Rif Protests Divide PJD Leadership Tension Increases Bteween Benkirane and Party

Rabat – Internal tension between the leading members of the Justice and Development Party (PJD) is mounting over the government’s management of protests in the Rif region and some are arguing it is undermining the party’s credibility and popularity.As media reports revealed, the meeting of PJD’ Secretariat General, the party’s executive body, on Thursday witnessed a heated debate between PJD leader and former head of government, Abdelilah Benkirane, and the current head of government Saad Eddine El Othmani, who was backed by party members of cabinet, in particular, Mustapha Ramid, the State Minister in charge of Human Rights.The meeting was the first held in two and a half months, a period during which Benkirane has remained noticeably silent regarding the developments that followed his dismissal by King Mohammed VI in March as appointed head of government and the nomination of El Othman in his place. Benkirane reiterated his previous criticism of the government’s management of the crisis in Rif, where protests have been dealt with a heavy security force presence. 93 protesters and leading activists of the protest movement, Hirak, are being prosecuted on serious charges of threatening the country’ security and territorial integrity by advocating for separatism.Large deployments of security forces in Rif cities, mainly Al Hoceima, the epicenter of the protests, toughened the population’s stance against the government and led to several clashes between protesters and riot police.Back in early June Benkirane criticized the government for accusing Rif protesters of separatism, calling it a “serious mistake.” The statement signaled a divergence inside the party charged with leading the government. The criticism was echoed on Thursday, prompting El Othmani and other ministers to respond.The head of government and his ministers lashed out at their own party,  accusing it of forsaking the government and leaving it alone in the face of public anger and what they called a “media campaign” targeting the party’s ministers and the government.The stormy meeting indicated that the PJD is undergoing unprecedented internal turmoil. While the party has traditionally sought to present an image of itself as solid and cohesive, the fact that no statement was issued following Thursday’s event highlighted the divisions inside the Secretariat General.A decision to add four members to the body, a move initiated by Benkirane, was unanimously adopted. The move was aimed at creating balance within the executive body where many of its members are ministers. Whether the latter accepted the suggestion out of conviction or consensus, remains to be seen.What is more important, is that the decision provided proof that Benkirane is taking matters into his own hands again, and could well be preparing for his re-election to a third mandate. This scenario, however, is rejected by his opponents with the Secretariat General who invoked the party’s internal regulations which clearly state no one can lead the party more than two terms.In order to bid for a third mandate, Benkirane would have to push for a change in the law, a task which might not prove overly difficult, given the large support he currently enjoys from the party’s base.Supporters of a third Benkirane mandate can back up their argument by pointing to the fact that he still has widespread appeal among the Moroccan public, clearly manifest by the way he is greeted as a “star” by citizens who never miss the opportunity to take selfies with the most popular politician in the country.His proponents also argue that Benkirane’s stance during the six months during which he tried to form a coalition, refusing to bow to the pressure put on him by the National Rally of Independents (RNI), has since been proven right.At the time, Benkirane refused the RNI’s condition to include two of his allies, the Constitutional Union (UC) and the Socialist Union for Popular Forces (USFP) in the coalition government. Benkirane maintained he only wanted a coalition of four parties, which included his two former allies in the previous government, the Popular Movement (MP) and the Party of Progress and Socialism (PPS), in addition to the PJD and the RNI.When El Othmani succeeded Benkirane as the appointed head of government, he and other PJD members and current ministers accepted the RNI’s condition. As a result, a loose coalition of six parties was formed. In addition to this, RNI ministers assumed key departments including Justice, Finance, Agriculture, and Trade, despite the party barely winning 36 seats in the last general elections, compared to the 125 seats won by the PJD.Now, as the stalemate in the Rif continues, it remains to be seen whether the crisis in the region will keep weighing down the party leading the government, as the PJD strives to make it clear that the treatment of the issue by El Othmani’s cabinet does not reflect the party’s position. read more