The Farcical Parliament Of Morocco – Analysis


Morocco’s late King Hassan II, incensed by the puerile quibbling that took place in the parliament of his time, that was, after all, a mere rubber-stamp of his autocratic policies, called it a ‘true circus’.

By labeling parliament a circus this amounted to calling indirectly the parliamentarians clowns making pitiful grimaces, funny sounds and atrocious gestures to amuse the gallery.

Today, not much has changed in this honorable institution, in spite of the fact that the Arab Spring constitution gave this legislative body, along with the executive, more power and more room for political maneuverings.

But alas, such a constitution was unable to give this institution more life, wisdom and predisposition to serve the interests of those who elected its members to this position.

The Parliament Is No More Than A Political Toy

Morocco's King Hassan II. Photo by Felicia L. Wilson, DoD, Wikipedia Commons.
Morocco’s King Hassan II. Photo by Felicia L. Wilson, DoD, Wikipedia Commons.

During the lifetime of the late King Hassan II, after two successive failed military coups in the early 70s of the last century, he took control of all power in his hands and emasculated the historical political parties by creating a multitude of cloned parties at his beck and call, commandeered by his faithful servant, Driss Basri, Minister of the Interior, then.

The top brass of these parties were appointed by this ministry, which provided, also, the funds, the militants and the party line.

These so-called parties, mocked by the population and snubbed by the electorate, were dubbed by the critics: “administrative parties” and, also, “pressure cooker parties”.

They had a fuzzy political program, which in many ways was an extension of the palace policy line and almost no economic platform, other than that of the government of the day.

This is stated clearly by the researcher Drisse Jandari in his excellent work entitled: “Political Party Experience in Morocco: Obscurity and Obfuscation”:i

“The political regime- through instigating political schisms- has succeeded in undermining the political foundations of the major parties that had until recently been effective partners in power, but which have now become small, splintered parties with no genuine popular spread. This has obviously affected their ability to negotiate and their capacity to make proposals. In turn, this has allowed the monarchy to monopolize the political decisions and to shape them according to its interests. Finally, this has led to the transformation of national parties into administrative parties that compete for favor from the monarchy in order to implement projects planned by technocrats and executed under ministerial auspices that are distributed according to perceived loyalty, flexibility and nepotism.”

These parties were not democratic, in the least, and could not aspire, as such, to democratic practices. Their heads were appointed by the palace and they themselves appointed the rest of the party bureau and regional representatives. In a way, rather than things move from the bottom up, as is the case in democratic parties, in these political ensembles, it is the contrary, they move from the top down.
Given that these parties were not in the least transparent, they recruited their membership from three specific grounds:

  1. Tribal leadership and notables, who provide the party with a large pool of electorate in the countryside, without pain, and exhibiting indefectible allegiance, no matter what;
  2. Urban bourgeoisie, which provides funds and support in return of economic privileges; and
  3. Failed intellectuals and artists who want to make a name for themselves.

These parties presented candidates all over the country, few months after their founding, and won seats by massive corruption of the electorate and in case that does not give the expected results, the Ministry of the Interior intervened to rig the elections in their favor.

Moroccans, to make fun of widespread corruption in legislative elections, circulate the following joke:

“A man presents his candidacy for a seat in the parliament in a rural constituency under the banner of an ‘administrative party’, promises jobs, roads, schools and a hospital. The peasants obnubilated by his eloquence and charmed by his juicy promises voted massively for him. During his tenure, he never, ever visited his constituency or inquired about the wellbeing of its inhabitants. After five years, when legislative elections were up again. He showed up one fine day to the constituency in a posh Mercedes Benz car, sporting an expensive suit and a fat belly and smoking a cigar. The peasants insulted by his brazen presence started jeering at him. He took the floor and argued that he, indeed, did not defend their interests during his first tenure because he was busy getting rich and now that he is comfortable, he will see to it that their needs are attended. However, if they decide to vote for one of his opponents, they will make a serious mistake, because that person, also, will just do like he did and they will loose out again. But, if they re-elect him, this time around, he will defend their rights and make up for the lost time.”

Once elected, the party candidates become toy politicians in the hand of the Ministry of the Interior by which it furthers its interests and keeps traditional parties at bay. This practice initiated in 1970 by Hassan II lasted until 1996, when feeling very sick and in terminal phase, he decided to put an end this autocratic practice, by revamping the constitution, declaring amnesty on all political opposition figures, in exile, and calling upon the opposition to form a consensual government to prepare the political transition.

