Rabat, Morocco - Let down by their allies, Morocco's religious conservatives are facing the daunting task of forming a new government, and like political counterparts in the region, they’re engaged in a struggle to preserve their legitimacy.
Earlier this week, King Mohammed VI ruled on the decision of the conservative Istiqlal (Independence) Party to leave the government and accepted the resignation of five ministers over disagreements with the Justice and Development Party (PJD), which leads the ruling coalition.
"We have been warning the Chief of the Government for months and asking him to start acting like one, but he kept acting like the leader of a party instead," Adil Benhamza, spokesman for Istiqlal, told Al Jazeera, explaining the reasons behind the resignations.
"We were four parties to form this government, with different ideologies and points of views that should have been respected."
PJD was for a long time an outcast in the Moroccan political sphere, and was never in any government prior to this one. It became prominent in politics after a series of events over the last two years, including the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
Moroccans also took to the streets then, demanding reform, an end to corruption, more power for those elected to government, and social justice. King Mohammed VI - who holds ultimate power in the North African country - responded to these calls by introducing a new constitution that was approved by a referendum in July of that year.
|Inside Story - The king and the constitution
In November 2011, the Justice and Development Party won the biggest bloc with 107 seats in the elections. Abdelilah Benkirane was then appointed chief of government, and asked three other parties, including Istiqlal that won 60 seats, to join his coalition. The Popular Movement (35 seats) and the Progress and Socialism Party (18 seats) also entered the fray.
According to observers, the resignations by Istiqlal - a party extremely loyal to the monarchy and in almost every government since the country’s independence from France in 1956 - could not have been done without prior approval from the Royal Palace.
"I think this is a strategy of containment of [chief of government] Benkirane," said Aboubakr Jamai, a Moroccan political commentator based in Berlin. "The PJD and the monarchy are in a situation of cooperation and competition at the same time."
Jamai said PJD does not threaten the monarchy’s grip on power like other parties left out of the political arena do. That includes the banned but tolerated Justice and Charity Party, the country’s main Islamist movement that has the capacity to mobilise large street demonstrators. There are also small but active leftist parties demanding a parliamentary monarchy.
"The monarchy needs the PJD because it remains an obstacle against the ones who are outside of the system. And at the same time, the monarchy doesn’t want the PJD to be too popular or successful," Jamai said.
It took a few weeks for the drama to unfold. In May, the leader of the Istiqlal Party, Hamid Chabat, announced the decision to leave the government. The king who arbitrates such matters was on vacation abroad and until this week, Moroccans were still holding their breath over what would happen. Now, Chief of Government Benkirane must find a party to replace the Istiqlal to keep a majority.
The National Rally for Independent (RNI) - another party close to the Palace - holds 39 seats and is most likely the future partner of the PJD.
The PJD has not been making unilateral decisions. We are a country with solid institutions. Istiqlal’s leader has been spreading this, but it does not reflect the truth.
"Despite ideological differences, we are open to the idea of joining the PJD for the sake of preserving the country’s stability," said Rachid Talbi Alami, president of the RNI parliamentary group. "We are submitting a proposal to the party’s national council, and will probably make a decision in the next two weeks."
It is an alliance that may weaken the PJD, but it’s left without much choice despite the animosity between the two. Just months ago, at a party rally in Tangier, Benkirane gave a virulent speech calling Salaheddine Mezouar, leader of the RNI, corrupt and incompetent.
Many observers frequently make parallels between this government and the failure of the socialist government that was called to rule in 1998, an attempt by the monarchy to show the will to reform. Today, however, the socialists have lost credibility among their political base.
Members of the PJD have been, however, confident about the coming months.
"I don’t think the PJD was hurt - it is still in the government and the chief of the government [Benkirane] remains in place," said Mohamed Yatim, vice president of the Chamber of Representatives and member of the PJD.
"The PJD has not been making unilateral decisions. We are a country with solid institutions. Istiqlal’s leader has been spreading this, but it does not reflect the truth."
According to Benhamza, Istiqlal’s spokesman, one main disagreements had been over the reform of subsidies. There is an urgent need changes, analysts say, because the country is facing severe economic difficulties: unemployment among youth is high, budget deficits are soaring, and economists say the negative trade balance and decrease in foreign investment means the state is running out of cash.
PJD wants to decrease subsidies and give more direct help to Moroccans in need.
"We can’t ask citizens to pay more when even the state can’t," Benhamza said.
All, however, agree on one point: reform is inevitable.
To be honest, I have zero expectations from the government anyway. It is just a facade government that doesn’t govern.
Zouhair Ait Benhamou, a Moroccan blogger who closely watches the country’s economy and writes on the Moorish Wanderer, said the government must come up with a "credible tax reform plan", while at the same time increasing fuel levies and giving money to households in need.
"Several issues arise: how can local and central authorities select these households?" Benhamou said. "Political issues arise as well. If public opinion identifies one political party as the mastermind behind it [social assistance], there is a potential for a huge electoral base, much to the annoyance of other political forces."
Members of the February 20 Movement, which led the protests in 2011, have been less involved in political life lately, preferring to watch from the sidelines.
"This is cheap theatre in my opinion," said Tahani Brahma, 20, a February 20 member from Agadir. "Chabat’s waiting for the king’s approval to resign and their replacement by the RNI. To be honest, I have zero expectations from the government anyway. It is just a facade government that doesn’t govern."
"Change will come from the streets or won’t come at all," she added. "History is repeating itself, the same causes are provoking the same effects."