The rise and fall of Morocco’s opposition leader, legal cannabis advocate

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The unexpected resignation of Ilyas El-Omari from the head of Morroco’s leading opposition party has sent shockwaves across Moroccan politics.

Until August 7, El-Omari led the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM). Under him the party achieved the most unexpected and spectacular gains in municipal and legislative elections. However, El-Omari suddenly announced his resignation as the leader of the party citing personal reasons.

PAM, which espouses a secular and centre-left agenda turned out to be a surprise performer in Morocco’s national elections last year. PAM’s 106 seats made it the second largest party in parliament behind Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD) – the largest constituent in Morocco’s current coalition government.

Habib Belkouch, a human rights expert, has been named as the interim head of PAM until a permanent successor is chosen. The party leadership will meet in October to choose a successor to El-Omari. An early frontrunner for the position is Ahmed Akhchichine, who served as Minister of Education in 2012, in the government of Abbas El-Fassi.


Architect of PAM’s spectacular rise

Some of Morocco’s political observers speculate that in the absence of El-Omari, PAM would seek to join the PJD-led government. Before last year’s general elections, the party under El-Omari’s leadership had made clear it would never form a government with the Islamism-leaning PJD.

However, El-Omari did have a meeting with Prime Minister Saadeddine Othmani (also leader of the PJD) at the instance of his party members. According to press reports the talks, which included some conversation in Berber over tea, did not appear serious and no deal was reached.

“What was more important than any seat in parliament was that these elections strengthened our democratic process and the reforms implemented by the King in 2011,” El-Omari had stated in an interview following the elections in October. “This is why Morocco’s experience is exceptional in the Arab world,” he said.

In elections last October, PAM more than doubled its 2011 tally of 47 seats. The party’s win came on the heels of a strong showing in local and municipal elections in 2015 when it came in first with 6,655 offices. The performance is particularly impressive given the fact the party is much younger than its competitors, as it was founded as late as 2008 by Fouad Ali El-Himma, an advisor to King Muhammad VI.

Mass Protests in Rif

El-Omari, who is a governor of the Tangier-Tétouan-Al Hoceïma, is said to have quit the party post in the wake of protests in the region, which have grown in recent months. The Moroccan press suggests he may soon resign from his governorship as well.

The province is the northernmost in Morocco and lies at the heart of the loosely defined Rif region. In colonial times, much of this region was under the control of Spain, not France. Rif is regarded the epicentre of the largest sustained protest movement the kingdom has seen since King Mohammed VI initiated reforms in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Last October, protests flared in the region when a fishmonger, Mouhcine Fikri, was crushed to death by a garbage truck in Al-Hoceima, as he tried to recover fish confiscated by local authorities. Fikri’s death sparked public demonstrations and tensions that have simmered for months.

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI gave his first speech regarding the crisis on July 30. In his remarks, he blamed local Moroccan authorities for the crisis and pardoned 30 protesters arrested since the movement began.

“I acknowledge that I was being referred to in the king’s speech,” Omari told the media at that time, “I’m a person, I make mistakes, and I have to correct my wrongs.”

Ilyas El-Omari AFP
Ilyas El-Omari AFP

From far left to liberal

El-Omari joined PAM in 2012 after a career in media. In 2015, El-Omari won the governorship of the Tangier-Tetouan-Al Hoceima region. He was named the head of PAM in January 2016.

His meteoric rise to national prominence fuelled hostilities and the outspoken El-Omari found enemies in many circles. Secular critics accused him of having ties to smugglers in Northern Morocco and for failing to address troubles brewing in the Rif. Morocco’s ruling Justice and Development Party has been equally hostile.

El-Omari was born in the village of Bni Bouayachin in 1967. As a young man, he laboured in Morocco’s leftist underground before a mid-life conversion to liberalism.

“As a young man, the Far Left chose me; I didn’t choose them,” he says. His frequent trips to Latin America and use of leftist terminology gave the impression that he was some kind of a revolutionary.

Indeed, El-Omari is proud of his leftist past. He enjoys telling the story of how he once scolded the U.S. ambassador for meeting with Islamist groups, a move El-Omari saw as Western meddling in Morocco’s internal affairs. “Don’t make me put back my Guevara hat on,” he said sipping tea as his punch line was translated from Arabic into English for the benefit of visiting journalists.

After abandoning leftist circles, he became active in several public causes, including agitating for greater recognition of Berber culture and an acknowledgment from Spain that it used chemical weapons against Moroccan civilians during the Rif War in the 1920s.

Advocate of marijuana cultivation

El-Omari has been supportive of PAM’s most controversial position: the legalized cultivation of marijuana (known locally as kif). The party proposed a draft law in 2014 that would keep recreational use illegal but authorized production and regulation of marijuana for medicinal and industrial applications. Morocco is a major grower of marijuana, though the production figures of the drug in the country remain unclear. The World Customs Authority reported in 2013 that 65 percent of marijuana seized at customs posts originated in Morocco, with the European Union as its most common destination.

The measure was not approved, but El-Omari believes there are two arguments for legalization. According to him, the anti-Marijuana laws unfairly target the Rif, where the vast majority of Moroccan marijuana is grown and the illegal marijuana trade is dominated by Islamists.

“If you go to the markets where kif is sold, the farmers all have Salafi beards. That’s true in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia; it’s always the Islamists who are involved in the drug trade” Omari said.

Istiklal, Morocco’s oldest political party, has also supported marijuana legalization in the past.

El-Omari is also concerned about marijuana smuggling in Morocco, which he says has become part of a wider network of cocaine smugglers and the jihadist groups that have destabilized Mali and other Sahel countries.

“Legalization would help address this issue by making all transactions observable and ensuring that poor farmers are not exploited by drug smugglers and Islamists,” he said.

With El-Omari out of the picture, the party might alter its approach to Moroccan politics. Experts say a bargain with the ruling PJD is not out of the question.

“I think it is in the long-term interest of PAM to enter into government with the PJD because its members and leaders got into politics to be in power. PAM cannot maintain its momentum by being in the opposition forever,” said Mokhtar Benabdallaoui, a researcher on Islamist movements in Casablanca.

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