Impeded by so many undeclared red lines, the opposition could not perform properly in the parliament while the administrative parliamentarians could not afford to bite the hand that feeds them, as such, the debates in the parliament turned to trivial quibbling involving personal matters and this practice, ultimately, became a Moroccan political culture that continues today unabated.

For Nicu Popescu, a senior analyst at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris, the Moroccan political system is a strange hybrid, that, somewhat, works and keeps the country going :ii

“Morocco’s political system is a strange-ish hybrid. One the one hand it has a dominant monarchy with strong executive powers. The monarchy dominates political and economic life. The king reigns and governs. Yet, Morocco also has a multi-party system, holds regular elections which are judged as relatively free and fair, and has alternating governments. The parties that win most votes at the election are invited to head the government. But while elections lead to changes of government, the winning parties do not really govern. They might be in government, but they don’t govern; and whereas the political pendulum is swinging once in a while, political power did not. “

Are Political Parties, Political Parties?

During Hassan II’s long reign, the period extending from 1970 to 1996 was known as sanawat rasas “the Lead Years” because of the fierce repression exerted on the left and far left opposition, starting with the physical liquidation of the Union Nationale des Forces Populaires (UNFP) leader Ben Barka and moving on to the incarceration of all political opponents in secret prisons such as Tazmamart and Qal’at Megouna in the southeast. Because of this systematic political repression, the youth shunned politics for fear of death or imprisonment and this still continues today.

Hicham Kasmi expresses explicitly the same view, in his article published in Morocco World News on January 31, 2013:iii

“In attempting to understand the poor participation of Moroccan youth in politics, one should take a step backward in Moroccan history. Among the things the Moroccan youth inherited is the fear from “Almakhzen” (authorities) coming from “Sanawat Arasas” (years of lead) when demonstrations were faced by force, and youth were sent to prisons as the famous “Derb moulay chrif.” I think that the dark history of Morocco is still affecting the youth’s perception of politics, and pushes them to reconsider the idea of participating in political life. This may account for the famous answer I got from the majority of my respondents: “Siyassa fiha ghi sda3 o lmashakil” or in English, ‘politics is too risky.’ “

To fill the political vacuum created by the repression of the left political forces, King Hassan II cloned subservient political parties to show the world that Morocco is a democratic country, but because these so-called parties were not true political parties but rather interest groups, their members always trying to make hay while the sun shines and embarking on massing riches for themselves and their extended families and making the most of the rentier state made available to them.

This state of being made corruption an acceptable practice, almost legal. A French political science professor, by the name of Pallazoli, at Mohammed V University in the 1970s, argued convincingly in his “Moroccan Politics” class that Morocco ought to consider taxing corruption money, to get some return from an unstoppable practice, anyway.

This new political atmosphere led to the creation of a new class of politicians subservient, corrupt, and bent on personal profit but, most importantly, ready to defend the establishment and mobilize for it when called upon: they were the men of the Makhzen, ready to defend its ideals whether right or wrong.

Hassan II preferred them to intellectuals, thinkers and true politicians. So, for a quarter of a century, he would nominate these yes-men to all state positions and, especially, in the government. A good illustration of that is, undoubtedly, Driss Basri, who became the trusted Minister of the Interior and progressively his department started absorbing others such as information, environment and habitation and, as such, it was nicknamed oum l-wizarat “the mother of all ministries”, making out of his ministry a government within the government, and of him a true viceroy.

In Hassan II’s configuration of the government, the Prime Minister was subordinate to the Minister of the Interior and other ministers were no more than bureaucrats entrusted with the function of pushing paper, no more. Hassan II adored using and abusing them at will, he, even once, said that he could easily nominate his chauffeur minister, to mock the position of minister in Morocco.

According to the American think-tank Middle East Institute, the Moroccan political parties have been factionalized by the establishment, to use them at will:iv

” …Moroccan political parties are largely factionalized and exercise no meaningful opposition. State-party relations illustrate two distinct features: first, it is apparent that the state has penetrated the party scene in all previous electoral contests in Morocco.  Within Morocco’s political system, the state bestowed political favors and in some cases brought loyal parties to power such as the Gathering of National Independents (RNI) in 1977, the Constitutional Union (UC) in 1984, and the Social Democratic Movement (MDS) in 1997. The second characteristic of Moroccan parties is their lack of ideological and political clarity, as the regime has exacted its hold over the rules of the political game.”

