x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Morocco's reforms to continue, says king

Most Moroccans agree their country is freer and more prosperous than in the past but its wealth and political power remain concentrated.

King Mohammed VI on horseback during a ceremony in Tetouan, northern Morocco, on Friday to mark the 10th anniversary of his rule.
King Mohammed VI on horseback during a ceremony in Tetouan, northern Morocco, on Friday to mark the 10th anniversary of his rule.

RABAT // Back in the 1970s, when visiting his cousins in Morocco, Rachid Chihani took care never to hang around too long outdoors. "The police could snatch you simply for not having your papers on you," said Mr Chihani, a Moroccan-Swedish businessman who now lives in Morocco. "That would never happen today." Last Thursday, King Mohammed VI marked 10 years on the throne with a speech pledging to continue the social and political reforms launched after he succeeded his authoritarian father, Hassan II, on July 23, 1999.

The anniversary has Moroccans taking stock of the past decade. While most agree that Morocco today is freer and more prosperous than under Hassan II, critics say the king's power remains monolithic and that the country is falling short of its economic potential. Morocco's ruling Alaouite dynasty arose in the 17th century, tracing its ancestry to the Prophet Mohammed, a lineage manifest today in the king's status as "al amir al mu'minin", or "commander of the faithful".

The king's grandfather, Mohammed V, was briefly exiled for his opposition to 20th century French colonialism, returning in triumph shortly before Morocco gained independence in 1956. In 1961, Mohammed V's son Hassan took the throne, proceeding to rule by edict and crushing two attempted coups in the early 1970s. Much of his four-decade reign is remembered today as "les années de plomb", or "the years of lead".

Hassan II reinstated party politics and began liberalising Morocco's economy before dying in 1999. Then came "M6", as he is fondly known, aged just 35 at his accession - stylish, cosmopolitan and carrying the promise of modernity. The young king fired his father's powerful interior minister, Driss Basri, married a commoner, computer engineer Salma Bennani, and embarked on a series of dramatic reforms.

In 2004, Morocco introduced a new family law that gave women legal equality with men in key areas and "turned gender relations on their head", said Fouzia Assouli, secretary general of the Democratic League for the Defence of Women's Rights. In local elections in June, Morocco followed up by reserving 12 per cent of seats for women. The economy has grown steadily as Morocco has established free-trade zones, eased taxes on foreign companies and strengthened its infrastructure. Last year the European Union granted the country increased access to the EU market.

"Ten years ago there were long queues just to get a phone line," said Mr Chihani, Morocco director for the Swedish telecoms giant Ericsson. Today, Morocco's appetite for telephone technology has helped put his office among Ericsson's fastest-growing operations. However, in spite of all the good news, not enough wealth is trickling down, said Tajeddine El Houssaini, an economics professor at Mohammed V University in Rabat, the capital. "There's a huge gap between the rich and the poor."

A government report in May found that although 53 per cent of Moroccans are middle class by the country's standards, most struggle to make ends meet. Education lags behind the needs of the market, corruption is widespread and some 40 per cent of the population is illiterate. In 2004, the king established a truth commission to investigate alleged human rights violations under his father, awarding indemnities to 9,280 people. But the government has so far not enacted reforms recommended by the commission, including greater separation of powers and an independent judiciary.

Torture is now illegal in Morocco, but according to the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH), it still occurs, primarily in anti-terrorist sweeps that accelerated in 2003 after suicide bombings killed 45 in Casablanca, the commercial capital. Last Tuesday, a court jailed more than 30 members of a terrorist gang that included several politicians, prompting human rights groups to call the trial politically motivated.

Press freedom has expanded, but media are forbidden from criticising the monarchy, Islam and Moroccan rule in Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony largely annexed in 1975 when Spain withdrew. On Saturday, authorities seized the magazines TelQuel and Nichane from newsstands after they published a poll on Mohammed VI that authorities called illegal, according to Agence France-Presse. The magazines' publisher, Ahmed Benchemsi, denied breaking the law and said the poll found that 91 per cent of Moroccans approved of the king's performance.

"We've made gains, but they're still fragile," said Abdelhamid Amine, a political prisoner under Hassan II and today vice president of the AMDH, which questioned last Tuesday's verdict. He said that Morocco should make constitutional reform a top priority. In his speech last Thursday, the king called on government to improve education, pledged to enhance regionalisation as a "leap forward in promoting local democracy" and promised "deep reform" of the judiciary. The previous day, 25,000 prisoners were released with royal pardons.

The king has won popular support with royal visits and public works around the country, and has spent the past month touring the historically marginalised north, a region spurned by his father. Last Friday evening, he rode on horseback through the northern city of Tetouan to receive the "bey'a", or traditional oath of allegiance, from assembled dignitaries. But critics say that so far, political power has remained concentrated in the palace.

"That has not prevented Morocco from advancing at Mohammed VI's instigation, sometimes on social issues, most often on infrastructure," wrote Benchemsi recently in TelQuel. But when it comes to politics, "royal absolutism has never ceased to reinforce itself". jthorne@thenational.ae