- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 17, 2012

RABAT, Morocco — Soon after an Islamist opposition leader became Morocco’s prime minister as the result of landmark elections, his archrival was named a top adviser to the king.

King Mohammed VI has made a flurry of appointments to his royal Cabinet in recent weeks, men who look poised to challenge the new government’s power and, critics say, threaten democratic progress unleashed by the Arab Spring.

The Islamist Justice and Development Party formed Morocco’s new government Jan. 3 promising a change to the status quo, after dominating November elections.

But analysts and activists say the king’s new “shadow Cabinet,” which includes some outgoing ministers, will really rule Morocco and prevent any real reform in this North African kingdom of 32 million.

Like many countries in the region, Morocco was wracked last year by pro-democracy protests that the king addressed by reforming the constitution and holding early elections in November.

Morocco, popular with Europeans for its exotic cities and sunny beaches, was said to have dodged the unrest elsewhere in the region, with carefully managed democratic reforms.

That impression was deepened when the opposition Islamist party, known by its French acronym PJD, won elections and the right to form a new government.

Now doubts are rising about whether the new government will be able to change anything in the face of the entrenched power of the king’s advisers, which is not set down in any constitution.

The palace announced the new adviser appointments publicly in what some saw as an intentional threat to the new government.

“In all of its big decisions, this [elected] government will not be able to take the initiative because it is not the sole decider,” said Nabila Mounib, a top official with the left-wing Socialist Union Party.

The most remarked-upon royal appointment was that of Fouad el-Himma, an old classmate of the king’s who had founded the Party of Authenticity in Modernity in 2009 with the express purpose of keeping the Islamists out of power.

Mr. el-Himma’s party did poorly in the elections - but weeks later he was named adviser to the king.

High-profile former Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi-Fihri also has joined the royal Cabinet, which includes experts in the economy, social affairs, diplomacy, foreign trade and constitutional law.

“The royal Cabinet, with its accelerated recruitment of heavy-hitting counselors, has begun to seriously resemble a second government,” said Karim Boukhari, editor of the weekly TelQuel magazine in an angry editorial accusing the palace of going back on its reform promises.

“The monarchy governs without challenge, either directly or through men it has chosen, and the popular will, embodied by the victorious political parties, is left eternally in check.”

Morocco’s kings have always held true power in the country, but under last year’s constitutional reform, the new prime minister should have more influence than in the past.

The king has always had a Cabinet of advisers, and previous ruler King Hassan II described them famously as close confidants whom “I can comfortably receive in my bedroom, while I am still in bed.”

Under his son, however, the Cabinet has grown in size and expertise, employing some of the top people in their fields overseeing a range of institutions and committees that are not answerable to the elected government.

Its influence is often felt behind the scenes but is occasionally overt. In 2007, the prime minister issued an executive decree putting a series of independent housing development agencies receiving public funds under a single ministry - and the king’s Cabinet promptly overrode the move.

“The royal Cabinet has become much more powerful in policy-making,” Anouar Boukhars explained in his 2011 book “Politics in Morocco,” in which he describes the mushrooming responsibilities and budget of the royal court.

Part of the reason for the royal Cabinet’s growth is that Mohammed VI does not rule as directly as his father did, said Fouad Abdelmoumni, an economist and a founder of a human rights group.

While Hassan II publicly made many decisions himself, his son has shied away from the limelight.

“He does not want the political arena to be empty of his influence and presence but he doesn’t want to involve himself personally,” said Mr. Abdelmoumni.

Many of these advisers, such as Mr. el-Himma, were singled out personally by protesters during the pro-democracy demonstrations as being behind the country’s inequalities.

All eyes now will be on Abdelilah Benkirane, the new prime minister, and how he reacts to the growing power of the king’s men.

After saying at first that he would deal with no royal counselors, only the king himself, Mr. Benkirane meekly submitted to negotiating with his rival Mr. el-Himma over the new government.

“As a counselor of the king, we have no reason to criticize el-Himma,” he said after the latter’s appointment.

Mr. Abdelmoumni, however, predicts that the new government will not be as subservient to the crown as past ones because of pressures from the street and a pro-democracy movement that remains active in Morocco.

“The fact that people are less and less scared and believe more and more in the power to impose their will on the state, will put more pressure on the political actors,” he said.

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