In this situation, traditional political parties, found themselves in the situation of eternal opposition. However, their young cadres were getting impatient to join in the power game, so, in many ways they had a foot in the opposition and another in the Makhzen and as such were putting pressure on their parties to abandon the opposition and share in the bounty of political subservience to the establishment.

By the end of the reign of Hassan II, more or less, all parties were, somewhat, administrative parties trying to please the Makhzen to get their share of the spoils. The charismatic El Yousfi became Prime Minister in the consensual government that prepared, in calm, the transition to the era of Mohammed VI, but, as a consequence, the former lost all his luster and is, now, in self-imposed solitude and political limbo, forgotten by the palace, as well as, political forces, the worst of situations possible.

Late Driss Basri, Minister of the Interior for Morocco.
The late Driss Basri, Minister of the Interior for Morocco.

Today, all political parties are in the same category; their top cadres want ministerial portfolios and the perks that go with them, even if it is at the expense of the parties’ credibility. Those that are in power do not care about political ethics nor the reputation of their political groups. All they care about is making money while they can. Politics, as a result of Hassan II’s drive to dehumanize political opposition has become synonymous of making money.

Ministers want to make the most of their post that might not last long, so, for them, all roads lead to Rome. The Mouvement Populaire (MP), an administrative party that, has supposedly roots in the countryside, in principle, has been rocked by two scandals of public funds embezzlement by the Minister Guerrouj and Minister Ezzine, who, both, owe their posts to their tribal nobility and not to internal party democracy, that exists, almost, nowhere in partisan politics in Morocco.

The Moroccan youth views the political parties and the parliament in a very negative light, as failed institutions, according to the National Democratic Institute’s findings from qualitative research in Morocco conducted in July 2011 and published under the title : “Youth Perceptions in Morocco: Political Parties and Reforms.” :v

“The negative perceptions of political parties are often reflected in references to corruption, nepotism, and favoritism. Participants express disgust with a political system that has not changed over the years. Participants generally perceive political parties as having lost their moral values and forfeited the public’s trust. Many participants express the desire for parties to build confidence and trust to gain back the respect that some of them once had.

Within the political context they describe, most focus group participants believe the parliament is a failed institution that can do nothing to solve the pressing economic and social problems.”

Today, political parties are no more political parties; they are “pressure groups” or rather “interest groups”. They are kind of commercial ventures to make money fast with no or little investment. Party leaders are not voted in for their political programs, but for their allegiance to the establishment and as long as they are in its good books, nobody can threaten their supremacy in this institution. So, in many ways, these political institutions seem to play the game of politics to further their interests while being subservient to the Makhzen.

Moulay Driss El-Maarouf, Mourad el Fahli and Jerome Kuchejda, argue quite rightly in an article entitled, “Morocco – Analysis of the Moroccan political system” that the political parties’ mechanisms are flawed:vi

“Though Morocco follows democratic mechanisms like those implemented in Western democratic countries, these mechanisms are not practiced in the way they should be, a situation which has culminated in a weak parliament and ineffective political parties. In general, parties’ organizational strength, social entrenchment and their capacity for and success in integrating and socializing voters are low. Their activity between elections and their programmatic foundations vary from one party to another, but they are often based strongly on patronage structures.”

In a poor country like Morocco, when the population voted in the Islamist party, Parti de la Justice et du Développement (PJD), they believed this political group will defend the rights of the grass and roots, but they were shocked beyond belief, when the Head of the Government, in one of his first moves, proceeded, rather, to increase the rentier pension of ministers from MAD 20,000 (US$ 2,222) to MAD 30,000 (US$ 3,333). This means in other words that any minister, could collect this money, even if he stays in power just few days, which he can add to the pension he will get from any other job he held in the administration. In ricochet, the parliamentarians, unhappy with this decision called on the PJD government to increase their rentier pension, as well.

What is disturbing about this PJD move is that it happened right at the beginning of its tenure. The rank and file reacted to this by pointing out that this party is unsure about its political future and want at least to leave their comfortable government posts with a comfortable pension for life. So much for social justice, equal distribution of wealth and the declared fight against rentier practices they trumpeted in their electoral program.

Parliament Mannerism And Language Use

Customarily, parliamentarians address each other using expressions of respect such as, “right honorable member of parliament… “, “If you allow me dear sir, I disagree totally with what you said sir…”, “with all due respect sir, I would like to point out the following, esteemed sir…”, because they represent the essence of the nation, whereby constructive disagreement and criticism is welcome but feuding and quarreling is discouraged and morally banned.

