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'The King Is Good, the Political Class Is Bad': A Tired Myth

[An image from a protest in Al-Hoceima on 18 May 2017. Image by Samia Errazzouki] [An image from a protest in Al-Hoceima on 18 May 2017. Image by Samia Errazzouki]

Following this year’s “Throne Day” speech on 29 July 2017, commentators were unanimous: Morocco’s King Mohammed VI’s offensive against political parties was more violent than ever. In Morocco, however, the “crisis,” “weakness,” and “dysfunction” of parties is a repeated refrain. After the death of King Hassan II, new tonalities have enriched the refrain, which have been injected into the discourses held by a wide range of enunciators, including ordinary citizens, the media, actors of “civil society,” international organizations, representatives of different parties, the king, and even a group of researchers. This quasi-consensus on the diagnosis of the “sick man” is bolstered by an array of symptoms, but the opinions diverge as to the sources of the evil and the remedies.

Nevertheless, a dissonance arises: the circulation of knowledge is such that political discourses are often informed by a hybridization of common sense and recycled scholarly discourse. In turn, some scholars inadvertently cloak analysis as the legitimization of politics. In order to untangle this labyrinth, it is important to distinguish between the levels of analysis. Firstly, the official narrative on Moroccan political parties is a tool of legitimization and delegitimization, which is part of historicity. Secondly, some academic framings have marked the study of partisan life before being reappropriated in public debates. From that starting point, a hypothesis will be examined: the mixture of genres and the hypertrophy of discourses on the stigmatization of political parties lead to the obfuscation of the dynamics at work. On the one hand, established political parties have deployed strong adaptation capacities. On the other hand, the protest arena has stretched out and the challengers have accumulated skills and know-how to the point that they willingly concede that the “political class is bad” in order to corner the “good king” against the wall.

“The King Is Good, the Political Class is Bad”: An Old Refrain

Under the reign of Hassan II, discrediting political parties that emerged from the nationalist independence movement was commonplace. And at every instance that a palace-ally establishes an “administrative party,” it was accompanied with talk of representing the “silent majority,” of filling the “political void,” of mobilizing the most “competent” actors to carry out “royal direction,” etc.

Following Mohammed VI’s ascension to the throne, the predominant rhetoric under Hassan II of “the king is good, his entourage is bad,” was rearticulated into, “the king is good, the political class is bad.” Vilifying political parties as “universally decayed” constituted a major form legitimizing the monarchy—as if the staging of an efficient king close to the people and at the root of all of the executive’s positive achievements could only materialize through a contrary perception of the “political class,” an almost consenting scapegoat.

In a position of control from above, the king emerged as an “enlightened prince” at the bedside of “the sick man,” and his speeches became the megaphone of denunciations and all-out injunctions targeting political parties: “corruption,” officials switching parties for each election, “incompetence,” “fragmentation,” the absence of internal democracy and societal anchorage, etc. In messages addressed to the nation, Mohammed VI regularly gave “guidance” to political parties. He calls upon them to “restore themselves,” summoning them to take up “their responsibilities,” become “schools of democracy,” to “keep pace with their times,” and he even prescribes remedies (the 2006 law on parties).

Civil society actors join the efforts of this project to “update” political parties, which is a project relayed through international democracy promotion programs. Nevertheless, the evaluations of these policies have revealed unintentional outcomes: rather than promoting democracy, these programs contribute to the consolidation of authoritarianism. They develop the capacities of its beneficiaries and institutionalize them without impacting their internal functions or their relations with society (Bolleyer, Storm, 2010; Khakee, 2017). Furthermore, as Mohammed Sassi (2015) underlined, some aspects of the law on parties intended to democratize them (representation of women, youth, internal elections) were oftentimes distorted.

In sum, the successes of the narrative that discredits political parties are largely dependent upon the multiple uses that it can lend itself to a political sphere at the crossroads of the national and the transnational. Moreover, this dominant discourse draws ammunition from a set of academic analyses.

