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Erdogan in Morocco: The Politics of Reception

By Samia Errazzouki

A widely mediatized and well-timed state visit can double up both as a political opportunity and as a convenient distraction. Such was the case, or as it seems, for Erdogan's tour in the Maghreb, starting with a first stop in Morocco, followed by Algeria, and ending with Tunisia. Despite attempts at public relations spinning, the violent repression of protests in Turkey has overshadowed international media coverage of Erdogan's state visits. In Morocco, however, domestic media is more focused on another element of Erdogan's recent visit: the lack of a royal welcome. While Erdogan's visit was announced weeks ahead, King Mohammed VI remained in France, where he has been on vacation since May. Instead, a powerless and increasingly isolated "Head of Government" Abdelilah Benkirane was left with the uneasy task of welcoming Erdogan during a time of heightened political intensity in both Morocco and Turkey. It was only a week before Erdogan's visit that Moroccan police violently dispersed a peaceful protest in Rabat where members of the 20 February Movement demanded the release of political prisoners. Beyond the uncomfortably staged photo-ops and dry press releases, Erdogan's visit to Morocco reveals the nuanced nature of state visits and their political uses.

It is useful to rewind back to the first week of April 2013. For days, both French and Moroccan media were abuzz with François Hollande's first official visit to Morocco. Moroccan human rights activists used it as anopportunity to push for Hollande to place public pressure on the Moroccan regime to address ongoing human rights abuses, despite the passing of what was hailed as a "landmark" constitution in 2011. Instead, what unfolded was a gaudy display of the formerly colonized laying down the red carpet for the former colonizer in such a way that only reinforced the imperial hierarchy. Quite literally, red carpets were placed on every major road and roundabout Hollande was intended to visit. With Mohammed VI by his side, and the young heir prince, Hassan, tagging along as state media cameras followed and officials lined up to bow and greet, royal protocol and post-colonial subservience was on full display. While the Moroccan regime milked the visit, Hollande's first major scandal in office dampened any hope of positive coverage abroad in France. Hollande's former budget minister, Jerome Cahuzac, was engulfed in a tax fraud scandal that took center front stage in French media. And while Hollande's prime minister was left with the task of addressing the scandal, Hollande was fluffing the feathers of the Moroccan regime in multiple appearances on state media--including a toastduring dinner with the royal family and Benkirane, a speech in parliament, and a press conference in Casablanca's Lycée Lyautey.


[State media footage of François Hollande's visit to Morocco.]

[Screenshot from state media footage from François Hollande's royal welcome in Morocco.]

[Image of a fully red-carpeted roundabout in Casablanca during Hollande's visit. Image from Facebook.]

Erdogan, on the other hand, was not paraded around the red-carpeted streets of Casablanca, nor was he invited to a publicized dinner with the royal family, nor was Mohammed VI even in the country during the visit. A brief press release and light media coverage is all that Erdogan received during his official visit to Morocco. He then left for Algeria, where the head of state, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is allegedly hospitalized in France, also did not receive him. Whether Mohammed VI's vacation in France during Erdogan's visit was intended or not, the political context draws further questions.

As head of Morocco's Party of Justice and Development (PJD), Benkirane often stated that he aspires for his party to be a Moroccan version of the Turkish Party of Justice and Development (AKP). Before the PJD was elected to the head of the ruling coalition government, in March 2011, an "agreement of cooperation" wassigned between the youth arms of both the PJD and AKP in the presence of Erdogan and the PJD's Mustapha Baba and Driss Bouanou. The king's absence from Erdogan's visit could have truly been a matter of ill-timed planning. Yet, digging further into the political dynamics between the palace and Benkirane reveals what could have been another example of the king pulling the strings while portraying an image of "neutrality." Allowing Benkirane to be the senior government official to receive Erdogan has implications for both the king and Benkirane himself. The king's absence perpetuates the image of a king "distant" from the political landscape, giving Benkirane the spotlight to carry out seemingly powerless activities that feed a perception of his position holding weight. All this strategically fits into the narrative of a "reforming" Morocco.

Even when the palace is not directly dictating political maneuvers, institutions closely tied to the regime take cues and make decisions based on their interests, which are often related to appeasing and at times, serving the palace. One significant example of this is the Confédération générale des entreprises du Maroc (CGEM)boycott of Erdogan's visit. Historically, the CGEM was a symbol of the intersection between the political and business elite within the Moroccan regime. Previous heads of the CGEM were also former ministers and appointed by the king, such as former minister of work and social affairs Mohammed Ammour (1969-1984), former minister of finance Mohammed Qeytouni (1984-1984), and also former minister of finance Bensalem Guessous (1985-1988). Through subtle moves and measures, mainly through other political parties close to the palace, the king and his allies have succeeded in isolating the PJD. The recent spat between ruling coalition party, Istiqlal, and the PJD further demonstrates this isolation that the palace has moderated.

In what can be best understood as an attempt to save face, during Erdogan's press conference in Morocco, it was announced that Mohammed VI would be visiting Turkey later on in the year. This, however, does not discount the political implications of how the visit unfolded. Moroccan media widely reported on Erdogan's alleged anger at not being received by the king. The association between Erdogan's AKP and Benkirane's PJD adds another element to the table, as both parties illustrate how a close marriage of conservative social and political policies paired with an adherence to the neoliberal economic order sustains an authoritarian system. The violent repression of peaceful protests that have recently taken place in both countries only add more cracks to the so-called Moroccan and Turkish "models."

[This article was originally published on Jadaliyya.]

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