Royal influence at play in Morocco's election

Royal influence at play in Morocco's election
Comment: The Moroccan king and his advisers have been waging an insidious war that attempts to block the re-election of the Islamist party, writes Omar Brouksy
8 min read
06 Oct, 2016
Vice Secretary-General of Morocco's Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), Ilyas El Omari [Getty]

Just what is the palace up to? Only a few days before the October 7th vote to renew the upper house of the Moroccan parliament, King Mohammed VI and his advisers were waging an insidious war against the Party of Islamist Justice and Development (PJD). Their aim is to prevent the Islamists from continuing to head the government, despite its powers being very limited.

Five years after winning the 2011 legislative election, the PJD is again the big favorite for this eagerly awaited vote. Curiously enough, it's participation in the executive branch - with a head of government and several ministers, including the minister of justice, Mustapha Ramid - in no way weakened the party, which represents a "moderate" Islamism and explicitly recognises the King's religious authority.

According to a source inside the Ministry of Home Affairs - run since 2013 by Muhammud Hassad, a minister on close terms with the Palace - at least two opinion polls held recently by the ministry put the PJD in first place. The same source found that the conservative Istiqlal party would take second place, ahead of the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), also known as the "King's party". 

Founded in 2008 by Fouad Al el-Himma, a former classmate of Mohammed VI at the Royal College in Rabat, and today his closest adviser, the PAM is mainly composed of wealthy dignitaries capable of financing an electoral campaign. Of these, the best-known is the PAM candidate in Kenitra (near Rabat), Fawzi Chaabi, the son of billionaire Miloud Chaabi, who has the second largest fortune in Morocco after the King's.

The PAM was originally created to counterbalance the PJD, however "soft" its version of Islam, by acknowledging the monarch as commander of the believers and taking part in every election since 1997. The orthodox guardians of the temple believe that Muhammud VI alone should embody the "religious sphere" via an official Islam represented by the Council of the Ulemas, over which he presides. The royal court is likely have a hard time swallowing another electoral victory by Benkirane and his "brothers".

'Attahakkoum' - a slogan to combat a smear campaign

Verbal instructions were given to the governors and tribal chiefs, the representatives of the Ministry of Home Affairs in the provinces, cities and neighborhoods across the realm: The local and national activities of the PJD aimed at mobilising followers for the coming elections were to be systematically banned and smear campaigns targeting the private lives of the party's leaders were carefully orchestrated by newspapers close to the various Moroccan agencies. In short, the human and material resources of the state were called upon in order to favor the PAM candidates at the expense of the PJD.

To cope with this offensive, the Islamist party and its allies have built their response around a watchword which says both too much, and yet not enough: "Attahakkoum", a word which means simply "remote control" in reference to the device used to operate a TV from afar.

The resources of the state were called upon in order to favor the PAM candidates at the expense of the PJD

Employed by PJD leaders, and particularly by Benkirane himself in his many interviews, Attahakkoum has spread like wild fire in the Moroccan press. In just a few days it became a slogan hostile to the King's entourage, but without any names mentioned. It was not until July 1st 2016, during a wide-ranging interview for an independent website, that Benkirane actually mentioned the name of Fouad Ali El Himma, the king's friend and adviser.

"The efforts to bring the PJD under remote control began when our party won 42 seats in the parliamentary elections of 2002. The Attahakkoum experts who regard politics as nothing more than a game for children and want to control everything, went out of their minds. At the time, the late Meziane Belfkih [an adviser to the king who died in May 2010] said to me 'They'll make you pay for this victory'.

After the May 2003 terrorist attacks in Casablanca, they thought the time had come finish with the PJD, but they were wrong."

The interviewer kept insisting he give a name and Abdelilah finally replied: "Moroccans understand me: When I want to name names, I do so. Today Fouad Ali El Himma is one of the King's advisers, so please don't force me to speak his name."

