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Sunday, 21 November, 1999, 06:46 GMT
A new royal broom for Morocco
Mohamad VI has turned out to be a reforming king

By Chris West in Marrakesh

They were sprucing up the Medina when we arrived in Fez - no mean task, trying to put some order into the 1,000-year old maze of muddy streets, gloomy alleyways and dark dead ends that make up this untouched corner of Morocco's most ancient imperial city.

Some 200,000 people live in the Medina - almost half the city's population, most of them living and working much as their ancestors did - the dyers of wool up to their elbows in the colour of the day, the leather tanners up to their knees in the most indescribable fluids, the stench of which haunts you long after the image has faded.

Against this medieval backdrop, the police chief in the crisp white suit and the mobile telephone cut an incongruous figure - it was his task to ensure the long awaited royal visit ran smoothly - and things were already fraying at the edges.

Champion of the Poor

Mohammed VI - a king at just 36 years old - enjoys his popular title of Champion of the Poor, but his advance party in Fez was determined not to allow too much reality to intrude.

So as the white suit sweated and gesticulated, shopkeepers scurried up and down ladders, hanging bunting, covering the grimy buildings with the national flag of red and green, raising the newly-commissioned portrait of King Mohammed alongside that of his late father, Hassan.

Groups of men bent low, displaying an unusual interest in the paving stones - close inspection revealed they were picking up cigarette ends - the Moroccan equivalent of painting the Forth Bridge.

A chap shouldering what looked like an insecticide spray ambled past - he was squirting rose water over everything that moved - and everything that didn't. Fragrant, but not enough to mask the earthy, animal smell of the Medina.

Red carpets

Champion of the Poor
Then came the red carpets - not the single red carpet that suffices for royalty in other parts of the world, but thousands of them, hauled out of lorries in great bales, and laid in one continuous stream over the quarter mile or so from the main square to the great gate.

Each one a different hand-crafted design, they covered the potholes, the cracks and the furrows of the street, turning it into a shimmering al fresco sultan's palace in pink, rose, and crimson.

The bands tuned up - or perhaps they were playing. An eerie counterpoint of fanfare and snake-charming music, punctuated by the strident bellow of 10ft long silver trumpets swung dangerously close to the crowd by eager young men.

The city's dignitaries clustered in front of a mosque, looking ill at ease in their ceremonial clothing of white djellabah and red fez - one of them confessed to me later that his yellow babouches - best described as pointed slippers - were killing him.


The police made desultory efforts at controlling the hordes of well-wishers, who were largely content to sit or stand behind the strips of green cloth that served as barriers.

We drank mint tea in the shade of a friendly leather-goods shop, at the entrance to the Medina, within yards of where the king was due to pass.

The excitement of anticipation was infectious - the shop owner Said told us - "The king, he's going to make things happen".

Said and many of the ordinary people of Morocco are looking to Mohammed VI to move them into a new era - there's plenty on his plate - unemployment is estimated between 20% and 40%, four out of 10 children have never attended school, and the majority of the population is unable to read and write.

Hope and support

Mohammed VI intends to do things differently from his late father
The people on the streets of Fez were there as much to express their own hope as their support for the king.

So they waited, and they waited, the policeman in white looked at his watch again and again - the band launched into yet more dervish-like contortions, the dignitaries shuffled painfully, and the rosewater sprayer coaxed the last drops from his reservoir.

The king had been due at three o'clock - it was now 6.30pm, and getting dark.

Suddenly, as if one body, the crowd began to move away - "Not today," said Said, "he'll come tomorrow - insh'Allah". And with a collective shrug of the shoulder, the people were content to leave the royal visit in the hands of destiny.

They were banking on their new leader not to let them down - and the next day, their faith was rewarded.

Trappings of power

The king turned up - a slightly built figure in a red fez and sunglasses, waving to the cheering multitude from the sunroof of a stretched Mercedes limousine.

His arrival exhibited all the trappings of power - the shoals of outriders, armoured saloons the size of articulated lorries, the mean-looking secret service agents and the mobile operating theatre.

That was the style of his father, a man whose 38-year reign made only tentative moves towards modernisation.

In his few months of power, King Mohammed has begun to demonstrate in word and deed that he intends to do things differently - one of his first decrees was to release thousands of prisoners - recently he fired his interior minister - one of his father's closest advisors.

His personal appeal on the streets of Fez was unmistakable, but will Mohammed be able to side step the political establishment he inherited, and bring in a more liberal regime?

My friend Said reckons he will - after all, he says, he is the king.

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See also:
25 Jul 99 |  Africa
New king - new Morocco?
24 Jul 99 |  Africa
Mohammed VI takes Moroccan throne
31 Jul 99 |  Africa
Moroccan king pledges to help poor
09 Nov 99 |  Africa
King sacks Morocco's interior minister
22 Oct 99 |  Africa
Morocco continues liberal moves
02 Oct 99 |  Africa
Dissident returns to Morocco

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