During the last few months, the media war between some Moroccan Islamists and most of the country’s leftist factions has become almost nonstop. High-profile figures on both sides—such as Abdelilah Benkirane, the former head of the Justice and Development Party (PJD), and Nabila Mounib, the leader of the Federation of the Democratic Left (FGD)—have waded in to the fight, trying to get the public’s attention on hot-button issues.

The most prominent of these has been the trial of Taoufik Bouachrine, the editor-in-chief of Akhbar Al Yaoum known for his stridently anti-regime editorials. On February 23, 2018, Bouachrine was arrested on human trafficking and rape charges and subsequently sentenced to 12 years in prison. However, a significant portion of the Moroccan public, as well as NGOs such as Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists, believe the arrest was an act of political retaliation. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention also labeled Bouachrine’s trial “unfair” and “politically motivated.”1 The working group demanded that the government release Bouachrine immediately and investigate the circumstances surrounding his arrest, pay him reparations, and take measures against those behind his arrest.

Shortly after Bouachrine was arrested, several media outlets claimed that the journalist had been working on behalf of Islamists, specifically Benkirane. This triggered a months-long war of words between Islamist-leaning and leftist media—even though Bouachrine had attacked the PJD leader openly in 2011 for his opposition to the Arab Spring protests, which Akhbar Al Yaoum supported so vocally that pro-government protestors at one point staged a rally outside the paper’s headquarters and burned copies of its latest edition.

When Benkirane became head of the government, Bouachrine continued to criticize him on occasion. In an article published on May 23, 2012, Bouachrine faulted Benkirane for claiming the constitution put decisionmaking entirely in the king’s hands, writing “Which constitution are you talking about, Mr. Benkirane? The written or the unwritten one?” The latter is a reference to the deeply engrained political custom in which everyone leaves the final word to the king and does not second-guess his decisions. Earlier that month, Bouachrine had similarly criticized Benkirane for not asserting his constitutional powers as head of government, instead following “Abderrahmane Youssoufi’s fatal mistake of desperately trying to establish trust between the government and palace to the extent the government’s [the prime minister’s] powers are sacrificed.”

In 2013, when Benkirane had proven unable to deliver on most of his post-Arab Spring campaign promises, Bouachrine bitterly attacked him, saying “the bulk of the reform projects he promised have come to a halt, and the major decisions that he should be thinking and talking about are delayed.” The journalist again asked why—rather than stand up for his own constitutional rights against the palace—the prime minister instead gushed courtly graces.

At this time, about a year after the Moroccan Spring, Bouachrine threw his support behind the PJD leaders opposed to Benkirane’s policies, specifically his decision to ban PJD members from joining the February 20 Movement’s street protests. Among those leaders were Mustapha Ramid (known at the time for his opposition to the palace), Abdelali Hamieddine, Lahbib Choubani, and Amina Maelainine. But after 2013, when Ramid (by then minister of justice) became even more conciliatory than Benkirane toward the palace, Bouachrine began to shift his support more often toward Benkirane, who increasingly clashed with the palace and with pro-palace PJD members such as Aziz Rabbah, his minister of transportation.

In addition, Bouachrine’s newspaper, Akhbar Al Yaoum, was one of the only major newspapers regularly publishing columns by critics of authoritarianism, whether leftists or Islamists. During the 2016 legislative elections, the paper gave sympathetic coverage to left-wing organizations without ties to the monarchy, such as the Unified Socialist Party—publishing a full-page endorsement for its secretary general, Nabila Mounib, signed by 100 prominent Moroccans. Despite all of this, the media campaign waged against Bouachrine alleged that he was an enemy of the left and a mouthpiece for the Islamists and Benkirane.

The same scenario played out in the prosecution of Abdelali Hamieddine, a parliamentarian from the PJD who serves on its secretariat general. In 1993, a Fez court had sentenced several leftist and Islamist college students, including Hamieddine, to two years in prison for participating in a brawl that killed another student, Mohamed Benaissa Ait El Jid. On December 7, 2018, the Fez Court of Appeals decided to reopen the case a second time and charge Hamieddine as an accomplice to murder. His first hearing is scheduled for February 12, 2019—even though he already served two years and should have been protected from further appeals by the statute of limitations, as the incident took place 26 years ago.

