For as long as many Moroccans can remember, they have been told that their country is moving toward reform. They have likewise heard about the government’s near-constant efforts to advance social and political development. But the net effect of these reforms and development programs, particularly in the political realm, has been minimal. That’s largely by design.
When King Mohammed VI ascended to the throne in 1999, he allowed greater freedoms of the press and enacted meaningful social reforms, such as the 2004 revision of the family code, which granted women greater rights and legal protections. He also oversaw efforts to address human rights violations committed during the rule of his father, Hassan II. Along with improving economic indicators, Morocco began to witness stronger respect for human rights and some social progress, including reduced poverty and infant mortality and improved literacy rates.
But deeper social and economic ills remained, and the marginal gains were fragile, particularly regarding civil liberties such as freedom of the press and of expression. Despite gradual economic improvements, Morocco still struggled with high unemployment, poverty and unequal distribution of wealth. More importantly, no reforms were made to address the near-total concentration of power in the palace.
The monarchy’s finely tuned narrative of Morocco as a liberalizing country remained appealing to observers in the West, who saw the kingdom as a beacon of stability, and a potential economic and security partner, in an increasingly tumultuous region. But domestically it was wearing thin and even becoming a source of popular frustration, as people yearned for tangible results and a shakeup of power structures.
The Arab Spring Hits Morocco—Sort Of
In February 2011, inspired by protests from neighboring Tunisia, Moroccans took to the streets by the thousands, demanding change in a mobilization spearheaded by what became known as the February 20 Movement. Demonstrators called for accountability, transparency, respect for citizens’ rights and an end to cronyism.
Protests and strikes over individual issues by teachers, students, labor unions and others have long been common in Morocco. But the degree and the consistency of the 2011 mobilization, and the nature of protesters’ demands, which directly questioned the fundamental political structure of the country, were unusual. As a result, the movement marked a brief and unprecedented moment in which citizens felt empowered to hold the government accountable for its actions.
No reforms were made to address the near-total concentration of power in the palace.
Although they never posed an existential threat to the monarchy, the protests gave Mohammed VI the chance to solidify his rule and come out on “the right side of history” by cementing his reputation as a reformer. That March, he announced constitutional revisions, notably to broaden the mandate of the prime minister and the government in managing the country, as well as to ensure more respect for basic freedoms. Some activists wanted to see bolder reforms that would transform Morocco into a true constitutional monarchy in the style of Spain or the United Kingdom, and were frustrated that the monarchy had dictated the terms of the constitutional revision without much public debate or consultation. But what the king proposed was sufficiently popular to steal the momentum from the February 20 Movement, even if it did not necessarily satisfy Moroccans’ desire for tangible political change.
Despite international praise for the king’s reforms, which were hailed as an example of an Arab leader responding positively to popular calls for change, there was still a sense of skepticism domestically, where the promise of future reform had long been used as a means to forestall real change. For decades, the monarchy had touted reform internationally as a symbol of Morocco’s continued progress and a justification for its claim to be the best-positioned regional actor to advance its international partners’ interests. In a sense, this was also true for the 2011 reforms, but at the same time they set in motion unintended subtle shifts in political dynamics and the exercise of power in Morocco.
As these changes played out in politics, others were taking place on the ground. While the protest movement of 2011 dissipated, heightened civic engagement and popular interest in domestic politics endured, particularly on social media. The wave of protests across the Arab world, often facilitated by Twitter and Facebook, demonstrated that public opinion could become more influential as citizens became more eager to contest authority. New demands for accountability emerged as Moroccans used social media to speak out about scandals and official corruption that would have previously gone unmentioned.
The constitutional revisions Mohammed VI had crafted in response to the 2011 protests were overwhelmingly approved in a popular referendum that July, and parliamentary elections followed in November. The elections brought to power a coalition led by the country’s mainstream Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (PJD), which over the years had been allowed to gradually participate in politics but had never before been in a position to govern. Leading the government required a significant strategic shift for the PJD, which had previously favored a more cautious approach to politics, fearing that too quick an ascent to power would worry the palace and generate anti-Islamist fears domestically and abroad. Once in control of the coalition government, the PJD needed to balance its own ambitions, the country’s political traditions and post-2011 realities in order to make the most of its time at the helm.
