On 11 March 2021, former Moroccan Prime Minister and Secretary-General of the Justice and Development Party (JDP) Abdelilah Benkirane announced that he would freeze his membership in his party in protest against the government's approval of the legislation to cultivate cannabis, within the framework of a deep crisis facing this Islamist party that has been leading the government coalition in Morocco since November 2011.

This paper analyses the crisis of the JDP, while investigating the impact of this crisis on the JDP’s future and on the Moroccan political situation.

The JDP crisis: context and background

Since Morocco signed the agreement to resume relations with Israel on 22 December 2020, the strong internal disputes that for years had torn apart the Moroccan Islamic Party have surfaced. While Prime Minister Saadeddine Othmani signed the agreement on behalf of the Moroccan government and was supported by the party’s most prominent leader, namely Abdelilah Benkirane, the announcement of normalisation between Morocco and Israel caused a serious internal shock in the party, whose resistance to normalisation has been one of the pillars of its political discourse.

At the end of February 2020, Idriss Azmi al-Idrissi, head of the JDP National Council and Mayor of Fez, the spiritual capital of Morocco – according to the official name – announced his resignation from the party leadership in a letter in which he criticised the government’s performance and the party’s leadership, and showed frustration and despair at the line pursued by its political movement.

In the same period, Mustapha Ramid, the Minister of State in Charge of Human Rights and Relations with Parliament and one of the historical leadership figures of the Moroccan Islamic Movement, announced his resignation in an apparent protest against the policy of the party and the government, before he withdrew the resignation under pressure. El-Mokrie El-Idrissi, one of the party’s leaders, also announced that he is freezing his membership in the context of the same internal crisis, which reached its climax with Benkirane’s decision to freeze his activity in the party and sever the link with the four most important leaders in the party, namely Prime Minister Saadeddine Othmani, Minister of Energy, Mines and the Environment Aziz Rabbah, Minister of Labour and Professional Integration Mohamed Amekraz, and the leading figure Lahcen Daoudi.

While the cannabis issue is the direct background to Benkirane's decision to freeze his activity in the party, the information leaked from within the party speaks about other reasons, the most prominent of which are the following:

  • The leadership struggle between Abdelilah Benkirane, who represents the ideological, organisational line in the party that controls the disciplined rules in the organisation, and Saadeddine Othmani, the head of government, who represents the pragmatic and realistic current that is more capable of agreeing with the Royal Palace and other political parties. Signs of this struggle have appeared several times, but the party leadership has always been able to circumvent and settle it. However, Benkirane believes that he has become capable of releasing the party from the grip of Othmani ahead of the extraordinary session of the National Council (which is the party’s highest decision-making body) that was held on 20 and 21 March 2021, betting on his organisational weight in the Council, which he believes exceeds that of his rival Othmani.
  • The variation in the political positioning strategy ahead of the legislative elections scheduled for the summer of 2021. While the realistic pragmatic trend believes that the party’s continued stay in power is contingent on its strong ties to the Royal Palace and influential political parties, the organisational trend believes that the ruling experience has weakened the party and its ties with its electoral base, which would expose it to a setback in the upcoming elections. Thus, Benkirane's recent decision is an attempt to restore the position of the provocative objectionist leadership in order to preserve the JDP electoral stock, distancing himself from the political path of the current leadership, which he describes as characterised by appeasement and weakness.
  • While Benkirane did not publicly criticise the step taken by the government to normalise with Israel on the pretext that the King retains the sovereign decision in foreign issues, he distinguished between the government’s supreme policies and the party’s constants, including the rejection of political and diplomatic relations with Israel. Thus, Benkirane's recent announcement can be viewed as driven by those prevailing principle considerations of the party's grassroots, especially the youth and student organisations in which voices appeared denouncing the party leadership's positions regarding the resumption of relations between Morocco and Israel.

The impact of the internal crisis on the future of the JDP

The party, which was formally established in 1996, is known to consist of three major trends:

1. The traditional Brotherhood trend that dates back to the Islamic Youth Movement, which was founded in 1969 by Abdel Karim Muti and Ibrahim Kamal, and was accused of several terrorist acts, including the liquidation of major political figures. Among the most prominent leaders who belonged to the secret Brotherhood organisation are Abdelilah Benkirane, Mustapha Ramid, Saadeddine Othmani and Abdullah Baha. However, this group split in 1981 from the Islamic Youth Organisation and established a new organisation called the Islamic Group that remained attached to the Brotherhood's line of thought.

