Back to the future for Morocco? The tenth anniversary celebrations for the accession of Morocco’s King Mohammed VI focused attention on the North African kingdom, its ruler and the prospects for the Maghreb region (Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco) in general. The celebrations were as much a political as a ceremonial event, and Mohammed VI’s rule and personality placed under international scrutiny. Is the forty-six year-old monarch still a progressive figure or, as one commentator suggested a “hyper-monarch”? How does Mohammed reconcile his good intentions with his near autocratic power; his personal fortune in a country where many live on less than one Euro a day? If the King has his critics, Morocco’s complicated history is, arguably, a mitigating factor in contemporary political issues and the monarchy itself has played a significant role in the fight for Moroccan sovereignty.
The story of Morocco begins with the Berbers in the pre-Roman period. The Berbers lived in the north of Africa west of the Nile Valley. Today it is estimated that there are 30-40 million Berbers spread across the Maghreb. To this indigenous population was added Phoenicians, the ancient seafaring traders who brought an engagement with the wider Mediterranean world. The Roman Empire continued this trend as it brought the future Morocco under its sway within the province called Mauretania Tingitana. The later Roman period and early medieval period brought Vandals, Visigoths and Byzantine Greeks. Then a defining moment arrived with appearance of Arabs invaders in the late seventh century from the Umayyad Caliphate of Damascus. Bringing a unifying religion and culture, to which most Berbers converted, the Islamic invasions were the beginnings of the Moroccan statehood, which developed over several centuries as emerging Berber kingdoms and the Arab led caliphates struggled with one another for dominance within the Islamic-Berber world.
By the 11th century Berber ruling families had come to the fore and through four dynasties – the Almoravids, the Almohads, then the Marinid and finally the Saadi dynasties – Morocco came to rule over most of Northwest Africa, as well as large sections of Islamic Iberia. By the late seventeenth century a new dynasty, the Alouites, were on the rise. Spain and the Ottoman Empire had designs on Morocco and the Alouites ruled over a smaller territory but managed to gain Tangiers in 1684 and, under the second Alouite ruler, Ismail Ibn Sharif, Moroccan statehood was further developed.
An interesting footnote in Moroccan history is that it was the first nation to recognise the independent United States in 1777 when Sultan Mohammed III declared that American merchant ships would have his protection from pirates on the Barbary Coast. Morocco’s own independence, however, proved harder to maintain and a good deal of its modern history is entangled with the struggle against the European powers that had colonial designs on the Maghreb.
In the reign of Sultan Yusef ben Hassan (reign 1912-1927) there were uprisings against colonialism which also aimed to overthrow the ruling house for its failure to maintain independence. In 1925 Yusef relocated the court from Fez to Rabat, which has been the capital ever since. Yusef was succeeded by his son Mohammed V whose reign encompassed the closing years of the colonial era. The French had forced Mohammed V into exile in Corsica and placed a distant relative, Mohammed Ben Aarafa, on the throne as a puppet ruler 1953. But opposition to foreign rule was building and by 1955 Mohammed was able to return and was recognised by the European powers. He then went on to negotiate Moroccan independence. Upon his death in 1961 his son, Hassan II, came to the throne.
If the fight against colonialism had been successful the post-colonial era has been very problematic and Hassan II’s rule was a repressive era marked by human rights abuses. In 1965 the King dissolved parliament to rule directly, although the mechanisms for parliamentary democracy were left intact. Subsequent elections were neither fair nor free and popular discontent led to riots. Hassan, however, managed to stay in power and survived two assassination attempts in the 1970s, one led by his own defence minister who was shot for his treachery. On the positive side Hassan’s reign saw the return of the province of Ifni, a long term bone of contention between Morocco and Spain. Hassan also managed to annex two thirds of the Western Sahara (formerly Spanish Sahara). This has left Morocco with a problematic legacy: a territory that is also claimed by Mauritania and whose people would prefer self-rule. The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic has declared independence for the aproximately 20% of the territory it controls. The issue also puts Morocco at loggerheads with Algeria which supports the independence movement.