Benkirane’s Political Tactics
In January 2012, PJD Secretary-General Abdelilah Benkirane became prime minister. With years of experience in party politics, including a few in the opposition, Benkirane understood the political dynamics of the country well. He also seemed to appreciate the promise generated by the 2011 protests and reforms. The constitutional revisions, the increased public engagement in politics, the PJD’s reputation as being less coopted and corrupt compared to other parties, and Benkirane’s willingness to take calculated political risks all combined to create favorable circumstances for him and his party.
As prime minister, he had an opportunity to parlay the constitutional changes into a tangible gain for the PJD and perhaps alter the balance of power between political parties and the palace. The monarchy, which had for decades set clearly defined political limits, agreed in the 2011 constitutional reforms to relinquish some of its authority to elected officials, but it was up to Benkirane and his government to determine what that would mean in practice.
Despite international praise for the king’s reforms, there was still a sense of skepticism domestically, where the promise of future reform had long been used to forestall real change.
Throughout its first mandate from 2012 to 2016, the PJD clashed with the monarchy, its advisers and rival politicians over matters of both style and substance. In terms of substance, the PJD was trying to determine how much latitude it had over the practical and specific policy issues that it sought to tackle, from subsidy cuts to judicial reforms and anti-corruption measures. Even more threatening to the established political order were the new PJD government’s efforts to publish a list of beneficiaries of transportation licenses, which are widely known to be granted as favors and political patronage—hinting at its intentions to aggressively fight graft. One of the PJD’s young leaders went so far as to ask whether a monarchy-launched investigation into official corruption at border crossings should be under the purview of the prime minister, not the palace, as per the new constitution.
In matters of style, Benkirane’s openness about his initial tension with the monarchy and his criticism of its advisers irritated the palace; historically, it was highly unusual for Moroccan politicians, particularly members of government, to comment on any tensions with the monarchy. At this phase, the debate among the media and public was largely over Benkirane’s approach, the monarchy’s rumored anger toward him and ultimately whether his unorthodox and potentially risky manner could be dangerous for the PJD. However, Benkirane took pride in his ability to speak candidly about the challenges and limitations that he faced. On the occasions when he sensed he had gone too far, he backtracked and issued apologies—often claiming his statements had been taken out of context—or emphasized that, as prime minister, he is the king’s servant and is only following orders.
Although he seemed to lurch from one crisis with the monarchy to the next, Benkirane was in a sense trying—publicly—to identify the boundaries within which he was operating and determine whether they could be pushed in light of the new constitution and an energized public. In so doing, he sought to expose the degree to which the monarchy dictates everyday politics and governance—both to stress the limitations imposed on his government and to seize on public demands to hold the palace accountable for its actions.
Benkirane’s openness about his initial tension with the monarchy and his criticism of its advisers irritated the palace.
The PJD also faced fierce opposition in parliament from parties loyal to the palace, primarily the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM) and the leftist Socialist Union of Popular Forces. But Benkirane was not one to shy away from a political fight. Even from within, the PJD faced tension and disagreements that would eventually bring down its first coalition government.
In 2013, the PJD struggled to maintain its governing coalition largely due to disagreements with its main partner, the Istiqlal party. Istiqlal criticized what it claimed to be the PJD’s tendency to act alone, and disagreed with its approach to planned subsidy cuts. In July 2013, Istiqlal left the government, bringing down the coalition and ushering in a vulnerable few months for the PJD, as regional sentiment against ruling Islamist parties in Tunisia and Egypt emboldened its critics.
Benkirane, taking a step back from his combative approach, looked to assuage fears. He emphasized that he was primarily serving the king and had limited leverage. Although the PJD went on to form a more stable coalition in October of that year—with the monarchy’s help, as Benkirane stated—the party and the government continued to face tension with the palace and strong opposition in parliament.
As political hostility increased, Benkirane struggled to pass the sorts of reforms he had promised his constituents. Some saw the PJD’s skirmishes with its political partners and opponents as an extension of its struggles with the palace and the monarchy’s attempt to curb its influence. Perhaps realizing the importance of popular perception, Benkirane was always outspoken about how these challenges hamstrung the PJD’s agenda.
