Are Iran and Egypt on a Path to Entente?
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Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE see the decline of Islamist groups in North Africa as a win for regional stability and cooperation; but even if Islamist parties may be slowly fading from the picture, this by no means suggests they are disappearing.
When Morocco’s king, Mohammed VI, opted to hold a constitutional referendum and early parliamentary elections in 2011 to quell the demands of Arab Spring protesters, the Islamist-associated Party of Justice and Development, led at the time by Abdelilah Benkirane, came out on top. The PJD won 107 out of 395 seats, and Benkirane became prime minister. The stage seemed set for some major changes in Moroccan politics. Benkirane had been the leader of what was formally considered a moderate Islamist opposition party in the political system, and Morocco’s constitutional monarchy seemed to finally be letting it in to have a shot at governing.
However, there was a dramatic shift in Morocco’s latest parliamentary elections. In September, the PJD came away with only 13 seats, very far behind the National Rally of Independents, or RNI, with 102 seats; the Party of Authenticity and Modernity, or PAM, with 86 seats; and the Istiqlal, or Independence Party, with 81 seats. These winning parties are particularly close to the palace, unofficially supported by allies of the king, and flush with cash. Morocco’s new prime minister, RNI leader Aziz Akhannouch, is one of Morocco’s richest businessmen, a close friend of the king, and a former minister of agriculture. Not only did the RNI win at the national level, but also at the regional and municipal level. This three-fold RNI victory is significant. The PJD’s current secretary general and Morocco’s former prime minister, Saad Eddine El Othmani, didn’t even retain his seat. Most of the senior leadership of the PJD has resigned and the party seems in shambles.
Morocco’s electoral shift offers insight into the status of Islamist-affiliated parties across North Africa – all of which have suffered various political blows in the past decade – as well as the broader regional debate about the unfulfilled promises of political and socioeconomic reform in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring protests.
Morocco’s political system is a constitutional monarchy, and its party system is tightly co-opted and controlled from the top – with many parties benefiting from unofficial palace support. Morocco has a long history of holding elections and implementing incremental political and electoral reforms, but the king still holds the final say on all major decisions. The election process is controlled by the Ministry of Interior and often plagued by irregularities and manipulation, especially regarding the influence of money. The PJD blamed the surprising results in the most recent elections on “violations” during the electoral process, including election-law violations and vote buying. Parties from the other end of the political spectrum, such as the Party for Progress and Socialism, also called out the RNI for using an unprecedented amount of money in the electoral campaign. PPS Secretary General Nabil Benabdallah argued that “there has never been this much money used in an electoral campaign,” decrying a “monetary tsunami” and that the RNI had gone beyond all the financial limits.
Beyond this, the Parliament is set up so no one party can win an outright majority and become too powerful. Moreover, any mainstream political party must abide by the rules and red lines of Moroccan politics – mainly unquestioning loyalty to the palace and the monarchical system. In other words, none of the political parties, including the more conservative PJD or other more liberal parties such as the PPS, are particularly strong or independent opposition parties. Morocco’s independent opposition actors on various ends of the ideological spectrum, such as leftist opposition parties like Annahj Addimocrati (the Democratic Way) and the independent Islamist Al Adl Wa Al-Ihssane (Justice and Benevolence Association), routinely boycott elections and garner their legitimacy from asserting their independence by working outside of the palace-dominated party system. Annahj has a relatively small following and limited social base. Al Adl Wa Al-Ihssane has been officially banned but is estimated to have a membership in the hundreds of thousands and is known for its mobilization capacity and deep social base (as was seen by its participation in the 2011 Arab Spring protests and many others since).
Nonetheless, Morocco’s election results are significant. The PJD has won the last several parliamentary elections, in spite of voting irregularities that often mark Morocco’s elections. The PJD won 126 seats in the 2016 elections and only 13 in September, losing 90% of its seats. Moroccan political scientist Mohamed Masbah argued, “This is the first time since the Arab Spring protests of 2011 that an Islamist party has been removed from power through the electoral process,” representing a real political downturn for the party and its leadership. Moreover, voter turnout in these elections was relatively high, at around 50% compared to 43% in 2016. This is likely because national, regional, and local elections were combined in one cycle – local elections have historically garnered higher voter participation in Morocco.
