Is Moroccan Exceptionalism Falling Apart?
Mohammed Hashas, LUISS University of Rome 31 May 2013

The demands of Moroccans – who are still moving from being subjects to being citizens – are not different from the rest of the Arabs protesting in the streets. What is different is the political history of the country and its present specificity. The seeming advantage of this specificity is that the country delights in having a reformist super-active king, Mohammed VI, who knew how to react to the Arab revolts with his speech on 09 March 2011. A new constitution was drafted by an appointed committee. About 73 % of Moroccans turned out in the referendum of 1 July 2011, and 98 % voted a “yes,” according to the official statistics.[1] The grey area is that the current government seems in a deadlock, unable to deliver its electoral campaign programme of reform because of what it claims to be “pressures” of “crocodiles and ghosts” in the system behind the scenes! The undemocratic games of the pre-Moroccan Spring still influence the political scene and ambiguity reigns over the future of the country. Will Morocco prove its exceptionalism to be that of a smooth democratic transition? If so, it will be “positive exceptionalism.” Or will it be an exceptionalism that blocks, or at least slows down, the rhythm of democratic reforms? If so, it will be “negative exceptionalism,” or “pejorative exceptionalism.” In both cases, the role of the monarchy is undoubtedly crucial, and whatever form exceptionalism takes, it will affect its place in Moroccan politics, future history, and most importantly the Moroccan psyche that overall sympathizes with the current reformist king.[2] This delicate situation of Moroccan exceptionalism stems from the broken post-2011 coalition government. There is a deep political crisis that the Moroccan Spring, and Arab Revolution in general, has not accounted for yet.

The moderate Islamist party of PJD (Justice and Development Party) won the elections of 25 November 2011, and has been running the country, in a coalition government, for the first time. The coalition is “hybrid”, composed of the Independence party that came second in elections, and now holds the offices of six ministries, the Popular Movement (MP) that runs four ministries, and the Party of Progress and Socialism (PPS) that equally runs six others, besides the leading party PJD that runs twelve ministries. (The PPS should not be confused with the largest socialist party The Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP) which is in the opposition.) The coalition took time to be composed, and signed a Charter of Coalition as a way of solidifying team work for one agenda and not as parties that each works its own electoral agenda in the ministries it runs. The electoral system in the country obliges such hybrid coalitions because of the fragmented political parties that it creates.[3]

On September 2012, the second largest party in the coalition, the Independence Party, changed its secretary general in what are seen as the first democratic elections within the party that has been governed by Alfassi family for about eighty years. The new secretary general is a syndicate public figure, besides being a politician: Hamid Chabat. For his rivals, he is a populist. For his constituency, he is a charismatic figure that has arisen from the masses and the General Union of Moroccan Works on the board of which he sits as a president. Since his arrival as a secretary general of the Independence party, he has caused so much debate with the coalition his party supports. Soon after his appointment, he sent two main agendas to the council of ministers that the PJD leader presides over: Abdelilah Benkirane. These two agendas have been neglected, and considered an opposition to the work of the government from a member party that composes this same coalition.

The main content of these agendas are complaints about the way the government has been working since its appointment. Politically, the Independence party under the new leadership of Chabat complains that the PJD monopolizes the governmental internal discussions and taking of decisions; it speaks in the government not as a coalition but as if it were the only party speaking to its constituencies. The government, PJD in particular, is blamed for being very slow in holding and exercizing the powers the new constitution has given to it; the legislative procedures in passing new laws is seen as very slow and a sign that the government (the PJD) is not yet qualified and experienced to run delicate issues and take decisions. Economically, the economic situation of the country has deteriorated and the government, according to Chabat’s complaints and agendas, has not reacted on time. Laws revising the fiscal code and the yearly budget have not been discussed in Parliament yet, and the PJD election campaigns to increase the annual growth rate by 7 per cent has not exceeded 2.5 per cent. Morocco is heading towards international debt, with an increase in that, compared to last year. Socially, the increase in oil-gas prices is opposed by Chabat who defends the weak purchase capacities of the majority of Moroccans; direct recruitment of graduates is blocked by the PJD for reasons of transparency and equality of all, while the Independence party that promised –in the pre-2011 government- to appoint thousands of graduates directly without a national call for application and competition refuses the PJD decision and considers it a breach of the continuity of the state earlier agreed upon policies. Diplomatically, the Independence party under Chabat’s leadership, and other parties in the opposition, sees that the governments’ diplomacy did not react good enough in defending the Moroccan territorial sovereignty and proposals when the US was proposing to the UN security council to send monitors for Human Rights to the Western Sahara territories where the UN peacekeeping force is already based. For many critics of the PJD, it is the King Mohammed VI that invested diplomatically in the issue and blocked the US proposal.

