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Saturday, July 24, 1999 Published at 16:13 GMT 17:13 UK

World: Africa

Obituary: King Hassan II

King Hassan (left) played a key role in the Middle East peace process

King Hassan II of Morocco was a leading figure in North African politics after his ascension to the throne in 1961.

BBC's Nick Pelham in Rabat: King Hassan held the country together
At the time of his death, he was the Arab world's longest reigning monarch.

He was born on 9 July, 1929 as Prince Moulay Hassan, son of King Mohammed V, 16th sovereign of the Alawite dynasty.

During his rule he survived a series of assassination attempts and developed a reputation as a committed Arab nationalist.

He also played an important behind-the-scenes role in the Middle East peace process and is credited with being a key influence in the signing of the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

Throughout his reign he maintained friendly relations with the US, but his often heavy-handed domestic human rights record came in for strong international criticism.

Commander of the Faithful

For almost four decades King Hassan ruled Morocco as a theocracy, taking his authority from his proclaimed role as Commander of the Faithful and deriding his opponents as heretics.

In the early years of his reign, he survived repeated military coups and popular unrest, but opposition was stamped out with an iron fist.

He sought to unite the country behind him in his campaign to expand Morocco's border south into the Western Sahara and divert attention from the kingdom's gruelling social inequality.

King Hassan was determined Morocco would hold on to the barren but phosphate-rich Western Sahara despite resistance from the Polisario Front and pressure from abroad.

Abdul Bari Atwan of Al Quds newspaper: "He did not deliberately snub the Queen"
In the latter years of his reign, he succeeded in mollifying much of the opposition by moving towards a constitutional monarchy and including former dissidents in the affairs of state.

Last year, he appointed the leader of the leftist movement - which had once advocated the overthrow of the king and his replacement with a republic - to be the country's prime minister.

However, some people have asked how well the institutions of the kingdom could cope in the absence of the man who since 1961 has held the country, in a volatile region, together.

The swift enthronement of his son as King Mohammed VI signals an intention for a smooth succession.

The new king has played an increasingly public role in recent months.

But as in the handover of power in Jordan from King Hussein to his son Abdullah, for many Moroccans he is a relative unknown.

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