Future of Post-Islamist Morocco and India-Morocco Relations
Samir Bhattacharya

In the parliamentary elections of 8th September, Morocco’s long-ruling Islamists suffered a crushing defeat by the liberal parties. With just 12 seats, Islamist Justice and Development (PJD)Party finished much behind its main rivals, the National Rally of Independents (RNI) and the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM), with 102 and 82 seats respectively in the 395-seat assembly. Morocco’s oldest party, the Istiqlal (Independence) also made a surprisingly remarkable comeback and added 32 more to its previous tally to reach 78 seats.

As the RNI party, considered close to the palace, has emerged as the leading party, it will now form the government in coalition with other partners. In fact, RNI has been part of all coalition governments for the past 23 years, except during a brief period between 2012 and 2013. However, this is the first time when pro-business RNI will lead the government.

Beyond doubt, the magnitude of PJD defeat has surprised both the media and political analysts. The PJD party which swept to power during the wake of the 2011 uprisings around the Middle East and North Africa, was favourite to secure a third term leading another ruling coalition.
The result not only marks a massive turnaround in fortunes as at the last election in 2016, the RNI had won only 37 seats, while the PJD took 1251 but it also marks a huge setback for Islamists, as Morocco was one of the last countries where they had risen to power after the Arab Spring protests. Furthermore, the major scale of this debacle has put a serious question mark on the feasibility of the project “political Islam”2, around the Middle East and North Africa. Irrespective of the local issues, this calamitous performance by PJD indicates that the appeal of political Islam, which dominated the political scene in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, has failed to inspire people.

Despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Moroccans cast ballots in legislative, municipal and regional races on the same day and actually witnessed an improved turnout of 50.3%, which clearly indicates the diminishing space that Islamists now find for themselves in Morocco and beyond.

Followed by the election result, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI on September 10 appointed Aziz Akhannouch as the country’s new Prime Minister and asked him to lead the new government3. Akhannouch, former agricultural minister and a billionaire businessman, declared the results “a victory for democracy, its spirit and its rules”4. His party RNI also came first in the local elections, winning 9,995 of the 31,503 seats, and the regional poll with 196 of the 678 positions5. RNI has promised to create one million jobs to boost the economy after the coronavirus pandemic, expand health insurance to all Moroccans, increase teacher salaries and provide a guaranteed pension for the elderly6.

About Morocco and its Political Structure

Situated in North Africa, Morocco is a constitutional monarchy where the king holds sweeping powers. Under reforms introduced in 2011, the king picks the prime minister from the largest party in parliament, who will then form a cabinet and submits it for the king’s approval7. However, the king retains veto power over appointments of cabinet members in the key departments including the interior, foreign affairs and defence. It also sets the economic agenda. Thus, while political experts are not expecting major policy shifts given despite the change of guards, royal palace remains in command, the result certainly indicates thefrustration of people with the political stagnation and disenchantment towards PJD’s stewardship8.

It was after the pro-democracy protests known as Arab Spring in 2011, when many Islamists party were allowed to run the elections, many for the first time. While in some countries they won some seats, in some others including Morocco, they even managed to form the government. Nonetheless, it appears that the ardour of the Islamists is fast waning. In neighbouring Egypt, a coup deposed the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, leading to its current dictatorship. Similarly, in Tunisia, President Kais Saied suspended parliament, which was controlled by moderate Islamists9.

Akin to previous elections where electoral laws were amended on the year of election, new amendments to the constitution were introduced this year in March. As per the new law, big lead in terms of seats by any single party becamevery difficult and thus forcing the leading party to form a coalition government. While, bringing together several parties from different ideological background is a progressive step towards the democracy, it will also reduce the political autonomy of the parties in power and help the king to retain his control over country’s policies. The new amendments also included changes to the quota for women and the end of a youth quota that was introduced following Arab Spring of 2011, to encourage more Moroccans under 40 into politics10.

A few analysts attributed these new amendments behind PJD’s defeat11. However, it is clear that the reasons of PJD debacle are multifaceted. Despite being in power since 2011, PJD failed to deliver much of its promises and sometimes unwillingly became part of many policies against its core ideology such as reinforcement of French language in education12 and medical use of cannabis13. However, the biggest blow for Islamists came last year when Morocco’s king decided to normalise relations with Israel andIslamists couldn’t do anything to stop the move despite bitterly opposing it14. Finally, the pandemic exposed the inability of Islamist party in taking any significant measure in contrast to royal palace which stepped up as the main driver of relief programmes.

