FRONTLINE, India's National Magazine, August, 1999


A transition in Morocco

With the death of King Hassan II of Morocco and the enthronement of his son King Mohammed VI, the country seems poised to shed its Cold War legacies and embrace the path of liberal democracy.

John Cherian


A tumultuous chapter in Arab and African history came to an end with the passing away of Morocco's long-time ruler King Hassan II on July 23. He was the longest - surviving ruler after the death of King Hussein of Jordan. And like the Jordanian monarch, Hassan's political longevity was facilitated to a great extent by his closeness to Western powers.

Morocco under King Hassan revelled in the role of the gendarme of the West in the African continent. Although Hassan's importance for the West diminished considerably after the end of the Cold War, the West remained grateful. Present at his funeral were a serving U.S. President and a retired one. President George Bush was in Rabat to show his gratitude for the help rendered by Hassan during the Gulf war: Morocco was among the Arab countries that sent troops to the Gulf. President Jacques Chirac of France was also present. The United States, France and Morocco had embarked on many a joint enterprise in Africa, such as propping up dictatorial and corrupt regimes in Zaire, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.

The new Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, was present at the funeral, along with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Hassan was among the first important Arab leaders to call for the recognition of Israel. He played an important behind - the - scenes role in the West Asian peace process. He was also instrumental in encouraging Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to visit Jerusalem in 1977. In fact, King Hassan's relationship with Israel was a long - standing one. The Israeli secret service, Mossad, had clandestinely helped Hassan sideline domestic political opponents who fought for the establishment of a republican form of government. According to the Israeli daily Maariv, Mossad chief Rafi Eitan visited Morocco in 1962 just after King Hassan took over. The Moroccan Army was restive at the time and the King had already survived a few coup attempts. The daily said that Israel had also provided Morocco with 100 tanks for use against the Polisario guerillas fighting to liberate Western Sahara. Another Israeli daily newspaper, Haaretz, claimed that the late King in return gave Mossad permission to set up a station in Rabat. Maariv also claimed that Mossad had played a key role in the kidnapping and assasination of the Moroccan Opposition leader Mahdi Ben Barka. The case was, for some time, an international cause celebre.

Hassan was an indispensable asset for the West during the Cold War, and he gained a lot from the relationship. If any pro-Western despot was in danger of being overthrown anywhere in Africa, France and the U.S. had only to signal to Rabat and Moroccan troops would be ready to be flown to the trouble spot. The intervention of Moroccan troops was crucial in saving the decrepit Mobutu Sese-Seko regime in Zaire on two crucial occasions. In 1997 Mobutu was given temporary refuge in Morocco when he was forced to flee his country in the face of a popular revolt. But after the Cold War ended, African despots became dispensable and Morocco's expertise too became dispensable. With the Soviet Union out of its way, the West no longer cared to prop up dictators. Instead, a competition for influence in Africa started between Washington and Paris. During his last days, King Hassan seemed to be veering towards Paris. He was the chief guest at the independence day celebrations in France in mid - July, when for the first time Moroccan troops participated in a military parade alongside French soldiers. Interestingly, when King Hassan was in Paris, almost all the other African heads of state were in Algiers, attending the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit.

Hassan's hold on power was quite precarious until the mid-1970s. In 1971, the King escaped an assassination attempt when 2,000 soldiers intent on setting up a military regime attacked his place in Rabat while the King's birthday party was in full swing. Hundreds guests were killed but the king escaped. His next brush with death came when he was returning from Paris in 1972. Gen.Mohammed Oufkir, until then the king's right - hand man, had coopted sections of the Moroccan Air Force in a coup plot. Air Force plane fired at the plane carrying the king and his family even as it was preparing to land. Hassan miraculously survived the attack.

To keep the restive Army from further mischief, Hassan embarked on his adventure in the Sahara. In 1974, he ordered his army to capture the productive part of the Sahara. Half the personnel of the 200,000 - strong Moroccan Army are permanently stationed in Western Sahara. They have been given special perquisites and rights in the former Spanish colony.

Moroccans may have enjoyed political stability during the long reign of King Hassan but his eldest son and successor, King Mohammed VI, inherits a flawed legacy. Between 25 and 30 percent of the 28-million population is unemployed. Among the unemployed are a large number of educated people. More than half the population lives below the poverty line. Most of the population is rural - based. To complicate matters, the country is in the grip of the severe drought which has affected agriculture. Wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few Western - oriented elite.

King Hassan's personal wealth was estimated at $40 billion. The country's national debt stands at around $20 billion. Until about 10 years ago, King Hassan used to figure in the Fortune magazine's annual list of the world's wealthiest people. One third of Morocco's budget is used to service foreign debt. The Opposite, in exile, has been asking questions about the King's huge private fortune. Reports in Spanish papers after Hassan's death said that the King had 20 bank accounts. He owned around 20 opulent palaces in Morocco, besides a mansion in a 400-hectare estate near Paris. There is considerable speculation regarding the source of his wealth. Hassan' father, King Mohammed V, was not known to be very rich.

In the last years of his life, King Hassan preferred the velvet - glove approach in domestic politics. To the surprise of many, he appointed as Prime Minister a veteran socialist leader and erstwhile dissident, Abderrahmane Youssoufi, in 1998. Youssoufi was once sentenced to death for his radical views on the monarchy. The late king, in one of his deft political moves, had decided to share power with the left- wing Opposition, which until recently, was in the political wilderness. But in actuality, Hassan's confidant and long - serving Interior Minister, Driss Basri, called the shots in all important policy matters.

However, things may be now changing. The new king, in his first official appearance, had Youssoufi by his side. Basri was confined to a place in the second row. The new King has let it be known that his role model is King Juan Carlos of Spain. Carlos presided over the democratization process in Spain and is a constitutional monarch.

Moroccans expects their new King to be more liberal towards Islamist groupings. Sheikh Abdelsalam Yassine, a prominent Islamist, was under ìPermanentî house arrest during Hassan's reign. Many Moroccans hope that the new King will extend an olive branch to Yassine. Earlier this year, King Hassan had allowed moderate Islamists to contest elections. Abdeillah Ben Kirane, a leader of the Islamist youth movement, won a by election in May defeating the left's candidate. With the left having been coopted by the monarchy, the votes of the poor are shifting towards the Islamists. The Islamists are already popular on university campuses. The Islamists of Morocco, unlike many of their counter -parts in Algeria, generally abjure violence. Besides, the Moroccan King's status as the «commander of the faithful» and as a descendant of the Prophet, has given him a special place in the hearts and minds of his subjects.

The only country that the new King mentioned by name in his first official speech was Algeria. Indications are that the traditional rivals have decided to patch up and open a new chapter in bilateral relations. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the new Algerian President, seems to have already built a personal rapport with the new ruler of Morocco. Both countries have agreed to reopen their common border on August 2, to be followed by a summit meeting between the two leaders.

King Mohammed VI has also given the impression that he is committed to holding a United Nations' referendum in Western Sahara at the end of this year. The young King will have to allow an honest referendum to end the conflict, which has destabilised the entire Maghreb region. Morocco, after all, has only two immediate neighbours, Algeria and Western Sahara, In the post-Cold War era, peaceful coexistence is the only course for Morocco.

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