Experts look to the 2016-17 leadership transition to explain this shift away from Islamist parties. When the former prime minister, Benkirane, tried to form a government in the aftermath of another PJD win in the 2016 parliamentary elections, he was met with resistance from palace allies and parties, such as Akhannouch and the RNI, which seemed to be intentionally blocking the government formation process as a way to push Benkirane out of power. This worked, and he was replaced with fellow PJD senior Othmani, who was able to form a government very quickly. This was viewed as a stalling and manipulation tactic pursued by the palace to weaken the PJD by removing Benkirane, who was becoming an increasingly popular politician. The problem with the new PJD leadership, Masbah argued, was that it “was unable to strike a balance between being loyal to the palace, managing a government coalition and preserving the party machine.” Moreover, the party recently had to push for the passage of very unpopular legislation, such as pension reform that increased the retirement age from 60 to 63.
This points to another important reflection from these elections. Now that the palace has more publicly solidified its control over Parliament and the king’s personal friend is the prime minister, it will be difficult to deflect criticism over the country’s political and economic performance. Masbah concluded, “With the PJD out of the picture, the palace no longer has a scapegoat if things go wrong.” The parties that won this election, particularly the RNI and PAM, are particularly close to the palace, business friendly, and self-described “liberal” and “secular” opponents to the Islamists, and much domestic and international media is describing their win as a victory for the “liberals.”
Bernabé López García and Said Kirhlani suggested that the domination of Akhannouch’s RNI at the national, regional, and municipal level “heralds a new political architecture that will govern the country over the course of the next legislative term and should lay the foundations of the ‘new development model’ the country has announced for the period leading up to 2035.” Most important, RNI’s win in the elections and the appointment of Akhannouch as the new prime minister reveals even tighter control of the monarchy over Morocco’s political system.
North Africa’s political context, especially since the 2011 Arab Spring protests, is especially significant for understanding much of the discourse surrounding Morocco’s election results and the regional and international focus on “the loss of the moderate Islamists.” Over the summer, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied fired the prime minister, closed the Parliament, and assumed complete control over the country’s fledging democratic system. The closing of Parliament marginalized Ennahda, another Islamist-affiliated political party that had continued to win elections in the years following the 2011 Arab Spring protests. Saied has since announced the appointment of a new prime minister, Najla Bouden Romdhane, Tunisia’s first woman to hold such a position, but it is very unclear what powers she will actually wield. This decision came after Saied announced he would be ruling by presidential decree, sparking protests denouncing his power grab.
Other major Islamist groups in North Africa, notably the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, were politically targeted after the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and the rise of military strongman Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. Since then, the military has found various ways to repress the group and threaten its social base, with the aim of quelling the social and political threat it has posed in the past as an opposition movement.
For Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Muslim Brotherhood is considered a terrorist organization, and Islamist-affiliated political parties are portrayed as a gateway for the spread of radical Islamist groups that threaten to destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. Gulf states such as Qatar and other regional actors, like Turkey, have historical and transnational links with Islamist-affiliated parties and have often engaged with them as a way to increase their political and economic influence in the region – especially after Islamist parties did well at the ballot box after the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. It was the combination of powerful street protests, the success of Islamists’ at the ballot box, and Al Jazeera championing these forces that convinced many Gulf leaders they faced a serious political threat.
Many now view the loss of the moderate Islamists in Morocco’s elections as the death knell for Islamists across North Africa – given how they have been marginalized by executive fiat by Saied in Tunisia and outright repressed by Sisi in Egypt. In some ways, Morocco’s elections mark an even more powerful blow to the influence and legitimacy of Islamist-affiliated parties, given that their loss was at the ballot box, as opposed to the political repression and return to authoritarian power grabs in neighboring countries. Also significant was that it resulted from the Islamists having governed and been required to answer for unpopular (if at times necessary) measures. For Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, these events are a win for regional stability and cooperation as much of the region seems to be trying to move away from Islamist-dominated populist and ideological politics and toward economic cooperation and business-oriented pragmatism.
However, even if these Islamist-affiliated parties have suffered major blows, many of the socioeconomic factors that led to the 2011 protests in the first place have remained unchanged and, in many cases, grown worse. In other words, even if Islamists may be slowly fading from the picture, at least for now, this by no means suggests that Islamist parties are disappearing (as the continued appeal of Al Adl Wa Al-Ihssane in Morocco indicates) and, most importantly, that protests will fade across the region. Morocco’s billionaire businessman Akkhanouch is the embodiment of Morocco’s system of political and financial corruption, reinforced with palace-led co-optation moves that undercut his opponents. This may make him easier to do business with, but it doesn’t bode well for the political and socioeconomic reforms that Moroccans, and citizens across the region, are demanding.
is the senior Gulf analyst at International Crisis Group and a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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