In Translation: The case against democratic transition

Conservatism – as in a propensity for caution in politics, not necessarily the Islamist or traditionalist kind – is making a comeback of sorts in the Arab world. The devastated post-“Spring” landscape of the region, the conflict and chronic instability many countries face (Syria, Yemen, Libya) and the reassertion of authoritarianism in two countries that went through major upheavals (Egypt, Bahrain) and those that avoided them (Algeria, Morocco, in a different ways most GCC countries) has made many citizens very weary of contesting the powers-that-be with the same enthusiasm they might have in 2011. It is certainly a sentiment I come across often in Morocco, where I live.

Parliamentary elections will take place in Morocco on 7 October, and in anticipation the normally sleepy national political debate is heating up. The party that leads the outgoing government, the Justice and Development Party (PJD by its French acronym), is making much of both its modest record and is promising to take on the regime more forcefully if re-elected. The question of whether or not Morocco has experienced an authoritarian comeback in the last few years – a kind of revenge against the protest movement of 2011, civil society and political parties has taken place; it might be most aptly described by that favourite academic non-sequitur, "semi-authoritarian" – is heatedly discussed. The PJD and some of its allies, having spent (in the eyes of their critics) timidly nibbling on whatever crumbs of power that the regime of King Mohammed VI would allow them, is promoting to assert itself in the name of democracy.

Moroccans often see their country as something as an exception, distant from the violence of the Mashreq and unique because its monarchy has ancient roots. Like Egypt, it sees itself as a rare genuine state in a region of “tribes with flags”. It has its own political lexicon, in which the word “Makhzen” is central. The Makhzen is the regime, le pouvoir, al-sulta. These concepts are familiar across the region and elsewhere, but Morocco’s claims a uniqueness derived it being rooted in history. Makhzen means warehouse in Arabic, but it is also the origin of the French or English word “magazine” in an old (now largely deprecated) sense: the commissary or munitions depot of an army. In pre-colonal times, the sultan's army of "bled al-makhzen" (the land of the warehouse) collected tributes from unruly tribes in bled al-siba (the land of dissent). The Makhzen is not the monarchy, or at least not alone; it is also used to denote network of influence in public administration and in business that gravitates around the king. It is in a sense a storehouse of accumulated power, a method of redistribution and a network of influence. It is a slippery term, used to denote both “deep state” in a modern sense as well a perhaps invented, or at least exaggerated, historical pedigree the imbues it with a pseudo-legitimacy.

The Makhzen is a given in Moroccan politics, so the term around which of the pre-electoral debate has recently centered is a less often used one: tahakoum(التحكم), which literary means “control” but here denotes the exercise of parallel rule. (In this translation, I decided to leave it in transliterated Arabic.) In the article below, Mohammed Jabroun, a member of the PJD and academic, argues against his own party’s leadership that presenting itself as the best hope for democracy against the reactionary Makhzen is a sterile debate. He posits that this binary should be overcome, and with it the myth of “democratic transition” that the state and political actors officially adhere to – a democratic transition that can never be achieved, and thus creates tensions in society and among the political class, in which parties promising to lead the way to democracy have their credibility eroded by their compromise with the Makhzen. The article caused a stir in PJD circles and beyond, and Jabroun was decried as defeatist at best and echoing the regime’s tired clichés of reconciling “tradition and modernity” at worse.

Jabroun’s argument has its weakness, not least reducing tahakoum to the symbolic and political role of the monarchy and the Makhzen and ignoring their more materialist aspects: corruption and state capture. Still, at this juncture in the region’s history – one of revolutionary fatigue, reactionary backlash and a context of worldwide democratic retrenchment – it echoes a malaise about the failure to overcome authoritarianism in the region and disappointment with the Arab Spring’s meager harvest.

P.S. - a reader alerts me of an excellent response to Jabroun, here.

Many thanks to our friends at Industry Arabic for enabling us to provide this feature. Please check them out if you need translation services.

