The Islamists of Morocco’s Party of Justice and Development (PJD), like their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, were propelled into government following the Arab Spring protests of 2011. But while Tunisia’s Ennahdha movement later withdrew from the cabinet under internal and foreign pressure, and members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, including former president Mohamed Morsi, were thrown in prison, Morocco’s PJD has managed to remain at the head of the country’s coalition government, and there is no sign that this will soon change.

What explains the relative success of Morocco’s Islamists? The conduct of Morocco’s king and the approach the party itself has taken to reform and governing have been important factors.

Morocco, unlike Tunisia and Egypt, is a constitutional monarchy, and much of the PJD’s strength can be ascribed to the way King Mohammed VI chose to deal with the country’s various political actors, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring. His regime has long permitted all political parties to operate relatively freely, while at the same time employing a carrot-and-stick approach to contain its opponents. The regime has integrated the opposition into political institutions and allowed it to share in some of the benefits of power, while also exerting light repression against it.

In addition, the monarch was quick to adopt a series of political reforms to contain the 2011 protests. The most important of these was a landmark constitutional amendment in July 2011 that guaranteed greater space for freedom of expression and gave more power to the cabinet and its head, the prime minister. The amendment also established mechanisms for enhanced parliamentary oversight of the government and called for early elections, which were held in November 2011. That vote was deemed more honest and transparent than previous elections, and it gave a plurality of the seats in Morocco’s parliament to the PJD, which went on to lead a coalition government that included three non-Islamist parties.

The Party of Justice and Development

The PJD describes itself as a political party with an Islamic frame of reference and, since its establishment in its current form in the mid-1990s, it has exhibited a high degree of flexibility. Despite early attempts by the regime to curtail its power, the PJD has gradually become integrated into the mainstream political process, and it is now a powerful force in Moroccan politics. 

The PJD’s flexibility was evident during the unfolding of the Arab Spring upheavals. The protest movements that swept across Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen beginning in early 2011 were mass movements that demanded the ouster of regimes. But that was not the case in Morocco, where the protest movement was dominated by the middle class and called for reform, rather than the removal, of the regime.

The PJD and its allies in civil society made their own political calculation and decided not to participate in the protests, in order to avoid what they called uncertain and undesired outcomes. This reflected a conviction within the PJD that no political transformation in Morocco can occur without the consent of the monarchy—and that any political change must take into account the role of the palace.

The party’s subsequent arrival at the head of government was not the result of a sweeping electoral victory. Rather, it was the product of a gradual evolution, from winning nine seats in the 1997 parliamentary elections to 47 in 2007, and 107 in 2011. And while Islamists are in power for the first time in Morocco, they do not hold all the reins; the exercise of that power is still subject to agreements and compromises between the palace and other political actors.

Despite their conciliatory approach, the Islamists’ tenure has not been entirely smooth. In the middle of 2013, the conservative Independence Party (Istiqlal) withdrew from the coalition government due to a personal feud between its new secretary general, Hamid Chabat, and the prime minister, the PJD’s Abdelilah Benkirane. Regional political dynamics—namely the military coup in Egypt that ousted Morsi and pressures from some Gulf countries to marginalize Islamists—also cast a shadow over the Islamists’ early experience leading the Moroccan government.

To maintain the country’s political stability and, at the same time, absorb external pressure to remove Islamists from power, the regime and the party reached a tacit agreement: the PJD made painful concessions by relegating some key portfolios to allies of the regime, and the palace kept the party at the head of government. To counter Gulf pressures, control of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation was removed from the PJD. In addition, a technocratic Francophone was named minister of education. The palace also increased the number of nonpartisan technocratic ministers with close ties to the regime at several other key ministries, including interior. After the reshuffling, PJD ministers were left with control of less than 8 percent of the total state budget.

Political Pragmatism

Throughout this period, Benkirane’s popularity, which has increased along with his growing public profile, encouraged the monarch to work with the PJD. At the same time, Benkirane often noted his respect for the king, and he was careful not to challenge the monarch’s symbolic and religious power and his political authority over the most important issues facing Morocco’s leaders. That approach deepened the trust between the two men, resulting in a strong relationship that the prime minister frequently mentions. But it also drew complaints from the prime minister’s critics, who accused him of being “more royalist than the king.”

Morocco’s governing Islamists have come to understand that remaining in power requires the strong support of the palace—and that no project can succeed without the palace’s approval. The relationship between Benkirane and the king reflects this, and it is based on a clear distribution of roles: Benkirane does not dispute the prerogatives of the king and, in return, the king supports the reforms that the prime minister proposes. This also applies to the monarch’s relationship with the rest of Morocco’s ministries: it is well understood that the most important matters remain in the hands of the king, while more everyday affairs are handled by the government.

This understanding of how to manage ties with the monarchy is not new. It is the result of years of experience and was crystallized in an old slogan used by moderate political Islamists in the region, “participation not domination.” 

For Morocco’s Islamists, this means playing by the monarchy’s rules, but without fully aligning themselves with the palace. For example, the Islamists have been keen on distancing themselves from the so-called deep state (or, in the Moroccan dialect, the makhzen) by speaking out against its alleged human rights abuses, election fraud, and other authoritarian practices. In some cases, such as when the PJD has accused the Interior Ministry of clientelism in the run-up to elections, this has caused tension between the party and the regime.