On September 8th 2016, Nabil Benabdellah, the housing minister and leader of the Party of Progress and Socialism (a member of the government coalition), described the founder of the PAM as one of the architects of Attahakkoum: "We have no issues with the PAM as a party, he said, but with its founder, the man behind the party, who is the very embodiment of Attahakkoum.

A remote-controlled, orchestrated protest

The "royal cabinet" immediately issued an angry communique: "Mr. Nabil Benabdallah's recent declarations [...] are an attempt to create a diversion in this electoral period, which requires that everyone refrain from launching unfounded accusations."

The Palace alluded to Attahakkoum without actually naming it. "One must not employ concepts that damage the reputation of the mother country and the credibility of its institutions in an attempt to win votes and gain the sympathy of voters." The King's advisers "act only within the limits of their functions, in accordance with precise instructions handed down directly by His Majesty the King," the Royal Cabinet's communique concludes.

The battle against corruption has failed and according to the latest report from Transparency International, the country has fallen from 80th to the 88th

A few days later, on Sunday September 18th, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly from the poor neighborhoods in cities across the country, were brought by bus and truck to Casablanca to demonstrate "against Benkirane" and against "the islamisation of Moroccan society", as their placards proclaimed in formal Arabic.

The way that this "spontaneous demonstration" was organised and conducted can leave no doubt about the collaboration that exists between PAM dignitaries and the local enforcement authorities. In the videos shown on news websites and social networks, some of the "demonstrators" didn't even know why they were there. Others said they were brought there by PAM cadres and the local representatives of the Department of Home Affairs.

"It's the tractor party [the PAM] that brought us here", said one man. "They made us come by bus. We're just protesting… We actually don't know why we're here..."

"If it keeps on playing the firefighter-cum-arsonist, the state is likely to burn down the house of Morocco!" warned an editorial on the website "This weekend, the State proved it was pulling out all the stops to block the progress of the PJD, with the risk of upsetting the stability of the country of which it claims to be the mainstay."

A mixed record

And yet the Islamist party's record over the past five years leaves a lot to be desired. None of the promises of its 2011 platform have been kept: The battle against corruption has failed and according to the latest report from Transparency International, the country has fallen from the 80th to the 88th rank.

The reform of the compensation fund, which costs the country six percent of its GDP, and which was one the PJD's central priorities, has simply not taken place; as for unemployment among young people, numbers over the past five years have grown to explosive proportions. 

Public meetings and peaceful demonstrations have been banned, newspapers censured, journalists arrested

The two most significant decisions taken by the Benkirane government during his term of office were both detrimental for the country's most vulnerable social categories, the very people who provided the main support for the Islamists' victory. On the one hand, the increase in the price of petrol when the cost per barrel had been cut in half; and on the other, the "reform" of the retirement plan which mostly punished civil service workers, whose contributions rose from 10 to 14 percent.

To all of this must be added the infringements of human rights, which have grown worse since 2012 and have been greeted with complicit silence among the PJD leadership: Public meetings and peaceful demonstrations have been banned, newspapers censured, journalists arrested, such as Ali Anzoula in October 2013, as well as activist Hicham Mansouri.

This "silence" was perceived by the media as the PJD's concession to the Palace in order to stop being considered the "black sheep" of a party system that includes over 40 organisations.

The existing tension between the Palace and the Islamist party would seem to indicate that this objective has not been attained, and that the King's entourage, embodied by the very influential Fouad Ali El Himma, still see the "party of God" as an organisation "different" from other parties and particularly from the "King's party".

The 2011 constitution obliges the King to appoint a prime minister from the party that wins the parliamentary election. Thus, if the PJD wins on October 7th, the need to renew Benkirane's term of office will be obvious to all. Unless of course ballot-box stuffing and the old reflexes from the reign of Hassan II surface again.

Omar Brouksy is a Moroccan journalist and academic, author of Mohammed VI derrière les masques, Le Fils de notre ami Ed. Nouveau Monde, Paris, 2014.

This is an edited translation, originally published in French by our partners at OrientXXI.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.