Academic Variations on the “Crisis” and the “Weakness” of Parties

The recurring theme of the weakness of political parties is tied to the tropes exerted by the Communist Party model of yesteryear (Fretel, Lefebvre, 2008). To recall, it is this standard that Maurice Duverger used to conceptualize the famous opposition between the “mass party” and the “elite” or “cadre party” (Duverger, 1976). From then on, to characterize parties as “weak” often amounts to highlighting five “defects”: an organizational “deficit,” an ideological “deficiency,” the “absence” of devout and disciplined partisans, a “weak” capacity of mobilizing the masses on a national scale, and the “lack” of financial autonomy. Such a framework has all the more easily crossed borders because the “dysfunction” of political parties is associated with one of the major characteristics of multi-party authoritarianism, regardless of the theoretical perspective. In the case of Morocco, culturalist, sociohistorical, and neoinstitutional approaches are more dominant.

Political Parties: A Façade for Brotherhood and Tribes?

In a widely referenced text, Robert Rézette highlights one of the paradoxes of Moroccan political parties under the French protectorate. Although the Moroccan nationalists were strongly opposed to the doctrinal, spiritual and political phenomenon of brotherhood, their organizational model was imbued with it. According to several accounts, intentional borrowing was aimed at broadening the spectrum of mobilization. In this vein, in the rural areas, Allal Fassi was likened to a cheikh, his party to a new brotherhood with its members referred to as “Allaliyyin” (Rézette, 1955). Nevertheless, the model of authority was different: as Abdellah Hammoudi (2001) recalled, Allal Fassi opposed all “forms of contemptible submission” and discouraged the kissing of the hand.

Nonetheless, for the Moroccan anthropologist, Arab political authoritarianism and the consent that it meets draw their sources from reworked cultural schemes: the essential traits of the relationship between the master and disciple find themselves both in the sphere of mystical initiation and in relations of domination. This lens has been met with an immense success; intellectuals of the left regularly reclaim it to denounce the dysfunctionality of their (former) parties. It was the same for another thesis, which has thoroughly marked the analysis of Moroccan partisan life.

By the early 1970s, John Waterbury claimed that the Moroccan monarchy has succeeded in surviving by using and preserving power in a defensive manner, and by dividing an already limited elite: There is “a constant jostling and rubbing of various political units, accompanied by an atmosphere of tension and crisis, that usually continues the maintenance of balance, or, if it is upset, tends towards its restoration” (Waterbury, 1970, p. 6). According to the American political scientist, there was continuity in the political culture. Therefore, the king and elites’ political behavior has remained steeped in the traditions of the makhzen (common term to denote the Moroccan regime and its networks) and of tribalism, despite the social upheavals the protectorate provoked. From this perspective, the clientelistic pattern of the Moroccan political landscape should explain the fact that political parties have unstable clienteles rather than veritable partisans; hence, the precariousness of alliances, which made it difficult to establish coherence between actions, coalitions, and stated ideologies.

In the wake of the excessive readings of these works, the weakness of parties and the crisis of politics would be inscribed into the cultural DNA of Moroccans. Two major pitfalls are regularly highlighted. Implicitly, culture is assimilated to a fixed corpus, stable in time and closed in on itself. Moreover, to give it a weight in the course of history that is more determinant than other factors biases the analysis of social and political transformations.

The “Weakness” of Parties: An Effect of Modes of Colonization and Decolonization?

From a sociohistorical perspective, Maâti Monjib (1996) and Michele Penner Angrist (2006) emphasized the bifurcated historical foundations. According to Monjib, the colonial experience was too superficial and too short in Morocco for it to transform social and political structures. For Angrist, the colonial policy implemented in Morocco and the mode of accession of the kingdom to independence preserved the traditional elites; they neither brought to completion a “founding regime” like in Algeria nor the affirmation of a hegemonic liberation movement (similar to the National Liberation Front, or FLN).

