Morocco’s Islamists: Free fall

Lamis Elsharqawy, Wednesday 15 Sep 2021

Al-Ahram Weekly asks whether Islamists are losing a new power threshold in the region

Free fall of Morocco’s Islamists
(photo: AP)

Morocco’s Islamist party suffered the latest in a series of Islamist defeats since the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power in Egypt following popular demonstrations in 2013. More recently, this July, the same fate befell the Ennahda Party government in Tunisia. Now Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD), in power since 2011, lost the parliamentary elections, held last week, securing only 12 (in contrast to 125) out of 395 seats.

National Rally of Independents (RNI) 97-seat win means it will now lead the government. Headed by Aziz Akhannouch, an oil tycoon who has close ties with the monarch, the RNI is now in charge. “Akhannouch’s party has succeeded in appealing to Moroccan voters through presenting a promising electoral platform aimed at strengthening the middle class, especially in the health and education sectors, which were most affected by the coronavirus pandemic, as well as generalising social protection and encouraging investment and free initiative,” said Moulay Boubkir Hamdani, head of Centre for Strategic Thinking and Defence of Democracy (CSTDD) in Morocco.

But even parties who lost were far ahead of the Islamists, with the liberal Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM) and the centre-right Istiqlal Party winning 82 and 78 seats, respectively. All three parties aligned with the palace agenda to remove the Islamists from power. The PJD had failed fight corruption and unemployment, as it had promised and Moroccans have been by and large disappointed since the Islamists latched onto power in 2011.

“There are also other rational factors in this defeat related to the state’s legalisation of charitable work, which constituted the most important mechanism for this party’s support by poor classes, in addition to the retreat of the thesis that political Islam was the alternative capable of solving all societal problems in Morocco. Moreover, there was a massive participation of voters in this election, and the Islamist party used to previously benefit from election boycotts,” Hamdani added. Taking the reins, the RNI now faces the challenge of achieving economic and social reform in a country swept up by the pandemic, where the royal palace has traditionally monopolised social aid initiatives and power remains concentrated in the king’s hands.

Akhannouch, who is appointed by the king, must now start forming a coalition government out of the parties who have the highest numbers of seats, bringing divergent ideologies together. Failing in the elections, former Moroccan prime minister Saadeddine Al-Othmani and PJD head and top leaders announced their mass resignation within an hour of the results, claiming that the new electoral laws applied in March, which have made it more difficult for any party to have a large lead in terms of seats, were introduced to obstruct their party. But the PJD has felt a sense of failure since 2017 when internal divisions resulted in the removal of Abdelilah Benkirane, undermining the party’s unity. Nor could the party prevent normalisation with Israel (in return for US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the contested Western Sahara) and the legalisation of medical cannabis – both decisions made by the king.

According to Intissar Fakir, director of MEI’s North Africa and Sahel programme, the defeat is due to “the new electoral law, the inability to campaign because of the pandemic, and a weak achievement record, as all major initiatives over the past five years were driven by the monarchy”.

Fakir says, “over the past 10 years, the PJD benefited from more popularity and enthusiasm under former prime minister Abdelilah Benkirane. More crucially, under his leadership, the party managed to balance the need to appease the monarchy while maintaining some independence. This balance succeeded in shielding the party from attempts to scapegoat and increased their popular appeal. It helped the PJD to score a majority of seats in the 2016 elections. But since then, under the leadership of Prime Minister Saadedine Othmani, the party shifted away from the balance and focused more on becoming a loyalist party that implements the monarchy’s vision, without too much concern over its grassroots appeal.” But Fakir does not believe this loss will be the end of the party, which retains support among segments of Moroccan society.

The party will be in the opposition, which is a more comfortable place for them, paradoxically even though they have been leading a governing coalition for the past 10 years. Away from the running of government, the PJD will have a chance “to regroup and rebuild its reputation with the voters”, so long as “they do not give into internal fighting and the blame game and focus on formulating a strong message they can use to regain appeal in the next few years.”

The extent of their loss must be a shock for the party, “but it also gives them a chance to decide what the next decade is going to look like. The Islamists in Morocco never did have a full grip, and that is what ultimately caught up to them.” The PJD defeat seems logical to some extent, being a part of a series of rejections in the MENA region of Islamist politics, which have proved incapable of addressing political and social reforms aspired to during the Arab Spring in 2011. “But Moroccans and Tunisians are not primarily disaffected with Ennahda and the PJD because they are Islamist parties, rather it is because they have not provided responsive and successful policies – this is the view among many who voted against them or supported their removal from power,” noted Fakir.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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