Sapping the political will

The Moroccan regime is seeking to cleanse the political arena, draining the debate of any substance. Using traditional pre-February 2011 means to tighten its grip on the population is, however, proving very difficult. By Mohamed Taifouri

By Mohamed Taifouri

Since the sun set on the Arab Spring, Morocco has moved swiftly to cut itself free from its advances, despite the fact that it stood out as the exception in a region that mostly succumbed to turbulence. It does, however, remain wedded to its unique status. It has even gone so far as to halt the reform process in favour of stability – the catchword of the moment – although it had supposedly been ″agreed″ that the country would join the club of ″democratic″ nations.

Most parties on the Moroccan political scene engaged with the democratisation project in a new way, fielding clear manifestos. This proved in stark contrast to the ″alternate government″ experiment attempted in the late 1990s, when leadership rotated between the major opposition parties. This time round there was agreement on a new constitution and early elections were held, which were notable for the apparent neutrality of the state. Other indications also convinced people that the state was making a genuine political offer, turning its back on ceremonial democracy in a move towards true democracy.

But none of this was to be. As soon as the regime realised that the regional and international winds were blowing in its favour, it began back-pedalling; rather than falling into step with the rhythm of the street, the people and the democratic forces within the country, the clock was turned back to suit the decision-makers.

An attack on substance

Yet the regime could not readily use the means it had used prior to February 2011 to tighten its grip on the public and recover the ground it had ceded in the five years since. By now public awareness had increased across society, thereby reducing the state′s room for manoeuvre at a popular level – something that was clearly reflected in the results of the last two elections.

Moroccan Prime Minister Saadeddine Othmani (photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)
Following general elections in October 2016, Morocco suffered a period of political deadlock – ′le blocage′ – lasting five months. In March 2017, King Mohammed VI appointed Saadeddine Othmani as head of government to form a coalition. Made up of representatives from six different parties, the current government is merely confirmation of the fractured state of Moroccan politics

Using various well-known conventional methods to influence voters, the local elections of September 2016 and the legislative elections of October 2016 served to cleanse the political arena, draining the political debate of any substance. Sensing a change in the level of public consciousness among ordinary Moroccans, the confidence of the royal court increased: for six months, the country succumbed to political stalemate – what became known locally as the ′blocage′.

It is said that palace staff continued to work according to the maxim: ″plus ca change, c′est plus la meme chose″.Those advocating autocratic rule and the restoration of order were forced to adjust their approach and direct their efforts in a more promising direction. Most people, seeing the limited concessions the state was prepared to offer the parties and their representatives before each election, saw through the tactics. This time, those loyal to the palace decided to exert direct influence on the political process.

This was achieved by eliminating the remaining parties, in a political scene overflowing with entities best be described as ′administrative parties′ or political boutiques. These are parties whose voices are heard only in election season, or shortly after, when they compete for the largest slice of the governmental pie. Such sham parties were told either to engage in the political process or park themselves in opposition and wait to be assigned a role.Fracturing the political landscape

The parties have therefore begun to fracture, although the divisions are not yet out in the open. For the moment, these are expressed by internal movements with differing views, only occasionally reaching the level of internal conflict, with one side supported either by the deep state or a wing of the regime.

The latter are usually described as the ″pragmatists″: they are looking out for their own interests and don′t wish to clash with the state. Sometimes, they are also called ″technocrats″, particularly if they are from the educated elite who are absorbed into the party by virtue of their educational and technical pedigree, without any background in political activism.

Following the arbitrary and forced ending of the ″alternate government″ experiment in 2002, the Socialist Union of Popular Forces was the first party to fall victim to the regime′s new method of dealing with legitimate parties. Despite the party′s election victory, a large section of the Socialist Union accepted someone who was not from the party′s ranks as prime minister.

A decade and a half on, this same scenario is being repeated today with the Justice and Development Party (JDP), with minor changes dictated by the text of the constitution, namely that the head of government should be from the party that won the elections.

Undermining political parties

The regime has also succeeded in dividing the Muslim Brotherhood within the Justice and Development Party into two factions, to the extent that the two wings can now be talked about openly and not just behind closed doors. One wing is headed by the General Secretary Abdelilah Benkirane (in favour of ongoing reform) and the other by the Prime Minister Saadeddine Othmani (in favour of staying in government and holding high political office).

What the Makhsen are trying to ignore, or to play down, if they′ve already acknowledged it, is the slow elimination of those agencies which intermediate between the people at the grassroots and those at the top, or to put it more succinctly, between the public and the royal court.

This is being done by clearing the political field, preventing substantive discourse and undermining the parties in the eyes of the public. The best indicator of the above is the apparent inability of the intermediaries and the political parties to contain the less than 1-year-old Rif Movement to a limited geographical area.

Mohamed Taifouri

© 2017

Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton