Moroccan Education Law: The Justice and Development Party Position and its Repercussions

On 22 July 2019 the Moroccan parliament approved a law that is set to officially strengthen the position of French in Moroccan schools, a development away from long-standing Arabisation policies that have lasted more than four decades. 241 of the parliament’s 395 members voted in favour of the Education Framework Law, with four voting against and 21 abstaining. The new legislation has proven very controversial, raising questions about why exactly the Justice and Development Party – which leads the government and enjoys the largest single bloc in parliament (125 members) –advocated for a law that runs counter to its ideology and its general program. It might also be noted that the law goes against the most important recommendations of educational science, which holds the use of the mother tongue in education to be the most effective strategy and affirms the importance of building a national personality and culture as well as openness to the language of modern scientific achievement, English.

Gallicisation Strikes Back

The Education Framework Law introduces important changes to Moroccan education. Most prominently, it stipulates alternation of languages and the teaching of some subjects in foreign languages. The new law also adopts French as the language of science, maths, and technical subjects. These subjects are currently taught in Arabic until the end of secondary school, with French dominating higher education thereafter.

The law has been controversial in two major respects. The first is its rejection by various Moroccan political, labour and human rights organisations, who accuse the government of attempting to ‘finish off’ Arabic and weaken its position in the educational system, thereby strengthening the position of Francophone elements in the state apparatus. The other is the decision by the largest parliamentary bloc, the JDP, to facilitate the passing of the law in parliament, with many party members voting in accordance with the governmental majority position. Given the scope of the changes introduced by the law – the abandonment of the policy of arabisation pursued by Morocco since 1977 – it is intuitive that it would face broad opposition. But its success in parliament also raises questions around the JDP’s motivations for backing it, since they might have been expected to at least abstain in keeping with their support for Arabic given the influence it has in the party and their rejection of Gallicisation.

The JDP Position

To understand the JDP’s position on the new law requires an understanding of the developments in its rhetoric and behaviour and the structural and organisational changes that have taken place within it since it first took leadership of the government in 2011, since it took control of most municipal councils in the 2015 local elections, and since its second victory in the general elections and its formation of a ruling coalition in 2016. The revolutions that swept the region – which in their Moroccan form became the 20 February Movement – have played a decisive role in the ‘flexibility’ shown by the palace to the party and its willingness to allow them to lead the government as the largest party in parliament. The political, social and electoral capital accumulated by the party during its time in opposition have also played a similar role, making it more given to negotiation and compromise. The JDP has thus remained keen to work within the margins set and the decisions made by the state, whose broad features are determined by the King, even if it has tried at times to maintain a margin of independence – particularly in matters related to its identity and its positions on issues that set it apart from others.

As such, it was to be expected that the JDP would try and obstruct the new law despite it being part of the 2015-2030 Strategic Reform Vision prepared by the Higher Education Council led by Omar Azziman, the King’s advisor. Its behaviour as regards the ‘French education law’ can thus be seen as an important development despite the disciplined approach it normally adopts in tacking close to royal directives. There has been a shift away from manoeuvring and attempted obstruction to agreement and approval – which has come as a shock to some. There are indicators which suggest that other factors may have been involved in the change to the party’s position, the most important being how long the bill has been stuck in Parliament. The JDP had boycotted meetings to set a date for discussion, and subsequently withdrew from an agreement with the other constituent parts of the governmental majority – and indeed, called for a new agreement on the bill.1 In a sudden volte-face, however, members of the Parliament’s Committee for Education, Culture and Communication reached an agreement to meet and vote on the bill in order to refer it to a general vote in Parliament proper.

The second factor is the presence of different currents within the JDP itself. The first is led by the former Secretary-General Abdelilah Benikrane, who opposed the bill, criticising the JDP’s official decision to vote in favour in harsh terms (a great error, a cardinal sin, a huge concession). Benikrane’s statements have had important repercussions, with Idriss Azami, leader of the JDP group in parliament, resigning from his position, and 25 deputies absenting themselves from the vote. A petition has also been disseminated within the party calling for the Secretary-General and Prime Minister Saadeddine Othmani to take responsibility, creating a space for party members to express their positions freely and put a stop to the series of concessions.2 The other current is that represented by Othmani, who placed serious pressure on the party’s deputies and instructed them to submit to government bodies’ decision, threatening them with the possibility of electoral deselection in order to pressure them into falling into line. Benkirane alluded to this openly when he called on the General Secretariat to not punish deputies who had not voted for the law or had absented themselves from the voting session by removing them from consideration in the next elections. The General Secretariat, meanwhile, praised the conduct of the JDP deputies who attended and voted in favour of the law – despite the fact that if the party still had the ‘organisational strength and internal cohesion and consensus’ it is so proud of then this would be entirely normal.