For the above reasons, the national council (or parliament) of the Independence party met on 11 May 2013 and decided with a sweeping majority to withdraw from the coalition of the government. The council left the precise way of withdrawing, the timing, and the negotiations in the hands of the executive committee of the concerned party. This “revolting” decision is seen by most commentators and political stakeholders that it is one of the moves of Chabat against the PJD leader Benkirane. Chabat, in an interview after he overthrew the Alfassi family from running the Independence party, said that it could be possible that he becomes a Head of Government. For some, this is his real aim, and the withdrawal is a step towards its realization. For others, the decision is daring, revolting, and shows that big political parties can still take democratic decisions if they see that their political agenda and participation in the government is not taken into account with the coalition. Chabat’s withdrawal is a card to show that he has a vital role to play in the changing Morocco. He is happy to go to the opposition, a situation the party has hardly taken in its history. For the PJD, Chabat is showing his “political muscles” and his party’s agreement to follow him in this withdrawal is a “blow to the democratic peaceful transition in the country.”

After two weeks of the Independence party’s decision to withdraw from the coalition, there is yet no clear scenario as to what is the future of the current government. Two major steps are still being awaited to go smooth before a clear picture surfaces. One, the party’s council has left the final say to its executive committee. The latter has to manage it now, and there are many scenarios ahead, to which I come back in a while. This committee is still working on its report to be sent, constitutionally, to the head of the government (Benkirane), and the head of state (King Mohammed VI). Second, and most importantly, the head of the state is in an informal visit to France. The withdrawal decision was taken when he was already away. The Independence party has used the constitutional article n. 42 in which the king as head of state is expected to intervene in such situations to stabilize the smooth running of institutions till a solution is found. While expecting the return of the king to the country for a say on the matter, about fifteen scenarios have been pictured by political analyst in the country. I will not list all these scenarios. Rather, I will list four that I see most possible just to make my point that the road ahead is long, and Moroccan exceptionalism may still range between being positive and negative for a while before its finds a stable track to march on.

Scenario one: the current coalition will go on the way it is, according to the will of the monarch, to pursue the reform projects started, though very slowly and in coalition that will no longer be as harmonious as it claimed to be. The leaders of the two leading parties are “political enemies.” Benkirane will not forget that Chabat has betrayed the coalition. As he called him jokingly about four years ago in a TV programme, before the Arab Spring started, Benkirane could be saying that now more seriously: “Chabat is a djinn (‘frit)” that haunts him at work! In such a scenario, Chabat’s decision (i.e. his party’s decision pushed for by his agenda) remains a move of warning to the PJD that they are not alone in the government and cannot use the Arab Spring to establish itself as the sole voice of the masses. Even when that is the case, supposedly, in such a scenario Chabat’s plan is a failure, and makes the PJD fail with it in implementing its political agenda. Both will be stuck together, in a status of failure. The PJD will retain its constituencies’ support but the lesson it will learn is that “politics is not easy yet in the country!” The PJD will neither leave the game nor do well in it, at least in the short run. The monarch will still be the savior that the population turns to, though in voting, they vote this or that party. The socio-economic situation may deteriorate, international debt increase, and the king’s diplomacy in bringing investments to the country will be the main way out to save the country from a heart-attack. The population will be more de-politicized not by being disengaged but by belittling most political parties, including the PJD, and depending on streets’ protests. The 20 February Movement may gain further supporters, and may even increase its demands for radical changes in the country. The scenario keeps the country stable, but the losses at various levels increase.