Domestically Hassan II’s reign is sometimes referred to as having been the ‘Years of Lead’ due to its lack of freedom and a heavy handed and often brutal treatment of critics. Dissidence was a life threatening activity. The various crackdowns led to the death of hundreds and the imprisonment of thousands. By the 1990s the repression had begun to ease somewhat and when Mohammed VI succeeded his father in 1999 he was known to be of a more liberal outlook. Hassan II left the country a difficult political inheritance but he did give his son a good training for his future role.
Mohammed was given a religious and political education from an early age at the Qur’anic school at the Royal Palace. After completing his primary and secondary studies at the Royal College and gaining his Baccalaureate in 1981, Mohammed went onto a B.A in law at the College of law of the Mohammed V University in Rabat. The title of his research paper clearly showed the political focus of his education: ‘the Arab-African Union and the Strategy of the Kingdom of Morocco in matters of International Relations’. In 1987 Mohammed obtained his first Certificat d’Études Supérieures (CES) in political sciences and in 1988 he obtained a Diplôme d’Études Approfondies DEA in public law. In 1988 he trained in Brussels with Jacques Delors, then President of the European Commission. Continuing his education in Europe Mohammed gained his doctorate in law from the French University of Nice Sophia Antipolis for his thesis on ‘EEC-Maghreb Relations’. Mohammed VI was also awarded an honorary degree from The George Washington University awarded in 2000 for his promotion of democracy in Morocco, which was more a gesture toward the young King’s good intentions and a sign of support for a ruler whose more progressive outlook was soon under fire from conservative groups.
Mohammed was determined to chart his own course but he was no naïve idealist and had taken heed of his father’s advice, as he explained in an interview given to Time Magazine in June 2000: “To govern is not to please, that is what my father used to say. You will have to make decisions that will not please yourself nor please people. But it will be for the welfare of the country.” Nor was he unduly optimistic about the pace of reform: “Morocco has a lot to do in terms of democracy. The daily practice of democracy evolves in time. Trying to apply a Western democratic system to a country of the Maghreb, the Middle East or the Gulf would be a mistake. We are not Germany, Sweden or Spain. I have a lot of respect for countries where the practice of democracy is highly developed. I think, however, that each country has to have its own specific features of democracy.”
The young ruler was not rejecting his father’s legacy outright, nor was he envisioning a Turkish style move to a secular state. The monarchy’s authority and Islam would continue to be at the heart of the nation: “As Commander of the Faithful, it is out of the question that I fight Islam. We need to fight violence and ignorance. It is true, when one strolls out, one sees women with scarves and men with beards. This has always been the case in Morocco. Morocco is built on tolerance.” Mohammed is clearly no revolutionary but his reformist hopes were genuine. Predictably his pledges to tackle poverty, corruption and create jobs were good intentions that are still far from realised, but it would be unrealistic to expect a socio-economic miracle within a decade. That said, Morocco’s economic situation is still very poor.
More substantively Mohammed also moved to improve the situation of Moroccan women through legal reforms of the ‘Mudawama’, the new family code he promulgated. Based on Sunni traditional law the reforms ensured that greater rights and greater legal protections were given to Moroccan women. And human rights, such a failing in the reign of Hassan II, was an issue Mohammed was keen to improve upon. In 2004 ‘The Equity and Reconciliation Commission’ was founded. Its mission to reconcile the victims of human rights abuses and their oppressors for crimes committed by the ruling elite during the ‘Years of lead’. The commission is composed of a president and 16 members of various institutions and establishments, half of them from the ‘Conseil Consultatif des Droits de l’Homme’, a Moroccan human rights group. The commission works to rehabilitate the victims and pay compensation for state outrages against them. This has been praised internationally as a big step forward, and as an example to other governments in the Arab world. However, the commission has also been criticized for lacking teeth as it does not reveal the identities of or prosecute human rights offenders, which most of the victims were requesting; it is not allowed to mention King Hassan II; it is not allowed to report about human rights violations since 1999, when Mohammed VI was enthroned and it cannot criticize the restrictions of freedom of speech, which according to human rights organisations still exist in Morocco.
