By Marwan Asmar
Why were the Islamists thrashed in the last parliamentary elections in Morocco? The literal decimation of the Justice and Development Party (PJD) to 12 seats from the 125 they had in the previous parliament was a major blow and surprised everyone including the pro-state, pro-monarchy and pro-establishment parties.
It was unbelievable because the PJD had been ruling non-stop since 2011 at the time of the Arab Spring.
It is as if the tables were turned around, and regardless of allegations of vote-buying and vote rigging, these elections brought the pro-monarchical parties to the forefront of Moroccan politics with the National Rally of Independents (RNI) getting 102 seats, Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM) winning 86 seats and Al Istiqlal Party 82 seats. Through Morocco’s coalition-style government they are set to form the next Cabinet in the country out of a Parliament of 395 seats.
This is seen as a new chapter; a political stage were the Islamists are likely to be in the opposition for the first time in 11 years. Hurrah! The liberals and businessmen are set to rule the government and state. It is rather ironic the RNI under the leadership of billionaire businessman Aziz Akhannouch and a former Agriculture Minister in the last elections. He is the second richest man in the country with a fortune earmarked at $2 billion and is set to rule a country where poverty shot up by seven percent just in 2020 and the Covid-19 lockdowns made things worse. But he has promised the voters of 18 million he would provide 1 million jobs, comprehensive health insurance and spike teachers’ salaries and guaranteed pension.
Three scenarios are being laid out in Morocco for what is seen as the effective death of the PJD from political life. This moderate Islamic party is presently in a state of political flux, questioning just where it went wrong and couldn’t there have been a turning point to save itself. But secretly they may have known the mess they got themselves into for ruling is not an easy thing.
The first scenario can be described as thematic and relate to the dwindling fortunes of “political Islam” in the Arab world. Political Islam as a group of parties which began to rule in some countries of the Arab region was flagging with the traditional state and security apparatuses becoming much stronger than the waves towards democratic representations.
Cairo started the ball rolling when in 2013 the then Defense Minister Abdel Fattah Al Sisi instituted a coup, probably with the help of the army to remove the country’s first elected government made up of Muslim Brotherhood members under Mohammad Morsi who was subsequently charged, imprisoned and sentenced to death. The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood had won the elections the previous year didn’t make a blind bit of difference and his removal from power showed the strength of the deep state and its apparatuses in Egypt. Subsequently as well there was a crackdown on members of the Muslim Brotherhood with many of them executed or imprisoned on different charges.
The crackdown in Egypt may have been just the beginning although Islamists both in Morocco and later Tunisian continued to rule till as of late. It begun with Tunisia this last summer when the Tunisian President Kais Saied dismissed the government, its prime minister Hicham Mechichi and “frozen” parliament until further notice and temporarily appointed himself as the temporary executive ruler of Tunisia.
In full swipe he cracked down on Islamists in parliament and its speaker Rachid Al Ghnnouchi thus hoping to “neutralize” their power in the assembly. He took this drastic actions following months of popular protests and political paralysis that saw no end. While Saied has promised that parliament is returning his actions are a blow to the Islamists.
Thus, many are asking is this now the fate of the Islamists in Morocco and should their defeat be understood within this context. What is more baffling they are seen as a “moderate” party which sought to work with the royal palace where the effective decision-making process is made.
Domestic factors and Israel
The second scenario involves the domestic angle. Party voters have become disillusioned with the PJD because they failed to deliver on policy. In a nation of 35 million with a labour market of around 10.8 million according to official figures, there are 1.42 million people unemployed with youth unemployment – that is those between 15 and 24 – stood at around 30%. The Islamists have found it difficult to deal with this issue despite the fact that it may not have been their direct fault because of the onset of the pandemic in 2020 that went into 2021 which meant that the economy – 40% of it rural-based – shrunk by 7.1 with the rate of poverty skyrocketing.
It is suggested these factors led people to move from the Islamists. The other parties – which promised employment creation policies as the 1 million jobs – certainly would have swayed voters who may have said “let’s try other parties this time” and see what happens.
Three other policy decisions may have also persuaded voters to move away from the Islamists according to different analysts which include allowing the teaching of scientific subjects in French instead of Arabic, the legalization of medical marijuana and finally the normalization of relations between Israel and Morocco.
These three issues were the straw that broke the camel’s back as evidenced by the fact that the PJD came last among the eight parties that contested the elections which meant the voters were switching sides in massive numbers. This is supported by the fact that the Moroccan electorate registered a 50% voting turn out rather than the 43% it recorded in the 2016 elections.
Many said the fact that the leader of the PJD Saad Aldin Al Othmani, who was the Prime Minister and signed the Morocco-Israeli agreement in late 2020, drove many of his supporters away and lost him and the Islamists the elections and may never rule again in the near future. The fact, as they said, they were pressured to sign is not acceptable to the voters who saw such a move as betrayal to Palestine and the Arab cause. The fact that Rabat got US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara was not acceptable either.
This time, political Islam, as in the Justice and Development Party, wasn’t so much removed from power by the political elites, like Egypt and Tunisia, but by the people themselves who are looking to better their lot and stop thinking about migrating to Europe as a form of salvation.