From this point of view, the primary particularity of Morocco resides in the sociopolitical configuration removed during the process of decolonization. The monarchy was not abolished and there was no war of liberation that allowed for one sole actor to unify the ranks, absorb or eliminate potential political rivals, impose its hegemony, and to impose the rules of the game (before forming a single party). From there, the scholars are unanimous: the Moroccan monarchy’s principal aim in establishing the multiparty system was to thwart the hegemonic aspirations of the nationalist movement. The palace failed to develop a party capable of effectively supervising all its clients in order to counterbalance the electoral mobilization capacities of its challengers. In the end, the monarchy opted for a strategy of fragmenting its adversaries as well as its allies, resorting to both repression and cooptation.

In view of these readings, the weakening of political parties in Morocco is rooted in historicity and is the result of, above all, a confrontation between the palace and the nationalist movement. For this, one must be wary of considering that the monarchy’s “triumph” is inscribed in its genes or that everything that unfolded during the process of decolonization.

The “Weakness” of Parties: An Intrinsic Characteristic of “Electoral” Authoritarianism?

According to a number of studies, the existence of weak, fragmented, and more or less clientelized parties is a major feature of “electoral” authoritarianism. Since 1998, Morocco has been an archetype of this variation of limited pluralism. On the one hand, some features of democratic political life distinguish this regime from others: a political sphere open to opposition parties and civil society, regular and relatively competitive elections, etc. On the other hand, it is imbued with the “syndrome” of “dominant-power politics” (Carothers, 2002): a dominant-power like the monarchy that retains reserved domains without being subject to accountability; the rulers resort with more or less “subtlety” to repression, violation of the law, and “manipulation”; the judiciary is not independent; a portion of the opposition is excluded and its access to official media is nonexistent or constrained; electoral engineering hinders the formation of a genuine majority; the legitimacy of elections, the electoral participation rate, confidence in public institutions, and state performance is very weak.

Ultimately, in such a context, the main function of elections and political parties is to ensure the survival of the political regime (Gandhi, 2008; Lust-Okar, 2005). According to these perspectives, when power-holders are faced with major challenges and do not have access to rentier income, they try to stabilize themselves by soliciting the cooperation of other groups. In order to do so, they create institutions that serve multiple functions: releasing political pressure; fostering the sharing of spoils between elites and ensuring ambitions in terms of political careers; redistributing scarce resources through client networks or public policies; giving signals to investors and international players; justifying policies, and above all, diffusing responsibility in the event of failure.

Although seductive, these readings remain trapped in the quest that underlies them: understanding the resilience of authoritarianism. From then on, they leave black boxes aside, conceal nonconventional politics, and ignore the gropings, the skills and know-how, and the amplification of the challenges. Rather than apprehend the weakness of parties as a cultural, historical, or consubstantial fatality to authoritarianism, to approach it as a dominant narrative helps to unveil the processes at work within the Moroccan political landscape. By shifting the angle of observation, it can be seen that most Moroccan political parties have displayed great adaptive capacities.

Beyond the Prism of the “Weakness” and the “Crisis” of the Political Parties

Moroccan Political Parties Adapt to their Environment

Since the monarchy embarked upon the “democratic process,” the adherence or rejection of policies of compromise have constituted the common ground for those within the Moroccan political landscape and within political parties themselves. This tendency was exacerbated by the formation of the “government of alternance” in 1998 and important readjustments that have affected monarchical authoritarianism, the partisan, electoral, and protest arenas. It remains that the privileged choices made by partisan actors are irreducible to moral categories (“corrupt,” “sold” versus “incorruptible,” “faithful”). Indeed, their position with respect to the regime and their strategies are conditioned by a set of factors, from the most macrostructural to the most microsociological. Here, it is a matter of drawing attention to the relational and organizational levels: the resources these actors dispose, their perceptions of their environment, the dynamics at work, the appreciation of the cards they can play, the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents, the relations among the group and between the groups, etc.

