The end of the Moroccan “model”: How Islamists lost despite winning

A man casts his vote at a polling station during parliamentary and local elections, in Casablanca, Morocco September 8, 2021. REUTERS/Abdelhak Balhaki

When it comes to the failures of Islamist movements during and after the Arab Spring, the case of Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD) has often been treated as a success story. This success, of course, is relative, and the bar is low. But compared to, say, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the PJD seems to offer a much more promising model of how an Islamist party can adapt and evolve in challenging circumstances. Not only did the party survive, but it also reached an accommodation with the Moroccan monarchy and even rose to power. PJD leaders promoted this narrative as well, with one party official proudly telling a Western researcher in the wake of Egypt’s coup: “Now people should study us.”

While there were always weaknesses to these claims of Moroccan exceptionalism, they have only become more evident with time. Recent developments, including the PJD’s spectacular electoral defeat in 2021, suggest the need for a more careful assessment of what went right — and what went wrong — with Morocco’s Islamist experiment. To the extent that there still remains a Moroccan “model,” it may be better understood as a model of what not to do.

The PJD’s survival and (electoral) success

The PJD came out of the detritus of the Arab Spring intact, which is more than can be said for many of its Islamist counterparts elsewhere in the region. More than that, the PJD won large pluralities in consecutive parliamentary elections, both during and after the Arab Spring. Despite an electoral system designed to prevent any one party from dominating, the PJD won 27% of the seats in parliament in the November 2011 elections, with the center-right and pro-palace Istiqlal Party a distant second with 15%. And so began an unusual experiment: Morocco is one of a very small number of Arab countries to have ever had a democratically-elected Islamist prime minister — and the only Arab country where the experiment lasted as long as 10 years.

The PJD had been working towards this goal, slowly expanding its electoral reach while taking care not to threaten the king. This was important, as Morocco isn’t a democracy but an authoritarian monarchy that allows for electoral competition under clear constraints. For some time, the PJD took great care to avoid even the appearance of confrontation with the royal court. One might even say it took this nonconfrontational posture to an extreme (if such a thing as extremism in the name of nonconfrontation is possible).

Consequently, for years, the party had “lost on purpose,” something that various Islamist parties were known to do in the pre-Arab Spring period. Michael Willis was one of the first scholars to note the PJD’s peculiar electoral behavior in an article titled “The strange case of the party that did not want to win.” That was in 2002. When the PJD finally tried to win an election in 2011, it won. In the 2016 elections, it increased its share of the vote, winning 31.6% of the seats, before losing and returning to the opposition after the September 2021 elections. But is success primarily about winning elections — or does success, especially for a party with a distinct ideological or religious orientation, entail other things?

As Avi Spiegel, a leading scholar of Moroccan Islamism, notes with some frustration:

“We love measuring and tracking “democracy,” focusing on winners and losers, on horse races, victories, and defeats. We study these things, I suspect, because we are guided by the belief, perhaps even the zeal, that these outcomes matter — that the winners of elections actually win something. Yet, in authoritarian contexts — even post-Arab Spring contexts — does electoral success translate into success writ large?”

In other words, what does it really mean to “win” democratic elections in a country that isn’t even a democracy to begin with?

A decade in government

After 10 years as Morocco’s “ruling party,” the PJD had little to show for its trouble. Ostensibly in power, the party was powerless when it came to what mattered most: national economic strategy, international relations, defense, and internal security. On Islam, the very thing that animated the PJD’s founding, the party was similarly constrained. As Spiegel notes, “PJD officials still evoke religion, but almost never in opposition to the state.” In effect, the country’s largest opposition party stopped being an opposition party. This basic bargain — access, survival, and legalization in exchange for obedience — has been replicated to various degrees across the region, but Morocco is where the experience played out at length, reaching its natural conclusion.

Ultimately, the PJD was a casualty of its own success in more ways than one. The bargain with the monarchy wasn’t much of a bargain at all. In the 2021 elections, the party lost nearly 90% of its seats, one of the more remarkable electoral reversals in recent years anywhere in the world. The story of what went wrong is a long one, but a few factors are worth highlighting. The palace, growing concerned with Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane’s folksy popularity, used the pretext of the PJD’s delay in forming a new government in 2017 to dismiss Benkirane and replace him with Saad Eddine Othmani, a markedly less popular and charismatic PJD figure. The PJD obliged under pressure from the king, but this capitulation triggered an internal crisis within the party. As Mohammed Masbah notes, “the PJD’s loyalty to the palace went so far that it was in the end fully coopted by it and thus alienated itself from its voters.” As a result, “on many occasions the PJD was on the verge of implosion.”

Morocco also faced a period of mounting economic crisis from 2017 to 2021, which put pressure on the PJD-led government to proceed with controversial subsidy cuts and raising the retirement age. The COVID-19 pandemic only made matters worse. For its part, though, the monarchy was insulated. The PJD was a convenient buffer. To the extent that the populace was angry, it had an easy target for its anger. The PJD was, after all, the titular head of government. And since direct criticism of the king and the institution of the monarchy is prohibited by law, Moroccans could instead express their dissatisfaction in the next elections. Another party would win, and then voters would have a new target, and so on. Masbah points out that, for the monarchy, this has been a longstanding and effective strategy: “The palace puts successive governments and other elected institutions, such as local and regional councils, at the frontline of public blame, and replaces them once they fail this function.”

Domestic policy was difficult enough. But the PJD was also blamed for foreign policy choices it had little control over. The decision to normalize relations with Israel as part of the Trump administration-brokered Abraham Accords came from the palace. It was simply the government’s job to execute — or at least accept — what had already been decided. For the rank-and-file of the PJD, a party that had long prioritized the Palestinian cause, this was tantamount to a betrayal. Yet PJD leaders were trapped. To oppose normalization would have meant resigning from government en masse. And this, in turn, would have necessitated a breach with the very king whom they had committed to obey.

The future of the Moroccan model

Today, the PJD, despite its success or perhaps because of it, is one of the region’s weakest Islamist parties (at least in electoral terms). Before the Arab Spring, it lost on purpose. After the Arab Spring, it lost by winning. This means that, for the time being, the monarchy has succeeded not only in neutralizing the country’s largest political party but rendered it irrelevant. The PJD was a useful buffer because it could provide the illusion of democratic progress without the substance. What happens, though, when the illusion is revealed for what it is?

This is not to suggest that Morocco will soon experience some sort of spontaneous mass uprising outside of the reach of the legal political parties — all of whom depend on the palace for their survival. But it does raise difficult questions about what Morocco’s experiment with managed electoral competition is meant to lead to, if anything at all. Or maybe it’s just this: more of the same, a cycle repeating itself, with nothing in the way of actual answers.