Morocco king keeps checks on new Islamist govt

AP News
Posted: Jan 03, 2012 1:21 PM
Morocco king keeps checks on new Islamist govt

Morocco's ruling coalition formed a new government on Tuesday that gives top posts to an Islamist party but also keeps close allies of the king in powerful positions.

The Islamist Justice and Development Party, known as PJD, won the most seats in the Nov. 25 parliamentary elections as part of the wave of election victories by Islamist political parties across North Africa following a series of uprisings across the Arab world.

"This new government has a true will for reform and we will keep all the promises we made," said Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane outside the palace after the swearing in. "We will do everything to encourage foreign and domestic investment to create a climate of prosperity."

Benkirane's PJD party is not expected, however, to radically change the politics of this North African kingdom because it had to ally with three other parties close to the palace, and the king still retains veto powers over most decisions.

Morocco was rocked last year by pro-democracy protests calling for greater freedoms and an end to corruption. The king responded by amending the constitution to grant more powers to the prime minister and parliament and holding early elections.

While the PJD has taken 12 of 31 cabinet posts including prime minister, as well as the foreign ministry, justice ministry and communication ministry, close allies to the palace retain important positions.

Aziz Akhannouch, one of the wealthiest men in the country, has retained the powerful Agriculture Ministry, despite the fact that his party is not in the ruling coalition. Four other posts were directly appointed by the palace, including religious affairs.

Both the Foreign Ministry and the Interior Ministry have also been assigned "minister delegates," with ties to the palace that may challenge the power of the ministers.

Abdullah Baha, a top adviser to the new prime minister and now a minister of state to the new government, dismissed concerns about these new posts.

"We are not in the logic of confrontation, this is a group effort," he told the Associated Press.

Baha did admit, however, that part of the six week delay in forming the government was because the palace objected to the appointment as justice minister of party firebrand Mustapha Ramid, known for his anti-U.S. rhetoric and defense of terror suspects in court cases.

"Concerning the case of Ramid, there were reservations on the part of the palace but those were eventually overcome," admitted Baha.

The PJD has formed a coalition with the Istiqlal or Independence Party, which helped the country win its freedom from France in 1956 as well as the Popular Movement, a party of rural notables, and the Party of Progress and Socialism of former communists.

Other key ministries like finance and interior, which controls the police, had to be parceled out to the PJD's partners, something political analyst Boubakr Jamai said will weaken the reformist efforts of the new government.

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"This is a major defeat for the PJD; it is at least a signal that the PJD is not serious in confronting the real problems of the government," said Jamai, who is a fellow at Harvard Ash Center and founder of the Moroccan news website "You cannot claim to have the government if you don't control some important ministries."

Boubakr also noted that the palace has appointed Driss Dahak as the "secretary general" of the government, which functions as a kind of legal department for the cabinet and in the past has been used to keep laws from getting passed.

"It is a way of keeping the government and parliament on a short leash," he said, expressing doubt that the PJD will be able to fulfill its reformist agenda and truly tackle some of the deep rooted corruption in the country.

While never as autocratic as some of its neighbors, Moroccan politics has long consisted of weak political parties being manipulated by the powerful king and his coterie of advisers. Despite some of the concessions in the new constitution, the makeup of the new government will still give the palace a very strong voice in how the country is run.