Morocco’s Islamists elect new leader, walking away from predecessor’s populism
Morocco’s ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) has turned the page on populist former Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane with the election of current Prime Minister Saad Eddine El Othmani as its secretary-general.
Othmani won votes from 1,006 of the 1,943 PJD delegates against 912 for Fez Mayor Driss el-Azami, who was reportedly backed by Benkirane. This is Othmani’s second term at the helm of the PJD, which he led from 2004-08.
Othmani succeeded Benkirane, who had stayed at the head of the party for nine years, promoting a populist platform to garner support. Benkirane led Morocco’s government for more than five years before being dismissed by Moroccan King Mohammed VI in March after the former prime minister failed to form a coalition government.
Analysts differ on whether Othmani would fundamentally change the party’s political approach and steer it from the Muslim Brotherhood’s sphere of influence.
However, his election is a clear break from Benkirane, who was perceived as representing an “extremist current” in the PJD. Although denying direct links to the Muslim Brotherhood, Benkirane’s policies were initially influenced by the group’s orientations.
Abdelhakim Karman, a Moroccan researcher in political science and sociology of organisations, attributed Benkirane’s loss to the failure of the PJD leadership to absorb the historical, constitutional, institutional and sociological realities in Morocco.
“It was normal that opposing voices from within the PJD came out against the current of extremism led by former secretary-general as desire to adapt and preserve their interests in the Moroccan political arena and thus continue to participate in the government’s work and political game,” Karman told the London-based Al Arab daily.
Karman warned against expecting that the PJD had changed its identity permanently.
“The exchange of roles between the party’s leadership came after it thought that it was backed by ‘the street’. It then tried to isolate and enable and control the wheels of state and society,” he said.
“It is a leadership that accepts certain tactical concessions and forms of political accommodation and moderate speech, an equation derived from the thought and references and behaviour of Islamist groups themselves,” he added.
However, Abdessalam al-Aziz, secretary-general of the National Ittihadi Congress (CNI), said Othmani won the election thanks to the Unity and Reform Movement’s support (MUR) and that nothing had changed in terms of the party’s Islamist approach.
“I think the PJD leadership’s ties with the MUR will strengthen more after Benkirane’s departure,” said Aziz.
The MUR is the PJD’s religious and ideological wing and has been the threshold for many PJD members, including Mustapha el-Khalfi and Bassima Hakkaoui, who are ministers in the current government.
Aziz said “the PJD’s elite, including many ministers, backed Othmani to lead the Islamist party because they want to carry on their participation in the government” despite the past rumours of a party split following the national council’s vote against an amendment that would have allowed Benkirane to run for a third term as PJD secretary-general.
“Benkirane’s populist speeches, which drew massive crowds, will no longer continue under Othmani’s leadership,” said Aziz.
Unlike his predecessor, Othmani, a psychiatrist and scholar, is a quiet and calm politician who avoids media confrontations.
Othmani’s government has sought to fight corruption, a problem that the previous government failed to tackle despite Benkirane’s repeated promises.
King Mohammed VI recently imposed sanctions against scores of Interior Ministry officials, less than a month after he sacked several ministers and senior officials for failing to improve the economy in the long-neglected Rif region.
Othmani pledged to address shortcomings of the National Development Model, which has been criticised by the king, and curb disparities between regions. The government is aiming to carry on major structural reforms to promote a more diversified economy.
Experts said Islamist parties in the Maghreb are being torn between old pro-Muslim Brotherhood leanings and the need to walk away from that legacy to integrate their own political environments and help their countries meet socio-economic challenges.
Saad Guerraoui is a regular contributor to The Arab Weekly on Maghreb issues.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.