The PJD, confronting “tahakoum,” and the need to abandon the idea of democratic transition

Mohammed Jabroun, al-Youm 24, 14 August 2016

For weeks, Morocco has been witnessing profound discussion and concern among its political actors about the return of “tahakoum” to political life and the future of the democratic transition, which entered into a new phase after the Arab Spring began in 2011. This is occurring ahead of the parliamentary elections due to be held on 7 October of this year. Although the other national parties all have an interest in this issue to varying degrees, the Justice and Development Party (Parti de la justice et du développement or PJD) shows far greater interest than the rest, to the extent that mounting a resistance to tahakoum has become is an existential battle for the party — or something close to it. You can hardly find anyone among the leadership who dares oppose the trend.
In terms of democratic principles, there is more than one sensible and valid reason lending legitimacy to the positions of the Moroccan national parties – including the PJD – in rejecting tahakoum and its mechanisms. Not least of these is the ideology of the party itself, which was founded on the idea of seeking power through elections. But applying this principle at this place and time in Morocco and amid the current regional and international circumstances poses several challenges and questions which, as a whole, make the idea of confronting tahakoum seem like a less than a rational approach, especially for the PJD, which is assumed to have a kind of authenticity in the political discourse.

On the nature of tahakoum:

Tahakoum is the intervention of anti-democratic forces in political life through various means with the aim of creating a “two-faced authority” which reproduces and modernizes authoritarian rule through the façade of democracy. This intervention, because of its recurrence in Morocco’s modern political landscape, has become conventional, and has been a cornerstone of most of the electoral and political milestones that Morocco has passed through since independence. From this perspective, tahakoum is one of the consequences of the forced political modernization upon which Morocco embarked at the time of independence amid conflict between the monarchy and the parties of the nationalist movement.
Although tahakoum in the current political lexicon is a term that describes actions and practices and intentionally omits discussion of the actors that stand behind it — for reasons that people interpret in various ways — it is undeniable that these actors are inseparable from the monarchy and the Makhzen apparatus which oversees them. They consist of the Ministry of Interior and its extensions in public administration; the partisan political field; and the various security agencies. Despite the novelty of this term in Moroccan political language and its connection with the experience of the PJD, the phenomenon it refers to is old, and its import has been expressed through other terms that carry same meaning currently in circulation. The most prominent of these terms and expressions are the “secret party”, the “party of the interior”, the “shadow government”, the Makhzen, and the “deep state”.
As a practice, tahakoum in its first inception emerged primarily from the regime, and reflected the failure of the Moroccan political elite to build a modern political system which could establish a strategic partnership between the nationalist movement and the monarchy — a partnership preserving the effective continuity of the Makhzen and the king as ruler on one hand, while on the other hand allowing the nationalist movement to exercise power.
From another standpoint — alongside authoritarian practices — this failure resulted from a lack of democracy. The parties of the nationalist movement, which found themselves cut off from power in the wake of independence, found that democracy was necessary to express their legitimate aspirations to wield power and confront absolute monarchy. Indeed, tahakoum in this sense is the objective antithesis of democracy and democratic transition. The extension and expansion of tahakoum clearly means a retreat of democracy, and aborting the hopes of a democratic transition. On the other hand, the resumption of the democratic process and the accumulation of its procedures means a retreat of the forces behind tahakoum. Moroccan political life from independence until today has been characterized by dispute and abortive negotiation between the two sides of this binary (tahakoum/democracy), although the victory has always gone to the forces of tahakoum for many reasons, which cannot be dealt with at length here.

The possibility of overcoming tahakoum:

Based on the above, overcoming the problem of tahakoum and entering a democratic era for both the regime and the political parties, appears nearly impossible under the premise of “democratic transition.” Over nearly 60 years, the nationalist movement and various Moroccan political factions have not succeeded in achieving major qualitative political progress within its framework, despite the serious sacrifices they have made. Whenever the dialogue of democratic transition is opened for one reason or another, or because of some domestic or foreign event (uprisings, coups, severe crises), it is quickly closed again at the soonest favorable opportunity when this reason is lifted. Perhaps the current generation remembers the reasons and circumstances for why the last initiative in this direction was aborted, with the “alternance” government of (1998-2002).[^1] Tahakoum in this sense is another expression of the Moroccan political character, which time has not succeeded in weakening or curtailing, and which many manifestations of the Moroccan nationalist movement have failed to include within and base their programs upon.
In this political assessment of the toll of the conflict and the dispute between tahakoum and democracy in Moroccan history, the discussion steers us to a central question: in independent Morocco, has the Moroccan political mind succeeded in developing a theoretical framework for a modern political system in line with the Moroccan character in its various dimensions? Were the nationalist movement and the monarchy aware of the sensibility and the strategy they were dealing with politically after independence? And from this question stem a number of other questions: Is the theory of democratic transition – as a theoretical basis for the national democratic parties’ political struggle – correct? And is it still valid as a way of framing the party-based political initiative? Is using confrontation with tahakoum as a banner for the current political phase a sound approach, taking into account the essence of tahakoum and the Moroccan character in its political-historical dimensions? Or does it indirectly serve the forces of tahakoum — whether they are aware of it or not — and facilitate their methods of shutting down democratic dialogue?
This conceptualization and analysis and its resulting questions leads us culturally and politically right back to the very beginning — that is, the moment of independence, which was the moment of an “innocent” search for a political partnership between the monarchy and the nationalist movement. It also restores our hope of getting out of the deadlock. Thirdly, it allows us to consider the possibility of building a political system consonant with Morocco’s political and traditional character and which is neither an absolute monarchy nor a parliamentary monarchy. This is what the first generation of the nationalist movement failed to do.
In answer to the central question posed above, it can be said with great assurance, based on the principles and experience of Moroccan political life, that both the monarchy and the nationalist movement have failed to build a modern political system in line with the elements of Morocco’s character. The relationship between them has remained tense, reflecting a clear contrast in their visions regarding the nature of Morocco’s modern governing system and its future status, during the period between independence and the Arab Spring (2011). The political discussions that Morocco saw on the sidelines of the constitutional consultations that defined them in the past have reflected some of this drastic contrast. The monarchy, through its extended apparatus, has always tried to put the brakes on democratic aspirations, while the democratic parties have run counter to it and tried to expand the margin of democracy.
This failure is not explained by traditional political factors such as conflicts of interest and ambitions. It goes back to deep reasons related to the cultural reference points that framed the modernization efforts after independence. It therefore reflects, in our view, a clear failure to manage Morocco’s character within the context of building a modern nation-state between one faction seeking political conservatism, characterized to a large extent as reactionary in its political concepts (the Makhzen), and a party striving for modernity and modernization, characterized to a large extent as progressive in its concepts (the parties of the nationalist movement). In this context we can reference two highly significant ideological documents: L’Idéologie arabe contemporaine (1967) by Abdullah Laroui and Naqd al-Dhati (Self Critique) (1949-52) by Allal al-Fassi.[^2] Both were foundational to a progressive political ideology completely at odds with the desires of the conservative Makhzen. It should be noted that this discussion began before independence.
This polarity, based on a misunderstanding of Morocco’s character and a poor use of it in political life, is rooted in the severe cultural divisions which Moroccan political culture suffered in the wake of independence, when Moroccan political actors were split between three primary movements: the progressive movement (the National Union of Popular Forces), a Salafi movement (the Istiqlal Party)[^3] and the traditionalist movement (the Makhzen). This prevented the emergence of unified concepts for the reference points and nature of the appropriate political system for Moroccans at the time the modern nation-state was constructed.
Accordingly, the concept of “political transition” is the main manifestation of this failure. In large part it reflects the ruptures of Moroccan political thought over the last 60 years. When it was based on a progressive concept or “Salafism” (the Salafism of Allal al-Fassi), it did not take into account the extensive role played by tradition in Morocco. This made it into a point of contention and not an answer in terms of politics or struggle at a particular stage.
Consequently, building a modern political system in Morocco and finally getting past the bilateral democracy/tahakoum deadlock and making a break with the history of conflict does not require and will not be achieved by once again reviving the idea of “democratic transition.” It requires a creative synthesis between political tradition and modernity that preserves the effective presence of the monarchy and allows citizens to participate in power through their representatives.

