Several weeks have passed since Morocco’s most recent parliamentary elections. These yielded a victory for the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD), whose leader, Abdelilah Benkirane, has been appointed as prime minister (or, as the recent constitution dictates, “Chief of Government”). Benkirane’s first task is to form a new government in conjunction with the Istiqlal Party, the Popular Movement, and the Party of Progress and Socialism, who together comprise a ruling coalition. Once this coalition drafts a list of potential ministers, it will be approved by King Mohammad VI, and then made public. However, the formation of the new Moroccan government will not be entirely determined by Benkirane. Just days after Mohammad VI officially met with him, state-media outlets were abuzz with press releases announcing the King’s selection of newly appointed royal advisers. One name created a particular stir in Morocco’s cyber-world: Fouad Ali El Himma.
For decades, El Himma—a former Royal College classmate of Mohammad VI—has been associated with the corruption and crony capitalism endemic to Morocco’s political system. Immediately after Mohammad VI’s 1999 accession to the throne, El Himma was appointed Deputy Minister of Interior. After some seven years, El Himma left this position to create a new political platform, the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM). The creation of PAM was met with widespread opposition across the political spectrum. It was viewed as a move by the palace to counter-balance the growing clout of the Islamist PJD. After coming in fourth place with forty-seven seats in the recent elections—and given its consistent hostility to PJD since its creation—parliamentary opposition is for PAM the only plausible option. However, with El Himma’s new royal court appointment, he now has additional means to undermine the PJD.
Even before El Himma’s appointment as royal adviser, his proximity to the palace was a taboo topic in mainstream Moroccan media. His association with the monarchy was nevertheless common knowledge among the politically-aware, and often a target of criticism in pro-democracy protests. It was also the subject of over a hundred Wikileaks cables. The most notable, entitled, “Palace coercion plagues Morocco`s real estate,” mentions that a three-member board comprising Mohammad VI, El Himma, and Mohamed Mounir Al Majidi, the king’s senior financial advisor, makes final decisions on major investment projects in Morocco’s real estate sector, soliciting bribes in the process. Other cables highlight El Himma’s close relationship to the King, referring to him as “royal confidante” and “palace insider”, and further noting that he accompanied the monarch on a ski trip to France and a royal visit to Japan.
The most revealing Wikileaks cables concerning El Himma are those from 2008 and 2009, which chronicle his moves to create the so-called “palace party,” the later PAM. PAM began as a political association known as the All Democrats Movement. The latter emerged from the signing of a communiqué in which adherents pledged “to promote a renewal and consolidation of efforts toward national economic, social, and democratic development.” The Rally of National Independents (RNI)—a political party started by a relative of the royal family—in turn further bolstered the communiqué. One of the figures who signed the communiqué, amongst others, included Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries and member of RNI, Aziz Akhennouch. Akhennouch is referred to as “a business tycoon close to the palace.” His conglomerate, Groupe Akhennouch, dominates the energy and agriculture industries. With the support of RNI and its most powerful members, the All Democrats Movement made a significant step towards politicizing, in spite of the initial public statements claiming to remain an association.
Despite the All Democrats Movement insisting it had no intention to become a political party, established parties such as the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP) responded critically, stating “This represents a grave threat to democracy in Morocco and we will resist it with all the means at our disposal.” Sure enough, within eight months, the All Democrats Movement in August 2008 made the move to become the political party now known as the Party of Authenticity and Modernity. However, just one month previously, on the other side of the political spectrum, Abdelilah Benkirane was elected the new leader of the PJD, setting up the beginning of a bitter and public rivalry between the PAM and PJD.
Benkirane’s popular sha’bi appeal, relating to the population in a more casual and direct manner, immediately led to great popularity. Since its establishment, PAM has consistently opposed Benkirane and PJD, which has led to multiple public spats between the rival leaders. One cable highlights PAM’s position against the PJD thus:
Since its inception, the PAM has adopted a hostile stance towards the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD); has refused to participate in any coalition that includes the PJD; and has condemned those parties, such as the USFP, that have. Ali Belhaj, Second Vice President of PAM, told PolCouns and PolOff in a recent meeting that PAM seeks to undermine the popularity of the PJD which he characterized as a threat to Morocco`s secular government and society. Belhaj insisted that despite its conciliatory rhetoric, the PJD harbors dangerous Islamist elements who are intent on imposing their Islamic vision on Morocco.
However, the perception of the PJD as an extremist party is often eclipsed by the Party of Justice and Charity, Al Adl wal Ihsan (AWI) Islamist movement. AWI was banned from the political process and is outspoken in its demand to rid Morocco of its monarchy. This agenda was a main factor behind AWI’s recent separation from the February 20th Movement, which has advocated for a constitutional monarchy.
El Himma’s appointment as royal adviser was met with widespread opposition from throughout the political spectrum. Social media sites were rife with Moroccan activists voicing frustration, while members of the February 20th Movement used it as an example to assert their point that the whole reform process since the 1 July constitutional referendum has been cosmetic. For two weeks straight after the appointment, the February 20th Movement protested with posters denouncing El Himma’s new position as royal adviser.
The constitution does not specify the powers of the royal adviser or the latter’s legal limits. It also places no restrictions on the number of advisers the king can appoint, nor does it address the length of a royal adviser’s term. Andre Azoulay, for example, has been royal adviser to both the late King Hassan II and the current King Mohammad VI and is one of the only figures to have maintained their position through both reigns. A day before El Himma’s position was announced on state-media, Yassir Zenagui, Minister of Tourism and member of the aforementioned Rally of National Independents, was also appointed royal adviser, despite having less than three years of ministerial experience.
The appointments represent a clear message on behalf of a monarchy that seeks to perpetuate its political dominance. In appointing Benkirane’s rival to a position with no clear legal definition or limits, the monarchy is reacting to the rise of the PJD in an indirect manner, playing on political rivalries while seeking to maintain the appearance of neutrality. Indeed, the palace has consistently used the constitution and parliament as tools to prove its “democratic” credentials, while simultaneously manipulating them to serve its interests and prevent the development of institutions that limit royal power. In providing leverage to rival parties and personalities, the monarchy balances the power structure, preventing the rise of a majority party and forcing parties whose ideologies often contradict one another into uneasy coalitions. The current ruling coalition that includes conservative monarchists, liberals, and Islamists is as good an example as any.
Since Morocco’s first constitution in 1962, coalitions have continuously changed with no majority party ever dominating the political stage. This indirectly legitimizes the monarchy in the eyes of constituents, who are regularly faced with the unfulfilled promises of elected parties. The practice of forming coalitions is a convenient method to delegitimize electoral victors, who must often forsake core agendas and policies in order to rule together with rival parties. Historically, the monarchy has openly involved itself in politics with regard to “apolitical” matters, such as the mudawana or personal status law.
The reaction of the PJD thus far has been to remain mum. The usually outspoken Benkirane refrained from a public tirade, instead responding to El Himma’s appointment by saying, “I am forming the new government in a country whose head of state is King Mohamed VI. He is my boss. It is not my business how the head of state, who is my boss, manages his royal court.” Whereas the nature of a constitutional monarchy implies a parliament whose role is to check the power of the monarchy, it appears little has changed within the existing power structure since last month’s elections. Pending the formation of the new government under the direction of Benkirane, the monarchy has already undermined the PJD with its royal appointments. Only one month into winning elections, it appears the PJD may very well be facing the diluted fate of previous victorious parties.