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Why remove Benkirane but keep his party?

Image of Moroccan Prime Minister, Abdelilah Benkirane [file photo]
Moroccan Prime Minister, Abdelilah Benkirane [file photo]

Even before last October’s legislative elections it was clear that the real authority in Morocco, which is basically the royal palace and its surroundings, does not want Islamists to continue to be part of the government. The implicit rejection of the only recognised Islamic political party in the country was demonstrated in the highly-charged election campaign which sought to incite public opinion against the incumbent prime minister and his Justice and Development Party (PJD). This included a protest march against turning Morocco into “a Brotherhood state”; the organisers remain “unknown”. The campaign went beyond politic into personal and moral matters, targeting the personal lives of the PJD’s leaders in order to discredit the values it stands for.

After the elections — from which the PJD again emerged as the most successful party — the “deep state” resorted to obstructing the formation of a coalition government led by the PJD’s Abdelilah Benkirane, the prime minister of the previous government. What the authority failed to do pre-election it tried to do post-election as he struggled to form a coalition. Possible coalition partners, loyal to the palace rather than the electorate, set impossible conditions for their parties joining the prime minister-designate; every time Benkirane made a concession, he faced new conditions. It was clear that they aimed to block him. This prompted Benkirane to ask King Mohammed VI to relieve him of his duties since he was unable to carry out the task he was assigned by the terms of the constitution.

Read: Morocco’s king replaces PM Benkirane amid post-election deadlock

The former prime minister went to the palace and was surprised to learn that the decision to remove him as PM-designate had already been taken. He was informed of this by the king’s advisors and was disappointed that he could not meet the monarch himself, for he had prepared a detailed report on five months of lengthy negotiations, at the end of which it became clear that the presence of Benkirane himself at the head of the executive branch in Morocco was troublesome to the central authority on more than one level.

Benkirane was not relieved of his duties because he failed to form a government, as governments and the majority in Morocco are made through decisions of the central authority. Most political parties in Morocco have been created by this authority, and even historically legitimate parties rarely show independence of decision-making. What happened with Benkirane is that he has been displaced; it was a political decision. He was not relieved of his duties as the official media in Morocco claims. The decision to relieve the country’s head of the government is only made when he resigns. Benkirane, though, is still head of the outgoing government and the mission with which he was entrusted by the king — the formation of a new government — has been terminated. This is primarily a political decision intended to end his political career for a number of reasons.

The outgoing prime minister’s statements over the past two years made him the biggest official opponent of Morocco’s deep state. He criticised the infrastructure of the central authority in the country; when he spoke about “control”, it was a euphemism for the “authoritarianism” of the Moroccan regime. He spoke about the existence of two states in Morocco: an official one headed by the king, and another one— the deep state, we can call it — about which he as head of the government knows little, not even who leads it, although it makes the decisions and appoints people.

Furthermore, Benkirane’s popularity is growing. This is a concern for the central authority as it wants no competitors, especially if such a popular person has democratic legitimacy and a religious basis, which is the same reference from which the regime in Morocco derives its own legitimacy.

In addition, Benkirane has been removed because he is clean and can’t be bought. This makes him strong in the face of all attempts to control him, and enabled him to resist all the pressures he faced, although he was sometimes pushed him to make big concessions. However, the deep state could not succeed in breaking his resistance or containing him.

After the political decision to remove Benkirare, it is clear that the target of the anti-Islamist campaign was Benkirane himself and not his party, the PJD. King Mohammed VI told the newly-appointed Prime Minister-designate, Saad Eddin Othmani, that he is ready to work with the Islamic movement; Othmani is the deputy leader of the PJD. The palace is still in dire need of the Justice and Development Party because of its growing popularity; it will be used to cover unpopular decisions being made by the king, notably the move to liberalise the exchange rate of the Moroccan dirham, which will lead to a rise in prices and the cost of living, and will have a negative impact on the purchasing power of the poorer people. Such a move needs a party with popular support to get it through. The PJD in government has already taken harsh, unpopular decisions with no negative effect on social stability in Morocco. Other parties may be under the control of the palace but they are weak, electorally, and so can’t govern as effectively as the PJD. As such, the palace can’t afford to have Benkirane’s party in opposition.

Othmani is flexible and accepted within his party. His mission to form the government will be made easier because the parties that placed impossible conditions before Benkirane will obey the orders of the palace if the king wants Othmani to take the government forward.

The major losers in these political manoeuvres are Morocco’s democracy and people. In the absence of genuine political will to strengthen and develop the former, the latter are paying the price for these democratic setbacks.

Translated from Al-Araby Al-Jadid, 22 March 2017

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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