Key party quits Morocco's Islamist government

Jul 09, 2013, 5:39 PM EDT

RABAT, Morocco (AP) — A key party quit Morocco's Islamist-led government Tuesday, plunging the country into political uncertainty as countries across the Arab world struggle to reconcile religious and secular forces.

A spokesman for the Istiqlal party said five of its six Cabinet members in the Moroccan government tendered their resignations, and said the party is formally joining the opposition.

Istiqlal, a secular right-of-center party, is the second-largest in parliament after the Islamist PJD.

The resignations came amid disputes over subsidy cuts — but also as Morocco has closely watched unrest in Egypt. The PJD supported deposed Egyptian Prime Minister Mohamed Morsi, while Morocco's king expressed support for Morsi's replacement.

Istiqlal leader Hamid Chabat was quoted as saying this week that he wants to see "the end of (Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelilah) Benkirane, as was the case for his brother Morsi." Other party members have accused Morocco's Islamists of trying to "Egyptianize" Morocco and monopolize power.

The Moroccan prime minister will hold a meeting of PJD leadership to decide whether to dissolve the government and call early elections, or try to form new alliances to fill the empty seats, said leading PJD official Abdelali Hamieddine. He said the prime minister must first present the resignations to King Mohamed VI.

Istiqlal spokesman Adil Benhamza told The Associated Press that his party "is now passing to the opposition." The only Istiqlal-affiliated minister who stayed in the government, Education Minister Mohamed El Ouafa, had clashed with the party's leader and is seen as close to the PJD.

The PJD has accused Istiqlal of trying to sabotage reforms. The prime minister warned Sunday that Istiqlal's departure from the government could lead to new street protests.

The Arab Spring uprisings two years ago bolstered Islamist political parties from Morocco to Syria, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

After the Brotherhood's surprising fall in recent weeks and ensuing violence that has shaken Egypt and the region, Islamist parties around the Middle East and North Africa are scrambling to preserve gains made as a result of the Arab Spring. Some Islamists say it's a sign they shouldn't push their agenda too hard, yet at the same time it has strengthened hard-liners long opposed to democracy.

The Moroccan government crisis could also spell new trouble for the struggling economy.

The economy, which grew strongly for much of the past decade but lacks the oil resources of other countries in the region, has been hard hit by the recession afflicting many of its main European trading partners. And Morocco is facing a large deficit and a slowdown in growth after big public spending to defuse popular discontent during the 2011 Arab Spring protests.

The current government, elected in 2011 on a reform platform, has spent much of its term struggling to rein in spending and reform a costly system of subsidies and state pensions.

In May, Istiqlal threatened to quit the government in part over the Islamists' plans to cut subsidies. Those cuts were a demand of the International Monetary Fund, which last year extended Morocco a $6.2 billion precautionary line of credit partly on the condition that it would undertake these reforms.

Cutting subsidies could further inflame social tensions in this country of 32 million that sees large gaps between rich and poor and where demonstrations over the high cost of living are common.