Scenario two: the revolting Independence party remains in the coalition but either changes its six ministers or gains some more as a way of satisfying the revolution of Chabat. This scenario names Chabat as the winner in this political turmoil. On the ground, the government’s energy will be spent on knowing who is really the leader of the coalition, the PJD and Benkirane, or the Independence and Chabat. The latter will be the winner when it comes to populism and charisma, and Benkirane’s toughness will be looked down at by his partisans and political rivals alike. This could be a sign that the PJD is tamed not by “crocodiles and ghosts of the system” but by “the djinn of Chabat.” The government will not work as smooth as it aspires to, even if changes occur according to this scenario. The positive aspect of this scenario can give fruits if both faces of Benkirane and Chabat are saved, and if they sit together and really talk about the future of the country and how to proceed, maybe by taking into account Chabat’s two agendas of reform he earlier wanted to discuss with the coalition, and to which the PJD paid no attention. This means that the coalition has to re-plan its governmental agenda of the remaining years. This is not easy, and late, but possible. The Moroccan ordinary citizen may look at ministerial changes as another fight over positions and not over policies for the management of the country. The monarch again remains vital for the pacification of relations of a broken coalition and a lost line of work of the government.

Scenario three: new coalitions are possible. Here, assuming that the Independence party executive committee decides to irrevocably leave the coalition, and that the king voices no objection to that, then the PJD has to find other partners to save the coalition. This scenario is very possible. It saves Chabat his “courage” and “records his rebellion” in Moroccan contemporary politics. He may lose the respect of some leading members in his own party, the members that want to stay in government and co-work with the PJD, but he may also be respected as a new leader that can take bold decisions even in tough times in the country’s socio-economic and political situations. From the seat of the opposition, he will keep his populist attack of the PJD and work for the coming local and legislative elections to strengthen his place as a new leader from the masses. As to the PJD, it has to find new allies, that is, at least two other parties that can guarantee its majority in the parliament. The difficult is that most of the big parties that can replace the Independence are strong critics of the PJD, too. The Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP), under the new leadership of Idriss Lechguer who was elected in December 2012, is as critical of the PJD as is Chabat. Moreover, recently, Lechguer has formed a block with two other parties (the Labour Party and the Socialist Party) to strengthen his opposition, and to regain the lost heritage of the party that was vital in the opposition until 1997, when it was recruited in a coalition, and thus entered Moroccan politics as the first Arab socialist party in government. That glamour pre-1997 is gone, and it is possible that the glamour of the PJD may wane away, too, seeing the way it is being dealt with by its allies and the overall political stakeholders. The strong opposition of Modernity and Authenticity Party (PAM) will not accept to coalesce with the PJD, nor will the PJD ask for that, seeing the bitter rivalry between them. The parties the PJD are very possible to go to are the Constitutional Union, which was ready to enter the coalition if invited after the legislative elections of 25 November 2011, and a fraction of the National Rally of Independence (RNI), considering that its other fraction, led by the ex-Minister of Economics Abdellatif Mezzouar, is critical of the PJD and may object to joining coalition. Still, it is highly possible that the national council of the party joins the coalition of the PJD if invited, particularly that there is already a minister in the current government who originally belongs to RNI, but had to leave the party when invited to join the PJD-led government (the concerned minister is Aziz Achennouch). This means that not all RNI is in principle against the political agenda of the PJD. This third scenario will only pacify the political turmoil in the country for a while, but will certainly prove that coalitions in the country are made to save the face, and not to build a strong government. In whatever new coalition scenario, the government will have to adjust a number of issues, and its earlier programme would be hardly met by 2016, the next natural date of legislative elections. The PJD will remain in a strong position in any new coalition, though he will have to live with the “the djinn of Chabat” that will not make him work at ease from the opposition.

