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Saturday, July 24, 1999 Published at 17:13 GMT 18:13 UK

World: Africa

New king - new Morocco?

Crown Prince Mohammed had to announce his father's death

By Nick Pelham in Rabat

Within hours of the announcement of King Hassan's death, state television broadcast the enthronement of Morocco's new king, Mohammed VI, son of Hassan.

The swift swearing-in ceremony, planned for months in advance, appeared destined to silence any nagging doubts still dogging the question of succession and ensure that the monarchy remained at the heart of Moroccan life.

But the nature of that monarchy still remains uncertain.

Calls in Morocco are growing for a speedy transition from a state based on patronage and clientalism to one whose institutions are sufficiently strong to hold power-holders accountable.

An unproven new man

[ image: The late King Hassan left two sons, Sidi Mohammed (left) and Moulay Rachid]
The late King Hassan left two sons, Sidi Mohammed (left) and Moulay Rachid
King Mohammed - seen as likeable if somewhat introverted - has yet to show the charisma or authority which his father commanded.

He has revealed his desire for reform, receiving former political prisoners at his court. But for the time being, diplomats are cautioning that it may be necessary to keep a lid on any signs of simmering discontent.

In his public appearances, the Crown Prince concentrated on social issues - distributing meals during Ramadan, and holding court to hundreds of handicapped who - in a kingdom without a welfare state - swarmed to his palace each week for a few dirhams of royal patronage.

Strengthening the monarchy

The late King Hassan had devoted his 38-year reign to reinforcing the institution of the monarchy. He emphasised his lineage to the Prophet Mohammed, to thwart Islamist dissent of the virulent type seen in neighbouring Algeria which has cost 100,000 lives.

And he repeatedly stressed that the Moroccan monarchy was one of the oldest in the world, dating back 1300 years.

And he took his legitimacy from God. He was the country's religious mentor - the Commander of the Faithful and head of the Maliki school of Islam.

Opposition was dismissed as heresy - though he once said that 60 percent of his decisions were wrong. Many Moroccans obeyed his command more out of fear, than of love.

Feudal rule

Only eight miles from Europe, with perhaps the best location of any Third World state, Morocco remains one of the most unequal, if not feudal, societies in the world.
[ image: Morocco remains one of the world's poorest countries]
Morocco remains one of the world's poorest countries
King Hassan alone owned a reported fifth of the country's agricultural land. Under Moroccan law, discussion of the royal purse is illegal, but the country's phosphate mines - the largest exporter in the world - remain a royal or Cherifian company.

Little has trickled down to the masses. Forty-three years after the French withdrew, Morocco_s people remain for the most part illiterate.

Eighty percent of villages are still without electricity or running water, and the UN ranks Morocco 126th on its league of developed states - lower than Iraq after nine years of sanctions.

A third of the country's 29 million population live below the poverty line - many in squalid shanty towns which hug the major cities.

Each year, thousands risk their lives trying to escape across the Straits of Gibraltar into Europe, where the average salary is 20 times that of Morocco.

Friend of the West

[ image: King Hassan also kept contacts with Saddam Hussein]
King Hassan also kept contacts with Saddam Hussein
To relieve social pressures, the palace largely tolerated cultivation of some 70,000 hectares of hashish, kif, making Morocco the world's largest exporter of hash.

For much of his reign, Hassan II suppressed opposition with an iron hand. He looked to the West for backing, and in turn proved a staunch Cold War ally, publicly meeting Shimon Peres at a time when Israeli leaders were Arab pariahs.

And throughout the 1980s, King Hassan received military aid - including a crucial delivery of desert tanks from the United States which helped him gain the upper hand in the 15-year-long war on his southern flank against the Western Saharan independence movement, the Polisario Front.

The dispute drags on - awaiting a promised but elusive UN referendum.

But Hassan II was also aware that continued stability depended not just on foreigners, but on internal reform.

Cautious change

A year ago, he appointed a former left-wing dissident, Abderrahmane Youssifi prime minister - an opposition leader he had once sentenced to death in absentia for his republican leanings.

The king called it alternance and hailed his appointment as proof Morocco was the most democratic state in the Arab world.

But 18 months later, the palace still scripts the prime minister's agendas at cabinet meetings, and King Hassan refused to bow to Youssifi's demands to remove the country's interior minister Driss Basri for almost 20 years - the man who had overseen the detention and torture of scores of Youssifi loyalists.

Aware of the dangers of a social crisis, King Hassan had hoped to bequeath a government to his son which could serve as a basis for a constitutional monarchy.

But Youssifi is himself ailing - a month ago he suffered a brain tumor from which he's yet to fully recover.

And it remains to be seen whether the nascent institutions of a civil society, and traditional monarchy will be able to embark on reform without opening a Pandora's box of dissent.

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