Benkirane’s ability to present himself as both a servant and a critic—at least implicitly or indirectly—of the palace has allowed the PJD to avoid the pitfalls that have beset other parties in Morocco. The PJD has successfully worked with the monarchy but is not yet perceived as coopted by it, differentiating itself from monarchist parties without appearing anti-monarchy. And despite the party’s relatively weak legislative record and failure to pass significant reforms, Benkirane has largely avoided blame, as the population appears to have accepted his assertion that on many issues his hands are tied.
Benkirane’s attempts to negotiate a greater role for the prime minister and government are notable regardless of whether or not he has succeeded in doing so. What is important is that he established a precedent of dialogue—a new push and pull between the palace and the government. At a time of increased public interest in governance, Benkirane has managed to challenge some of the underlying assumptions in Moroccan politics, while pushing the palace into public politics.
In the lead-up to the October elections, for instance, Nabil Benabdellah, the minister of housing and the secretary-general of the Party of Progress and Socialism, a member of the PJD coalition, spoke about the political influence of the palace and its advisers. He insinuated that Fouad Ali El Himma, the PAM’s founder and a close friend and adviser to the king, was the embodiment of the method used by the palace to manipulate and control politics. The palace stepped in and issued a communiqué condemning the comments and implicitly warning those critical of El Himma’s role, notably Benkirane.
Although the palace has always dictated the rules of the political game and the players’ marching orders, it has sought to avoid the perception of direct or partisan engagement. The monarchy prefers not to be seen as a political actor but as a guarantor of stability, a force that intervenes when politics fail. However, as the El Himma incident illustrated, these distinctions have become increasingly difficult to maintain, both as a byproduct of Benkirane’s tactics and other changes in the political realm.
Room for Two? The PAM as an Alternative to the PJD
In the lead-up to the 2016 elections, the rivalry between the PJD and the PAM consumed media attention. Members of the two parties traded attacks and barbs that intensified during the campaign. The PJD accused the PAM of representing the status quo and overreaching on account of its proximity to the palace; Benkirane has dismissed the PAM as a “media phenomenon.” The PAM, which has increasingly positioned itself as a counterweight to its Islamist rival, has sought to undermine the PJD’s message of success, attacking its performance in government. PAM leader Ilyas El Omari has even hinted that the PJD is responsible for Islamic extremism in Morocco.
Benkirane established a precedent of dialogue—a new push and pull between the palace and the government.
The intensity of this rivalry has led observers to wonder whether it marks the end of Morocco’s multiparty system. It created a sense that two main spheres of political influence were solidifying around the PJD and the PAM and drawing in the remaining political forces around them. The results of the October parliamentary elections validated this reading: The PAM came in second, with 102 parliamentary seats, compared with the 47 seats they earned in their first parliamentary election, in 2011.
The PAM is a relatively new political party that was formed just ahead of the 2009 local elections, when it captured just 20 local and municipal council seats throughout the country. Since then, it has continued to benefit from its founder’s proximity to the palace. El Himma has held posts in the Ministry of Interior and on a local council, and was able to attract a cadre of political notables and hopefuls into his party’s ranks. However, the PAM’s quick rise to power and its closeness to the monarchy have drawn criticism, and not just from the PJD—El Himma was targeted by the 2011 protesters as a symbol of the cronyism and nepotism that plague Moroccan politics.
As a result, the palace sought to distance itself publicly from the PAM, leading El Himma to resign from the party in 2011. However, after the intensity of the protests passed, El Himma was appointed as a senior royal adviser in 2012. Today he is understood to be a sort of modern-day Grand Vizier, an influential individual and gatekeeper to the king.
Although El Himma took pains to formally remove himself from the party’s leadership, the PAM continues to be a party of political notables. Its ties to the palace bring a certain cachet that appeals to the politically ambitious. That reputation has also helped the PAM build grass-roots support in rural areas where patronage-based politics still predominates.
The intensity of the rivalry between the PJD and PAM has led observers to wonder whether it marks the end of Morocco’s multiparty system.
