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Despotism will enhance Islamists, not defeat them

As Arab Spring revolutions and advocacy overwhelmed the streets of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the main promise prioritised by political groups — ideological or intellectual differences notwithstanding — was democracy. This explains why the appearance of ballot boxes was a key transitory bridge to depart from pre-2011 dictatorships, once the initial uprising phases started to abate. In almost all 2011-2012 elections in the region, moderate Islamists secured majorities in parliaments and started to lead governments, before counter-revolutionary onslaughts were launched. Nevertheless, the hope for democratising political climates persists, albeit unsteadily.

Due to geopolitical proximity, regional ebbs and flows influence the Moroccan public sphere directly. In fact, Morocco follows suit in adopting regional transformations, but localises the outcome. Both the 2011 and 2015 elections brought moderate Islamists to the fore in the guise of the Justice and Development Party (PJD). Given the stiff attack by Moroccan and international opponents, the 2015 regional and local elections were expected to downgrade the government-leading party, but ballot box democracy rebutted them again.

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Different factors increase the PJD’s self-confidence. For a start there is more voter trust. As a result, the party now governs all of the big cities in Morocco. Then we have government perseverance to complete its mandate without resorting to early elections. Finally, we see the government’s success in a number of economic factors, indicated through better performance in some national and international reports. Consequently, the election results have obliged government opponents to review their tactics in preparation for the parliamentary elections in October.

Before last year’s elections, tactics depended on three key elements. The first was strengthening the opposition within decision-making institutions, especially the parliament. Rumours spread that some unseen hands intervened to elect Hamid Chabat and Driss Lachgar as secretaries general of the Istiqlal Party (IP) and the Union for Social Forces Party (USFP) respectively. Chabat immediately withdrew his party’s five ministers from the first government line-up, and signed an agreement with Lachgar to wage a “cultural war” on the PJD, which incited accusations against Abdelilah Benkiran of adhering to policies composed of a surreal mix of Daesh, Al-Nusra Front and Israel’s Mossad spy agency.

The second was the mobilisation of radical opposition outside institutions. When all official players feared youth street activism, the narrative of stability was championed while parties, labour unions and social groups which used to express animosity to the monarchy started blaming the government instead. They all joined in efforts to hamper government work via general strikes nationwide, but in vain.

The third component was the media. On public TV newscasts, e-news sites and newspapers, the scrutiny of government moves or resolutions, and picking out mistakes, became a daily occupation. Sometimes, lies or exaggerations were spread, and ministers reacted by taking journalists to court. Even MPs and the head of the government complained frequently about biased public media coverage. Observers and media critics accuse Channel 2M of being nostalgic for the early days of TV characterised by openness, especially towards comrades on the left. That is why the channel worked hand in hand with previous communication ministers, all of whom were leftists, unlike the current holder of the post.

The tactics today seem to depend on pushing the government to implode. Early in this political season disputes among government parties occurred regarding the management of regional and local coalitions, aggravated by disagreements over reforms and initiatives in education, medicine, financial law, agriculture, retirement systems and the place of the police in the official structure. Observers attribute these disputes to the influence of the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM) on the National Rally of Independents (RNI), though their coalition broke in 2012.

In addition, there are efforts to put the government into a direct clash with popular mobilisation on the street. Different marches and sit-ins have been organised across the country, with indirect encouragement from the opposition. Even though government mismanagement may have triggered some protests, media leaks have also accused Ilyas Elomari of igniting social pressure in Tangier and the national strikes of pharmacists. With Hamid Chabat's silence after the 2015 elections — and the prospects of reconciling with the PJD — the street has regained power as the strongest opposition against government decisions, which the PAM may encourage instead of lead as an opposition party.

On top of that there is the media. A few weeks before becoming the Secretary General of the PAM, Ilyas Elomari launched a multi-faceted media bloc, Last Hour, made up of a sophisticated printing house, a daily newspaper in Arabic, a weekly in French, a magazine in Tamazight (Standard Moroccan Berber), an intellectual magazine and a news-website. The project is allegedly sponsored by Moroccan and Emirati businessmen. In addition, the previous mayor of Tangier, Elomari’s brother, is now the director of Cap Radio, a private channel. The new changes are expected to annex Cap Radio to Last Hour. The most recent revelation is that Rachid Ninni, a renowned government critic, is to launch a TV channel from Spain, allegedly close to the PAM too. These three moves, inter alia, will contribute to the ruthless competition as the 2016 elections approach.

Despite all the preparations, what Moroccans value is change on the ground; deeds not words. The recent PAM national congress exemplifies how aspects of despotism worsen parties' image of absent internal democracy. Before the congress, the party publicised a document explaining its intellectual and political background in order to engage the public. The document was intended principally for discussion during congress sessions.

As it happened, the congress and its document turned out to be a trick. The election of a new secretary general lasted for a few seconds, with clapping and a show of hands. Ilyas Elomari was the only candidate; no one dared to challenge him. There were no electoral rounds or discussions to go through, as if all the participants knew the outcome in advance. For observers and commentators, the way that the congress developed was reminiscent of Stalinism. In his first speech as secretary general, Elomari summarised his party's ideological and political programme in contributing to the confrontation with Islamists and defending Muslims. Instead of explaining who the other parties in this confrontation will be, or whether they distinguish between different Islamists, he narrated a story to exemplify the silent relationship his party hopes to build between the authorities and religious leaders.

With such incongruous discourse, and the stark difference between promises and practices, the opposition will simply strengthen the position of Islamists. If the aim is to defeat them democratically, despotism will be counter-productive; it will enhance the Islamists’ position, not defeat them.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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AfricaArticleMoroccoOpinion
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