Scenario four: the dissolution of the Parliament and call for early legislative elections. This is a difficult scenario. Not far from being impossible, but it is too demanding for the country right now. According to the Constitution of 2011, and in light of the current political situation, the dissolution now can be called for by three bodies: 1) according to article n. 105, the opposition can censure the work of government; it needs to secure one-fifth of the members of the Parliament to pass the call for censure; and it needs absolute majority to make it happen; while the opposition and the Independence party now enjoy the situation of the PJD, they may still not go so far as to censure it, seeing that their aim to break the coalition is done already, however the PJD comes out of it; 2) according to article n. 104, the head of government can give a speech in the Parliament to justify its dissolution; before doing so, he has to consult the king, head of the Parliament, head of the constitutional court, and issue a decree through the council of ministers; Benkirane may still need to do that, even when it is now known that the Independence party plans to use article 42 in which it leaves to the king the say on the matter; 3) according to articles n. 51 and 96, the king may dissolve one of the two chambers, and a new parliament or senate should be in function within two months from the date of the dissolution; the king may also resort to article 59 to announce the status of emergency, after consulting the head of government, head of Parliament, head of the house of the senate, and head of the constitutional court. Such a status happened once in the country in 1965 when the government’s coalition failed, and did not manage to build a new coalition. In this fourth scenario, in which it is most probable that the head of government dissolve Parliament without the intervention of the opposition for censure or the intervention of the king, the PJD will save itself from a weak and incoherent coalition that the abrupt Arab Spring brought it to. It can be its occasion to say to its constituencies, again and again, that “I am not allowed to work democratically, and I leave the government; good luck!” Though some of its members may wish for such an occasion to go back to the opposition, as they once promised if they did not deliver their promises, not all of the leaders of the party would agree on that; they may not like to look weak after “Chabat’s revolution,” who can replace the PJD as the new leader of a new government, with a new coalition – which cannot escape being hybrid, seeing the electoral system and the country’s geographical division of the constituency. As in the other scenarios, the monarch will still play a big role for stability in the country and for peaceful transition. While his return to the country is waited for, to see how this political blockade is to be solved, scenario one above is more possible to take precedence, followed by scenario three, then two, and finally four.

So, is Moroccan exceptionalism falling apart or not? The question to be remembered is whether Morocco is an exception in the first place! Can this political blockade be read as a natural outcome of the democratization process, and the solutions the constitution provides are democratic enough to appease this political tempest? Or will it just add to the socio-economic malaise the country is going through? There is no doubt that the Moroccan is different compared to the region’s political systems. But the fact that the socio-economic crises and cultural dilemmas the country is going through cannot be separated from the political. Chabat’s revolution is full of lessons for Moroccan political thought that three main bodies have to consider seriously: 1) the monarchy, 2) the political society (political parties), 3) and civil society (engaged as well as passive bodies). Moroccan exceptionalism still ranges between the “positive” and “negative” denotation of the “exception,” more to the negative until now than to the positive side, I think. Moroccan political thought still lacks consensus on democratic change, which affects consensus on any other level, be it political, economic, social, or/ and cultural. The spirit of the Arab Revolution is still roaming in the streets, has not amassed enough consensus, and is thus still not politicized. Morocco in this sense is not an exception.

Footnotes

[1] For more on the new Constitution, see Hashas, “Morocco’s New Constitution,” 20 June 2011, at https://www.resetdoc.org/story/00000021656 ; and “Morocco’s New Constitution and Individual Freedoms: What Future Scenarios?” 26 July 2012, at https://www.resetdoc.org/story/00000022044

[2] See Hashas, “The Moroccan Exceptionalsim: ‘We Want Corruption to Go, Change to Come, and the King to Stay!’” 22 February 2011, at http://www.aljazeeratalk.net/en/node/7400

[3]For more on this, see Hashas, “Fragility of the Party System in Morocco and the Way Ahead post-2011 New Constitution and Elections,” 18 April 2012, at https://www.resetdoc.org/story/00000021937