Over the past few years, the PAM has also sought to bill itself as the main anti-PJD party. Accordingly, it has spent more time campaigning against the PJD than focusing on its own electoral program, in an effort to appeal to those among the urban secular class who are wary of Islamist influence. However, despite the PAM’s growth, the 2016 elections were ultimately an indication of the PJD’s growing popular support, the strength of its platform and the resonance of its message, especially with the urban middle class that forms the majority of its base.
Toward a Two-Party System?
Historically, the palace has favored a multiparty system where no single group is strong enough to compete with the monarchy. In that sense, weakness and incompetence among political actors have ensured the monarchy’s role as the only capable powerbroker. However, the emergence of the PJD as a well-organized and disciplined party that maintained a positive reputation, even after its fairly rocky tenure and modest record in government, is challenging assumptions about Moroccan politics.
The 2016 election only confirmed that. Voters appeared to accept the PJD’s premise that structural limitations, rather than its own shortcomings, had led to its limited achievements in government. Winning 126 of 395 seats is an early indication of the success of the party’s narrative, particularly given that Morocco’s electoral system limits any one party’s ability to gain an outright majority of seats.
However, a political landscape in which a strong, unified PJD is pitted against an array of weaker parties is potentially worrisome for the palace and other political actors. As a result—either through encouragement from the palace, voter choice or both—the PAM has forcefully assumed the mantle of the PJD alternative. For some, this calls into question the durability of the multiparty system, something the Moroccan press has debated at length following the October election.
Weakness and incompetence among political actors have ensured the monarchy’s role as the only capable powerbroker.
Other parties, particularly on the left, appear to have lost relevance and, having lost touch with their base, were overshadowed in the October vote. Istiqlal, which in 2011 came in second with 60 seats, only earned 46 in October, coming in third, and the National Rally of Independents came in fourth with just 37 compared to the 52 they won in 2011.
While the monarchy has a history of creating and supporting loyalist parties, the degree to which it is empowering the PAM as the main adversary to the PJD is difficult to gauge. The PAM’s loyalty to the palace is beyond doubt, but the influence it has gained undermines the monarchy’s strategy of keeping political parties weak. In the past, creating and propping up one party to compete with others that were not necessarily under the palace’s influence perhaps didn’t carry as much of a risk of creating a bipolar system and undermining the multiparty system as it does today.
With the political arena characterized by an intense party rivalry but perhaps less overall dysfunction, the palace may be forced to engage more directly in the messy—and unpopular—political process. Whether as a calculated move by the monarchy to counter the popularity of the Islamists or as a by-product of the PAM’s own genuine electoral strength, the pro-palace party’s rise could paradoxically undermine the monarchy’s role as an apolitical mediator and guarantor of stability if it is viewed as a partisan actor.
Yet that is not to say that the monarchy is jeopardizing its relevance or relinquishing its role. When the PJD struggled to form a second coalition in 2013, the monarchy facilitated the formation of the government.
The PAM’s loyalty to the palace is beyond doubt, but the influence it has gained undermines the monarchy’s strategy of keeping political parties weak.
This sort of intervention reaffirms to the people that politicians come and go, but the monarchy stays. But as the palace remains politically dominant, what is increasingly changing is the way in which political parties engage with it. It is this back and forth between the political parties and the monarchy that is creating new parameters for political behavior in Morocco. The protests of 2011 might not have brought the drastic changes to Morocco that were seen elsewhere, but they set in motion a new political dynamic that is likely to continue to unfold in the coming years.
Morocco’s Changing Foreign Outlook
Historically, Morocco has presented itself as a reliable Western ally and an advocate of regional stability that stood in contrast to its less predictable neighbors. Rabat has prioritized relations with Europe and the United States while maintaining close ties with other Arab monarchies and remaining largely outside of the myriad crises that have consumed the Middle East and North Africa for decades.
In return, Morocco has benefited from Western support on trade, security and the controversial issue of its claims to Western Sahara. On this, however, Morocco’s Western allies have become less reliable in recent years, and Rabat is looking to forge new relationships in ways not seen in decades, particularly with its sub-Saharan neighbors.
