand with the Palace. Its priorities included fighting corruption, fraud and injustice, introducing fair play regulations, ensuring transparent and accountable governance, equal opportunities and free access to information. In a fragmented political landscape where over 30 parties operate, the PJD had to negotiate new alliances based on pragmatic ideals rather than ideological principles. The PJD-led coalition included three other parties of different political tendencies ranging from socialism to the conservative right. It was certainly a marriage of convenience and to many observers, the prospects seemed unexciting not to say anticlimactic.

Current PJD led government

Current PJD led government

Still, the PJD-led government used a powerful rhetoric professing determination to modernize administration and purge it from the corrupt practices which marred its efficiency. This particular vocation seemed to resonate well with the public. Clearly, no government had been so firm and clear in fighting decades of institutionalized corruption. But the promises to stand against monopoly, nepotism and unlawful concessions could not easily be translated into legislature much less to faits accomplis. The government’s efforts, for instance, to introduce reforms into the Audio-visual sector, organize the transportation and fishing licenses, and exploitation of numerous quarries were faced with furious resistance from various forces in the parliament, the media, and social organizations.

The PJD ministers were singled out for harsh criticism in the printed and electronic media. They were populist, amateurish, and undemocratic. The increasing fallouts of the global economic crisis on the Moroccan economy did not make the task of the government any easier. The Prime Minister was held accountable for the deteriorated living conditions of the Moroccans. The decisions to raise the prices of oil gave the opposition a suitable motive to attack the government’s policies. Other structural reform projects undertaken by the government involving the judiciary, status of NGOs, public health, administration, education, finance, pension  etc were in turn subjected to serious questioning and, to what PJD officials claim, a vicious campaign of falsification and defamation.

PM Abdeilah Benkirane with King Mohamed VI

PM Abdeilah Benkirane with King Mohamed VI

Why did the opposition parties and media take a hard stand against the government even when the margins of its maneuver remained considerably small?  During a recent state visit of the Turkish PM, Tayyip Erdoğan to Morocco, the government felt particularly embarrassed that the representatives of the private sector refrained from meeting their Turkish counterparts. Was this a mere procedural gaffe?

The most hurtful attacks, however, came from a strong political ally in the coalition– the Istiqlal Party. Since he was elected General Secretary of the Istiqlal (independence) party in September 2012, Mr Abdelhamid Chabat has conducted a confrontational policy against the PJD and put pressures on his partners in the coalition to undertake immediate government reshuffle. In subsequent weeks and months when his demands were met with deaf ears, he stepped up his criticism in terms that puzzled even the opposition parties. What was he after? Did he want a repartition of the portfolios in order to reward his own faithful partisans? Did he seek to paralyze the government in order to proceed to new elections? Chabat was a self-made man, a Moroccan version of Lech Wałęsa, as he likes to call himself. To his opponents, he was a profiteer who moved up through the ranks by turning against his benefactors. During the last four years he became the Secretary General of the party syndicate (UGTM), the Mayor of the city of Fes, and now head of the oldest party in the country.

Hamid Chabat

Secretary General of the Independence Party, Hamid Chabat

Over the last three months Chabat created a great deal of sensation in the local media through his ludicrous declarations against the government and continued threats to withdraw his ministers from the coalition.  In particular, his accusations that the PJD party seeks to ‘Islamicize’ the state and undermine democratic institutions were seen as a desperate gesture to wrest some concessions from the Prime Minister. Eventually, Chabat who had applied for the king’s arbitration in his dispute with his partners in the coalition was given to understand that the constitution provided terms for settling the political imbroglio which he had himself created in the first place.

The resignation of five Istiqlal ministers out of six now opens the door for a government reshuffle. Will the opposition party, the National Rally of Independents (RNI) make a more cooperative ally? Will the difficulties of the PJD-led government be eased after the withdrawal of the Istiqlal party? Could Chabat maintain his assertive tone among his partisans now that he has caused his party to lose its seats in government? The political landscape in Morocco has never been as interesting as it is today.

The chances that the Islamists in Morocco will be removed from power as in the Egyptian case are meager. First, the opposition parties have limited popular support and present no serious challenge to the government. Sporadic attacks from the media and political opponents like Chabat only sustain the PJD leaders’ claim that there are pockets of resistance which feel threatened by the government’s reform policies and wish to thwart the course of democratic change. Second, PJD leaders declare that they are staunch supporters of monarchy with which, they assert, they have excellent rapport. Third, the PJD leaders have expressed their willingness to go to early elections if the necessity arises, and are confident that they still enjoy sufficient popularity to come back even stronger.

Nearly two years after its appointment, the record of the current coalition is not very impressive. There is a slow pace of achievement and, given the economic downturn, the odds are that no breakthrough will be made in fixing the country’s chronic economic and social problems. Still the unfolding Egyptian scenario presents a sobering lesson to Moroccan Islamists.