The “consensual alternance” was oftentimes presented as an episode that weakened old opposition parties and initiated the transformation of all the established political parties into electoral “merchants.” A more extensive examination, however, allows for the identification of three points. 1) Just as the alternance exacerbated internal tensions within the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP), it was not its entry into the government that “weakened” the party; it was because the USFP disposed weak “collective partisan capital” (Offerlé, 2002) that its leaders engaged in the path of “consensual alternance.” 2) The reconfiguration of institutionalized politics drove the established political parties to adapt themselves to the new rules of the game. 3) Just as the case of the Party of Justice and Development (PJD) illustrated, participating in the coalition government does not produce the same effects depending on the party’s starting and available capital.

It Was not the Government Participation that “Weakened” the USFP

After several decades of confrontation between the monarchy and the leftist wing of the nationalist movement, a “consensual alternance” took place in 1998. Without delving into the complex process that colored this episode, let us recall two conditions that made it possible. It came to fruition when the palace calculated that the game was sufficiently framed to preserve the centrality of the monarchy and to avoid a particular actor from being distinguished by an excessive electoral weight. In addition, after having experimented—simultaneously or successively—different strategies (the revolutionary option, the temptation of coup attempts, pressure on the streets, participation in rigged elections, etc.), a party of the heirs of the nationalist movement resolved to accept what they had long refused.

The circumstances that drove former prime minister Abderrahman Youssoufi to finalize a pact with Hassan II have been written about extensively. It suffices here to raise the organizational dimension. According to Youssoufi himself, the USFP was never a party of the masses, but was essentially a party of “sympathizers.” According to other accounts, the “crisis was congenital.” In any case, Abderrahim Bouabid’s succession fueled divisions and rivalries. In 1992, it was a “man of consensus” that was designated as the head of the USFP.

Of course, Youssoufi benefited from his role as an “old companion” of prominent nationalist figure Mehdi Ben Barka, to having been in exile, his international stature, his image of a “wise man,” and his “calming force”—all accumulated capital from his long career as an activist. But, in the end, it was the capital that placed him above the fray that failed him: he had no hold on the partisan apparatus; he had no familial, tribal, or regional stronghold. In other words, other competing leaders did not perceive him as a threat. Moreover, the “assets” that enabled him to become the first secretary of the USFP soon became impediments when he tried to impose himself within the party.

On the eve of the alternance, the party was so divided that Youssoufi did not hold genuine partisan leverage. Furthermore, his allies were far from unwavering. In the absence of strong collective capital, he was not in a position to wrest from Hassan II more than the latter granted him. As a result, he played the “pact” card and was able to reestablish “trust” between two individuals. Those close to Youssoufi had another calculation: a stature of prime minister was supposed to give the secretary general of the USFP the means to reclaim control of the party. In reality, tensions were exacerbated and fissures multiplied. Nevertheless, although amputated, the USFP experienced changes that allowed it to, years later, continue existing within a configuration where it is sufficient to hold twenty seats to become a member of a coalition government, and even to hinder the formation of a government.

When the Party’s Strength Resides in its “Weakness”

The reconfiguration of institutionalized politics drove established political parties to adapt to the intended and unintended consequences of the rules of the game that they co-produced and that the palace’s centrality amplified. Now, their strength lies in their weakness.

Electoral engineering put in place by Youssoufi’s government reveals contradictory objectives, foretelling of the ambivalence of the readjustments that are being put in place. Officially, the party system with proportional representation and the expansion of the constituencies are aimed at politicizing and depersonalizing the vote by reducing weight to money and clientelism. It is to favor parties with a political identity, human and material resources sufficient to cover all the constituencies, all while slowing down the fragmentation of the party landscape. Unofficially, the challenge is to contain the electoral progress of the PJD and, more broadly, to prevent a single party from reaping the benefits of political liberalization.