The status of Western Sahara has been the most influential force shaping Morocco’s policy in Africa. Some African countries see Western Sahara as an issue of unresolved decolonization; the Polisario Front, a liberation movement representing the Saharawi people, claims sovereignty over the entire territory, but only controls a small strip. Morocco controls the rest.
The dispute has persisted for decades, with repercussions for Rabat’s ties with its African neighbors. In 1984, when the African Union recognized an independent Western Sahara as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic—known by its French acronym, RASD—Morocco withdrew from the organization in response. Though the West has not vigorously protested Morocco’s claim to the former Spanish colony, in recent years NGOs and even governments, acting under growing pressure from activists, have raised questions about human rights abuses in the disputed territory.
On Western Sahara, Morocco’s Western allies have become less reliable, and Rabat is looking to forge new relationships in ways not seen in decades.
At the same time, Morocco’s own approach to the conflict, which is based on “autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty,” is losing steam, and Rabat does not appear to have many alternatives. While Western actors are too concerned about larger regional issues to focus on Western Sahara, Morocco is looking to build productive relationships with Africa as a way to bolster its claims and garner support for its position.
Morocco’s recent engagements in Africa highlight Rabat’s effort to deepen and expand old ties, and build new ones, across the continent. By virtue of geography and history, Morocco has had strong relations with some African states for decades. But the role Morocco could play regionally has been limited due to not only its controversial Western Sahara claims but also the more prominent role of its North African neighbors, Algeria and Libya. However, in recent years these dynamics have changed as Libya grapples with internal conflict and Algeria with uncertainty over its looming transition. Morocco’s rivalry with Algeria remains a point of tension, but not one that is likely to increase as Algiers’ primary leverage—the ability to provoke instability in Western Sahara—carries broader risks now that much of North Africa and the Sahel are already dangerously unstable.
Historically, Europe and the United States have offered more strategic partnerships, leading to increased economic opportunities and security arrangements. But in recent years, various developments have forced Morocco to rethink the extent to which it can count on its traditional partners. In April 2013, the United States supported a U.N. effort to add a human rights-monitoring element to the mandate of the U.N. Mission in Western Sahara, or MINURSO. The move outraged Rabat, which saw it as an act of betrayal. While Morocco was largely able to secure the status quo and prevent the addition of a monitoring mechanism, this incident instilled doubt in Rabat’s mind.
In December 2015, an EU court canceled a trade agreement with Morocco due to concerns over how the deal would impact the lives of Saharawis, after which Morocco temporarily suspended relations with the EU in retaliation. Tensions increased again in March, when Morocco expelled most of MINURSO’s civilian staff following U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s use of the word “occupation” to describe Morocco’s presence in the territories in his remarks during a visit. After decades of tacit Western acceptance of the status quo, these recent crises appear to be diminishing Rabat’s confidence in its partners.
As a result, while still maintaining its strong relationships with the EU and the United States, Morocco is now looking for additional support in Africa. In July, Morocco made a bid to rejoin the AU, and Mohammed VI has spoken of the country “finding its natural place” on the continent. Twenty-eight African countries signed Morocco’s motion to reapply—eight short of the 36 required for readmission—which included a statement calling for the suspension of the RASD. Perhaps beyond a realization of the importance of the AU’s regional role, reaching toward its southern neighbors for support indicates how few avenues Morocco has left on the issue.
In recent years, various developments have forced Morocco to rethink the extent to which it can count on its traditional partners.
Morocco’s outreach across the continent has included a series of high-level trips to various countries in sub-Saharan Africa that intensified this fall, seeking to generate support for Morocco’s bid to rejoin the AU. On a tour that begin in October, Mohammed VI visited Rwanda, Tanzania, Senegal, Ethiopia, Madagascar and Nigeria, accompanied by a large delegation of advisers, officials and notable business representatives. By November, at least 47 bilateral agreements had been signed, covering ventures from real estate, pharmaceuticals, banking and telecommunications to agricultural cooperation.
A broader diplomatic effort to nurture African ties, which predates these recent trips, focused on increasing economic cooperation and positioned Morocco to play a bigger economic role in the continent. The economic element of Morocco’s push toward better cooperation with its sub-Saharan neighbors should not be overlooked. Morocco has already benefited from its trade deals with the EU and United States, and Africa is a potential area for growth.