2. The trend descending from the banned group Al-Adl wal Ihsane (Justice and Spirituality), which was founded by Abdesslam Yassine in 1987. While this movement belongs in general to the current of political Islam, it has many special features, including its educational approach that is influenced by Sufi Orders (Turuq), its call for the revival of the caliphate, and its symbolic and organisational link to its leader Abdessalam Yassine (died in 2012), in what is almost an attempt to implement the Khomeini experience in Morocco. While the banned movement adopts a radical stance towards the Royal Palace and the state, an essential part of its electoral base supports the JDP.

3. The conservative religious trend that does not belong to the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, but rather is an extension of traditional Moroccan Islam.

It is known that the JDP was the outcome of a merger between the political Islam movement and the Popular Democratic and Constitutional Movement (MPDC) founded by former minister Abdelkrim al-Khatib, who was one of the closest political figures to the Royal Palace, and whose followers still have some presence in the JDP's structures and in the elected positions it obtained. While the radical Brotherhood trend, represented by Ahmed Raissouni, President of the Union of Muslim Scholars (founded by Al-Qaradawi and supported by Qatar), and the de facto leader of the Harakat Al-Tawhid wal Islah (Unity and Reform Movement), which is the advocacy arm of the JDP, has gradually moved away from the party and criticised its political stances, including its acceptance of normalisation with Israel, Abdelilah Benkirane continues to be the most powerful figure in the organisation, even though the Royal Palace does not prefer to deal with him, and other party actors do not tend to coordinate and partner with him.

Against the policy of appeasement and pragmatic realism adopted by the current Prime Minister Saadeddine Othmani, Benkirane adopts a dual strategy based on combining the channels of communication with the Royal Palace within the framework of the constitutional legitimacy discourse, while preserving the position of the objectionist opposition to preserve his electoral base. It is likely that Benkirane, who had hinted in previous times that he might defect from the party and establish another party, will not separate from his party. Rather, he is expected to regain his leadership position and fully control the party.

The impact of the party's crisis on the Moroccan political scene

The JDP was able to seize the first position in Moroccan political life since the 2011 elections, in which it won 107 parliamentary seats (out of 395 parliamentary seats), which qualified it to head the government. It improved its electoral position in the following elections held in 2016 by obtaining 125 parliamentary seats, which ensured that it would continue to lead the government coalition.

Although the party is currently experiencing a severe internal crisis and has completely failed to implement its social programmes that are the basis of its political project, it is likely to retain its leading position in Parliament with the possibility of a decline in its electoral representation. Among the most prominent indicators of this trend is the continued decline and weakness of the other political parties, both the traditional national parties, such as the Independence Party, the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (UNFP) and the Progress and Socialism Party (PPS), and parties close to the Royal Palace such as the National Rally of Independents (RNI) which is participating in the government, and the opposition Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM), which is currently suffering from an acute internal conflict crisis.

The decline of the Islamist JDP and the weakness of the other parties give the Moroccan King Mohammed VI a wide margin for manoeuvre and movement, especially in controlling the government coalition that will be formed after the legislative elections scheduled for the summer of 2021, which may lead for the first time to the removal of the leadership of the government from the JDP since it assumed the premiership ten years ago.

Conclusion

  • The decision of the JDP Secretary-General Abdelilah Benkirane to freeze his membership in the party comes in the context of a deep and accumulating crisis experienced by this Islamic party which has been leading the government coalition in Morocco since November 2011.
  • While the protest against the government's approval of the cannabis cultivation legislation is the direct reason for Benkirane’s decision, there are deeper reasons, the most important of which is that it is an attempt by him to distance himself from the political path of the current leadership, which he describes as characterised by appeasement and weakness, and to restore the position of the objectionist leadership in the party in order to preserve its electoral base, especially ahead of the elections scheduled for the summer of 2021.
  • Abdelilah Benkirane is still the strongest figure in the JDP, even though the Royal Palace does not prefer to deal with him and the other parties are not inclined to partner with him. It is more likely that he will not separate from his party. Rather, he is expected to regain his leadership position and fully control the party.
  • While the JDP is currently experiencing a severe internal crisis, and has completely failed to implement its social programmes that are the basis of its political project, it is likely to retain its leading position in the next parliament with the possibility of a decline in its electoral representation. This JDP regression gives the King a wide margin for manoeuvre, which could lead to the removal of the premiership from the party.

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