February 7, 2012
“I am forming the new government in a country whose head of state is King Mohamed VI, he is my boss.”
— Abdelilah Benkirane, Reuters, 2011
Mention Morocco, and most likely the old world charm of the 1943 classic Casablanca, will come to mind. Much less known though, is that Morocco has charted a course of its own in the Arab world for the most part of its independent history.
Over the past several decades, the country’s vibrant local culture has acquired a distinct cosmopolitan flavor, thanks to its proximity to Europe and the huge inflow of foreign tourists. The Arab Spring uprising, which toppled decades-old autocratic regimes in its neighboring countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, did have a positive effect on Morocco’s political establishment, and without spilling even a drop of blood. And the face that symbolizes this refreshing change? Abdelilah Benkirane, the newly-elected prime minister of Morocco.
To put things in perspective, Morocco has always been known to the outside world as a constitutional monarchy, though the prime minister was democratically elected. After liberating itself from being a French protectorate in the 1950s, the successive ruling monarchs of Morocco have wielded immense powers. The turning point came toward the end of last year when the current king Mohammed VI was forced to introduce some constitutional reforms that were ratified by the citizens by an overwhelming majority. The reforms also paved the way for parliamentary elections in November 2011, which saw the moderate Islamist PJD party led by Abdelilah Benkirane bagging the highest number of seats.
Benkirane, now 57, is no stranger to politics, having taken the plunge back in 1976 when he joined the student movement known as Islamic Youth Chabiba Allslamiya. After that, Benkirane weathered his ups and downs in politics, with his worst moment striking in the aftermath of the 2003 bombings in Morocco’s commercial center Casablanca, when his party was allegedly linked with a militant group.
“I will never be interested in the private life of people…,”
– Abdelilah Benkirane, quoted by Reuters
Morocco, often a destination point for those from Arabia and Africa, has also had close ties with Europe, thanks to its French connection. However, the country’s efforts to join the European Union, which is also its chief trade partner, have so far been met with a cold response from the 27-member group. After taking charge as prime minister, Benkirane attempted to win over European hearts, referring to the relationship as one that is based on mutual friendship and trust. Still, considering the debt crisis in Europe, the new prime minister may instead have to increasingly rely on his country’s rapport with the six-member Gulf Co-operation Council to woo foreign investment. Encouragingly, even before the polls, some sovereign wealth funds based in the Gulf region promised investments to the tune of $2.7 billion to boost tourism in Morocco.
In a masterful public relations exercise, Benkirane and other newly-elected leaders of the Arab world used the recently-held World Economic Forum at Davos to showcase their economies to the Western world. With this, all eyes gravitated toward the leader of Morocco, the least affected by the Arab Spring revolution. While making the case for supporting the new governments in the Middle East, Benkirane, the outspoken and articulate former physics teacher, also took a gentle swipe at the Western leaders for backing autocratic regimes in the past.
Despite Benkirane’s professed loyalty to the ruling monarchy, the road ahead may be a bumpy one considering the demands of coalition politics. After all, this is his first brush with power, as well as for his party. And the new prime minister will likely face an upward battle as he attempts to guide an entire generation of Moroccans who still hold the monarchy as the country’s unifying force and the symbol of authority. In fact, even after the implementation of reforms, the king still remains the chief of the country’s military, judicial, and religious bodies.
The winds of change sowed by the Arab Spring have set the stage. Morocco could improve its standing among the democratic nations of the world with the change of guard. And now, the onus is on Benkirane to steer Morocco in its march forward.
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