Why you should care
Saadeddine El Othmani needs to maintain calm at home amid regional instability.
Ask Moroccans to describe their prime minister, and you’ll hear “calm,” “tolerant,” “a deep thinker.” Add to that “multifaceted” since Saadeddine El Othmani is also a licensed psychiatrist, an expert in Islamic jurisprudence and a published author. “Unorthodox” too, considering he is a devout Muslim who believes, in certain circumstances, that abortion should be allowed. And “complex”: He’s been imprisoned for marching in support of the leader of the now-defunct Chabiba Islamiya (Islamic Youth), an extremist group, while espousing moderate, reformist Islam.
Political commentator Hicham Lamrani sums up this seemingly contradictory man, known for being immovable on principal while also touting an inclusive approach. “He has always been very committed to dialogue, with strict respect for the positions of the other parties,” says Lamrani. “Unlike his predecessor, Othmani is not a polemicist and avoids confrontations as much as possible.”
[Othmani] will need to summon 40 years of political activism and diplomacy — not to mention his psychiatric training — to continue building consensus.
The 61-year-old prime minister is slim with a gray beard; dressed in a tweed jacket, he would be the epitome of a university professor. The father of two sons and a daughter, he describes his marriage as “nuss-nuss” (semi-arranged), and his eldest, Marwa, characterizes him as loving and involved, a father who makes time for his family, no matter the demands of state.
Unlike much of Morocco’s ruling elite who hail from Fez and are of Arab ethnic origin, Othmani was born in Inezgane to a traditional Amazigh (Berber) family. His mother remembers a scholarly child who “never caused any trouble … not like his brothers.” From an early age he developed an interest in Islamic politics, getting involved at school with a group of Sunni Muslim evangelists. Later, he pursued two lines of study — earning doctorates in medicine and psychiatry and a master’s degree in Islamic studies — fields that have remained focal interests, and subjects of his published work.
A practicing psychiatrist since 1994, Othmani has also been attached to politics his entire adult life. He helped mold the Justice and Development Party from its earliest roots in Chabiba, continuing in a leadership role as it transformed into the Reform and Renewal Movement and then merged with the Popular Democratic and Constitutional Movement in 1997 to become the party it is today. The JDP has dominated the executive branch of Morocco’s government since 2011. It is a moderate Islamist party that eschews violence and terrorism, but detractors on the left say it’s an iteration of the Muslim Brotherhood and view it with suspicion.
“I have always refuted this term ‘Islamist’ stuck to the JDP,” says Othmani. “It is rather a party with Islamic reference.” His quest, he says, is to prove that “modernity does not contradict the Muslim identity. We know that Moroccans are more concerned about unemployment, access to water, health and education than about the height of the minarets.”
In 2012, Othmani was named minister for foreign affairs and sent to Algeria on one of his early missions. Morocco and Algeria have long had strained relations — and a closed border — the result of a dispute over the Western Sahara, which is demanding independence from Morocco. Othmani returned from his trip with a surprisingly upbeat report, and a statement about normalizing relations, which he predicted would occur within months. It never happened and became one instance of what critics view as his overblown optimism. Following a government reshuffle, Othmani’s term ended in 2013, when he resumed his practice while continuing as president of the National Council of the JDP.
During the 2016 elections, the JDP secured the most seats in Parliament and King Mohammed VI appointed its leader, Abdelilah Benkirane, as prime minister. Months passed as Benkirane tried, and failed, to build a coalition. With the ensuing crisis damaging Morocco’s economy and its image abroad, the king sacked Benikrane in March 2017 and appointed Othmani in his place. And, in a diplomatic sleight of hand, Othmani broke the deadlock and assembled a six-party coalition to stabilize the government. Some have raised questions about the hidden cost of the compromise, while others believe it speaks to the new prime minister’s talent for building consensus.
It’s a talent Othmani will need to tackle the most urgent problems facing his government, beginning with the social unrest in Al Hoceima over the region’s lack of jobs, education and hospitals. Months of demonstrations against government inactivity and corruption have led to a number of protest leaders being imprisoned. Adnane Bennis, co-founder and managing editor of Morocco World News, explains: “The government gave promises to accelerate the development in the city and the region. But what will solve the issue is the release of prisoners and more social and economic investment in the region in a way that corresponds to locals’ needs.”
Other challenges include a fragile agricultural base, a closed currency that’s sparked heated debate over whether it should be liberalized and the ever-present threat of internal attacks from Muslim extremists.
Ask Cécile Guerin, of Global Risk Insights, what Othmani should prioritize, and you get a version of “It’s the economy, stupid.” Yes, the country got mired in a constitutional crisis, but Guerin says the focus must shift to the economy because “the government’s response to economic challenges is likely to determine investors’ confidence after six months of political deadlock.”
Talal Belrhiti, co-founder of Afrique Advisors, agrees. “Morocco is undergoing structural reforms that are meant to make the country more competitive internationally,” he tells OZY. “The country is moving away from an overreliance on the agricultural field toward a more diversified economy [including] sectors such as the automotive and the aerospace industries, but also light manufacturing, banking and services.”
Despite pressing problems, however, Morocco is, in many other ways, in a strong position: It has a relatively stable government; respectable GDP growth; a leading role, economically and politically, in Africa; and a secure partnership with Europe as a neighboring and associated member of the EU.
Othmani, having learned the dangers of overpromising, has not indicated what he considers his government’s top priority. But no matter what he targets first, he will need to summon 40 years of political activism and diplomacy — not to mention his psychiatric training — to continue building consensus if Morocco is to move forward.
Want more from Morocco? Check out this interview with reporter Alice Morrison for a primer on everything you need to know about the country.