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Morocco’s Islamist party just lost power. So why is it turning to its old leader?

The king had dismissed Abdelilah Benkirane, who had mastered the art of blaming the king for his government’s failures

- November 14, 2021

After leading the government for 10 years, Morocco’s only legal Islamist party, the Party of Justice and Development, suffered an embarrassing defeat in elections in September. Despite an elected parliament, Morocco remains an authoritarian country where the king retains ultimate authority. But after parties allied with the palace triumphed in the recent elections, the king will now have even more influence. The PJD was left with just 13 seats in parliament, down from the 125 it held before elections. The loss was a dramatic setback for the party that first won voters’ trust by promising gradual democratic and economic reforms after the Arab Spring protests.

In response to this defeat, party members voted overwhelmingly on Saturday to reappoint popular former prime minister Abdelilah Benkirane as party leader, replacing the quiet and unassuming Saadeddine Othmani, who some thought was responsible for the party’s declining popularity. While Benkirane led his party to unprecedented back-to-back victories in 2011 and 2016, King Mohammed VI dismissed him in early 2017 after protracted coalition talks with palace-backed parties broke down.

Benkirane’s ouster was widely seen as a sign the palace had grown tired of the charismatic prime minister’s populist rhetoric.

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The rise of the PJD

When the protests sweeping the Arab world reached Morocco in early 2011, the king responded swiftly, calling early elections and promising constitutional reforms that would reduce his powers in favor of the elected government. While the reforms were largely superficial, one significant provision required the king to choose a prime minister from the party that won the most seats. When the PJD won elections in late 2011, the king was obligated to appoint Benkirane prime minister, despite decades of tension between the palace and the Islamists.

Once in power, the PJD did not behave like an Islamist party. It largely conformed with what a political scientist would expect from a co-opted political party with little practical institutional power. Benkirane dutifully shepherded regime initiatives through parliament, including ending popular fuel subsidies and raising the retirement age. Nor did he push for socially conservative policies favored by Islamist voters.

Although the new constitution ostensibly transferred greater power to the elected government, Benkirane and his parliamentarians avoided confrontation with the palace over its prerogatives. The prime minister declined, for example, to assert the government’s right to appoint the heads of major state-run enterprises, deferring to the palace instead.

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Why Benkirane was dismissed

So, how was Benkirane a threat to the palace? In new research, political scientist Sofia Fenner and I draw on extensive interviews and analysis of Benkirane’s rhetoric and behavior to explain why the palace went to unusual lengths to sideline him in early 2017, and why his return to politics may create headaches for King Mohammed VI.

Benkirane never called for regime change or crossed any explicit red lines. But his charisma, informal style and penchant for salacious sound bites turned the king into a topic of everyday gossip, implicating him in stalled reforms and failed promises. Morocco’s kings have long presented themselves as above the fray of everyday politics and ordinary people, serving as neutral arbiter without getting their hands dirty. Benkirane called all of that into question.

In one highly publicized interview from 2016, for instance, Benkirane insisted that he was “not required to please the king, only God who created me and my mother.” The comment turned heads and angered the palace, in part because it suggested the king was no different than any other person. In another interview, Benkirane explained why he didn’t kneel before the king as is custom, noting that, “the king is our king and we hold him in high regard [but] Moroccans kneel for no one but God!” And in an appearance at a PJD rally after the king dismissed him, Benkirane reminded the audience, “the king is not god. He is a man, and as a man he is sometimes right and sometimes wrong.”

Benkirane also routinely made it clear that he was “just an employee of the king.” As he explained in an interview in 2016, “His majesty the king governs Morocco. The prime minister simply assists the king.” And as a result, “the one who bears the real responsibility for the country, its leadership and continuity, before God and the people,” he declared, “is his majesty the king.”

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Power without power

Like other prime ministers in authoritarian parliaments, Benkirane entered office with little in the way of institutional, procedural or policymaking powers. But through his charisma and rhetoric, Benkriane nonetheless managed to wield a different kind of power. His words helped turn the king from a figure normally walled off from public discussion into a topic of everyday conversation. And by speaking plainly about the limitations of his role, Benkirane implicated the monarchy in unpopular policies and stymied democratic reforms. He never blamed the king directly. But his words invited Moroccans to do so — and indeed, in recent years, many have begun to do that.

Benkirane’s rhetorical approach was threatening enough that the king engaged in a damaging public confrontation to remove him in early 2017, intervening directly in parliamentary politics to dismiss him. His replacement, the decidedly uncharismatic Saadeddine Othmani, presided over the PJD’s electoral defeat in September.

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It is unclear whether Benkirane will be able to rehabilitate his party’s reputation after a decade in power, presiding over a long series of unpopular policies. Most Moroccans now see the PJD as little different than the other opportunistic parties that dominate Morocco’s political scene. But the charismatic former prime minister’s return to politics may well shake up the political arena and make way for new public challenges.

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Patrick S. Snyder is a political science PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota, where he specializes in the politics of the Middle East and North Africa.