Why did Morocco’s prime minister call for a boycott of Dannon yogurt?

June 20

Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane speaks at a news conference in Rabat. (Reuters)

On May 24, Abdelilah Benkirane, Morocco’s ruling Islamist party’s prime minister, called for a 10-day boycott of Dannon products at a political rally in the central city of Agourai. The call was issued a little over a week after the French company raised the price of a yogurt popular in the country. In the speech urging for the boycott, Benkirane playfully chided the crowd, “Don’t you know how to make raib [Morocccan homemade yogurt]?” The audience roared with laughter.

Though the audience was amused by Benkirane’s humor, elsewhere in the country many Moroccans asked if it was appropriate for the head of the government to call for a boycott against a private company. Others asked why someone in such a prominent position was not more concerned with the affairs of state. While these are reasonable questions, they are rooted in false assumptions about the power of the Moroccan prime minister.

In Morocco, the monarchy and its cadre of advisers (“the Makhzan”) monopolize all significant powers, both domestic and foreign. This arrangement was formalized under the previous king, Hassan II. The monarchy controlled the most important ministries, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of the Interior, which came to be known as the ministries of sovereignty. Upon the ascension to the throne of the current king, Mohammed VI, the monarchy began to cede some of these more consequential ministries to members of political parties rather than palace technocrats. Under the country’s new constitution, put in place in 2011 following protests in major Moroccan cities, the king must appoint the prime minister from the party that receives the most votes in parliamentary elections. The prime minister, in consultation with the monarchy, appoints the other ministers. Nevertheless, though the monarchy no longer formally appoints members of the government, it continues to be the center of decision-making in the country, and the Makhzan is widely believed to have more influence than elected or appointed officials. Given this arrangement, the position of prime minister has all of the risks of public office and few of the rewards offered to those in the same position in other countries.

Given these limitations on the office of the prime minister, Benkirane’s actions are better understood as a means of employing the only real power of his position, going public. Much as scholar Samuel Kernell argues that the U.S. president has the advantage of going directly to the American people when he wants to build support for an issue, so the Moroccan prime minister also benefits from the ability to direct public consciousness at particular concerns.

But even if the boycott makes sense as an exercise of power, the question remains: Why use the power of the bully pulpit to target Dannon? A 10-day boycott by a small North African kingdom likely will not have much effect on the mega-corporation. Rather than an actual effort to influence Dannon’s pricing policies, then, the call appears to be an attempt by the prime minister to demonstrate his own sympathy for the everyday struggles of the Moroccan people in the absence of the ability to enact reforms that actually address these challenges. Under this interpretation, the boycott is an effort to shore up the base of the party, known for its populist sympathies. The lighthearted way that Benkirane called for the boycott with a joke about Moroccan cooking further supports the interpretation that it is more about building support for Benkirane’s Justice and Development Party (PJD) than actually harming Dannon.

Beyond an attempt to build the party’s base, the boycott may also be an effort at distraction amidst a rather embarrassing time for the Islamist government. Communications Minister Mustapha Khalfi recently accused Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders of a plot against Morocco after the international rights organizations released critical assessments of the freedom of the press in the country. Reporters Without Borders ranked the kingdom 136th out of 180 countries, noting the use of an “anti-terrorism pretext” to intimidate and prosecute journalists. Similarly, Freedom House ranked the country as “not free” with a score of 66 out of 100 (the higher number indicating more freedom). The rejection of such reputable rankings by not only someone in government but the communications minister himself makes the PJD-led government look amateur and unprofessional.

Earlier this year, the government was criticized for its decision to open university campuses to local police after an incident led to the death of an Islamist student at the hands of radical leftist students on a Fez campus. Some Moroccans have criticized the decision as an attempt to “militarize” the country’s universities. Others suggest that the decision gives the security establishment more control over institutions usually occupied by opposition movements. Whatever the result, the incident drew negative attention to Benkirane’s government.

Once the primary political opposition, today the PJD is caught in an awkward position. Lacking true legislative independence, the party is unable to make needed reforms, but as the ruling party, the government is blamed for inaction that is related more to structure than agency. The party thus becomes a lightening rod for citizens’ discontent. In light of these challenges, Benkirane’s call to boycott Dannon may be an effort to direct criticism away from the party and toward an innocuous target. Whatever the rationale behind the action, the prime minister would be wise to employ the same approach, going public, to build support for a solution to one of the country’s more pressing problems, rather than targeting a private corporation.

Ann Wainscott is an assistant professor of political science at Saint Louis University. Follow her on Twitter @annmwainscott. Her research was supported in part by a Travel-Research-Engagement grant from the Project on Middle East Political Science.

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