When Hassan II called the parliament a circus, he was disappointed by his yes-men, who were pitiful in their debates and “acting”. For sure, the parliament was not democratically elected, but rather appointed, in an indirect way, but, even though, he wanted its members to be true to nature parliamentarians not clowns in a circus.

Since then, the Parliament has changed, it has become worse, a true halqa, “street theater”. Some actions are condemnable and the use of the language is atrocious. Many people believe that the MPs ought to go back to school to learn the rudimentary tools and expressions of politeness in addressing the other and dealing with him within the limits of a public respectable institution.

MP showing his naked belly in the Parliament to prove in Moroccan fashion that he is not corrupt
MP showing his naked belly in the Parliament to prove in Moroccan fashion that he is not corrupt.

Recently, a member of the opposition, accused by the majority of corruption, showed his naked belly in the parliament, as proof that he is clean, in reference to the popular concept that if you are corrupt your belly is full of dough which, is corruption money, and as such it looks big and inflated by this substance.

Of course on a daily basis there are harrowing scenes of insults and mockery on either side, this has become part of the political culture of the country and the population takes delight in watching this live on TV, for them it is the best sit-com show television could ever offer.

The hero of these linguistic processes is, undoubtedly, the Head of the Government, then, and, also, chief of the Islamist party PJD who, likes very much political controversy and diatribes and often uses very strong colloquial languages to attack his opponents without any form of politeness or restraint required by his stature and position. The Head of the Government, then, accustomed to controversy, quite often, uses harsh language to vilify the opposition.

Former Head of Government, then, Benkirane in full action in the Moroccan parliament
Former Head of Government Benkirane in full action in the Moroccan parliament.

However, recently his sharp tongue got him in deep trouble ; while responding fiercely, as usual, to a quip from the opposition parliamentary lady leader Malika al-Hazeb, Benkirane, without thinking, lashed out at her with the following words in Moroccan Arabic, dyali kbar men dyalk meaning literally “mine is bigger than yours”.

In English the meaning is straightforward, however in Moroccan Arabic it has, in addition, to the normal linguistic meaning a highly-charged sexual connotation: “my male sexual organ is too big for your female sexual organ.” This led immediately to an uproar and laughter within the parliament meaning that nobody cared about the down-to-earth meaning of the sentence, but everyone capitalized on the sexual semantics of this verbal punch-up.

Realizing later, his social faux-pas, the Head of the Government, then, went on to say and explain painstakingly that he did not mean any harm by what he said and that only dirty minds would make sexual inferences of his words. To add more salt to injury, the Head of the Government, then, insulted all sensible Moroccans because they all were incensed by the sexual inference of such wordings by taxing them of sexual deviance.

What makes this slip-up even worse are two important details:

  1. Benkirane would not recognize that he has erred and that while erring is human, forgiveness is divine and it is appropriate to ask for forgiveness from a lady parliamentarian, away from any partisan considerations; and
  2. Such a sexually-charged phrase indicates quite clearly that the PJD is a sexist party. Indeed, in its first government version there was only one woman minister, no more, and the women MPs criticized Benkirane and his party. This sexism reflects in many ways the political culture of the world Islamists, who would prefer the women at home and not in public office. Indeed, recently the Saudis organized a womanless conference on women (Cf. Your Middle East electronic journal of February 6, 2015).vii

What next?

With this last shameful verbal pitfall of the ex-Head of the Government, it is high time, the government set a code of conduct for the parliamentarians in their sulfurous debates, bearing in mind two important details, firstly the sessions are aired live on public TV and using street language, in a respectable institution, means that the MPs are not that respectable after all and will, ultimately, loose the respect of the very few, who still believe in them. Secondly, partisan politics is, in principle, about policies not personalities, MPs are in this assembly to defend the interests of the nation and not engage in verbal feuds.

Failing all this, probably Moroccan television ought to give the rating 16 or even 18 to parliamentary sessions it airs to help the families bar their adolescent children from watching live programs containing strong language and sexual implicit inferences. Would the Société Nationale de Radiodiffusion et de Télévision (SNRT) do that to protect young viewers from political elite irresponsible and devious behavior? Everyone hopes so….but, most importantly, everyone hopes that the next generation of MPs engages in defense of the interests of the nation rather than political feuding. Amen.

You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter at: @Ayurinu

i., pp
v., p.12.
vi., p. 267.

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education science at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islam and Islamism as well as terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism.

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