Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Who is El-Othmani, Morocco’s New Prime Minister?

Saad Eddine El Othmani. Photo Anadolu Agency

On 17 March 2017, King Mohammed VI named Saad Eddine El-Othmani (61) of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) as Morocco’s new prime minister. Eight days later, El-Othmani, who succeeds Abdelilah Benkirane, announced that he had formed a new government, ending a five-month post-election deadlock.

The PJD won the parliamentary elections held in October 2016, but did not win enough seats to govern alone. The new coalition includes six parties: the PJD, the National Rally of Independents (RNI), the Popular Movement (MP), the Constitutional Union (UC), the Party of Progress and Socialism (PPS) and the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP).

But who is Morocco’s most senior politician, referred to by his colleagues as ‘the wise man’ of the party?

El-Othmani was born on 16 January 1956 in Inezgane, a small town near Agadir in the Souss region. He obtained a doctorate in medicine from Hassan II University in Casablanca in 1986, and in psychiatry in 1994. He also earned master’s and postgraduate degrees in Islamic studies in 1983, 1987 and 1999. He is married with three children.

His political career began in 1981, when he was still a student. He held several political and partisan positions, the most important of which was minister of foreign affairs from 3 January 2012 to 10 October 2013, in the government led by the PJD. He subsequently headed the PJD’s parliamentary group. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1997, 2002, 2007 and 2011.

He was the deputy speaker of the House of Representatives (2010-2011) and has been the president of the National Council of the PJD since 2008. He was also a member of the Arab Parties General Congress and of the parliamentary commission of inquiry into the deadly 2010 clashes between the Sahrawi people and security forces in the disputed Western Sahara region. In 2004, after Abdelkrim al-Khatib withdrew from politics, El-Othmani was elected as the PJD’s secretary general. He was ousted by Abdelilah Benkirane four years later. In 2015, he was the PJD’s second in command.

As minister of foreign affairs, he was dynamic and committed. However, his tenure was marked by statements deemed inappropriate or even careless. For example, his notorious ‘slips of the tongue’ in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood and his attendance at a Muslim Brotherhood meeting while on an official visit to Kuwait were condemned by the palace. Salaheddine Mezouar, then head of the RNI, went so far as to call El-Othmani’s attitude potentially damaging to diplomatic relations.

Alongside his political career, El-Othmani is a prominent academic. He has written numerous books on psychology, medicine and Islamic law. He argued for the legalization of abortion in a number of cases in Morocco, and several of his papers on the subject have appeared in Arabic and French journals.

He is known for his restraint and consensual style. In politics, he is less focused on polemics and confrontation than Benkirane. As the PJD’s general secretary, he was credited with negotiating the party’s political shift to more moderate positions, at a time when several voices were demanding the party’s dissolution.

As prime minister, he faces the tough job of making workable a coalition that includes pro-market, conservative and socialist parties including the USFP, with whom Benkirane refused to govern, citing its poor election performance. Whatever the outcome, El-Othmani is said to be the man who can succeed where his predecessor failed.

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