The Hamieddine trial has also been used by the powerful pro-monarchy media to stir up tensions between Islamists and leftists, including on social media. Hamieddine was likely targeted as a result of his verbal attacks on the palace, such as his statement in a July 2018 party meeting that “the monarchy in its current form is an impediment to progress, evolution, and development.” Hamieddine also called the PJD to follow the example of Spain’s democratic transition organized by “a roundtable bringing together all factions,” referring to the negotiations after Francisco Franco’s death in 1975 which brought together the regime and the left-wing opposition, paving the way for a return to constitutional monarchy.

If Hamieddine was put on trial after sharply criticizing the monarchy, then Bouachrine was also arrested after calling out the king individually for the regime’s shortcomings in a widely read op-ed from August 2017. Bouachrine opening sentence is extremely provocative: “Ruling is no picnic on the beach in nice weather,” a possible reference to the king being at his beach palace on the northern coast for his birthday at the time. Bouachrine went on to use even bolder language: “Mohammed VI is no longer a young man, nor is his reign new, nor his rule without any precedents. He has ruled for eighteen bittersweet years and lived through crises large and small, though none so grave, in my opinion, as the current crisis in which the Rif protests we can see are just the tip of the iceberg.” Bouachrine was arrested a few months after this criticism of the king, much as Lakome editor-in-chief Ali Anouzla had been arrested in 2013 only months after attacking what he called the king’s repeated, extended absences.

The majority of the Moroccan press has adopted the semi-official line on the Bouachrine and Hamieddine cases. This includes social media influencers who have thousands of followers on Facebook, which can only take place through manipulating its complicated algorithms with sufficient funding, human resources, and technology—suggesting the backing of organized groups.

A similar dynamic is playing out with PJD parliamentarian Amina Maelainine, after the media shared photographs showing her in Paris without her head covering. Maelainine is being labeled a “hypocrite” who lives her life freely abroad yet wants to deny the same freedom to her fellow women and as a “peddler of religion” who opposes progressive and leftist ideology. Most of the accusations ring hollow, as Maelainine is one of the few female leaders in the PJD who has occasionally spoken out in defense of women’s freedom to choose how they dress, and even defended the leftist Nabila Mounib against similar media campaigns. In a 2015 post on Facebook that implicitly criticized some within the PJD, Maelainine said, “The campaign against Nabila Mounib for her appearance and clothing is pathetic, lowly, and inappropriate. Let those who want to confront Mounib confront her rhetoric, choices, and the alternatives which she is proposing within the FGD.” Three years later, Maelainine wrote again in solidarity with Mounib, who was slandered after calling for the release of detainees arrested in the Rif protests. Maelainine hinted that these attacks were organized by powerful players, not ordinary citizens, describing the “systematic way” in which political figures were smeared, going on to express her “real fear about the future of a country that kills its institutions and parties and demeans its elected officials and politicians, leaving a vacuum.” Maelainine suggested the reason Mounib was targeted was political: “Nabila Mounib, like other politicians, has the right to express her views and positions freely.”

There appear to be two main reasons for these media offensives against the three figures, which in Hamieddine’s and Bouachrine’s cases were accompanied by legal charges as well. First, Hamieddine and Maelainine are among the few PJD parliamentarians who do not hesitate to criticize authoritarianism in Morocco. All three figures stood up for Benkirane against the four loyalist parties—the Constitutional Union, the Socialist Union of Popular Forces, the Popular Movement, and the National Rally of Independents—during the 2016–17 post-election deadlock, which ended in Benkirane being forced out as prime minister despite there being no constitutional basis to do so. Second, all three remain vocal proponents of an Islamist–leftist rapprochement to create a diverse front that can swing the balance of power in favor of progressive forces away from the entrenched elite, who have been consolidating control over political and economic decisionmaking, as well as much of the media (including social media) since 2013.

The forces launching these media assaults have been hitting two birds with one stone. Even as they are weakening influential players within the political opposition, they are aggravating leftist–Islamist mudslinging—which has gone on for years but intensified in recent months—rendering any effective, broad rapprochement between the two virtually impossible in the near future. All of this alleviates pressure on the powerful elite and rules out any meaningful change to the balance of power that could propel the country further along the path to democracy.

* This article was translated from Arabic.

Maâti Monjib is a political analyst and historian at the University of Mohammed V-Rabat.

1. Author’s review of UN documents not yet published.