Ilyas El-Omari stepped down on Aug. 8 as secretary-general of Morocco’s Party of Authenticity and Modernity, a party close to the palace – even as the popular protests around the Rif city of Al-Hoceima continue. One week earlier, King Mohammad VI had given a speech in which he harshly criticized politicians and elected officials, linking the ongoing protests to political corruption while calling on any official who did not think they were up to their job’s responsibilities to step down. As the party finds itself under pressure and struggles to compete with the Islamist Party of Justice and Development, the PAM wants to prove its political relevance by confronting and blaming the PJD over the Al-Hoceima crisis.
Omari is a seasoned, controversial politician who had served less than two years as the PAM’s secretary-general. His opponents believe he was forced out for failing to advance the stated objectives announced by the party’s founder, Fouad Ali El-Himma, a former interior minister and close associate of the king. Himma had led an independent slate to a sweeping victory in the 2007 elections, declaring he had returned to politics to face the rise of political Islam – after which he created the PAM, which claimed victory in the 2009 municipal elections.
Omari is the second secretary-general to resign since the PAM was founded, after Himma himself stepped down upon being appointed a royal adviser in December 2011. The Feb. 20 protest movement had singled out Himma for criticism, and the PAM slipped to fourth place in Parliament while the PJD won elections of November 2011. The local and regional elections in September 2015 were split, with the PJD coming in first for regional council seats, while the PAM won the majority of municipal level positions, which allowed Omari (then the PAM’s deputy secretary-general) to subsequently be elected president of the Tangier-Al-Hoceima-Tetouan region. This strengthened Omari’s image as a party leader who might be able to revitalize the PAM after its disappointing performance since 2011.
Yet in the Oct. 7, 2016, parliamentary elections, the PJD again took first place, while the PAM came in second, and at that time the king again appointed Abdelilah Benkirane to form a government. Three weeks later, the death of fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri in Al-Hoceima triggered steadily growing popular protests to demand improved infrastructure for the city. King Mohammad VI had already launched a development program for the district in October 2015 titled “Al-Hoceima: Lighthouse of the Mediterranean,” to be implemented under Omari, the regional president, as part of the area’s long-term development since the 2004 earthquake. However, when protests broke out in Al-Hoceima, the project had still not been implemented.
In an interview on Al-Aoula on June 15, Omari said he had warned Benkirane on Oct. 26, one day after Fikri’s death, of the consequences of the new protests for the region – but that Benkirane and the other parties were completely focused on forming a new government even after the Al-Hoceima crisis gained steam. Omari added that he had sent Benkirane official correspondence requesting the government clarify what had happened to the district’s population, but that when Benkirane replied on Nov. 4, he refused to provide any information, arguing that the president of a region had no legal authority to request such information from the prime minister.
Since then, protesters have consistently held the central government, the Tangier-Al-Hoceima-Tetouan regional presidency, and Agriculture and Fishing Minister Aziz Akhannouch equally accountable, even as the three have each tried to pin the blame on the others. The unrest in Al-Hoceima became another arena for PJD-PAM competition, especially when Omari denounced Benkirane for never letting the “Al-Hoceima: Lighthouse of the Mediterranean” project move forward, which would have provided the infrastructure and social services protesters later demanded.
In the PAM’s view, the PJD holds primary responsibility for that failure, because the project was launched under Benkirane’s government and the Al-Hoceima crisis blew up under the caretaker government after the Oct. 7 elections. However, Benkirane is trying hard to dodge the blame for Al-Hoceima, as he did in a speech at the PJD’s 13th youth congress in August 2017, when he accused the PAM of inefficient management of the Tangier-Al-Hoceima-Tetouan region. The PAM continues to accuse Benkirane of neglecting the Al-Hoceima development project against Omari’s will because the PJD believed Omari had won the regional presidency by exploiting the PAM’s sway within the Interior Ministry to shift the local coalition map in his favor.
The crisis over forming a new government had hindered Benkirane’s attempts to continue his anti-PAM political approach, yet it also made clear that the PAM was not able to curb the PJD’s progress either. Aziz Akhannouch, the new secretary-general of the National Rally of Independents, blocked Benkirane’s attempt to form a government by presenting preconditions for joining his coalition that he knew Benkirane would refuse, in turn deepening the impasse. Meanwhile, because the PAM had not achieved the electoral success it had hoped for, the party was pushed further to the background – even though it had so recently thought it could regain its position as the top party, form a government and force the PJD into the opposition. Utterly discouraged, the PAM declined even to make a statement on the ruling coalition talks, going on the defensive and focusing on blaming the PJD for Al-Hoceima.
This struggle for primacy between the two parties is also occurring on a personal level between Omari and Benkirane. Omari has denied rumors that he had proposed deliberately obstructing Benkirane’s efforts to form his third government. After Benkirane’s dismissal, the king appointed former PJD secretary-general Saadeddine El-Othmani to head the government, which Othmani put together in short order. However, it failed to resolve the worsening Al-Hoceima crisis, instead using hostile language toward the protesters and their demands. As the crisis weakened the already fragile PJD-led government, Omari saw the king’s speech as a chance to return to the political spotlight by resigning and implying the PJD leadership should do the same.
Although Omari said in a news conference that he resigned because he had endorsed parliamentarians whom PAM’s political bureau had decided to fire for voting against party lines, this explanation did not convince many people – especially because most party leaders have few compunctions about switching allegiances and are generally not expected to adhere to a party’s code of conduct. Omari described his resignation as a routine matter for any politician who felt he had made a mistake, asking, “Why in Morocco’s postindependence political history has there never been a party official or politician who said that he made a mistake and will resign?” Nevertheless, he fully expected his political opponents to question the circumstances behind his resignation. Omari further hoped this move would embarrass Benkirane, who might run for a third term as secretary-general of the PJD once its rules are amended to allow him to do so, for not admitting to his own mistakes in the wake of the king’s Throne Day speech. His resignation also gives other PAM members a chance to strengthen their presence within the party as an institution, not as individuals tied to one leader. Many party members therefore believe that Omari’s choice was a difficult but necessary and ultimately positive move for the party.
The PAM was held back once by the events of 2011, and a second time by the unrest in Al-Hoceima. The party has gone to extensive efforts to portray itself as a credible and decisive left-wing challenger able to stop the PJD in its tracks, and has likewise sought to avoid being painted as a party bent on derailing Moroccan politics. The party is going through tough times with the resignation of one of its top leaders, who could have turned it around were it not for the relentless competition against the PJD and ongoing fallout from Al-Hoceima. Yet at the very least, it has succeeded in reinvigorating the Moroccan political scene and diversifying the topics of debate.
Abdelfattah Naoum is a researcher in political science at the Mohammad V University in Rabat. Follow him on Twitter @AbdelfattahN. This commentary, translated from 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 September 13, 2017, on page 7.