Morocco, the Declining Popularity of the Governing Islamists

Two Scandals Have Shaken the JDP · The clear winner of the post-Arab Spring elections of September 2011 and those of 2016, the Justice and Development Party is entering its eighth year at the head of the Moroccan government. But this longevity is starting to wither, especially on account of the behaviours of some of its leaders. An unprecedented crisis of confidence has arisen between the party and its grassroots conservative constituency.

Abdelilah Benkirane, Amina Maelainine
(l) World Economic Forum 2015 ; (r) Facebook.

At the beginning of February 2019, in a brief text posted on her Facebook page, Amina Maelainine, an MP and leading member of the Justice and Development Party (JDP), one of the few women to sit on its General Secretariat, announced that photomontages involving portraits of herself were about to be posted on “malevolent websites” and that she reserved the right to take the matter to court. A few days later, the images were indeed posted at, a website connected with the intelligence service. One of them shows her smiling at the camera with her hair uncovered and in the background the facade of the Moulin Rouge cabaret in the “naughty” Pigalle area of the French capital. Another pic, also set in Paris, shows her wearing a skirt with her hair uncovered and a big grin on her face.

Very active on the social networks, never turning down an interview, she was one of the MPSs who sided with former Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane when he crossed swords with the King’s entourage. At the time she came out strongly against “attakoum” or remote control, an expression used to condemn the interference by Fouad Ali El-Himma (King Mohamed VI’s closest advisor) in party politics during the last election campaign.

A two-faced woman

These photos fell into the laps of Maelainine’s detractors. But they upset her “friends” as well, all the more so as they turned out to be quite authentic, contrary to what she had originally claimed. And as she upholds a strict notion of society in accordance with the precepts of Islam, she was seen to be a liar…. Accustomed as they have been to seeing her with her hair carefully hidden under an Islamic headscarf, both in Parliament and the media, or the photos she posts on her Facebook page, many people had difficulty coping with what they called “the two faces of Maelainine, one in Morocco, the other abroad.” Ths disappointment has affected the innermost structure of the Islamist party, including its most emblematic leaders.

In a letter dated 4 March sent to the party leadership, she tells of having met with her “brother,” the present Premier, the Islamist Saad Eddine El-Othmani, and discussed with him the “campaign” targeting her and the fact that what she has suffered is not easy to bear: “his answer to me was: ‘And do you think what I have suffered because of you has been easy to bear? It’s Heaven’s justice.’” In the same letter, she adds that she was “deeply shocked” by the words used by the head of government, who is also Secretary General of the JDP.

Mustapha Ramid, Minister of Human Rights, another of the party’s public voices, has expressed the anger aroused by their MP. IN an interview he gave to the press on 1 February 2019, he openly vented his bitterness: “Amina Maelainine was distinctively dressed when she appeared before us and before our electorate. And it was thus that she won their trust. The way she was dressed [the hijab] was her hallmark, her signature, the cachet attesting the values that were hers. [. . .] I must say immediately that she has no right to have two faces. None of us can allow ourselves such a deviation. Here and elsewhere, in Morocco and abroad,we must remain the same.”

With her back to the wall, she paid a visit to Benkirane and declared, again on her Facebook page, that she had won his “support.” And though she has always been very critical of the advocates of individual freedom, she nonetheless asserted on 4 March in the same letter that she has “been the victim, as a citizen, a woman, and a mother, of a widespread defamation campaign which has violated her rights and impinged upon her private life.”

Already severely criticised for its very mixed government record, where its role is largely tokenistic under an absolute monarch ruling by divine right and where the most important ministries (foreign affairs, justice, finance, education, etc.) are run by Palace intimates, the JDP could certainly have done without this scandal which has to do with what had always been its trademark and mobilisation watchword: Islamic morality. And now another polemical issue has come to light close on the heels of the Maelainine affair.

Benkirane’s gold-plated pension

It all began in December 2018, when the King learned that Benkirane was having financial woes because he wouldn’t start receiving hi sold-age pension until 2019. He decided to send his advisor (and friend) Fouad Ali El-Himma to the former head of government with the following message: “His Majesty is aware of the problems you are having and has decided to grant you an exceptional pension.” Could Benkirane not have turned down this poisoned chalice? By an ironic twist of fate it was the man who has always been described as his sworn enemy who served as go-between. . .

