Moderate Islamist leader Abdelilah Benkirane has set a decidedly conciliatory tone with the monarchy, after he was appointed Morocco’s new prime minister by King Mohammed VI on Tuesday. However, as Benkirane began talks to form a new government, there was doubt about his ability to peacefully share power while pushing through promised reforms.
The new prime minister’s Justice and Development Party (PJD), whose victory in the Nov. 25 parliamentary elections owed much to the pro-reform Arab Spring movements, will be the first religious party to lead a government in the North African country.
When demonstrations inspired by the Arab revolts flared in Morocco in February, King Mohamed responded with a package of reforms that included constitutional amendments and an early parliamentary election that took much of the momentum out of the protest movement.
Toning down confrontational rhetoric was a key element of Benkirane’s success in the past, and an attitude he reinforced for the landmark poll. The new prime minister told the press on Tuesday that his exchange with King Mohammed had given him great joy.
“I pray God will help me with the noble mission [the King] has entrusted me with… to meet the oath I took before his majesty today,” Benkirane said.
His latest statements left some observers wondering how ardently Berkirane would pursue his previous promise to lead a government that acts independently of the King’s executive powers.
Previously a boisterous opposition group in parliament, the PJD must now lead a coalition government and work with a monarchy that has ruled Morocco with vast executive powers for the past 50 years.
Future of ‘shadow cabinet’
According to some analysts, Benkiranen’s moderate statements and professed allegiance to the crown is a necessary political calculation.
“Despite his strong character, he knows he has to show his loyalty in order to enter the highest levels of power. He has no choice,” said Khadija Mohsen-Finan, a professor of political science at Paris University VIII.
For Mohsen-Finan, the prime minister’s statements to reassure the monarchy has not cancelled out his intention to exercise new powers that constitutional reforms transferred from the king to parliament in July. In order to secure those powers, Benkirane must avoid confrontations with the King’s entourage.
“Until these elections there has been a shadow cabinet in Morocco, a kind of parallel government made up of the King’s advisors. It’s a structure that many prime ministers have collided with and been stifled by,” Professor Mohsen-Finan explained.
“The question now is whether this problem will stop now that the PJD is in power, or only get worse,” he added.
Shifting political lines
Benkirane’s political maneuvering also faces the risk of clashing with some sections of the PJD, especially in the event that it fails to rebalance Morocco’s system of power. During its decades-long tenure in opposition, the PJD campaigned on a platform of change and reform, including reducing social inequalities and corruption.
According to Mohsen-Finan if power sharing breaks down, Benkirane will face a difficult choice: “Either he stands up to the King and re-joins the opposition on the street, or he stays in power and loses all credibility.”
Another potential hurdle in the power-sharing arrangement is what some observers call the King’s unwillingness to rule alongside religious leaders. The King continues to harbour a profound aversion to the Islamists, according to Moroccan expert Mohamed Darif, interviewed by the Algerian daily Liberté.
However, there may be stronger motivations for the king to make the new relationship with the PJD work. Namely, avoiding the kind of violent revolts that overturned the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.
“[The King] was forced to carry out reforms, to call for a new referendum and an early election… Not just the PJD’s but also the king’s actions are being carefully followed on the streets,” said Mohsen-Finan.