The prospects of the «Bearded Government» in a balkanized Moroccan political paysage
Brahim El Guabli 13 February 2012

Those who know the ways of the Makhzen were not surprised by the victory of PJD. The party possesses two direly needed assets: political virginity and credibility. Cooptation of new elites to “lubrify” its political machinery is one of the Makhzen’s internal policies fixtures. It provides it the ability to continue without being obliged to reform drastically especially that essential reform can be deleterious to regimes founded on obedience and monopolization of power by very few people and thus need a very long time to cope with deep reforms. In 1998, the late King, Hassan II, had recourse to the Socialist Union of the Popular Forces (USFP) to form what came to be known as the government of consensual alternation, to save Morocco from an imminent “heart attack” resulting from unsuccessful socio-economic policies and caused a deep-seated anger among Moroccans. Today it is the role of the PJD to lead the country in a period of political transition amidst the moving sands of politics in the Middle East and North Africa especially that “head hunting” (cooptation of technocrats) policies did not succeed in appeasing the popular discontent with the situation in the country. Moreover, the hybrid Movement for All Democrats, brought together Leftists, Liberals, businesspeople, litterateurs and ex-political detainees under the cloak of the Monarch’s classmate and close friend was not able to succeed in its mission to create a new dynamic in the political arena. Adding insult to injury, Modernity and Authenticity Party, its heir, won only 47 seats in the new parliament, and hence became the fourth political party in the country despite all the resources and alliances it was able to mobilize to crash its opponents namely the Islamists. These are some important elements to take into consideration for a serious analysis of this complicated political scene. Deciphering the genealogy of the political parties and structures inherited from the colonial times require a lot of background information that we will try to give in this article.

November 25th elections: the challenges

The state understood perfectly the importance of a high turnout and guaranteeing the transparency of the electoral process. It seems that the transparency challenge was won because even the parties that lost in these elections did not question their legitimacy and did not cast any doubt on the impartiality of the Ministry of Interior and its employees who supervised the whole electoral process despite the repeated requests of the Left parties of an independent electoral commission, in the footsteps of the Tunisian model, to guarantee independence. Moreover, the number of appeals is very small compared to previous elections even though the National Council for Human Rights confirmed the existence of irregularities during the elections of November 25th.

Professor Maati Monjib identified the high turnout as the second challenge of these elections especially after the huge setback inflicted on the political actors in the country in 2007. The parliament was elected by only 19% of the electorate and many an observer were expecting its dissolution and the organization of new premature elections. Instead of this very democratic scenario, a new political entity (Movement for All Democrats) was launched to stir the stagnant waters of a very static political life under the chairmanship of a very close friend and schoolmate of the king. The regime was very responsive because the power holders could not afford to ignore the strong message delivered to them by the quasi total boycott of the “electoral carnival”, and all its corollary institutions and political elites. Moroccans voiced loudly their discontent with an electoral process that did not improve their standards of living nor broke with the endemic corruption, arrivisme and all sorts of political malpractice. It is not surprising that one of the media success stories, Almassae daily newspaper, contributed immensely, by its satirical cartoons, to deepening lay Moroccan citizens’ awareness in regards to their dire need for new political elite.

Moroccan elections are not only a moment for people to choose a political party to be at the helm of their government for the next five years. They are also a referendum to gauge the popularity of monarchy and its initiatives. It is not surprising that the turnout went from 11% to 45% in a matter of hours on November 25th. To achieve such a result, many people were excluded: one million voters “were omitted” from the updated electoral lists in addition to depriving four million Moroccans living abroad of their constitutional right to vote even though they were allowed to partake in the constitutional reform referendum. Other observers push the issue even further and contend that the real number of the electorate in the country is 22 million which even requires a deeper questioning of the turnout.

Depriving the Moroccan community abroad of their constitutional right to vote reflects the Moroccan authorities fear of losing their ability to control the nature of the people who achieve “parliament-ship” from abroad, especially those affiliated with Justice and Charity Brotherhood, whose members are very dynamic and strongly present among Moroccan communities in Europe. This measure, undemocratic as it is, avoids the regime the internal and external challenges that might ensue from the “misuse” of parliamentary immunity. Second, an unflinchingly critical organization like Justice and Charity Brotherhood could easily turn the parliament into a podium to bash and embarrass the regime. Therefore, even if the official human rights watchdog, the National Council for Human Rights, affirmed that its monitors identified only two cases of voting by POA in the 847 ballot offices they visited, its recommendations fall short of endorsing direct voting abroad despite suggesting voting by mail or electronic voting.