On another level, the palace is more dominant than ever. Beyond its constitutional powers, hardly touched by the 2011 reforms, the palace is stifling the head of government’s prerogatives, decreeing “major guidelines” and projects, and taking control of all strategic sectors. The royal assent is indispensable and the palace’s influence exerts itself even in the lives of established political parties. The ideological foundations of this supremacy continue to extend beyond the repertoires of the Commandership of Believers and national unity. The “myth of depoliticized governance” (Bouabid, 2007) is diffused with the complicity and consent of a portion of the elite apprehensive about seeing its way of life and privileges threatened by representatives that come from totally unbridled ballot boxes. In the same vein, three scarecrows emerge: a Morocco plunged into collapse because of “incompetence”; the questioning of the “Moroccan model” by Islamists of all kinds; and chaos like other countries in the region. The scene is thus set so that Mohammed VI is upheld as a hero and protector of the “kiliminis” against the “bouzebal” of all kinds.[1]

In a way, this class struggle underpins a codification of political “excellence” that highlights the figure of the “technocrat”—over-educated, trained in the great foreign schools—as opposed to elected officials that are “men of the briefcase” (malin chekkhara), wealthy but illiterate, or members of the PJD who come from mass education and are, for the most part, civil servants. According to this vision, the first is distinguished by his competence, as shown by his prestigious diplomas and experiences, notably in the private sector; he is predisposed to being “efficient,” “rational,” “rigorous,” and to “managing Morocco like a company” (Catusse, 2008). As for the political parties, they are presented as being “unable to put forth the talents” (Belal, 2007). In such a configuration, the enlightened prince is distinguished by his capacity to select the “best.” He would have no choice but to remove the strategic sectors from party leaders, by definition deficient, and to entrust ministerial portfolios to technocrats (even if they were to join a party), to delegate government powers to commissions, boards, and foundations that report directly to him. These reconfigurations produced two major effects, irreducible to a manipulative genius.

On the one hand, the relative liberalization of the electoral landscape combined with a false proportional approach favored the emergence of an electoral market and the assertion of figures that showed a great capacity to absorb reforms. To optimize their chances in maintaining their mandates, the majority of established parties have fought over the “men of briefcases” more or less inserted into the networks of mobilization of electoral support. In some cases, they have succeeded in reconciling financial constraints with the neoliberal demand of “good governance,” putting forth “technocratic” profiles, “entrepreneurs,” or “managers.”

On the other hand, heterogeneous and plethoric coalition governments have become the rule, leading established parties to cartelization (Katz, Mair, 1995; Kasmi, 2015). In other words, the convergences of these parties are more numerous than their divergences: there exists a tacit collusion to preserve the control of access to public resources. The programs and procedures of collecting votes are getting closer. Dependence on government funding is increasing. In the end, these parties are so far removed from their members and voters that they become quasi “agencies” of the state. Beyond the phenomenon of cartelization, the nature of Moroccan government coalitions and the vagueness that characterizes the prerogatives from one another within a dual executive contribute to slowing down the process of decision making and implementation—which automatically reinforces the position of the monarchical executive. In doing so, these processes effectively impede accountability. Similarly, they discourage the production of political agendas or the display of an ideological identity (all the more so as ministers are all equated with performers of “grand royal guidelines”). On the electoral level, they have the effect of increasing abstentionism (which reduces the cost of the “men of the briefcase” campaign), electoral patronage and the commodification of voting—phenomena which, in turn, accentuate the fragility of the elected officials’ legitimacy.

Taking note of these mutations, the majority of established parties have adapted themselves: in such a system, their strength resides in their weakness. In this view, the aftermath of the 2016 legislative elections is telling. The USFP’s inclusion in the government triggered a “blockage” of six months, despite the fact that this party only attained close to five percent of the parliamentary seats. For its part, with less than ten percent of the seats, the Rally of National Independents (RNI) benefited from strategic ministerial portfolios and its leader, a man of the palace, was built up as the true head of government.

