Munich, Germany- The recent official meeting between the Egyptian head of state Abdel Fattah Sisi, who toppled the first ever democratically elected Egyptian government, and Abdelilah Benkirane, the head of the first ever democratically elected Moroccan government, on the sidelines of the 25th edition of the Arab Summit, sparked a lot of debate in the North African kingdom. This was largely due to the Islamic reference Benkirane’s Justice and Development Party (PJD) embraces, the PJD’s history of clinching its teeth at any reference to Sisi’s Egypt, and the dozen demonstrations the youth section of the PJD held in various Moroccan cities to denounce the putsch and call for restoring the legitimate Egyptian government.
The sidelines of the meeting revealed to bear a very rich set of commentary. Not only did the event spill a lot of ink as most well-known Moroccan columnists like Taoufiq Bouachrine, Rachid Nini and Maysa Salama Naji put pens to paper and poured over the clues that may explain this political flip-flop, but a barrage of commentary was witnessed when Moroccans from all stripes took to various social media platforms and echoed their opinions in a bet to mull over the possibilities. Indeed the event was Morocco’s political moment du jour.
In the post-gaze of the event, and as Benkirane was a subject to a Joan Rivers-style red-carpet dissection, various opinions were advanced to the heated discussion table. Nevertheless, and despite this flood of commentary, it became clearer to me when going through the various articles, tweets, and posts that all advanced views converged into three groups with distinguishable lines of reasoning: A first group that blatantly condemned Benkirane’s move and called the man a two-faced politician, a second one that saw in the move an indication that Benkirane has finally leaned to the Makhzen and will pay the price dearly in the next communal elections, and finally a last group that rather understood from the move a sign of Morocco’s Islamists political maturity, a move Morocco will augur well in the future.
The first group, which included some members of the youth section of the Justice and Development party, vented their anger at Benkirane as they could not fathom why he would be associated with Sisi, especially since his party saw its no.2, Mr. Saad Eddine El Othmani, the former Secretary General of the PJD and Morocco’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, ejected from his government seat following a cabinet reshuffle after having condemned the coup in July 2013. Meanwhile, King Mohammed VI, Morocco’s head of state, was the first Arab leader to commend Sisi and send a congratulation letter to the Egyptian leader.
For this group, the Islam-ethically-inspired ideology of the PJD was the last breed of ideology to be put on trial in a country that saw all political ideologies (the nationalists, the conservatives, the Social Democrats, the modernists, the communists, and others) that governed the country since independence miserably fail in the ethics exercise, and now they ask: if Islam-inspired leaders aren’t ethical anymore, who would be? To them, Morocco’s Islamists are little by little stumbling toward the abyss of Islamic ethics.
The second clan, on the other hand, did neither clearly condemn the move nor applaud it. They emphasized that the unbridled Makhzen hit yet again under the belt and forced Benkirane to lose the two-year arm wrestling contest, in a period that saw the PJD’s members staunchly support the toppled Mursi government and organize various marches in different Moroccan cities to support its legitimacy. They thought that Morocco lost its “special flexible government,” a government that was deemed able to find compromises and conclude deals with any government due to its rich political reference, as the coalition includes the Islamists (PJD), the liberals of the National Rally of Independents (RNI), the communists and Socialists of the Party of Progress and Socialism (PPS), and the Berbers and conservatives of the Popular Movement party (MP).
They recalled the moment when Salaheddine Mezouar, Morocco’s current Foreign Minister and the Secretary General of the RNI, was sent to Sisi’s inauguration ceremony, even if the head of the Moroccan government was back-then clearly against the coup. They even advanced that King Mohammed VI could have kept this intelligent breath going by sending prince Moulay Rachid instead of Benkirane. To them, Benkirane is still a man of ethics who deep inside supports the legitimacy of Mursi and the Brotherhood government, but this time the winds did not blow in his favor. This group even argued that the Makhzen may have forced Benkirane into this “political gaffe” to balance the tide between the PJD and the opposition, currently at their lowest nadir, as the communal election are lurking around the corner, and especially with the PJD’s support in Morocco shooting up to an unparalleled level as a recent poll on Morocco’s leading news outlet Hespress said that “62% of Moroccans are satisfied with the work of the current Moroccan government.”
This group advanced that the Makhzen may have decided to hit in the PJD’s center of gravity, its Islamic reference, to create havoc among its members, something that indeed happened in the aftermath of the meeting as divergent opinions and a heated debate between the said party’s members was witnessed. To this group, the meeting was political “faux pas” on the national level and the party will pay the price dearly in the upcoming elections.
The last group, on the other hand, saw in Benkirane’s U-turn a crystal-clear sign of Morocco’s Islamists political maturity. They advanced that the man maintained the status-quo and was “only representing King Mohammed VI,“ further noting that “Egypt is an important ally to Morocco and that Morocco should not intervene in Egyptian affairs as Moroccans would hate seeing Egyptians intervene in their own affairs.” They believe that the meeting was an opportunity for Benkirane to showcase his party’s maturity and divergence from the Muslim Brotherhood doctrine, especially in regards to Morocco’s friends, the oil-rich Middle Eastern monarchies, given the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood has always amounted to their boogeyman number one. (The Muslim Brotherhood share the same Islamic Sunni reference with the Middle Eastern monarchies, yet with a different interpretation that rids itself of the monarchies if they act against the tenets of Islam. This constitutes a huge threat to the Middle Eastern monarchies’ existence due to the number of Sunni followers the Brotherhood may appeal to).
This group also advanced the fact that Morocco is part of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition that aims at crippling the Houthis in Yemen, which makes the presence of the Moroccan government a must. On another note, and to answer the claims that “King Mohammed VI could have sent prince Moulay Rachid instead of Benkirane to keep Morocco’s flexible government breath going,” this group advanced that Benkirane is the democratic choice of the Moroccans, stressing that “a democratic choice has more weight on the discussion table,” and adding that the Moroccan monarch wanted to reassure his oil-rich friends that Morocco’s Islamists have nothing to do with the Brotherhood’s ideology as they showcased their devotion to the monarchy when they scarified their deer-to-heart ethics when meeting Sisi, an unquestionable sign of their loyalty to the Moroccan monarch.
While I firmly believe that all the interpretations advanced in the wake of this meeting do bear a share of logic, it is important to note that it was a necessity, on the protocol level, for Morocco to be well represented during the Arab Summit as, on the one hand, most heads of state of the Arab countries took part in the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting, and, on the other hand, Morocco was to be announced as the host for next year’s 26th Arab Summit. It goes without saying that the move may be seen as an introductory step to an official meeting between King Mohammed VI and Sisi.
Benkirane was used here as a shield to smooth the air before the prospective meeting between the heads of state of Morocco and Egypt, and initially as a barometer to see how Moroccans would react to such a meeting. Yet, and leaving all political mathematics aside, it should be said that Benkirane has indeed lost some of his luster among his “Islamic” sympathizers when shaking Sisi’s hand and sipping a cup of tea in his presence. True, Benkirane may have earned the heart of Morocco’s traditional allies who always smelled the rat at any reference to Islamists, but, no matter what, Sisi has put an irreparable dent in Morocco’s Islamists too-much-branded-slogan “ethics above politics.”
This article first appeared on Your Middle East.