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Makhzenite infighting in Morocco

May 30, 2009
Fouad Ali el-Himma, 2007

Fouad Ali el-Himma, 2007

I’m not sure exactly what, but something quite important may be going on in Morocco, which has just entered into a mild parliamentary crisis.  Certainly, King Mohammed VI still controls all important levers of power, whatever the talk of constitutional monarchy, and elected politicians are only as powerful as he allows them to be. But there’s always room for some elite infighting in the public space that is accorded by the king — and this time around, it seems to be taking place in an unusually public fashion.

Ever since the king’s right-hand man, Fouad Ali el-Himma, left his position to go into parliamentary politics, it has been generally understood that he will henceforth be winning elections for the palace. To this end, he has set up a political party, the Parti authenticité et modernité or PAM — formally, he’s just a humble board member respecting the chairmanship of Mohamed Cheikh Biadillah (interestingly, a Sahrawi), but no one doubts that he is in reality the driving force behind the party. PAM was created by the merger of his followers with a number of small parties, and by the defection (“nomadism”) of other parliamentarians to his party. This latter phenomenon is not new to Moroccan politics, where the monarch has always had one or more loyal “palace parties” to do his bidding. These are often constituted around particular traditionalist constituencies (such as the rural/Berber Mouvement populaire), or by people elected as pro-regime “independents”, who are generally local strongmen, landowners, ex-dissidents, tribal leaders, businessmen, etc (el-Himma himself was elected as an independent in 2007 before creating PAM).

This is not some great innovation, of course, or even particular to Morocco. It’s an extension into parliamentary life of the monarchy’s traditional methods of cooptation, which buys local leaders into the Makhzen system, dragging their dependent constituencies behind them, and so ensures royal control with a minimum of open top-down coercion. In the exemplary case of el-Himma, him being seen as so close to the king, he had no problem getting elected at all: by supporting him, his district bet on what they knew was a winning horse, hoping to secure benefits for themselves and their communities in return. And that’s how it works most everywhere, in the countryside at least.

In the case of PAM, it would seem that the ruling elite has for some reason decided that a reshaping of the political landscape is needed. This could be related to, as many speculate, a power struggle, in which el-Himma brings his own patronage power to bear on the parliamentary landscape, to push out other players. On the other hand, there’s also the fact that Moroccan political life has changed quite a bit since Mohammed VI took power in 1999. While the parliament is still mostly a talking-shop, the king and his circle may well see the need to preemptively establish a stronger footing under one of their own, before some decision-making is, perhaps, allowed to filter over into party-politics.

It’s not uncontroversial, however, what el-Himma is doing. Those pro-regime parties that are bleeding opportunistic members to PAM are understandably concerned, and more principled members of the opposition — generally found outside of parliament, or even outside of party politics, such as in the rather lively print press; but also in the Islamist PJD and some other parties — condemn the whole affair as a way of undermining parliament. Which, of course, it is. But who cares about those people anyway? To get to play power politics, you need to be able to bet some power.

A more unexpected and worrying roadbump was when a the Interior Ministry, in mid-May, apparently notified a government meeting that political “nomadism” in the run-up to the local elections (June 12) should be considered illegal, as per §5 of the law on political parties. This formally affected all party-switchers, but in practice, it hit PAM much harder than any other group, since the party was founded recently, and wholly on a basis of on elite defections. Confusion ensued, but when the state news agency published a PAM statement contesting the new rule, it was immediately followed by a denial by the Interior Ministry that any such draft had even existed. All fine and well, then. But when a Marrakech Interior Ministry office then refused the candidacy of a PAM member who had defected from another party, crisis again erupted.  While most other parties kept a pointed silence, PAM flew into a rage, declaring §5 to be anti-constitutional, and threatening that it could withdraw support from Istiqlali PM Abbas el-Fassi‘s government which — precisely because of the ruling-party defections to PAM — lacks a parliamentary majority of its own. (PAM now controls 89 out of 325 seats.) Meanwhile, adminstrative instances in Rabat and Tangiers intervened to annul the Marrakech decision, prompting celebratory statements from the PAM, but Interior Minister Benmoussa insisted on the right of local authorities to reject candidates according to the law, trying, not very convincingly, to portray the whole thing as a marginal non-event.

When the minister seemingly refused to budge, PAM put its threat into action. It has now withdrawn all support from the el-Fassi government. PAM chairman Biadillah clarifies matters by spelling out that his party now “positions itself within the opposition”. That means that the government lacks majority support, but, as I understand it, it does not mean that el-Fassi’s cabinet automatically falls. For that to happen, PAM needs to assemble enough parliamentarians to actively vote it down, and it remains to be seen if they can do that. With royal protégé/enforcer Fouad Ali el-Himma’s political vehicle now officially in opposition, what, one might legitimately ask, what will His Majesty do to help him?

Not much, apparently. Here today’s top news item on the state agency’s website, MAP:

King Mohammed VI reiterates trust in Premier and government

Rabat – King Mohammed VI reiterated instructions to hold the upcoming local elections in total transparency and respect of the Law .

During a phone call from his Paris residence with Premier, Abbas El Fassi, the monarch reiterated trust in El Fassi and the government to pursue and intensify their efforts aimed at carrying out the reforms and large-scale projects, and serving the higher interests of the Nation and citizens under the instruction of King Mohammed VI.

For the life of me I can’t figure out where this is headed, but things are getting really interesting.

Related: Recent power struggles in the Saharan CORCAS.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. June 7, 2009 21:10

    One theory about the PAM’s purpose is that it is seeking to restructure the political landscape by absorbing existing “administrative parties” (RNI, MP, etc.) and give them a centrist, pro-monarchy direction. It is also trying to shake up the scene to hurry the ousting of the elderly leaders of the “historic parties” (USFP, the now completely makhzenified Istiqlal, PPS) and restore credibility. The monarchy does not care about which parties govern, even the PJD. It cares that there is a balance in the political landscape and no vacuum – this is why the king has repeatedlu spoken out against ineffective parties. The current vacuum (basically the PJD is the only strong party) discredits politics and the illusion of continuous reform the monarchy has banked on. In this case, the fight between the Ministry of Interior (the day-to-day ruler of Morocco and heart of the Makhzen) and the PAM is tactical, perhaps representing resistance of the established parties (apart from PJD) against the PAM’s bid for hegemony. But this remains an inter-elite fight, and even if Abbas al-Fassi is ousted as some expect a new government will not take a sudden new direction.

    • June 7, 2009 21:13

      I should add that the real test would be whether the PAM might take key portfolios away from royal favorites such as the quite competent Nizar Baraka, Ghellab, a-Hijra etc.


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