And if the PJD’s “Weakness” Resided in its “Strength”

Despite the containment strategies deployed and unpopular measures attributed to the outgoing government, the PJD won the most votes in the 2016 elections, improving its performances, and gaining more than thirty percent of the seats. But denied a royal blessing, PJD leader Abdelilah Benkirane, was forced out despite his every effort to obtain it. The sources of this scenario are rooted in the prehistory of the PJD and with the concern of not repeating “the mistakes” of the left. Moreover, the narrative of the importance of “gaining the monarchy’s confidence” has spread among some of the former opponents. Retrospectively, they considered that a confrontation between the monarchy and the nationalist movement “lost Morocco too much time”; a narrative fed by transilogist reading grids, a trend since the 1990s.

Yet the problem of the PJD lies precisely in the fact that the kingdom is not in a democratic transition and that this party is perceived as “too strong.” In the Morocco of today, having important electoral bases and members holds far less significant weight than palace assent. Indeed, established parties must obtain seats to join coalition governments, have resources, and regional and communal mandates. However, even when they show their subjection to the monarchy, they have no interest in having their electoral performances excessively superior to those of other actors. In such circumstances, they become dangerous in the eyes of the palace, all while attracting the wrath of other beneficiaries of this system of mutual collusion—the main stake of which is the preservation of a relative balance in the modalities of sharing the cake.

In other words, while a party aspires to participate in the game of Moroccan politics, having a reservoir of members and an apparatus of internal democracy becomes constraining. While the PJD has, for a long time, succeeded in converging its quest for the royal blessing with the assent of its member base, today it is subject to an injunction of normalization. Like the USFP and other parties before it, it is pulled between two tendencies: those who prioritize internal democracy and the “independence” of the party (they are the same ones who have been excluded from the government and are in a position to mobilize the partisan member base); and those who persist in prioritizing “pragmatism” (those knighted by the palace). But, contrary to the USFP in 1998, the PJD in 2017 continues to dispose collective partisan capital and an electoral base, factors that dissuade secessionist temptations.

Ultimately, with the exception of those marginalized and excluded from the electoral system, most political parties have transformed their weaknesses into strengths. Inversely, the PJD’s weakness resides in its strength: mobilizational asymmetry expanding between the party and other players continues to hamper its normalization. In such a configuration, it is not so much the “parties” that are in crisis. At a time when challenges are multiplying, it is the smokescreen of authoritarianism, “the king is good, the political class is bad,” that reveals the signs of erosion.

A Tired Myth?

In view of what is happening in the protest arena, it is clear that a piece of the apparatus legitimizing the monarchy is crippling. If political “liberalization” has shrunk the electoral landscape, it has contrarily favored the extension of the protest arena, the protestors’ accumulation of skills and know-how, and the development of increasingly autonomous coordination capacities that thwart the regime’s coopting propensities.

After eighteen years of King Mohammed VI’s reign, the narrative that the political class is at the origin of all evils is losing its effectiveness. All while decrying “political parties,” protestors affirm loud and clear that essential power is within the hands of the king. The king’s “bare-chest” is so threatening that the urgency to restore the formula of “the king is good, the political class is bad” is reflected in the most recent “Throne Day” speech. In an unprecedented way, the king denounced that when “the balance is disappointing, one hides behind the Royal Palace and one assigns to him the responsibility.” Although most established party leaders have rushed to assume their role by supporting the royal diagnosis, dissonant voices have resumed. “The king is good, the political class is bad” is henceforth at the end of its rope. A counter narrative seems to be making its way: and if the self-proclaimed healer was one of the sources of evil?

[An original version of this text was published in French and Arabic on and the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at AUB].


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[1] Kilimini, is term from the French "oh how cute" and is used in Moroccan dialect to describe those from upper classes. Bouzebal is a character from Mohamed Nassib, who embodies the ordinary Moroccan.

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