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A New King in Morocco and a New Opportunity



July 26, 1999

RABAT, MOROCCO - Unlike the late King Hussein of Jordan, the late King Hassan of Morocco who died on Friday has seemingly bequeathed his son, King Mohammed VI, a weak hand. A weak hand that is, if you judge power by autocratic reach. Hussein had dabbled with democracy, but his prime ministers and their governments came and went with alacrity and no one doubted who called the shots. With Hassan it was, until fairly recently, a similar, "l'etat, c'est moi", even if he didn't change his prime ministers so regularly. But a little over a year ago in a remarkable development, Hassan voluntarily handed over a good slice of power to a former political prisoner, once sentenced to death, the socialist parliamentarian Abderrahman Youssoufi, ending 40 years of conservative rule.

Most royal functionaries were sidelined, apart from the king's powerful, but much reviled, minister of the interior, Driss Basri. Democracy not only has had a chance to flap its wings but to alter the direction of government policy towards the poor who have been largely bypassed by Morocco's volatile, but steadily upward, economic growth. This great political somersault came on the heels of the king's decision in the early 1990s to release most political prisoners, relax censorship and rein in the security services. The Morocco of the late 1990s bears little resemblance to the Morocco of most of King Hassan's 38 years of iron rule.

In a short period of time Mr Youssoufi has managed to carve out a distinct identity. Funding for health, education and housing has risen. The turgid bureaucracy is being reformed. A minister of justice has been appointed who once headed the country's largest human rights organisation.

Needless to say, after so many years of neglect, it will still take many years before either real democracy or tangible social and economic distribution puts down unshakeable roots. Basri can still call many of the shots on law and order. Last October he sent the riot police in to bang the heads of a rally of jobless university graduates. An Amnesty International report just released records that political prisoners are still held , although their numbers are vastly diminished. Under permanent house arrest is Sheikh Abdelsalam Yassine, leader of one of the more militant Islamic groups.

For now it remains unclear how much official tolerance will be extended to Islamic radicals. For the moment those who choose a parliamentary path are given a wide degree of latitude. In May Abdelilah Ben Kirane, a leader of the Islamist youth movement, won a bi-election seat in parliament, ousting one of Mr Youssoufi's socialists, winning the votes of the poor who in the general election had voted left. If the government doesn't deliver the economic and social goods more rapidly then Mr Kirane's appeal is sure to grow. Yet while Hassan always considered that he had a royal monopoly on Islam, his son is likely to have a more tolerant attitude and be happy to see the Islamists given more political space as long as they abjure violence. At a time when the forces of militant Islam are on the wane in countries as diverse as Algeria, Egypt and Iran, this would be a good time to take the high ground and free Sheikh Yassine.

On the foreign affairs front -always the king's prerogative- there is the need for immediate attention to be given to the vexed issue of the Western Sahara, once a separate Spanish colony, but since 1975 a country at war, either hot or, since the UN engineeered cease-fire, brokered in 1994, cold.

The local people, the Saharawis, want independence. Rabat believes this phosphate-rich chunk of the Sahara is an integral part of Morocco.

A referendum has been repeatedly promised to decide the question. Again the poll has been scheduled for this December. Again it could well be that Morocco will sabotage the opportunity to decide the issue by ballot one more time.

The death of Hassan offers the chance for Morocco to turn a fresh page and consign this financially and militarily draining battle to history. The new king may not have the autocratic reach of his father, but on this issue it will be his word that counts.

If Morocco can allow an honest referendum then it can devote its political energies to its many problems at home. Making its new democracy work and mature will tax every muscle and brain cell of the new king. If he succeeds the reward will be immense: Morocco could well become the beacon that guides the rest of the Islamic world to making the long overdue transition to open and effective government. That, by any measure, is a strong hand to play. It remains to be seen whether the new king, widely considered to be a reformer by temperament, is brave and wise enough to take the opportunity.


Copyright © 1999 By JONATHAN POWER


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