Ilyas El Omari stepped down on August 8 as secretary-general of Morocco’s Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), a party close to the palace—even as the popular protests around the Rif city of Hoceima continue. One week earlier, King Mohammed VI had given a speech in which he harshly criticized politicians and elected officials, linking the ongoing protests to political corruption while calling on any official who did not think they were up to their job’s responsibilities to step down. As the party finds itself under pressure and struggles to compete with the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD), the PAM wants to prove its political relevance by confronting and blaming the PJD over the Hoceima crisis.

Ilyas El Omari is a seasoned, controversial politician who had served less than two years as the PAM’s secretary-general. His opponents believe he was forced out for failing to advance the stated objectives announced by the party’s founder, Fouad Ali El Himma, a former minister of interior and close associate of the king. El Himma had led an independent slate to a sweeping victory in the 2007 elections, declaring he had returned to politics to challenge the rise of political Islam—after which he officially created the PAM, which claimed victory in the 2009 municipal elections.

El Omari is the second secretary-general to resign since the PAM was founded, after El Himma himself stepped down upon being appointed a royal advisor in December 2011. The February 20 protest movement had singled out El Himma for criticism, and the PAM slipped to fourth place in parliament while the PJD won elections of November 2011. The local and regional elections in September 2015 were split, with the PJD coming in first for regional council seats, while the PAM won the majority of municipal level positions, which allowed El Omari (then the PAM’s deputy secretary-general) to subsequently be elected president of the Tangier-Hoceima-Tetouan region. This strengthened El Omari’s image as a party leader who might be able to revitalize the PAM after its disappointing performance since 2011.

Yet in the October 7, 2016 parliamentary elections, the PJD again took first place, while the PAM came in second, and at that time the king again appointed Abdelilah Benkirane to form a government. Three weeks later, the death of fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri in Hoceima triggered steadily growing popular protests to demand improved infrastructure for the city. King Mohammed VI had already launched a development program for the district in October 2015 titled “Hoceima: Lighthouse of the Mediterranean,” to be implemented under El Omari, the regional president, as part of the area’s long-term development since the 2004 earthquake. However, when protests broke out in Hoceima, the project had still not been implemented.

In an interview on Al Aoula on June 15, El Omari said he had warned Benkirane on October 26, one day after Fikri’s death, of the consequences of the new protests for the region—but that Benkirane and the other parties were completely focused on forming a new government even after the Hoceima crisis gained steam. El Omari added that he had sent Benkirane official correspondence requesting the government clarify what had happened to the district’s population, but that when Benkirane replied on November 4, he refused to provide any information, arguing that the president of a region had no legal authority to request such information from the prime minister.

Since then, protesters have consistently held the central government, the Tangier-Hoceima-Tetouan regional presidency, and Minister of Agriculture and Fishing Aziz Akhannouch equally accountable, even as the three have each tried to pin the blame on the others. The unrest in Hoceima became another arena for PJD–PAM competition, especially when El Omari denounced Benkirane for never letting the “Hoceima: Lighthouse of the Mediterranean” project move forward, which would have provided the infrastructure and social services protesters later demanded. 

In the PAM’s view, the PJD holds primary responsibility for that failure, because the project was launched under Benkirane’s government and the Hoceima crisis blew up under the caretaker government after the October 7 elections. However, Benkirane is trying hard to dodge the blame for Hoceima, as he did in a speech at the PJD’s thirteenth youth congress in August 2017, when he accused the PAM of inefficient management of the Tangier-Hoceima-Tetouan region. The PAM continues to accuse Benkirane of neglecting the Hoceima development project against El Omari’s will because the PJD believed that El Omari had won the regional presidency by exploiting the PAM’s sway within the Ministry of Interior to shift the local coalition map in his favor.

The crisis over forming a new government had hindered Benkirane’s attempts to continue his anti-PAM political approach, yet it also made clear that the PAM was not able to curb the PJD’s progress either. Aziz Akhannouch, the new secretary-general of the National Rally of Independents, blocked Benkirane’s attempt to form a government by presenting preconditions for joining his coalition that he knew Benkirane would refused, in turn deepening the impasse. Meanwhile, because the PAM had not achieved the electoral success it had hoped for, the party was pushed further to the background—even though it had so recently thought it could regain its position as the top party, form a government, and force the PJD into the opposition. Utterly discouraged, the PAM declined even to make a statement on the ruling coalition talks, going on the defensive and focusing on blaming the PJD for Hoceima.

This struggle for primacy between the two parties is also occurring on a personal level between El Omari and Benkirane. El Omari has denied rumors that he had proposed deliberately obstructing Benkirane’s efforts to form his third government. After Benkirane’s dismissal, the king appointed former PJD secretary-general Saadeddine El Othmani to head the government, which Othmani put together in short order. However, it failed to resolve the worsening Hoceima crisis, instead using hostile language toward the protesters and their demands. As the crisis weakened the already fragile PJD-led government, El Omari saw the king’s speech as a chance to return to the political spotlight by resigning and implying the PJD leadership should do the same.

Although El Omari said in a press conference that he resigned because he had endorsed parliamentarians whom PAM’s political bureau had decided to fire for voting against party lines, this explanation did not convince many people—especially because most party leaders have few compunctions about switching allegiances and are generally not expected to adhere to a party’s code of conduct.

Omari described his resignation as a routine matter for any politician who felt he had make a mistake, asking, “Why in Morocco’s post-independence political history has there never been a party official or politician who said that he made a mistake and will resign?”1 Nevertheless, he fully expected his political opponents to question the circumstances behind his resignation. El Omari further hoped this move would embarrass Benkirane, who might run for a third term as secretary-general of the PJD once its rules are amended to allow him to do so, for not admitting to his own mistakes in the wake of the king’s Throne Day speech. His resignation also gives other PAM members a chance to strengthen their presence within the party as an institution, not as individuals tied to one leader. Many party members therefore believe that El Omari’s choice was a difficult but necessary and ultimately positive move for the party.2 

The PAM was held back once by the events of 2011, and a second time by the unrest in Hoceima. The party has gone to extensive efforts to portray itself as a credible and decisive left-wing challenger able to stop the PJD in its tracks, and has likewise sought to avoid being painted as a party bent on derailing Moroccan politics. The party is going through tough times with the resignation of one of its top leaders, who could have turned it around were it not for the relentless competition against the PJD and ongoing fallout from Hoceima. Yet at the very least, it has succeeded in reinvigorating the Moroccan political scene and diversifying the topics of debate.

This article was translated from Arabic.

Abdelfattah Naoum is a researcher in political science at the Mohamed V University in Rabat. Follow him on Twitter @AbdelfattahN.

1. Phone interview with the author, August 15, 2017.
2. Interviews with the author, August 2017.