Morocco's Abdelilah Benkirane has recently announced that he is freezing his membership of the Justice and Development Party in protest against the government's adoption of a bill to legalise the use of cannabis for medical purposes. He is a former secretary general of the party, so it is a significant move.
The Justice and Development Party is the main Islamic party in Morocco and has been leading coalition governments since 2012. After almost a decade in power, the party has recorded few achievements on the political, economic and security fronts.
Prior to Benkirane's decision, Sheikh Abou Zayd Al-Mokri Al-Idrissi had also announced that he was freezing his membership of the party, and Idris Al-Azmi resigned as head of its National Council. Many senior officials and members of the party have criticised its policies, mainly those introduced by its current Secretary General, Saadeddine Othmani, in his capacity as prime minister, including his signing of the normalisation deal with Israel.
This deal was announced on 10 December last year by then US President Donald Trump. On 22 December, Morocco agreed to begin direct flights, promote economic cooperation, reopen liaison offices and move towards "full diplomatic, peaceful and friendly relations" with the occupation state.
Although Benkirane has not referred to the normalisation deal when discussing his membership of the Justice and Development Party, observers believe that the adoption of the cannabis bill was the final straw for him. According to the president of the Moroccan Observatory Against Normalisation, Dr Ahmed Wihman, the move was "absolutely" a result of the normalisation of ties with Israel. The same is true of Sheikh Al-Idrissi, who also called for the party to reform and return to its founding goals.
Al-Azmi has said that he is confused by what is happening inside his party, with a contradiction between current policies and principles. "I can no longer tolerate nor comprehend, nor can I explain or accept what is happening within the party," he explained. "Are we really still us?"
Many observers view the normalisation deal with Israel as a major flaw for the Islamic party. Some have gone further and claim that it has sold Palestine for the Western Sahara, given that US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the territory appears to have been an integral part of the normalisation deal with Israel. However, Wihman — who is a leftist and opposes the Islamists — rejected this claim. "This would never happen," he told me.
The Secretary General of the National Labour Union of Morocco, Abdelilah El-Halouti, also firmly rejected the claim and stressed that, "The Justice and Development Party is part of Moroccan politics and will never give up its support and solidarity with Palestine."
Many party officials have denied that they sold the Palestinian cause for the Western Sahara. Abdelaziz Aftati is a member of the General Secretariat of the party, and has said that "everything related to normalisation will fall apart" while reiterating his party's support for the Palestinian resistance against the Zionists. "We are part of the Islamic nation, along with the Arab and Muslim peoples, and this nation cannot rise without resisting the Zionists. This is a struggle of existence and we are implicated in it."
Given all of these assurances, it is hard to explain why the leader of the Justice and Development Party signed the deal. Wihman believes that Othmani was obliged to by King Mohammed VI. Nevertheless, "Despite the fact that he was under pressure, he [Othmani] is responsible for what he has signed."
When he was asked by the director of Wihman's anti-normalisation organisation about his decision to sign the deal, Othmani told Aziz Hinnawi that he was part of the Kingdom's politics and he could not reject the king's order. An eyewitness to the meeting between Hinnawi and Othmani said that the prime minister then broke into tears.
In Morocco, signing deals with other states and following up external relations of the Kingdom is the job of the Royal Palace; the prime minister has no power in such issues. According to Wihman, this is stipulated in the Constitution. "Othmani," he said, "did not want to anger the king."
However, Othmani could have resigned, and Wihman believes that he should have done so. El-Halouti, though, pointed out that the Justice and Development Party entered parliament on the basis that it would not challenge the monarchy in any way. "Rejecting normalisation and refusing to sign the deal would have enraged the king and plunged the country into chaos. The resignation of the prime minister would have had serious political, social and economic consequences." The party, he added, chose the least harmful option.
Both Wihman and El-Halouti and others I spoke to insist that Morocco's Justice and Development Party did not give up its principles or any of its goals by normalising relations with Israel. Its objectives remain Moroccan national interests while respecting the Palestinians and their right to resist the Israeli occupation, liberate Palestine and have an independent state.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.