Despite several criticisms, Morocco has managed to organise a national election around every five years since 1993. The current freefall of Islamists where they have witnessed their support collapse from 125 seats to just 13 seats signify the disillusionment of the people. As a consequence, Morocco is about to witness a new disposition for its parliament with liberal parties occupying majority of seats, very similar to the one it had before the Arab Spring. As the voters have decisively rejected the Islamist party for its failure, the question at hand is whether this new coalition government will be able to bring in the much-needed economic reforms the country desperately needs, particularly in a system where all power lies with the king. In any case, the country would do well to form a strong coalition and move ahead with a specific agenda of the state, discarding Islamist idealisms that have achieved very little in last one decade. While the new regime considers expanding its opportunities and growth in the other regions of the world, India can work as its gateway for the rest of Asia.

India-Morocco Bilateral Relations

The relationship between India and Morocco goes back to as early as 14th century when the famous traveller writer from Tangiers, Ibn Batuta visited India. India supported Moroccan freedom movement in the United Nation (UN), was one of the first countries to recognise its independence in 1956 and opened an Indian Mission in 1957.

In 2015, King Mohammed VI, along with his Minister of Foreign Affairs visited India from 25 October to 4 November to participate in the “Third India-Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) 2015” held in New Delhi. As a matter of fact, after ascending to throne in 2001, King Mohammed VI chose India as his first Asian destination. Since, IAFS-III, the relationship between two countries has steadily improved. Earlier, in 1999, the then Prime Minister of India, Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee visited Rabat making it the first Prime Ministerial visit from India. The visit was reciprocated by Moroccan PM Youssoufi to India in February 2000.

Over the last half a decade, India Morocco partnership has bolstered several notches with nearly 40 pacts, in areas including IT, education, culture, agriculture, mutual legal assistance, extradition with record number of 16 pacts signed only in 201815. India and Morocco have joint working group in several sectors such as Water Resources; Health; Scientific Research and Technology; and Mining and Geology. On 15 January 2019, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and Moroccan Centre for Strategic Studies (CMES) held their first meeting in Rabat on theme “Partnership India-Morocco: Challenges and Opportunities”16.

Bilateral trade between India and Morocco witnessed a significant rise from US$ 1.2 billion in 2010 to US$ 2.1 billion in 201917. While India’s imports from Morocco are largely dominated by phosphate and potash, India’s exports to the country are more diversified covering textiles, chemical products, petroleum products, pharmaceutical products.

India’s shipment of 6 million units of HCQ tablets to Morocco with the outbreak of Covid-19 underlines the growing ties between both the countries and is a significant manifestation of India’s support to Morocco in times of crisis18. During the crisis, both countries have finalized an MOU on further expanding telemedicine linkages under India’s e-ArogyaBharati scheme. In addition to sending medicines, India has also started offering digital courses on health. India recently conducted the e-ITEC course on ‘COVID-19 Pandemic: Prevention and Management Guidelines for Healthcare Professionals’19.

Since Independence, the focus of Indian engagement in Africa has been, and shall continue to be capacity building and Human Resource Development (HRD)20 and Morocco is no different. Till date, about 169 Moroccan officials from various Ministries and institutes have received training under ITEC programmes. During the Ex-EAM late Smt. Sushma Swaraj’svisit to Morocco in February 2019, the allocation of ITEC slots for Morocco was raised from 40 to 75. In addition, under IAFS-II development programme, India has established a Centre of Excellence in Information Technology (CEIT) in Technopark, Casablanca. As on 04 February 2019, there are 423 enrolled students in CEIT21.

The geopolitical importance of Morocco became evident when in December 2020 Ex-President of USA, Donald Trump formally recognized Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara, making it the first country in the world to recognise the Moroccan claim22. The decision was part of a US-brokered deal to get Morocco to normalize relations with Israel23. Even though the claim has been rejected by the United Nations, the World Court and the African Union, the recognition has already been hailed as diplomatic victory for Morocco. Even though the current President Joe Biden holds the power to rescind U.S. recognition of the Moroccan annexation, Morocco could in return renounce its recognition of Israel24, creating a quagmire that everyone wants to avoid.

Clearly, there exist many dimensions of relationship untapped which remain unexplored, and need to be fully explored, exploited and developed. Given the country is located just 14 kilometres away from the European coast, and its strategic location at the crossroads of the main trade routes linking America, Africa, Europe and the Middle East, makes it an important trading partner. Increased trade engagements and enhanced people-to-people connect should become the fulcrum of the future engagements between the two countries.

In addition, its unique geographical proximity, and experience in dealing with extremist elements in a successful way makes it a key counter-terror and de-radicalisation partner for India in North Africa. In 2019, India and Morocco set up a Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism in order to develop efficient mechanisms for real-time exchange of information and stanch the flow of terrorist financing has facilitated the endeavour of both the nations to fight terrorism in all its forms and manifestations25.

