Morocco’s Islamists elect new leader, walking away from predecessor’s populism

Benkirane’s loss was attributed to the failure of the PJD leadership to absorb the historical, constitutional, institutional and sociological realities in Morocco.
December 17, 2017
Moroccan Prime Minister and Secretary-Ge­neral of the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) Saad Eddine El Othmani

Casablanca - 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.

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