PJD within the party landscape

PJD was born in the incubator of the Makhzen and in its essence is a continuity of the credo of its founder and mentor of its cadres: Dr. El Khatib. This latter, a staunch defender of the monarchy, is referred to, in the party literature, as the President-Founder, and the party cadres remain faithful to his vision. Benkirane’s visit to his widow only one day after the historic victory of the party and his appointment as head of the government should be understood within this framework. A visit whose symbolic purport is the loyalty of the party to the mission of its founder who blazed the path for its members to enter the legal political action after the Interior Ministry denied them the authorization to establish a political party with an Islamic ideology. In the lead up to 1997 Benkirane and “his brothers” joined the Democratic and Constitutional Popular Movement (established by El Khatib in 1967) and went through a process of gradual political integration. It is very telling, when the newly appointed Prime Minister was asked about the nature of his party’s alliance with the administrative party, the Popular Movement, that he resorted to Dr. El Khatib and Mahjoubi Aherdane common history to justify such an enterprise.

Dr El Khatib and Mahjoubi Aherdane are famous for their close ties with the palace in spite of their fallout after the declaration of the state of exception in 1965 and the secession of El Khatib and the formation of the Democratic and Constitutional Popular Movement (1967) that became PJD in 1996.  The pair was also instrumental in the FIDEC (Front for the Defense of Constitutional Institutions) whose contribution was undeniable in derailing the democratic path in Morocco after thwarting the progressive experience of Abdallah Ibrahim’s government. Yet, they played a major role in foiling the attempts of the Independence Party to establish a one party regime in Morocco. Therefore, PJD is not a scary party as some try to portray it. It is faithful to the legacy of its founder. It has never questioned the so-called national constants and its religious ideology overlaps totally with the religious thought of the Makhzen. Moreover, when Ahmed Rissouni made his uncomfortable declarations about the institution of the Commander of the Faithful, his was forced to resign from the party’s newspaper and also from leading its religious wing Unicity and Reform (Attawhīd wa el islāḥ).

Politically, the party reduces problems of Morocco and Moroccans to corruption, rent-seeking and poverty. Issues that do not really pose any threat to the interests of the monarchy and its allies whose biggest fear is genuine political reforms. Moreover, this socio-economic discourse is a double edged sword that carries in within its folds the genes of self-assassination if the party fails to deliver on its promises. The recent (1998-2002) experience of USFP (the Socialist Union of Popular Forces) and its continued setbacks since 2002 are a very good case in point. It went from a very redoubtable player in the Moroccan political arena to joining the chorus of administrative parties whose leadership does anything and everything to lure notables to win seats in parliament, forgetting the progressive ideology that has always shaped its sociopolitical identity and distinguished it as a party of the popular masses in contradiction to the administrative parties whose backbone is made of urban and rural notables.

Many fear a backlash against acquisitions of the Moroccans after this victory. This is a misplaced fear for many reasons. Everything that was said about the ability of PJD to change the rules of the political game is not accurate and is not based on a sound understanding of the long established mechanisms of power in the country where the monarchy plays a major role. The religious field is the province of the Commander of the Faithful by the force of the constitution, and PJD cannot use it to push legislation or curtail individual freedoms as some fear. The size of its victory should not be exaggerated either, it is a victory within continuity that will not effectuate any radical break with the patterns of political behavior prevailing in the country. If a comparison is necessary, the Leftist parties especially the Unified Socialist Left, the Democratic Nahj (Path) and the Democratic Socialist Vanguard Party, thanks to their vitality, strong and operational ideology, can cause more discomfort to the regime than their PJD counterparts. Marginalizing them if they won elections, would be very costly to the image of the regime because of their universal political discourse and their embrace of the culture of human rights and conventional democratic standards, while the Islamists’ discourse is mired in locality and falls short of becoming universal, at least for now. Moreover, Moroccans do not want to see the political models prevalent in the Gulf reproduced in their country in addition the existence of disdain of any sort of “clericalism”.

The alliances of the “Bearded Government”

As noted in the preceding paragraphs, the victory of PJD in the elections of November 25th by winning a quarter of the seats in the Moroccan parliament, and the appointment of its secretary general as prime minister is not in itself an achievement. The latter is facing a myriad of economic, social and political challenges that should not be lost sight of in the midst of the celebration of the electoral process leading to this victory. The debate should focus on the availability of political circumstances, subjective and objective, that will help the “New Comer” to rule and exercise power in an atmosphere conducive to implementing the “political platform” on the basis of which the Moroccan electorate awarded it the 25% of the seats in parliament. “Building new Morocco … Morocco of freedom, dignity, development and justice” was the motto of the party during the campaign. If we may allow ourselves to paraphrase it, the new Morocco should be democratic, transparent, legally and socially just and a place where human dignity is respected.

