Morocco's king accepts Cabinet resignations as Islamists woo new coalition partners

Morocco's king has accepted the resignations of Cabinet ministers from a political party that quit the Islamist-led government in a move seen as supporting the prime minister's reform agenda.

When Hamid Chabat, the leader of the Istiqlal (Independence) Party pulled out of the government, he called for royal arbitration in this North African kingdom where the monarch holds ultimate power — a move that might have led to the downfall of the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party, which won elections in 2011 following Arab Spring-inspired demonstrations.

Instead, the royal statement late Monday "urges the resigning ministers to manage their affairs until new ministers are nominated to take over their departments allowing the head of the government to carry out discussions for a new majority."

The military overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in Egypt was closely watched in Morocco. Istiqlal leader Chabat said earlier this month that he wanted to see "the end of (Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelilah) Benkirane, as was the case for his brother Morsi."

Chabat quit the coalition on July 8, complaining of the Islamists' leadership style and opposing their plans for the much-needed reform of subsidies on food and fuel burdening the budget.

"We can effectively consider the royal intervention to be a victory for the PJD (as Islamist party is known) and that the monarchy has respected the constitution," said Ahmed Bouz, a political analyst at Mohammed V University in Rabat.

The PJD came to power on promises to root out corruption and reform the judicial system. Instead, it has been grappling with the economic crisis brought on by the spending of its predecessors and the global downturn. The PJD also is the head of an unwieldy coalition that often fought its reforms.

Benkirane held discussions Monday night with the Salaheddine Mezouar, leader of the National Rally for Independents, a liberal party known for providing technocratic ministers and with nearly the same number of seats as the departing Istiqlal.

While the two parties do agree on some economic principles, they fought bitterly during the elections, with the leaders often targeting each other personally. Mezouar might also demand concessions that would further weaken the Islamists' reform agenda.

"Even if Benkirane saves his government, this does not mean the attacks to weaken him will end," said Youssef Belel, an assistant professor at Columbia University, referring to establishment forces arrayed against the prime minister.

Despite the difficulties in implementing his agenda, however, Benkirane remains popular, according to recent polling data by the Averty Institute and Tariq Ibn Ziyad center, which gave him a popularity rating of 68.5 percent.