Leftist-Islamist cross-ideological opposition and cooperation in Morocco
14th Mar 2023 by Guy Eyre
In 2019, the then vice-president of the National Council of the Moroccan Islamist ‘Justice and Development Party’ (hizb al-‘Adala wa-l-Tanmiyya, henceforth the ‘PJD’), Abdelali Hamieddine, appeared in court accused of the murder of a leftist student, Mohamed Benaissa ‘Ait al-Jid, in 1993 at a university in Fez, Morocco (Morocco World News 2019). Omar Mohid, an acolyte of the largest social movement in Morocco, the Islamist ‘Association of Justice and Spirituality’ (Jamā‘a al-‘Adl wa-l-Iḥsān, henceforth the ‘Al-‘Adl’), was also sentenced for the murder (Middle East Online 2018). The murder took place amidst fierce struggles between leftist and Islamist militants for control of the National Moroccan Union of Students (Jeune Afrique 2013). Indeed, this is a history that is still very real today (Al-Araby 2022).
Of course, such antagonisms between leftist and Islamist activists are hardly exceptional in the broader South West Asian / North African (SWANA) region, where ideological and physical battles have raged between these two forces on university campuses and in street politics since at least the early 1970s. Regimes in the region, including the Moroccan makhzen (the palace-oriented political establishment) invigorated these cross-ideological fissures as part of a strategy to undercut the emergence of broad-based opposition movements capable of unseating their rule.
Yet in 2011, amidst the wave of anti-regime ‘Arab Spring’ protests in Egypt and Tunisia, Islamists, leftists, liberals, and everyday citizens came together to lead widespread demonstrations contesting corruption, injustice, and authoritarian rule (Al-Anani 2012). In Morocco specifically, the emergence of the ‘20 February’ protest movement saw between 240,000 and 300,000 largely young Moroccans, including figures and rank-and-file acolytes of al-‘Adl and from leftist groups, including the Marxist-Leninist al-Nahj al-Demoqrati party (henceforth ‘al-Nahj’), occupy central squares in all major cities to demand political and economic reform (Casani 2020). They aired their grievances and pushed for substantive political and economic reform in 2011 (Zemni 2013, 149). Unlike other protests in the region, however, the protests did not challenge the ‘monarchical form of the state’ (ibid, 437). Nor did they challenge King Mohamed VI’s position.
The monarchy sought to retake control of the reform agenda when, on 9 March 2011, only weeks after the outbreak of the protests. The King promised substantive constitutional reform, including better rule of law, an independent judiciary, and an elected government (Washington Post 2016). This, combined with selective repression by security forces, worked to defuse the protests. The 2012 parliamentary elections were quickly brought forward, and a new parliament was elected, giving the PJD the largest share of seats in Parliament.
Al-‘Adl officially withdrew from the protests on 18 December 2011, however, as a result of intra-movement disagreements and because it didn’t want to disrupt the emergence of a first Islamist-led government in Morocco in the form of the PJD (Spiegel 2015). Whilst al-‘Adl’s decision led many of Morocco’s leftist entities to reignite their erstwhile enmity towards al-‘Adl, this did not mark the swift resolution of this new pattern of leftist-Islamist solidarity. Rather than simply a passing anomaly linked to the unique political openings of the 2011 protests, al-‘Adl in fact became become embroiled in ever closer coordination with al-Nahj. Al-‘Adl simultaneously stepping up its criticism of and disengagement from its main Islamist competitors, the PJD.
In March 2014, the Democratic Federation of the Left (henceforth, ‘FGD’) formally disengaged from the al-‘Adl, arguing that it refused to ally with the ‘anti-democratic’ al-‘Adl movement and ‘betrayed’ the ’20 February’ protest movement through its early exit from the demonstrations. Tensions between al-Nahj and the FGD also soared: the FGD’s support for formal political participation and Morocco’s claims to the western Sahara clashed with al-Nahj’s continued boycott of electoral politics – a policy that it shares with al-‘Adl – and rejection of the marocanité of the Western Sahara.
In the context of al-Nahj and Al-‘Adl’s growing politically isolation from these leftist trends, they sought to improve their relations with one another. As Hassan Bennajeh, a senior figure within al-‘Adl’s Political Circle, argued publicly, the experience of coordination between al-‘Adl and leftist groupings, including al-Nahj, during the 2011 ‘20 February Movement’, together with al-‘Adl’s ongoing dialogue with al-Nahj, ‘has proven...the possibility of convergence in many economic and social issues related’ (Al-Jamaa 2021a). Today, cooperation between al-‘Adl and al-Nahj unfolds predominantly not via low and middle-level activists of both groups (as has been the case during leftist-Islamist cooperation elsewhere in the SWANA region since the 2000s (Schwedler & Clark 2006). Instead, it takes place largely between elite figures within the Political Circle of al-‘Adl and the national leadership of al-Nahj . These figures regularly attend symposiums together to discuss and negotiate their respective assessments of the nature of crisis and of authoritarian politics in Morocco (Al-Jamaa 2021b & 2022). Al-Nahj and al-‘Adl activists, both elite and rank-and-file figures, also attend pro-Palestine protests and sit-ins together with activists and human rights figures from other groups. Further, al-Nahj and al-‘Adl members are particularly active in guilds and unions, where they are known to cooperate closely . Additionally, together they publicly and collectively call for a boycott of the parliamentary elections, including in the run-up to the September 2021 parliamentary elections (Al-Jamaa 2021c).