The party’s diagnosis, according to its electoral platform, reached conclusion that “notwithstanding the availability of exceptional resources for the Government, it has failed to achieve the promised development and neglected the economic equilibrium, which cost Moroccan people huge sacrifices. This failure is the result of the nature the sharp imbalances in the approach adopted in public affairs management, an approach based on control, rent-seeking and corruption” and the party goes on to provide a new approach based on ” good governance at the political, economic, cultural, social and external levels’’ instituting a new culture “based on a true democracy, accountability, fair competition, transparency and integrity emanating from a renewable reading of our Islamic reference and multi-component Moroccan identity for an optimal use of the resources and opportunities”. This important diagnosis of economic and social realities does not identify who caused these disastera. The treatment advocated by the party is not necessarily efficient and gives a feeling of déjà vu. The novelty in this platform is the affirmation of the Islamic dimension of the party’s political reference and this is not a matter of importance.

But how can PJD implement its programs in a hybrid coalition?

The prime minister-designate in a television interview emphasized that his party prefers to strike an alliance with the Democratic Kutla parties, namely the Independence, USFP and the PPS. The “nationalist bloc” was created by the Independence Party and the National Union of the Popular Forces(became USFP in 1970s) to voice their discontent with the measures the King, Hassan II, undertook to end the state of exception and write a new constitution granting him large powers. The two parties also lamented that “because of the sad state that the country finds itself in after more than 14 years after independence, which is characterized by the absence of all democracy; it is because of the domination of privileged and feudal elements and the misery of the peasant and working masses; it is because of the seizure by capitalism and imperialism of the economy of the country, that the Istiqlal party and the UNFP have decided to create the Kutla Wataniyya”. The choice of this name was not fortuitous because of its historical significance and political connotation. It evokes “the National Action Bloc” that fought French colonialism in the thirties, which also may suggest that these two parties considered themselves at war with another form of political tyranny, according to John Damis.

The major common denominator between PJD and IP is their conservatism and their strong belief in the Arabo-Islamic identity of Morocco. The Party of Progress and Socialism, is supposedly a progressive socialist party whose ideology cannot be reconciled with the religious rhetoric of PJD. However, what matters for the party are coveted ministerial portfolios. Ideology is the last thing its leadership thinks about. The Secretary General of the party stated that “whenever the party found itself in a situation where it has to choose between its interests as a party and the interests of the nation as a whole; the party has always chosen the interests of the latter” The national interest can justify anything, even if it is striking an alliance with a party whose ideology is in total opposition with that of a supposedly progressive modernist party. This rush towards the PJD government is grounded in the Moroccan political thought. The survival of parties is contingent on their participation in government. Otherwise, political transhumants begin immediately to join the winners (those in government) and avoid the losers (opposition). This is in itself one of the manifestations of the political stalemate of these parties.

The Popular Movement is historically known as an administrative party. Despite its abovementioned common history with PJD, relying on it to rule is a very risky enterprise because of the prevalence of notables in its ranks. These latter are known for their privileged and very close relationship with the state representatives and they are not usually disciplined to the party instructions. The notables are what Lyautey called the “natural leaders” who play a primordial role in maintaining the political stability and to whom Remy Leveau dedicated his book “The Moroccan Farmer: the Protector of the Throne”. Lyautey wrote that “the natural leaders lead and the others obey”, and these natural leaders will be one of the biggest challenges that PJD will face for the next five years. They are the visible part of a very huge political iceberg that stands in the way of democracy.

In conclusion, we say that the PJD will form a social government. They initiate awareness campaigns against corruption and rent-seeking, they will call for the moralization of public life and might even start an employment policy for the university graduates. They might also open the Moroccan diplomacy more towards the East. However, the biggest challenge will be initiating the institutional reforms necessary to reach the safe shores of democracy. The other positive contribution of this government might be the crystallization of a Conservative Bloc, led by PJD/IP, especially if this alliance is deepened in the future, and a Progressive Bloc, lead by USFP. Morocco needs such a polarization badly to cleanse the political life from inefficient elements and political dinosaurs. That is where real reform begins.


[1] “Bearded Government” is the title of a book by AbdelKabir El Aloui El Mdaghri I (Morocco’s longest-serving Minister of religious affairs and Islamic endowments).



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