Intissar Fakir is editor in chief of Carnegie’s Sada publication. She focuses primarily on issues of political reform, democratization, and socioeconomic development in the Middle East and North Africa. Prior to joining Carnegie, Fakir was special assistant to the vice president for strategy and policy at the National Endowment for Democracy. Recently, she published a Carnegie paper titled Morocco’s Islamist Party: Redefining Politics Under Pressure, examining the political trajectory of the Party of Justice and Development (PJD) between 2012 and 2016, in particular its relationship with the monarchy. It is to discuss Moroccan politics, power relations in the kingdom, and the PJD’s legacy that Diwan interviewed Fakir in early January 2018.

Michael Young: How would you characterize the power structure in Morocco?

Intissar Fakir: Morocco is often referred to as an executive monarchy. This essentially means that the king, the political elite of which he approves, and their networks of influence, run the country unopposed. After 2011, the system could be characterized more as a dual executive. This implied a certain level of power-sharing, which seemed possible following the protests that year. This was never going to diminish the role of the monarchy and the king, but it was an opportunity for political parties to play a larger role in the country’s running.

MY: How did the Party of Justice and Development (PJD) fit into this system after it took power in 2012?

IF: Prior to the 2011 parliamentary elections, the Islamists had participated in elections in a limited number of districts, but had never gained a significant enough number of seats to be in government, nor did they seem to prioritize that. It appeared that their focus was on learning the ropes in parliament and at the local level and establishing their presence.

After heading the government in 2012, the PJD leader Abdelilah Benkirane, as well as other likeminded party officials, felt a sense of opportunity to alter the power structure that might not repeat itself. It is difficult to judge how much of Benkirane’s ambition had altruistic drivers or simply sought to benefit the party. But I think he saw the two as the same. He regarded the party as exceptional, in that it was more honest, less corrupt, and less susceptible to cooptation than the traditional political elite. And he believed that once in power—and more empowered—its moral superiority could rid the system of what ailed it most: corruption, a lack of interest among citizens, nepotism, crony capitalism, and so on.

Benkirane’s belief in his party’s superior moral standing and the benefits that it might bring to the lives of people was felt in earnest. It’s not clear whether this was out of naiveté or shrewdness, yet it resonated with people. This raised Benkirane’s status from that of a politician who had been regarded with caution, to that of a national figure who could be trusted.

MY: Could one describe the years of a PJD-led government between 2012 and 2016 as successes or failures, and what did this say about power in Morocco?

IF: There is no broad consensus about whether the PJD’s tenure was a success or failure. In my paper I argue that it succeeded in some and failed in other aspects of governance and of politics. In terms of governance, the PJD’s success in stabilizing socioeconomic indicators was helped by the general drop in oil prices, which made its task of cutting subsidies a less crushing one, averting popular anger. The party initiated some promising reforms, but it also failed to push them forward at the first sign of resistance from the palace or other vested interests. The PJD also completely failed to tackle corruption and any other initiative that might have competed with the palace and its coterie. Benkirane’s idealism had limits, and he was a survivalist at heart. His party is even more cautious, a few notable exceptions notwithstanding.

The PJD did succeed in securing very important wins, however, in local and regional elections in 2015, and now controls many cities and rural areas that it did not control previously. It also scored a historical win in the parliamentary elections of 2016, after a brutal campaign against the Party of Authenticity and Modernity, its main rival. Analysts have rightly pointed out that these parties (and Moroccan parties in general) do not diverge significantly in terms of political vision, but the significance of the campaign was to illustrate the success of Benkirane’s approach as much as that of its experiment while in government, if not more so. The party came in first, leaving other parties facing an existential crisis, and a few of them facing a crisis of conscience.

Yet the PJD’s electoral success in 2016 also became something of a curse. Benkirane was unable to form the government he wanted, and stepped down. He was replaced by another party official, Saadeddine Othmani, who was pressured into forming a diluted government. The Othmani government proved to be weak, leading to rifts and a leadership crisis in the PJD. Although this crisis was resolved in the party’s congress in December, with Othmani elected secretary general, the scars have not entirely healed, so that the PJD is now lying low.

MY: What did the months-long protests in Morocco’s northern Rif region tell us about the political system in the country?

IF: The protests indicated a willingness of the protesters to mobilize and speak out on important issues. This has not diminished in the face of some rather frightening post-2011 outcomes across the region. Protests still crop up here and there, most recently in the coal mining town of Jerada, after two miners died while digging in a dilapidated mine. Prior to that, in October there were protests over the shortage of water in Zagora. In Morocco, the divide between the few rich and the many poor is stark. The poor are severely underserved, with no access to healthcare, education, and sometimes even life necessities such as clean water. Poor governance and inefficient management will catch up with the country’s powerbrokers.

These protests also indicated a growing desire for accountability. If demands for accountability cannot be directed at local and regional representatives, they will go higher and higher. And if no one responds, anger will ensue. So far this has not yet affected the monarchy, as the king remains popular and is often appealed to for change. However, the monarchy cannot change Morocco on its own. It will need to allow the political and administrative classes to assume responsibility, and to be accountable to the people not to the monarchy.