BEIRUT

Commentary

Morocco’s loyalists reinvent themselves

The loyalist Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM) has begun a concerted effort to refurbish its image, which was tainted in 2011 by allegations that it was corrupting political life. The party – founded in 2008 by Fouad Ali al-Himma, a former deputy minister of interior who was unofficially in charge of security issues – is trying to present itself as an alternative to the current opposition parties, notably the Istiqlal Party and the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP). The party is showing a more mature and responsible attitude in its dealings with the ruling Justice and Development Party (PJD), unlike the USFP and Istiqlal, both of which have recently focused their energy on one public squabble with the PJD after another.

The PAM drew much of its initial strength from Himma, who some believed could have been the leading figure of a new political era in Morocco. This belief was in part validated by the party’s quick rise to power, becoming the largest parliamentary bloc in 2008 when dozens of parliamentarians from various parties defected to the newly founded PAM mid-session. This phenomenon of changing parties in mid-session, known in Moroccan politics as “political nomadism,” has since been outlawed under the 2011 constitution.

In 2009, the PAM went on to win a resounding victory in that year’s municipal elections, claiming 21 percent of the seats (compared to only 7 percent for the PJD), after winning over a large number of the local and village notables that comprise an important electoral base for the loyalist parties. Also, there were claims that the Interior Ministry “paved the way” for the party by appointing pro-PAM key governors to mobilize local notables in rural and urban areas on its behalf.

However, the 2011 protests temporarily suspended the party’s ambitious plans. The February 20 Movement’s protests in 2011 targeted PAM leaders perceived as too close to the palace and linked to corruption. In a concession to the street, Himma did in fact step down from the leadership of the PAM, which still remained unwaveringly pro-monarchy. Himma’s decision was followed by numerous other resignations within the ranks of the party that nearly tore it apart. Reeling from the sharp blows it received in 2011, the PAM has since sought to rehabilitate its image, reshape itself and redefine its priorities. The PAM turned inward to reform its internal structure, strengthen its image abroad and coordinate with the opposition without appearing on the political front lines.

The PAM’s new leadership played an important role in outlining its policies, especially after the technocrat Mustafa al-Bakouri, general director of the Moroccan Solar Energy Agency, was elected secretary-general in February 2012. Bakouri was successful in mending the internal divisions within the PAM – especially between those who had joined from leftist parties and the members who had been local notables or in smaller loyalist parties – as well as in rethinking its political agenda.

Since Bakouri became head of the PAM, the party’s stance toward Islamists has become increasingly less confrontational, even as both Istiqlal and the Socialist Union have become more stridently anti-PJD. Some analysts argue that this shift will make the PAM move further in the direction of reconciliation and seek points of convergence with the PJD before the next elections. This does not mean a coalition between the two is likely in the near future. Some of the PAM’s leftist leaders hold ideological hostility toward Islamism, and curbing the Islamists was one of the main reasons the party was created as well as was what attracted the leftists to it.

The party’s overhaul focuses on three aspects: strengthening its institutional capacity, launching new civil and political initiatives and enhancing its international image. In strengthening its institutional capacity, the PAM has been organizationally evolving since mid-2012, creating several regional and local branches, as well as parallel organizations for women, students, professionals and other groups.

The PAM has also established branches in France, Belgium and Holland, each home to large communities of Moroccan immigrants, in anticipation of Moroccans living abroad possibly being granted a vote in national politics. All of these steps have been to enhance the PAM’s electoral chances and to try to overcome its disappointing showing in the 2011 elections, where it fell flat after having done so well in the municipal elections of 2009.

As part of its political initiatives, the PAM put forward several issues for public discussion, including, during a parliamentary forum, calling for the legalization of cannabis cultivation. Some parliamentarians interpreted the move as the state putting out feelers to gauge public and political reactions to the idea.

The leading PAM figure Ilyas al-Omari, who is controversial for his close ties with state agencies, also played a prominent role in the release of the journalist Ali Anouzla, who had been arrested under the Anti-Terrorism Law for having a link on his newspaper’s website to a video produced by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Omari intervened via his private attorney, Hassan al-Samlali, who within a few days was able to have Anouzla temporarily released after his first defense team had failed in doing so.

Outside of party politics, PAM leaders have been busy the last two years with major diplomacy initiatives, especially regarding the Western Sahara issue. In December, the state-run Moroccan media portrayed the PAM’s Ilyas al-Omari as being instrumental in persuading Paraguay to withdraw its recognition of the separatist Polisario Front during his visit to Asuncion – even though the former foreign minister from the PJD, Saadeddine al-Othmani, denied this and claimed credit should be given to the Foreign Ministry.

Furthermore, the PAM has been active as an intermediary between Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, arranging a meeting between them in January 2013 in Rabat.

Without showing up on the front lines against the PJD, the PAM continues to work with the opposition in parliament, as could be seen in December 2013, when the opposition successfully mobilized to block the PJD’s proposed finance bill in the lower house. However, this coordination within parliament remains on the institutional level and has not yet transformed into cooperation on the party level, such as that between the Socialist Union and Istiqlal, who signed their own coalition agreement in July 2013.

PAM remains a backup player of potential use to the palace. The monarchy, which is still focused on reining in the Islamists, is dissatisfied with the methods and leadership of the two main opposition parties, Istiqlal and the USFP. That’s why it could engage the PAM more actively to reshape the political landscape to its liking.

Although the PAM’s attempts to reinvent its image over the past two years could make it marginally more popular, it would be difficult for the party to surpass the PJD and win the next elections unless the monarchy and the elite, the so-called Makhzen, decide to throw its full weight behind the PAM, which in turn is unlikely unless the Interior Ministry returns to its old ways and controls the electoral outcome.

Mohammed Masbah is a fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin and a regular contributor to Sada. This commentary, translated from the Arabic, first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 31, 2014, on page 7.

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