The first rumours about this “sizeable exceptional pension,” a kind of lifelong annuity allegedly bestowed on the Islamist leader, began to appear here and there. On 21 January 2019, Abdelilah Benkirane decided to speak out, no doubt to take control of the information circulating. On his Facebook page, he posted a video with a 9O minute speech given before a group of young party activists. Wearing a grey djellaba and a black skull-cap, he is seated comfortably in his Rabat home. In a paternalistic tone, he begins by dispensing “advise” to his young followers, listening devoutly. Then suddenly, without warning, he changes the subject: “The source of that exceptional pension is Sidna1, Allah inesrou (Our Master whom Allah glorifies, an allusion to King Mohammed VI) His Majesty, whom Allah protects. I thought those who attack me would show respect for our master. Why are they meddling with a decision handed down by our master? But they have no decency. . .”

Disturbing questions popped up on all sides. So Benkirane, who has always claimed to be the voice of the poor, pictured himself as an austere politician, making do with the strict minimum, has been granted an exceptional pension. The man who waged an undeclared war against the royal entourage, denouncing the collusion between money and politics embodied by Aziz Akhannouch, a billionaire close to the Palace, has accepted a pension which is more like a substantial income than an ordinary minister’s pension.

The former Premier has become the target of a storm of criticism, denouncing his doublespeak, the contradiction between his words and actions, an unacknowledged political hypocrisy, etc. His many detractors are having a field day, but those who respected the stands he took are disappointed and even bitter.

An awkward defence

An extraordinary variety of rumours began to circulate as to the amount of the pension. Some websites close to the power structure went so far as to publish an official document whereby Saad Eddine El-Othmani asks the Finance Minister to comply with the King’s instructions by granting Benkirane an exceptional pension “as soon as possible.” Other websites refer to a second pension, described as “civil” and added that Benkirane, having received the sum of £120,000 after leaving the government, is now paid a monthly pension of £7,600 ; other sources speak of a monthly sum of £11,000. Never in the history of the Kingdom has a former Prime Minister trusted so many privileges and annuities, they conclude. And now it is the social networks’ turn to catch fire.

The Islamist leaders friends advised him to speak out in order to “clarify the matter once and for all”, as a JDP official told us off the record. On 19 February, Benkirane appeared again in an on-line video, his face set, lifeless eyes behind his reading glasses, clearly in a bad mood and brandishing a newspaper. He didn’t actually deny being paid £120,000 by the government, but admitted to a “pension” of . . . £6,000 a sum which, indeed, no former Premier has ever received. In other words there is no doubt about it’s being an ‘exceptional’ pension.

On the other hand, he denied receiving an additional “civil” pension and railed against the newspaper he was holding in his hand: “This paper claims that Benkirane has another civil retirement pension and that the government paid him £120,000. The government only paid him what it was ordered to pay. It wasn’t going to pay him any more than what it was orders to pay,” he said. What orders? What was the sum? Who paid what? And how much? Benkirane was evasive, cited no figures. Instead, he went on to the “other civil pension”: “As for that other civil retirement pension, I’m surprised [. . .] I’d like to see that other pension [. . .] Where are those £7,500 they’re talking about? Where are those £11,000? If they can prove I get all that money, I’m prepared to leave Morocco forever! [. . .] I say to all you people on Facebook: ‘Be careful, those people are known to be liars, and you know them’ [. . .] In this matter of an exceptional pension, there are two parties: myself and Our Master who granted me that pension.They should have respected that other party.”

Even some left-wing intellectuals who have always shown respect for Benkirane’s efforts to resist the royal entourage are upset. The most gullible among them, like the historian Mâati Monjib, hope to see him refuse the money: “This decision [to accept the pension], no doubt taken in a moment of human frailty, caused him to express himself with a feeling of guilt,” Monjib wrote. “I don’t think he sill bear that for long. His pride and his deep fondness for “his people” will make him to cast off this heavy rock on his shoulders and spit out this grain of sand in his mouth which caused him to speak so badly, when he has always been such an eloquent orator.”

To these two scandals, both of which have a more or less personal dimension, must be added the rank and the role of the PFD ministers in the present government. The Prime Minister Saad Eddine El-Othmani has neither the charisma nor the cocky humour of his predecessor. His weak personality and slavish obedience to the court and the business world are such as to have earned him among ordinary Moroccans the sobriquet “le mutique,”(“ the silent one”).

There remains the issue of the party’s future: will the JDP be able to remain the country’s leading party, even though we must not forget that it has ever enjoyed an absolute parliamentary majority? With three years still to go before the next general election, it is hard to say. However all the observers seem to agree on one thing: the popularity of the Islamist party has greatly waned, both among its grassroots constituency and its fellow travellers.

1In Morocco, courtiers call the King “Sidna,” Our Master.