Less than two years after sweeping to power, Morocco’s ruling Islamists look increasingly isolated, abandoned by their main coalition ally, criticised by the king and with similar movements challenged.
The Party of Justice and Development shot to power for the first time after triumphing in 2011 parliamentary polls that followed the Arab Spring protests sweeping the country, bringing hopes of change.
But the party’s leader, Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane, has struggled to end a political crisis triggered by the nationalist Istiqlal Party’s withdrawal from the coalition last month.
“There are many indications that the fall of the government is only a question of time,” said the Arabic daily Akhbar al-Youm.
While Istiqlal had made its intentions known as far back as May, accusing the PJD of failing to shore up the economy and solve pressing social problems, the crisis became a reality when five of its ministers resigned in July.
Benkirane has since been locked in negotiations to replace them and avoid early elections, notably with the National Rally of Independents, a party that opposed the government programme adopted last year, making it an awkward ally for the Islamists.
“Politics is the art of the possible, and our conflict with this party could not last forever,” Benkirane told young members of the PJD on Sunday, asking that they support his decisions.
A source close to the negotiations told AFP they could be concluded by mid-September.
Communications minister and PJD stalwart Mustapha Khalfi insists the political crisis has not undermined the government’s programme.
But the Islamist-led coalition has faced a barrage of criticism, especially for failing to push through much-needed social reforms, notably on costly pensions and subsidies, and to fix its ailing public finances.
The country last year faced a budget deficit of more than seven percent of GDP.
Charges against the PJD echo criticism of other Islamist movements in the region empowered by Arab Spring uprisings, notably Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, whose Mohamed Morsi was deposed as president in a military coup last month, and Tunisia’s Ennahda party.
Since the end of 2011, “we have been governed by guess-work and amateurism,” lamented L’Economiste, a French-language Moroccan daily.
Separately, the PJD came under renewed pressure last week following critical comments by King Mohammed VI about the government’s education policy, stoking frustration within the party.
But Benkirane remained silent on the matter, studiously avoiding any public conflict with the king, whose blessing is a pre-requisite of any future coalition.
“The king is above us. Our battle is instead with those tyrannical forces that want to get their hands on the country’s riches,” he said.
His criticism was directed at Istiqlal and another PJD rival, the Party for Authenticity and Modernity, founded in 2008 by a figure close to the king.
Developments elsewhere in North Africa have not worked in favour of Islamist parties elected after the popular uprisings that swept the region in 2011.
Earlier this month, PJD ministers avoided taking part in a demonstration in Rabat in support of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which has been subjected to a bloody army crackdown since Mohamed Morsi’s ouster.
But numerous members of the Moroccan party attended the 10,000-strong protest, and at the weekend, the party’s youth wing also demonstrated its support for the Egyptian Islamists.
Political analyst Mohamed Tozy says parties like the PJD have had to learn tough lessons about the realities of power, and cannot take their voters’ support for granted.
“As the Islamists are discovering everywhere, people are versatile. Even if they win on a religious programme, daily concerns can prompt a change of heart,” he told AFP.
For now, Benkirane appears confident that his party’s relative popularity will prevail.
“If negotiations to form a new coalition fail, I will go to His Majesty,” he said, indicating that he would be willing to contest fresh elections.