Both al-‘Adl and al-Nahj share experience of state repression as a result of their express reproval of the regime and the palace combined with their rejection of formal political participation criticism. Furthermore, they publicly defend their disavowal of formal political participation by citing the experience of the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP) and the Party of Progress and Socialism (PPS), the two main traditionalist leftist parties in the country. Whilst the USFP and the PPS actively opposed the Moroccan regime and pushed for civil and political freedoms in the 1970s, resulting in harsh repression by the administration of King Hassan II, starting in the mid-1970s and then intensifying in the 1990s, they were, al-Nahj and al-‘Adl figures point out, co-opted into the formal political system. In return for access to extremely limited political power and integration into networks of patronage, the USFP and the PPS deserted their once revolutionary agenda, metamorphising instead into loyalist opposition parties. The USFP ultimately forged a cross-ideological alliance with the pro-palace, nationalist Istiqlal party (Wegner and Pellicer 2011) as part of King Hassan II’s political reforms, known as the ‘alternance’, which introduced regular, partially free and fair multi-party elections. Nevertheless, the USFP’s failure to secure ‘any significant further gains in political reforms’, saw its popular support disappear (Wegner and Pellicer 2011). Al-‘Adl and al-Nahj leaders contend therefore that the USFP’s and the PPS’s co-optation by the Moroccan regime demonstrates a key truth that they and they alone understand: participation in formal politics in Morocco is merely a democratic façade because, as one al-‘Adl leader explained to me in an interview, ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely – this saying is English, I think, maybe from the 13th or 14th century.’ Consequently, ‘electoral politics achieves nothing but the corruption and weakening of political parties themselves’ .
1. Interview with al-Nahj activist, Marrakech, Morocco, February 2023.
2. Interview with al-Nahj activists in Marrakech, Morocco, February 2023.
3. Interviews in Casablanca, August 2019 and February 2023
Abdelrahman, Maha. 2004. “The Leftists and Islamists in Egypt.” ISIM Newsletter 14 (1):
Al-Anani, Khalil. 2012. “Islamist Parties Post-Arab Spring.” Mediterranean Politics 17 (3):
Al-Jamaa. 2021a. “al-insan wa-l-'umran.”
_______. 2021b. “Jalsa 'sowal al-dawla al-hukum'.”
_______. 2021c. “Yumkin ana tu'di al-intikhabat fi al-maghrib... ”
_______. 2022. “Al-nidham al-siyasi...” https://www.aljamaa.net/posts/%d8%af-
Al-Araby. 2022. “Jami'at al-maghrib...'unf mustamir bayn al-tulaab.”
Casani, Alfonso. 2020. “Cross-Ideological Coalitions under Authoritarian Regimes: Islamist-
Left Collaboration among Morocco’s Excluded Opposition.” Democratization 27 (7):
Clark, Janine A. 2010. “Threats, Structures, and Resources: Cross-Ideological Coalition
Building in Jordan.” Comparative Politics 43 (1): 101–20.
Jeune Afrique. 2013. “Maroc – Affaire Aït Ljid : quand le sombre passé des islamistes
Laitinen, Arto, and Anne Birgitta Pessi. 2014. “Solidarity: Theory and Practice. An
Introduction.” Solidarity: Theory and Practice, 1–29.
Middle East Online. 2018. “Court to hear leading PJD figure on involvement in 1993
Morocco murder.” https://www.middle-east-online.com/en/court-hear-leading-pjd-
Morocco World News. 2019. “Moroccan Court Sentences 4 PJD Members for Alleged
Involvement in Murder.”
Schwedler, Jillian, and Janine A. Clark. 2006. “Islamist-Leftist Cooperation in the Arab
World.” Isim Review 18 (1): 10–11.
Spiegel, Avi. 2015. “Succeeding by Surviving: Examining the Durability of Political Islam in
Morocco.” Brookings Institute.
Wegner, Eva, and Miquel Pellicer. 2010. “Hitting the Glass Ceiling: The Trajectory of the
Moroccan Party of Justice and Development.” Islamist Mass Movements, External
Actors and Political Change in the Arab World, 23.