After the July 2013 coup in Egypt that ousted Morsi, the PJD’s leadership concluded that the hostile climate facing Islamists throughout the region could affect the party’s time in power. The PJD’s leaders therefore avoided the kinds of rigid positions that led to the marginalization of the Egyptian Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, and instead exhibited remarkable pragmatism in managing their ruling coalition. In October 2013, when the withdrawal of the Independence Party forced the PJD to form a new coalition government, the party made several accommodating moves; after difficult negotiations, it allowed loyalist parties and technocratic figures known for their close links to the palace to take control of key ministries. 

Indeed, the PJD has shown little appetite for key state positions. Party members were appointed to only about a dozen of some 400 high-level public positions that were filled in the first three years of the party’s rule, in accordance with a regulation adopted by the government. Party officials said this reflected the government’s desire to base public appointments on meritocracy rather than on clientelism, which previous ruling parties relied on. While this was a significant change, it was not strictly applied in all sectors because of resistance from bureaucrats within the Moroccan establishment.

The party’s leaders have also promoted a model of gradual reform, seeing it as the best way to rebuild trust in Morocco’s public institutions and, at the same time, move ahead with important changes. The PJD has, for example, adopted painful but much-needed economic reforms in several areas, including the subsidies system and the current account balance.

The party has scored some early wins on the economic front. Morocco’s ranking in international surveys of business environments and transparency has improved. In addition, by December 2014, the government, working with the business community, was able to recover more than 27 billion dirhams ($2.7 billion) that had been smuggled out of the country during the previous decade. That achievement—when only 5 billion dirhams was expected to be recovered—was a sign that the current government had earned the trust of business leaders. These steps strengthened the position of the PJD in the eyes of the monarchy, which sees the party as playing an important role in improving the national economy and maintaining political stability.

Why the Palace Supports the Islamists

Morocco’s monarchy has always been known for exhibiting flexibility in its relations with other parties and social actors in order to advance its strategic vision for the country. Its relationship with the Islamists is no exception. The palace has created loyalist parties with different ideologies to control the political balance of power in the country, and it has used the struggle between Islamists and secular parties to position itself as an arbiter between the two.

The palace’s support of the Benkirane government is dictated by careful calculations; there is no reason to alienate the Islamists as long as they abide by the rules of the political game—and as long as both the palace and the party benefit from the state modernization and medium-term reforms put forward by the Islamists.

The palace is convinced that the national interest lies in backing the current government for two main reasons. The first is that the current government enjoys wide electoral legitimacy and popularity. A March 2015 poll found that 62 percent of Moroccans had a favorable view of their government and its head, Benkirane. The PJD’s sustained popularity protects the palace from previous accusations that the governments it formed were mere facades that lacked true popular appeal.

The second, and more important, reason that the palace backs the PJD is that the government was willing to move forward with much-needed reforms, despite its full knowledge that they might jeopardize the party’s popularity. These reforms—including changes to the subsidies, retirement, and justice systems—directly affect the population’s everyday life. Previous governments have avoided taking such steps due to a lack of independence or fear of losing popularity. But as the Islamist government takes on these challenges, the palace is largely protected. If the reforms succeed, the monarchy will be credited with supporting the government; if they fail, the monarchy cannot be blamed as it is no longer involved in the daily affairs of the country.

Royal support for the government can be symbolic, moral, or logistical. Whatever form it takes, projects that have the backing of the king are always faster to progress.

The PJD gives the palace and its allies credit for several government initiatives. For example, Benkirane said the king and the Interior and Finance Ministries were responsible for the success of a fund created to support widowed and divorced women.

The value of royal support can also be seen in the country’s justice reform efforts, which are aimed at guaranteeing independence and impartiality, restoring public confidence, and increasing efficiency. Reform of the sector would help the PJD counter the weight of the Interior Ministry, with which it has frequently clashed. An improved justice system would also enhance the credibility of the palace.

In the summer of 2013, the king awarded a royal medal to the PJD’s Mustapha Ramid, the minister of justice and liberties. This symbolic step was seen as recognition of Ramid’s efforts at the head of the High Committee for the National Dialogue on Justice Reform for more than a year. The king also tasked Ramid with visiting France at the end of January 2015 to negotiate with the French minister of justice about resuming work on a judicial cooperation agreement, which allows for the sharing of information and exchange of prisoners. The agreement had been put on hold a year earlier due to tensions between the two countries over legal complaints of torture lodged against Rabat’s spy chief during a visit to France in February 2014 and the insulting search of the Moroccan minister of foreign affairs at a Paris airport in March 2014.

However, elections have been an issue of contention between the palace and the PJD for a long period. The PJD has blamed the Interior Ministry for what it says was faulty oversight of elections that led to several incidents of electoral fraud, and it has accused the ministry of manipulating elections and favoring pro-palace parties.

With Islamists in power, the palace has been pushed to show its neutrality when it comes to competition among political parties. At a ministerial meeting in mid-October 2014, the king announced that a new body would be established to oversee the municipal elections of 2015. The new committee is headed by both the interior minister (an independent figure close to the palace) and the minister of justice and liberties (Ramid, from the PJD). This marks the first time that the justice ministry has been involved in such a process, and that involvement could become a double-edged sword for the Islamists. If the vote is again flawed, the ministry’s participation would make it difficult for the PJD to denounce the conduct of the election.

Conclusion

The behavior of Morocco’s monarch, as well as that of the PJD itself, have both been critical to the relative success of the country’s Islamists. Going forward, it appears that the monarchy, at least in the short term, will remain satisfied with the current government and will support it as long as it has electoral legitimacy—and as long as it does not pose a threat to the monarchy’s interests.

However, the results of the next local and regional elections, expected to take place in September 2015, will determine whether the monarchy will continue to pursue this relationship or—should the electoral map change—will seek new allies.