Ten things to know about Morocco’s justice minister Abdellatif Ouahbi

By Fadwa Islah
Posted on Thursday, 16 December 2021 17:14

Abdellatif Ouahbi, the WFP’s secretary-general and Morocco’s justice minister. © MOHAMED DRISSI K. FOR JA

Ever since he was appointed Morocco’s justice minister in early October, Abdellatif Ouahbi has been active on all fronts. This lawyer, who is willing to be a showman, is now on the front lines of Aziz Akhannounch’s government.

1. Pact

After changing the political orientation of the Parti Authenticité et Modernité (PAM) in record time, Abdellatif Ouahbi hoped his party would win the elections. Even though PAM failed to beat billionaire Aziz Akhannouch’s Rassemblement National des Indépendants (RNI), it still managed to do reasonably well as it came in just behind it, with 87 seats. Coming in second place paved the way for this famous lawyer to become justice minister.

On 6 December, Ouahbi signed a “majority pact” with Akhannouch, who became head of government, and Nizar Baraka, secretary-general of Istiqlal – which came third in the legislative elections – and minister of equipment. The leaders of the coalesced formations committed themselves to consolidating “a governmental alliance based on trust, mutual respect and harmonious collective action” – in other words: to avoid clashes and respect the principle of governmental solidarity.

2. Hot issues

This veteran lawyer did not want to be a minister. However, he did eventually accept – under pressure from his party’s political bureau – the prestigious position of justice minister.

In barely two months, Ouahbi has managed to breathe new life into this ministry, by tackling several burning issues head-on, such as reforming the penal code, taxing lawyers and the issue of the Rif Hirak’s detainees. This style marks a significant departure from that of his predecessors, who remained silent and kept low profiles.

3. Amazigh

President of Taroudant’s Communal Council, Ouahbi was born on 28 July 1961 in Agadir into a Sousi family from Taroudant. With his 10 brothers and sisters, he grew up in this small town in the south-west, where he spent most of his school career. First at the Darb-Aqa Koranic school in 1965, then at the Al-Wefaq primary school in Taroudant in 1967. Ten years later, Ouahbi attended the Hassan-Ier college and then the Ibn-Suleiman-Al-Roudani high school.

4. Lawyer

Although he is both a minister and PAM’s secretary-general, Ouahbi is first and foremost a skilled and daring lawyer. He has been heading a law firm based in Rabat since the late 1990s and often handles sensitive cases. For instance, he has defended Salafist detainees who were charged under anti-terrorist laws, pleaded the cause of businessmen during the so-called clean-up period and represented the state when the family of one of the two Scandinavian tourists who were murdered in December 2018 near the Oukaïmden ski resort asked the public authorities for compensation.

5. Left-wing family

Ouahbi comes from a traditionally left-wing political family – his father was a member of the Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires (USFP). He took his first steps in politics as a student, when he was a member of the USFP. Then, after obtaining his law degree in Rabat, he joined the law firm of Ahmed Benjelloun (the younger brother of Omar Benjelloun, leader of the USFP), as a lawyer in training in 1989.

He then became a member of the Parti de l’Avant-Garde Démocratique et Socialiste, which Ahmed Benjelloun, his boss and mentor, had founded that same year. This party was meant to be a purified and more left-wing version of the USFP.

Ouahbi, just like other progressive figures such as Khadija Riyadi, did not end up joining PAM until the end of the 2000s.

6. Bulldozer

“A man is his style”, Hassan II often said, paraphrasing Georges-Louis Leclerc, Count de Buffon. Ouahbi is a colourful character who has a notorious glibness and humour. He also has a “bulldozer” style, which contrasts with that of his two predecessors, Mohamed Ben Abdelkader and Mohamed Aujjar.

7. Close to Benkirane

“He is an unusual character, a ‘showman’ who has a sense of repartee and whose outbursts are reminiscent, by their spontaneity and imagery, of those of another great orator, Abdelilah Benkirane,” says a political analyst, who also confided that the two are very close. “They are friends and visit each other regularly, regardless of the political situation,” says our source.

8. False steps

Although Ouahbi’s verve pleases some Moroccans, many of whom listen to his parliamentary and media speeches, it sometimes plays tricks on him. For example, on 10 November, he made a declaration regarding the Hirak detainees while on the set of the programme Confidences de Presse, which is broadcast on the national television channel 2M at prime time: “I am preparing a request for a pardon that I will submit to the King.” He then went back on his word a few days later in his statement to the Société Nationale de Radiodiffusion et de Télévision: “As minister of justice, I do not have the authority to submit it [the request] in anyone’s name.

9. Direct

Appointed just a few months ago to the Akhannouch government, the new justice minister continues to hit where it hurts on issues like the penal code, vaccination passes, Hirak and individual liberties. He manages to cover everything and does not even spare his fellow lawyers, given that he said – loud and clear – what is wrong with taxing those who wear the black robes: “95% of lawyers only pay Dh10,000 ($1,080) in taxes per year,” he said on 2 November in parliament.

10. Reformer

“As soon as I joined PAM’s political bureau, I started to fight for its independence from the Makhzen [the Moroccan government],” Ouahbi has said repeatedly. And the least that can be said is that the secretary-general has succeeded in changing the political orientation of the formation, which has been in crisis since the Ilyas El Omari period and decried as an “establishment party” in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

This operation enabled the party to win over a part of public opinion. Today, it has set its sights on reforming the penal code, a project started by Mustafa Ramid, but by using a different approach, one that is more traditional and conservative.

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