Repercussions For the Future of the Party

Although PM Saadeddine Othmani and his supporters have been able to pressure the JDP’s parliamentary group into voting for the Education Law, avoiding a new agreement crisis, there are repercussions that extend far beyond the mere legislative moment. The party’s support base has been negatively impacted without it gaining any new support elsewhere. Likewise, the reality of party-political practice in Morocco and the role of the monarchy in directing and disciplining the government regardless of the popular support that government may enjoy – even in issues like education policy – will be further consolidated.

The Party’s Relationship with its Support Base

The JDP’s social and electoral base is made up above all else of the middle class and economically and socially precarious demographics. Although the party’s electoral and political rhetoric has tried to remain close to the concerns and interests of these demographics, the party’s experience in government has driven it to embrace reforms that do not necessarily conform with these concerns and interests – to retirement regulations and social security provisions, for example, or in removing controls on fuel prices. They also agreed to form a new government after Benkirane was dismissed and replaced by Othmani, provoking wide-ranging criticism of the party for rolling over in the face of pressure rather than respecting the ‘popular will’ which gave the party under Benkirane some 32% of parliamentary seat (125 of 395).

The party’s agreement to the education law is thus no exception to the pragmatic approach that it has adopted rhetorically and practically.3 This pragmatism does not serve a particular program but the simple end of remaining in government alone. Nonetheless, the JDP’s position this time is concerned with gallicisation. This has provoked a wave of anger among its supporters, the same demographics that make up the Movement of Unity and Reform (the Party’s da’wa wing) and various centrist Salafist currents, as well as a broad popular base sympathetic to the Party’s rhetoric and method, and many secularists who do not see gallicisation as contrary to national independence and the Moroccan personality.

This situation may have wide implications for the party. The first is the identity crisis produced by vacillation between the party’s own ideology and government programs which at times run contrary to its principles. The second is how far the party leadership is willing to go in order to remain in power, which puts the party’s organisational cohesion at risk. This is particularly important given that this is one of their sources of strength.

Relationship with the Palace

The Moroccan political regime is a monarchy in which it is natural that the king should sit at the top of the pyramid of power. Political parties are viewed as an instrument supporting the monarchy’s legitimacy, not as a partner in power. But reforms have produced a wide margin for the government to manage the internal economic and social affairs of the country. When the monarchy decided to institute a new education law as part of the 2015-2030 Strategic Vision, without taking into account the political and social debate that accompanied the legislative process, it was acting in accordance with its understanding of the nature of the political system that it leads, and its relationship with France reinforced by hostility towards Algeria. But the JDP was only forced to agree if it believed the price of not agreeing was sacrificing its leadership of the government.

As far as the JDP itself is concerned, the resistance it initially showed to the draft law did not last long in the fact of attempts to contain it from two directions. The first attempt came from within the party itself, which has attempted to reduce the scope of direct religious influence on policy and gradually do away with identitarian rhetoric in order to convince the palace of its loyalty. The other came from the monarchy, which is generally unwilling to accept the existence of a competitor in religious matters, particularly a party that enjoys a large support base. The events surrounding the education bill can thus be considered a victory for those who have sought to follow a policy of political attrition towards the party, draining it of its popularity by pushing it towards passing laws and reforms not in keeping with its ideological identity and humiliating it in front of its supporters in the hope that this will reduce its electoral chances.

Conclusion

After four decades of Arabisation, Morocco has adopted a new language policy that strengthens French in education at the expense of Arabic in the face of specialist calls to promote native language education and be open to the scientific lingua franca, English. This demonstrates the strong political influence of the Francophone current in Morocco and the depth of the political and economic ties that continue to bind Morocco to its former coloniser. This has taken place with political and legislative backing from the ostensibly religious Justice and Development Party, which leads the government and which has found itself in a direct confrontation with its supporters and its social base. The party has entered a battle that has cost it much and gained it little, particularly in terms of credibility, only two years ahead of the next elections.

The Unit for Policy Studies is the ACRPS department dedicated to the study of the Arab world region’s most pressing current affairs.

1 See: Abderrahman El Assiri, “JDP amendments worsen coalition crisis over language of teaching,” Hespress, 04/04/2019 (accessed on 01/08/2019 at https://bit.ly/334SsBW).
2 See: Hakim Ankar, “Morocco: Voting on French education divides the JDP,” Alaraby Aljadeed, 21/07/2019 (accessed on 01/08/2019 at https://bit.ly/2LSIz4Z).
3 See: Abderrahim El Essiri, “Othmani justifies JDP concessions by the necessity of avoiding destruction,” Hespress, 11/11/2018 (accessed on 01/08/2019 at https://bit.ly/318sonA).