Morocco's Islamists Defeated: The Royal Palace and the People

October 14, 2021

Since 2011, Morocco's Justice and Development Party has played the role of the punching bag that is supposed to take the blows instead of the Royal Palace, in order to preserve the image of the monarchy.
Leader of the National Independents Union Party (RNI) and the Minister of Agriculture, Aziz Ahnus holds a press conference on the election results in Rabat, Morocco on September 09, 2021. Photo by Jalal Morchidi, Anadolu Images

The defeat of the Justice and Development Party (PJD) in the most recent general elections in Morocco is a blow for conciliatory Islamism (vis-à-vis the monarchy) and a resounding victory for the Royal Palace. How did the PJD fall from 125 MPs in the House of Representatives, the lower house of parliament, to only 13 MPs, making it the eighth political party in the country? In fact, there is no mystery and one can easily explain this debacle.

The PJD’s critics – and there are many in Morocco – argue that the defeat of the Islamists is the natural consequence of a punishment vote. “During the ten years that they governed Morocco, the Islamists have not been up to the task,” is often heard on Moroccan streets.

This is both true and false. It is true that the PJD lost the elections because it failed miserably on many fronts, primarily the economic and social ones. The party could not improve Moroccans’ economic conditions, could not reduce the huge social disparities, and could not fight against the endemic corruption. It’s claimed that the PJD has not tried to balance power with the Royal Palace by demanding, as the 2011 constitution allows, a real separation of powers.

At the same time, this is not true insofar as the PJD had no control over the government’s strategic decisions. It was certainly at the head of a theoretical majority in the parliament, but the government’s decisions were imposed on it. The parties, which were literally “stuck” to the PJD, came from different backgrounds and did not necessarily share its values and conservative views.

Should we therefore pity the PJD or label it a victim of the system? No. The PJD has voluntarily allowed itself to be drawn into a posture of total submission to the Royal Palace, serving primarily the interests of the monarchy instead of those of the people who voted for it.

Since 2011, when PJD Secretary General Abdelilah Benkirane was appointed head of government, and after his replacement by Saad Dine El Otmani in 2017, the PJD, which won all elections in this period except the latest one, has accepted all the royal cabinet’s diktats.

Apart from the post of head of government, the PJD has let the important ministries, without which nothing can be done in Morocco, slip away and has fallen back on secondary ministerial departments. When PJD officials were appointed, for a time, to head some of these important ministries, such as the Ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs, the Royal Palace placed its men in key positions in order to chaperone the Islamists and to control them.

To this, we must add that the JDP has accepted to take responsibility for all the unpopular measures of the last ten years, knowing that, at the very least, they hurt the feelings of a large part of its electorate, and, at worst, they directly affected their lives.

It was Benkirane, the head of the Moroccan government between 2011 and 2017, who reformed the Compensation Fund to put an end to subsidies for hydrocarbons and several basic products. He also messed with the pension system and imposed the beginning of privatization on the sacrosanct civil service. All of this was to the detriment of the less privileged strata of Moroccan society.

His replacement, El Otmani (2017-2021), a historical anti-Zionist but a self-effacing personality, has swallowed a lot. Above all, at the end of 2020, with his signature, he endorsed the joint declaration by Morocco, the United States, and Israel, thus opening the door to the normalization of diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. By bringing Morocco into the Abraham Accords, El Otmani, a psychiatrist, was well aware that this decision violently hurt the feelings of his constituents and the vast majority of Moroccans.

Whatever he said, he did not have the courage to refuse to sign. By resigning, he would have remained faithful to his personal and partisan convictions. He did not do so, and on September 8, 2021, he paid for it personally and doubly by losing his seat as a deputy and his position as the party’s secretary general.

In all fairness, the PJD is not the only one responsible for its downfall. Other factors also contributed to it. The involvement of the Moroccan state is one of them. For several years, the continuous disclosure of sexual scandals affecting important members of the party by press close to the “deep state” – some real and others invented – contributed to tarnishing the PJD’s reputation.

To this, we must add the direct interventionism of the Minister of the Interior Abdelouafi Laftit in the political life of the country with the aim of putting a spoke in the Islamists’ wheel. For example, it was Laftit, a man of the Royal Palace, who imposed a new electoral law in 2019 that was unfavorable to the PJD. This law brings about a new distribution of seats in the House of Representatives calculated on the basis of the number of registered voters and not of voters. And the funny thing is that this reform was imposed by the Ministry of the Interior on a government led by the main victim of this law: the PJD.

The money that flowed during the elections also contributed to the weakening of the PJD.

The other major factor that contributed to weakening the PJD is the money that flowed during the elections – a fact that was denounced by the Moroccan branch of the NGO Transparency International. Transparency International did not name the beneficiary of this venal strategy, but the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM), which came second with 87 MPs, specifically accused the National Rally of Independents (RNI) which won 102 seats of corruption.

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To sum up, the latest general elections in Morocco, and especially the legislative elections, meant a terrible setback for the PJD and a victory, as a consequence of a long-standing strategy, for the Royal Palace. Not only is the PJD out, but a friend of King Mohammed VI, the billionaire and president of the RNI Aziz Akhannouch has been entrusted with forming the new government.

With a close friend of the sovereign at the head of the government in Morocco, a balkanized parliament, and a reduced and fragmented Islamist opposition, the legislature promises to be quiet and without upheaval – with a downside, however. Since 2011, the PJD has complacently played the role of the villain, the punching bag that is supposed to take the blows instead of the Royal Palace, in order to preserve the image of the monarchy.

The fall of the PJD in Morocco and the appointment of a man from the Royal Palace, who is said to be a newcomer even though he has been heading the Ministry of Agriculture since 2007, changes the situation. Akhannouch and the RNI are creatures of the real Moroccan power. If the new head of government succeeds in his bid to modernize Morocco and reduce social inequalities, it will be to the benefit of the Royal Palace. If he fails, it is the king who will be primarily responsible.

Ali Lmrabet is a Moroccan journalist and a former diplomat. He is the founder and director of several media outlets in Morocco, in Arabic and French, all of which have been banned. He is the holder of several international press awards and was a leading reporter for the Spanish daily El Mundo. He is currently a researcher in history and continues to collaborate with several international media outlets.