Foreign policy overtures to African nations with large Muslim populations complement Rabat’s economic and diplomatic outreach. This religious diplomacy reflects Morocco’s attempt to carve out a bigger religious role across the continent and is tied to its domestic efforts to curb the appeal of the extremist discourse. An important pillar in this strategy is to reappropriate the extremist interpretations of Islam touted by radicals and mobilize the country’s moderate Islamic tradition, grounded in Sufism, a more spiritual interpretation of Islam. Morocco has sought to strengthen the religious Sufi links it shares with many West African nations.
In March 2015, Mohammed VI inaugurated the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams in Rabat. According to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the center currently hosts 961 students—including women—from Mali, Nigeria, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and France. In September 2015, the king and French President Francois Hollande signed an initiative to send French imams to the institute in response to France’s struggles with extremism. The training aims to imbue a moderate approach to religious matters and provide religious leaders across Africa with a powerful message of moderation. That can serve as an alternative to the more conservative teachings of the Arab Gulf states or the radical Salafi-based teachings that have become increasingly popular online. This year, the palace launched the Mohammed VI Foundation for African Ulama in the historic University of Quaraouiyine, in Fez. The institute, which hosts 99 members—including women—from about 30 African nations, aims to strengthen religious ties in sub-Saharan Africa and foster greater collaboration on promoting moderation.
Morocco’s multipronged approach to playing a leading religious and economic role on the continent has multiple goals: to grow the economy, counter violent religious extremism and—more importantly from a domestic perspective—gain some traction on Western Sahara. Morocco’s assertion of sovereignty over the territory has always been closely linked to the monarchy. Showing progress on the issue not only serves Morocco’s long-standing foreign policy priorities but could also pay political dividends at home, as the monarchy grapples with even the most subtle of changes.
Where Things Stand Today
The 2011 protests may have not generated profound changes, but they opened a new era for Moroccan politics and society, shaking up the political landscape and empowering citizens to air their grievances. While the February 20 Movement has lost steam, Moroccans have shown their determination to demand justice and accountability. Since 2011, citizens’ awareness and engagement in public discourse has not abated. In October, for example, thousands protested across the country following the death of a fish vendor, Mouhcine Fikri, who jumped into a garbage compactor trying to salvage some $11,000 of fish that police had confiscated and dumped.
Another telling example of this civic energy is the outrage generated online in late November after a television program offered a makeup tutorial for women on how to cover bruises from domestic violence—two days before the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and a 16-day campaign to spread awareness about women’s issues. In both cases, citizens took to Twitter to share information and organize.
The protests of 2011 might not have brought drastic changes to Morocco, but they set in motion a new political dynamic that is likely to continue to unfold in the coming years.
That shift has influenced the political class, too. Benkirane has ushered in an important change as he and others have been emboldened to criticize the palace’s manipulation of politics. That happened in the lead-up to the October 2016 elections, until the palace put a stop to it with a stern communiqué, calling the PJD’s comments a misleading strategy to win votes that could “harm the reputation of citizens, and the sanctity of institutions.”
The monarchy has long been unaccustomed to contesting, responding to or engaging with political statements and actions. These small changes hint at bigger, albeit subtle, shifts in the domestic balance of power. But these changes are fragile and could be undone. Although the monarchy might find it difficult to justify flagrantly rolling back the concessions it has granted, it has a long track record of manipulation, and can continue to find subtle ways to undermine and coopt any forces of opposition.
The monarchy, which had kept away from daily politics, finds itself increasingly drawn in. Likewise, the party landscape is witnessing important changes, as parties that had dominated Moroccan politics for decades are seeing their influence gradually diminish in the face of a growing rivalry between the PJD and the PAM. In its second mandate, the PJD and Benkirane won’t have much of a choice but to move forward with their electoral promise to carve out a greater role for elected officials. After all, their political fate may depend on it.
Intissar Fakir is editor-in-chief of Sada, Carnegie’s Middle East online journal. She focuses on politics, political reform and transitions, and socioeconomic issues in North Africa.