India sees Morocco as a strategic partner in North Africa and has therefore needs to be pro-active in establishing stronger ties with the new political regime. Going forward, it would also be important for India to bring in other countries in the region to develop a common approach and joint counter-terrorism strategy. India can also explore the trilateral cooperation where India and Morocco can jointly create a win-win situation for the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa. North Africa region has been a critical source of energy. Therefore, in addition to its strategic importance as bilateral partner, Morocco also holds the key to India’s energy security as platform for India towards North Africa.

To ensure a dynamic relationship with a post-Islamist Morocco, India needs to initiate active outreach and build on their existing relationship. At the moment, the prospect of strengthening and deepening the relationship between the two countries presents fresh opportunities. India would be wise to seize these opportunities.

  1. Middle East Monitor, August 5, 2021.Who will compete in Morocco's upcoming election?https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20210805-who-will-compete-in-moroccos-upcoming-election/
  2. Brookings, May 6, 2016.Rethinking Political Islam. https://www.brookings.edu/research/rethinking-political-islam/
  3. The Guardian, September 11, 2011, 2021. Morocco’s king appoints billionaire Akhannouch to head government after election win
  4. Al Jazeera, September 10, 2021. Moroccan king appoints Aziz Akhannouch as gov’t head. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/9/10/moroccan-king-appoints-rnis-akhannouch-as-government-head
  5. Moroccan News Agency (MAP), September 10, 2021.RNI Positions Itself as Leading Political Force. https://www.mapnews.ma/en/actualites/politics/2021-elections-rni-positions-itself-leading-political-force
  6. Frontline, September 11, 2021.Aziz Akhannouch named as Morocco's new PM. https://frontline.thehindu.com/dispatches/aziz-akhannouch-named-as-moroccos-new-pm/article36401088.ece
  7. CBC News, June 17, 2011.King declares Morocco a constitutional monarchy. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/king-declares-morocco-a-constitutional-monarchy/
  8. Reuters,September 9, 2021. Liberals win most seats in Morocco's parliamentary election, routing Islamists. https://www.reuters.com/world/liberals-win-most-seats-moroccos-parliamentary-election-routing-islamists-2021-09-09/
  9. Reuters,August 24, 2021.Tunisia's president extends suspension of parliament. https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/tunisias-president-extends-suspension-parliament-2021-08-23/
  10. DW News. September 3, 2021. Moroccan elections will be about math, not change. https://www.dw.com/en/moroccan-elections-will-be-about-math-not-change/a-59078532
  11. Idem
  12. Reuters, February 18, 2019. Morocco looks to French as language of economic success. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-morocco-education-idUSKCN1Q70YF
  13. The Africa Report, March 25, 2021. Morocco to legalise cannabis for medical and industrial use. https://www.theafricareport.com/74949/morocco-to-legalise-cannabis-for-medical-and-industrial-use/
  14. The New York Times, September 8, 2021. Islamists See Big Losses in Moroccan Parliamentary Elections
  15. Embassy of India, Rabat, 04 February, 2019, Bilateral Brief India Morocco.https://indianembassyrabat.gov.in/pdf/menu/Bilateral_Brief_India_Morocco_04February2019.pdf
  16. Idem
  17. The Economic Times, December 11, 2020, Morocco aims to establish itself as India’s business gateway to Africa, Europe and Arab world.
  18. Morocco World News, May 17, 2020.Morocco to Receive 6 million Hydroxychloroquine Tablets from India. https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2020/05/302914/morocco-to-receive-6-million-hydroxychloroquine-tablets-from-india
  19. ITEC GOI.https://www.itecgoi.in/readmore11?salt5=MTY5MWQ0Njc5MTE=
  20. Yaruibngam A.S, India’s Capacity Building Diplomacy in Africa, ECAS 2013.
  21. India Morocco Chamber of Commerce and Industry (IMCCI).https://www.inmocham.org/tag/centre-for-excellence-in-information-technology-casablanca/
  22. Foreign Policy, December 15, 2020. Biden Must Reverse Course on Western Sahara. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/12/15/biden-reverse-course-western-sahara/
  23. Al Jazeera, December 11, 2020.US recognised Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara. Now what? https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/12/11/us-recognised-moroccos-claim-to-western-sahara-now-what
  24. The Washington Post, December 15, 2020. Trump’s deal on Morocco’s Western Sahara annexation risks more global conflict. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/12/15/trump-morocco-israel-western-sahara-annexation/
  25. Press Information Bureau, February 13, 2019

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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