Morocco’s king pulls strings despite calls for democracy

May 21st, 2008 - 9:42 am ICT by admin  

By Sinikka Tarvainen
Rabat (Morocco), May 21 (DPA) Dressed in white, sometimes wearing the traditional red fez cap, a faint smile on his lips, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI looks majestically out of countless photographs hanging in shops, banks or restaurants in the capital Rabat. The monarch, who thus seems to watch incessantly over his 33 million subjects, is far from being a European-style royal figurehead with hardly any power and constant prying into his private life.

Moroccans know little of what goes on behind the walls of the royal residence, but none of them fails to be aware of the enormous power wielded by the 44-year-old king whose Alawite dynasty has ruled the north African country since the 17th century.

Not only do the media keep up a respectful coverage of royal activities, but almost any conversation on politics or economics soon turns to the king, whose will rules over that of the government, and whom many ordinary people see as an almost mythical figure.

“The king is good,” said Karima, a 30-year-old teacher of autistic children. “He helps the poor.”

That view, in a country where open criticism of the monarchy can lead to a prison sentence, contrasts with a typical comment from political analysts: “The king is well-intentioned, but he is ill-advised, and the government is corrupt and incompetent.”

Mohammed’s accession to the throne in 1999 raised enormous hopes in Morocco, which his father Hassan II had ruled for 38 years with an iron fist.

Hassan ruthlessly suppressed political opponents and failed to solve rural poverty, urban slums, an illiteracy, which still surpasses 40 percent, and other problems.

Mohammed VI became known as “the king of the poor,” driving his own car, launching a royal foundation and a human development programme to reduce poverty, increasing press freedom and creating a commission to compensate victims of human rights abuses under Hassan’s rule.

The king continues to visit poor areas, launching infrastructure and other projects and distributing gifts such as taxi driving permits, housing and reportedly even sums of money.

Mohammed has also begun breaking down the secrecy surrounding the palace, allowing his wife Princess Lalla Salma to play a discreet public role, and posing to press photographers with her and their two young children.

Now, however, the king’s young advisors have begun giving way to king Hassan’s old guard and other hawks, analysts say.

After suicide bombings in Casablanca killed 45 people in 2003, the threat of Islamist terrorism has contributed to the curtailment of democratic freedoms, with police clashing with demonstrators, newspapers closed, journalists jailed, fined or forced to resign.

Morocco has dozens of political prisoners, including Islamists, Western Saharawi separatists, Berber cultural activists and army officers who denounced corruption in their ranks, according to the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH).

“Moroccans are disappointed with Mohammed VI,” says columnist Khalid Jamai, one of the few people in Morocco who do not hesitate to criticize the king as a person.

The king’s apparent concern for the poor does not mask the fact that he continues to live in breathtaking luxury. His wealth includes sumptuous palaces around the country and control over large sectors of the economy mainly through the gigantic ONA conglomerate.

The palace also wields the most political power, with the king appointing five key ministers, regional governors and other decision-makers.

Mohammed VI can veto any government decision, and has launched for instance major agricultural and development programmes without even informing the government about them, according to several sources.

“Ministries discuss their plans directly with the king without letting parliament know,” observes former agriculture and education minister Ismail Alaoui, leader of the leftist Party of Progress and Socialism (PPS) which belongs to the governing coalition.

The power structure centered on the palace is known as the Makhzen, a kind of nebulous network of people and lobbies focused on preserving their vested interests rather than on general development.

King Hassan “makhzenized” the political parties with a combination of repression, rewards and divisive tactics, analysts say, domesticating them into what Jamai describes as “empty shells.”

The parties’ lack of credibility has boosted the role of the civil society, favouring the emergence of tens of thousands of human rights, feminist, educational and other associations.

Their coordination committees stage demonstrations against high prices, low-quality schools or hospitals and other problems, sometimes obtaining concessions from local authorities.

“Morocco’s problems cannot be solved with royal good will alone,” but require a real democracy, AMDH president Khadija Ryadi said.

“The time is not yet ripe for a constitutional reform,” says Reda Benkhaldoun of the main opposition Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD). “We need to give the king time.”

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