The PJD and the need to reconsider the idea of democratic transition

The question that poses itself in this analytical context is: Do the nationalist movement parties, including the PJD, understand this cultural impasse that Moroccan politics has reached, and are they ready to bring about the necessary intellectual shift it demands? None of this seems likely in reality; however, for many reasons the PJD is qualified to do some of this.
The sweeping attack that a number of the nationalist parties have carried out against tahakoum, led by the PJD, confirms that Morocco is gradually approaching the moment where democratic dialogue will be shut down and that what Morocco has suffered over the last 60 years has not changed anything in the political class’s understanding of the tahakoum/democratic binary. The PJD in this respect, for instance, is similar to a number of nationalist movement parties that have entered this conflict. It has exhausted its reformist energies in its battle and is on the way to reviving the same traditional battle which caused Morocco to miss an excellent opportunity for progress and revival. (Prime Minister and PJD leader) Abdelilah Benkirane is the latest parallel to Allal al-Fassi, (historic USFP leader Abdelrahim) Bouabid, and (former USFP leader and Prime Minister Abdelrahman) Youssoufi and so on. It is likely that if tensions continue in this direction, it will result in the same price for the PJD that was paid by its predecessors in the same battle. The party leadership’s statements about the methods and tentacles of tahakoum and their militancy in confronting it do not indicate a new or qualitative understanding of the phenomenon of tahakoum, and it does not establish a new phase of political action in the kingdom. Naturally, the question that occurs to more than one reader after this analysis is: Is there a way to overcome the chronic political deadlock and then escape the pressure of the idea of tahakoum? And is there any role for the PJD in this regard?
Yes there is. I think that the opportunity to overcome this chronic deadlock exists. It is possible for the PJD to participate forcefully in overcoming it. Perhaps the first position/opener that needs to be offered as an avenue to settling this problem for good is a reconsideration of the idea of democratic transition, which has framed the political struggle for the Moroccan nationalist movement from independence up until today, with the bulk of these parties’ concepts just an echo of that idea.
Moroccan party politics today demands the shuttering of the debate about the nature of the political system, and at the heart this debate lies the question of the distribution of power between elected and monarchical institutions. It is not possible for this resolution to ignore the realities of recent history and Morocco’s historical character. Today, it is no longer comprehensible for the national Moroccan parties to continue with their original ideology, which was established by the circumstances of independence. Today, it is necessary to invent new political ideas that move beyond the “democratic transition” quandary to political, developmental and economic challenges in a real and responsible partnership with the monarchy. No doubt in such a transition, tahakoum would lose its political and strategic value and would be made into a mere political obstacle with no political benefit to be derived from it.
Abandoning the idea of democratic transition would lead to qualitative changes in Moroccan political thought. On one hand, it would confer political and democratic legitimacy upon the political system, and would make the historical and religious dimensions of Morocco’s character (the ruling monarchy) into another manifestation of its individuality and uniqueness. On the other hand, the Moroccan political system would consciously escape the political instability which reverberates through the continuous discussion of the transition project.

In conclusion:

The PJD, as a qualitatively new current in Moroccan political life, has the cultural and political credentials to carry out this revolution in Moroccan political thought. It has come close at several moments, but events in the Moroccan political scene in recent months and the tactics they necessitated pushed it away from this goal. The exaggerated discussion of tahakoum among the PJD is indeed not without strategic or reformist depth. The ambition of this party since its return to political life in 1996 has been to reconcile with the monarchy and avoid conflict with it.
The aim of this discussion is to alert the PJD leadership, led by their secretary-general Abdelilah Benkirane, to the danger they have courted in recent months with their constant talk of confronting tahakoum, although this runs counter to their primary beliefs. Tahakoum is more than a party or a figure — it is a political phenomenon linked to the monarchy with its own objective rationale. We have tried in the above to clarify some of this rationale. Consequently, it is not possible to eliminate this phenomenon except by addressing its underlying causes. In particular, it is necessary to abandon the premise of “democratic transition” and help ensure stability by crafting an authentic and exceptional political system.

[^1]: The government of “alternance” headed by historical opposition leader Abdelrahman Youssoufi marked the first time that an opposition party democratically arrived in power in the Arab world. It was negotiated between Hassan II (who knew he only had a few years to live and wanted to prepare a safe transition to his son) and the USFP in the mid-1990s.

[^2]: Abdallah Laroui is Morocco’s pre-eminent modern historian and an intellectual who had great access to both Hassan II and the Moroccan political class more generally. Allal al-Fassi was conservative intellectual, a leader of the Moroccan nationalist movement and the founder of the Istiqlal party, which together with its more progressive offshoot, the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP), dominated the country’s political life after independence.

[^3]: The author refers to the Istiqlal as Salafi in part because its leader, Allal al-Fassi, was inspired by the Salafi renewal led by Mohammed Abdou and Rachid Reda in Egypt, especially in the interwar period. It should not be seen as equivalent to contemporary Salafism, and the Istiqlal Party, while conservative, is neither Salafi nor Islamist in the tradition of the Muslim Brothers (the PJD is closer to this).

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,