It is tempting to describe Mohammed VI with one foot in the past and one in the future balancing uneasily in the present. He might not disagree having told Time Magazine in 2000: “One should not think that a new generation will turn everything upside down or bring everything into question. Let us not forget that in our countries, tradition is very strong. ” In that context, the recent celebrations of the monarchy provided Mohammed VI with an opportunity to lay out his vision for the coming decade of his reign. A reiteration of his ongoing commitment to tackle poverty, corruption and create jobs was to be expected, as was a continuation of the official policy in the Western Sahara. With regard to the latter, however, Mohammed was also keen to stress his desire for good relations with his neighbours, in particular Algeria.
Of some significance was the extension of an olive branch to Israel. Notoriously some Arabs and Muslims deny the Holocaust. Whilst it is a descredited position historically, Holocaust denial is used to excite anti-Israeli opinion, often for domestic political reasons. Mohammed, like King Abdullah of Jordan, has taken a different stance and took the opportunity to repudiate such views. Mohammed described the Holocaust as “one of the most tragic chapters of modern history . . . the universal heritage of mankind.” He also endorsed a Paris-based program aimed at spreading the word among fellow Muslims. The King’s speech was read out at a ceremony launching the ‘Aladdin Project’ an initiative of the Paris-based foundation for the ‘Memory of the Shoah (Holocaust)’ which aims to spread awareness of the genocide among Muslims. It organizes conferences and has translated key Holocaust writing such as Anne Frank’s diary into Arabic and Farsi. However, as a leader of a Muslim and Arab-Bedouin state his views are carefully expressed as support for the Palestinians is a given. Mohammed VI is, to use the contemporary terminology, a ‘moderate’ in the Arab world and, on the whole, takes a progressive view; although the inability to improve life for the majority of his subjects may prove to be the undoing of his good intentions.
Under pressure from conservative groups and a disappointment to reformers the prognosis for the monarchy’s future is ambivalent. In recent years some certainly believe the country has been moving away from democracy. Journalist Ali Amar, one of the co-founders in 1997 of ‘Le Journal’ Morocco’s most important opposition newspaper, has just published a highly critical tome: ‘Mohammed VI: The Big Misunderstanding. Ten years in the Shadow of Hassan II.’ A respected commentator, Amar’s opinion is that the monarchy is a veiled absolutism, that Mohammed VI has become a ‘hyper-monarch’. Yet support for the monarchy still seems strong as an opinion poll by the French magazine ‘Le Monde’ showed, with 90% of Moroccans expressing their approval of the King’s performance.
Ironically the good news was quickly suppressed when ‘Le Monde’ was banned from going on sale in Morocco, having “breached” the media code. A very poignant case of the authorities shooting themselves and the monarch in the foot as well as a timely illustration of how frustrating the lack of civil freedoms must be for Moroccans. The King’s challenge is a huge one: to reconcile Morocco’s past, present and future. How to assauge the various shades of opinion, bring propserity to a poor nation and allow democracy to develop without allowing in extremism will take all of Mohammed’s political skills. At the time of his accession many hoped that Moroccan democracy would develop along similar lines to Spain post-Franco, with Mohammed in the role of King Juan Carlos and Hassan II (no doubt to his son’s chagrin) presumably cast in the role of General Franco. Mohammed expressed his admiration for ‘uncle’ Juan Carlos but rejected the parallel saying there should be a “Moroccan model specific to Morocco.” But the project seems to have stalled, although not yet failed, and a new impetus needs to be found.