Ten Years of Mohammed VI

The Big Misunderstanding?

After ten years on the throne, King Mohammed VI has a number of political and economic success stories to his name. Yet human rights activists complain that Morocco has increasingly transformed into an absolute monarchy under his rule. Sonja Hegasy weighs up

Mohammed VI, King of Morocco (photo: AP)
From constitutional monarchy to "hyper-monarchy"? Human rights activists have voiced criticism that the reforms for greater democracy and rule of law under Mohammed VI have not gone far enough

​​On 23 July 1999, after the unexpected death of Hassan II, Mohammed VI succeeded his father to the throne. Mohammed VI grew up under the shadow of his authoritarian father, who ruled the Moroccan people as well as his own children with an iron fist, as has been amply documented in the memoirs of various contemporaries. His tyrannical rule was feared throughout the land.

His opponents characterized Hassan II as an "unscrupulous despot" as well as a "political genius." Today, this period of Moroccan history is referred to as the "Years of Lead."

Modernizing slowly, but surely

Ten years ago, his first son, Mohammed VI, was regarded as politically inexperienced. Many observers did not believe that the then 36-year-old was capable of implementing a smooth transition of power. Since then, however, the young monarch has enjoyed a certain measure of success. He is modernizing the country slowly, but surely in important areas.

Hassan II (photo: AP)
Under Morocco's previous king, Hassan II, thousands of opposition activists and political prisoners were victims of major human rights violations

​​This includes a review of the human rights abuses under Hassan II, improving the legal status of women, greater media diversity, although still limited by the imprisonment of journalists, increasing freedom of expression, and fair elections. In the process, Mohammed VI has ensured that the monarchy is never questioned. Despite this, his reforms must be seen as a substantial transformation.

What significant changes have occurred over the past ten years? The recognition in 2000 of the Berber culture as a central element of national identity was a landmark decision, not only for Morocco, but also for the whole of North Africa. For the first time, the word "Amazigh," which is how the non-Arab population call themselves, was heard in a speech from the throne.

Women's rights

For the first time in the history of the monarchy, the wife of the king has assumed a public role. There is not a single photograph of the mother of Mohammed VI, let alone an interview or a public greeting.

The improvement in the legal status of women has likewise been made a priority. The duty of a woman to obey her husband has been abolished, as well as the role of the so-called guardians in arranged marriages. Women are now also free to file for divorce. Men can be compelled to take paternity tests and the minimum marriage age for women has been raised to 18.

In 2004, the king implemented these reforms in the face of resistance from a wide spectrum of conservative forces in society.

The truth and reconciliation commission

Driss Benzekri (photo: DW)
Shedding light on the dark chapter of the "leaden years" from 1956 to 1999: Driss Benzekri chaired the Moroccan truth commission

​​Morocco is also the first and, until now, the only Arab country to establish a royal truth and reconciliation commission (Instance Equité et Réconciliation, IER) to investigate human rights abuses during the administration of the former ruler. Until his death, the chairman of the IER was the renowned human rights activist and former political prisoner Driss Benzekri.

The commission was especially concerned about the Moroccan torture centres, the numerous cases of missing persons, and restitution claims by victims. By 2007, some 10,000 victims from a total of 20,046 that submitted petitions were paid 85 million US dollars in compensation. The king has seen to it, however, that the perpetrators are immune from prosecution.

By contrast, independent human rights organizations and NGOs have held their own hearings in Morocco and have demanded the prosecution of those responsible.

Social unrest and social disparities

Other key elements of democratization, such as the people's control over government and the rule of law, are still not firmly established in Morocco. Even the fight against poverty only takes place sporadically. In 2007, there were protest marches and riots in various parts of the country, which many observers compared to the "bread riots" of 1981 and 1984.

Mohammed VI, King of Morocco (photo: AP)
Following the May 2003 suicide attacks in Casablanca, which killed 45, Mohammed VI had thousands of Islamists arrested

​​Strikes broke out everywhere across the country and, for a time, fresh vegetables were unavailable in the capital as lorry drivers refused to work. In addition, the miners from Jbel Awam went on strike for more than two months over better working conditions.

During the reign of Mohammed VI, there have also been terrorist attacks. On 16 May 2003, fifteen youths blew themselves up in various parts of Casablanca, resulting in the deaths of a further 45 people. All of the terrorists came from slums in and around Casablanca, leading some to question the issue of social disparities under the self-proclaimed "King of the Poor."

Almost a third of the population still live under the poverty line. Only 62 percent of Moroccans have access to medical services. In the countryside, some 85 percent of villages have no electricity, while 70 percent have no clean drinking water.

No good governance

The monarch has almost completely marginalized the role of parliament and political parties. In doing so, he has weakened all attempts at good governance. Local elections in June 2009 were won by the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM), recently founded by Fouad Ali Himma, a close follower of the king. With a turnout of 51 percent, the party won 80 percent of the vote.

Himma belongs to the king's entourage, having grown up and received his education in the palace. At the time, selected children from around the country attended the palace school in order to secure the power base of the crown prince. This highlights another aspect of the king's rule – Mohammed VI has appointed his former classmates to all the most important decision-making positions in Moroccan politics.

Although this has resulted in a new generation taking up the reigns of power, it hasn't automatically guaranteed democratic reforms.

To mark the tenth anniversary of the king's ascension to the throne, the journalist Ali Amar has published a scandal-provoking book entitled "Mohammed VI, le grand malentendu. Dix ans de régne dans l'ombre de Hassan II" (Mohammed VI – The Big Misunderstanding. Ten years in the Shadow of Hassan II).

Ali Amar was one of the co-founders in 1997 of "Le Journal," the country's most important opposition newspaper, and he is one of the most significant supporters of political reform in Morocco. Although Amar sees progress in the rural regions, he has been bitterly disappointed about the lack of civic freedoms.

According to Ali Amar, the country's constitutional monarchy is nothing less than an absolute monarchy, or, to coin a phrase, a "hyper monarchy."

Sonja Hegasy

© Qantara.de 2009

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