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Dissecting ‘Opposing’ Views: Morocco Reacts to Events in Egypt

As the situation continues to unfold in Egypt, the war of words among pundits on what to describe the ongoing events has made its way to the palace and parliament halls in Morocco. With countering press releases from the palace and the Party of Justice and Development (PJD)-led coalition government, the differing views toward the events in Egypt may appear to illustrate two equal opposing forces within the Moroccan regime. While the king’s message to interim president, Adly Mansour, was congratulatory in nature, the PJD condemned what it called a « coup d’état against a legitimate democracy » through a press release from Abdellah Baha, the Minister of State. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, headed by PJD minister Saâdeddine El Othmani but whose former head and current royal adviser, Taib Fassi-Fihri, acts as the king’s interlocutor in high stakes diplomatic affairs, was more nuanced in its reaction. The ministry neither condemned nor applauded the events, but rather stressed the need for Egypt to  »preserve its national unity. » A surface reading of these opposing press releases would suggest that the relationship between these institutions is flat rather than hierarchical. However, there is an underlying objective to push forth such an understanding, as it sustains the narrative that the monarchy is a « neutral » actor in Moroccan politics, rather than placing emphasis on the unchecked power it wields.

There is a dominant perception that there is some sort of « antagonistic » relationship between the monarchy and the PJD. This perception stems from PJD « Head of Government, » Abdelilah Benkirane’s previous defiant stances towards what could be best described as palace cronies, such as Fouad Ali El Himma. The animosity between Benkirane and El Himma unfolded in the years leading up to the November 2011 elections that brought the PJD to the head of the ruling coalition. In response to what was perceived as the PJD’s growing popularity, El Himma, a childhood friend of the king and close political and business ally, created the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM) with the intention of making way for a « new » political force to slow down the PJD’s momentum. It was a quietly calculated move from the palace that would allow the king to uphold his position as a « neutral arbiter » in the bickering squabbles of political parties. Such a narrative continues to weave itself in readings and analyses of Moroccan politics today. And out of this narrative emerged the desire to compare the PJD’s electoral success to that of its Islamist counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, despite the fact that unlike Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood, the PJD was never forcibly excluded from the political scene in Morocco (unlike the more outspoken al Adl wal Ihsan movement, whose denunciation of the monarchical institution as landed it a place outside of mainstream makhzen politics). That is not say that the PJD has not embraced such a narrative for its own political gain. On international media appearances, such as on Al Jazeera or TV5, Benkirane categorizes his party as a champion of reforms, and as a party that embraced the demands of protesters in Morocco. His short-sighted image disregards the fact that the 20 February Movement, whose protests led to the the rushed elections which made way for the PJD’s current position, did not cease protesting, boycotted the elections, and criticized members of the party for their wavering positions. Benkirane also made sweeping claims on international media, spanning from the denial of political prisoners to the outright rejection that protests were even happening.

The king benefits greatly from the attention placed on Benkirane. Aside from speeches addressed to the Moroccan population on state media, Mohammed VI’s media appearances are limited to ceremonial events and ribbon-cuttings. Mohammed VI has not given a single interview since just a little after his accession to the throne in 1999, with the exception of a 2005 interview with Spanish newspaper, El Pais. All of the interviews he has conducted were written and not filmed. Despite his lack of power in the face of the monarchy, as an elected official, there is an obvious duty for Benkirane to face the media in order to remain accountable for himself and his party’s actions. It is also a convenient deterrence for the monarchy, as criticism is most generally directed toward Benkirane and his cabinet rather than the sources of power and decision-making: the king and his shadow cabinet.

In instances where there is no threat to the monarchy’s hegemony, opposing views between the palace and the PJD-led coalition government will emerge on the political scene in an attempt to dispel the hierarchical relationship between the two. The king’s immediate congratulatory message to Adly Mansour stood in stark contrast to the PJD’s Abdellah Baha’s condemnation of what it called a « coup. » The platforms on which these opposing views were published were also starkly different: the king’s message was published on state media website Agence Marocaine de Presse (MAP), while Baha’s press release was published on independent online news publication, Lakome. Both the palace and the PJD took the events in Egypt as a political opportunity to broadcast differing views in a way that distanced themselves from one another and presented themselves as institutions independent of the other. The language of the two different press releases also echoed the binary semantics debate over whether or not to describe the events in Egypt as a « coup. » This also comes at a time when the relationship between the palace and the PJD-led coalition government has been under more scrutiny following the king’s intervention when the PJD’s coalition partner, the Istiqlal Party, submitted a formal request to withdraw from the coalition.

Unlike previous instances of the palace and PJD coming head to head on an issue, the ministry of foreign affairs appears to be straddling the fence on this particular matter. Despite the fact that El Othmani sits as Minister of Foreign Affairs, his predecessor, Taib Fassi-Fihri, has maintained a relatively active role in the ministry despite his newfound position as one of the king’s several royal advisers. Fassi-Fihri, for example, met with then US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, during her visit to Morocco before El Othmani sat with her. It was a particular blow to El Othmani since it was the first visit of the highest ranking US official to Morocco since he was placed in his cabinet position. Fassi-Fihri’s meeting with Clinton was also widely publicized on state media. Additionally, Fassi-Fihri acted as the king’s media representative during Mohammed VI’s tour in the Gulf region, speaking to media outlets about the political and economic objectives of the tour. It is difficult to discern who, out of the two, was more heavily involved in the press release regarding the ministry’s position toward the ongoing events in Egypt. Yet, the contents of the press release tow a carefully neutral line, placing neither at the jeopardy of their political overlords–the PJD for El Othmani, and the palace for Fassi-Fihri.

There are nuances between the varying positions pushed forth on this matter from within the Moroccan regime, yet it does not dismiss the gravitation of power centered on the palace. The PJD is compelled to publicly set the record straight regarding their position on the events in Egypt, as it is often placed in association with the Muslim Brotherhood, despite their repeated denial of any ties. Such a statement benefits the palace greatly as it avoids being viewed as above the PJD. Ironically, however, no one has represented the hierarchical relationship between the elected government and the monarchy more than Benkirane himself. In multiple interviews, Benkirane has repeatedly proclaimed that the king is « his boss, » statements the palace has never responded to. Yet the recent decision to release opposing statements, as well as the king’s intervention between the bickering coalition partners exemplifies how the palace seeks to position itself as a neutral arbiter, while simultaneously exerting its unchecked power–a feat that Mohammed VI has managed to maintain for years now through steady measures of liberalization. What cannot be said, however, is that the PJD-led coalition government and the palace are on an equal footing in terms of power and such a point requires emphasis in a context where press releases are interpreted as representation of overall diplomatic policy. While the PJD may express its condemnation toward what it describes as a « coup » in Egypt, ultimately, its position regarding the ongoing events stand as mere rhetoric alongside the palace’s position, which is the only source of power capable of changing foreign policy toward Egypt, or any country for that matter.

by  Samia Errazzouki on http://www.jadaliyya.com