Despite Protests, Morocco's King Retains Control

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Mohammed VI, the King of Morocco, is different from his Arab counterparts AFP-Getty Images

As Arab rulers go, Mohammed VI, the 48-year-old king of Morocco, seems at times like the region’s most reluctant autocrat. When inheriting power from his repressive father 12 years ago, he refused to move to the royal palace, preferring his own private home. In the first years of his reign, he fired the regime’s most hated government figures and released high-profile dissidents. So when the king promised a new constitution earlier this year in response to protests, many Moroccans believed he might actually deliver what demonstrators were demanding: a real parliamentary democracy with a figurehead monarch, as in Spain or the U.K. “It felt like things were shifting,” says Ali Amar, a journalist and the author of an unsanctioned biography of Mohammed VI.

But appearances in the royal palace can be deceiving, as Moroccans told me repeatedly during a visit to the country recently. The new constitution Mohammed unveiled earlier this summer fell short of expectations. To critics, it mostly seemed to reinforce what Moroccans call the makhzen system of royal privilege—leaving the king firmly in control.

Seven months after Arabs across the region began rising up against their leaders, the regimes touched by the upheaval can be divided into two groups: those that crumbled quickly (Tunisia, Egypt) and those still fighting back (Libya, Yemen, Syria). Morocco represents a third category, a regime that promised to embrace the demands of the protesters, bought time by forming a committee, and ultimately withheld real democracy. For now, at least, the strategy is working. The protests across the country have mostly subsided, and the king’s new constitution won huge support in a national referendum last month. “In terms of short-term maneuvering, it was very clever,” says Karim Tazi, a businessman and outspoken critic of the king.

At the center of it all is a figure who remains largely an enigma at home and abroad, who gives almost no interviews (he turned down Newsweek’s repeated requests), and whose lifestyle, as depicted in the pages of Morocco’s small but feisty independent press, seems like an imperial rendering of the American television show Entourage. Mohammed surrounds himself with former high-school buddies, throws million-dollar parties for American celebrities such as Sean Combs, and travels with his personal bed in tow. He also owns much of Morocco’s economy, either outright or through holding companies. A 2007 study by Forbes listed him as the world’s seventh-wealthiest monarch, with an estimated fortune of $2 billion. By comparison, Queen Elizabeth II is worth $600 million.

And yet Mohammed is unquestionably different from his Arab counterparts. For one thing, he is genuinely popular in Morocco, where the monarchy dates back 400 years and is respected for, among other things, having negotiated the country’s independence from France. He’s also less repressive than most Arab leaders. In a region of police states, his regime prefers co-opting opponents to jailing them. Even his excessive wealth seems to generate less resentment than other kleptocracies, though poverty and unemployment run high. “He’s very close to his people,” says Andre Azoulay, a top adviser to the king whom I met one morning at a hotel in Rabat. “He’s not a clone of his father. He’s doing very well.”

In many ways, Mohammed VI is in fact the opposite of his father. Slim, eloquent, and ruthless, Hassan II ruled Morocco for nearly four decades, jailing thousands and surviving both coups and assassination attempts. To his countrymen, Hassan was the towering figure who stabilized the country—often brutally—after Morocco won its freedom from France. To Mohammed, he was an abusive son of a bitch, Amar the biographer told me during a recent walk through the Rabat royal palace, where the prince was raised. When the son acted out, the king had him beaten in front of his harem at the palace, a walled compound with arched gateways and rows of bronze cannons. When, as a teenager, he crashed one of his father’s cars, Hassan threw him in the royal jail for 40 days.

Malika Oufkir witnessed the relationship between the father and his young son up close. The daughter of a top palace official, Oufkir lived in the Rabat palace until Mohammed turned 7. She says Hassan’s harsh discipline made the young prince turn inward. “He was this very sweet, very shy little boy,” Oufkir told me. “His father was an extrovert, but he grew up to be just the opposite.” And she personally experienced Hassan’s brutality. Oufkir’s father was a general in Morocco and later served as the interior minister, a position that made him the second-most-powerful man in the country. When he organized a coup in 1972—ordering military jets to strafe the king’s plane on its return from Paris to Rabat—Hassan had him executed. The king then jailed the 19-year-old Oufkir, her mother, and her five younger siblings in secret prisons for more than 15 years. In her memoir, Oufkir described near starvation, beatings, and a suicide attempt. “We had no part in the coup, we were just kids,” she says. “The king was extremely vengeful.”

He was also extremely controlling. Hassan handpicked Mohammed’s classmates, choosing the smartest and most well connected in the country, plucking them from their families to live in the palace. The separation, Amar told me, helped create a lifelong fealty to the future king. It was also a way of consolidating the crown’s alliances with disparate clans and regions.

For the prince, by now rebellious against his father and increasingly spiteful, this band of orphans became his crew. Some of them followed him to France where, in his 20s, Mohammed was a regular at the nightclubs. “He was quiet, but he could [also] be very witty, very engaging,” one friend who regularly attended parties with the prince told me on condition of anonymity. “He would tell these interesting stories about his life as a child, about meeting the Kennedys and attending de Gaulle’s funeral.” When Mohammed VI ascended to the throne in 1999, the friends came along.

The succession raised expectations. As king, Mohammed seemed to distance himself from his father’s policies. He talked about promoting democracy and made some changes, including an unprecedented expansion of women’s rights. But the new spirit was quickly eclipsed by an old institution. “At some point, the king just shrank back into the makhzen system,” says Tazi, the businessman, who likens the layers of advisers, friends, and assorted opportunists around the king to a large octopus with enough tentacles to reach into the pockets of all Moroccans. “When King Hassan died, the octopus lost its head, because the new king refused to join the body. The system was dying,” he says. “And then setbacks happened and the body took back its head and the two merged very harmoniously.”

Mohammed is neither a gifted orator nor a political strategist, two areas in which his father excelled. Instead, he’s focused on expanding the crown’s investments and his own personal wealth. Though precise figures are hard to come by, his holding companies are known to have large stakes in nearly every sector of the Moroccan economy from the food and banking industries to real estate, mining, and manufacturing, according to analysts who study Morocco’s financial structures. As the portfolios have expanded, so have the allegations of corruption.

An American diplomat in Casablanca wrote in a cable to the State Department in 2009 about the “appalling greed” of those close to Mohammed. Made public by WikiLeaks last year, the cable said the royal family used state institutions to “coerce and solicit” bribes. When I visited Tazi at the office of his mattress company in Casablanca, he told me he regularly pays bribes just to get his merchandise delivered to customers around the county. “It’s a multimillion-dollar business taking place every day, and the profits trickle up to the top of the ladder.”

People close to the king say his investments help the country by conveying confidence in the Moroccan economy. That may well be true. Foreign investment is up in Morocco, and the country’s GDP growth has averaged 5 percent since Mohammed was enthroned, according to Communications Minister Khalid Naciri, who acts as the Moroccan government’s spokesman. “Morocco remains a country of great political and economic openness,” he wrote me in an email.

But economic growth can sometimes hide the real story. In a report issued this year, Transparency International ranked Morocco 85 on its corruption scale, with higher numbers indicating greater corruption. By comparison, it listed Tunisia at 59. While some Moroccans have certainly benefited from the growth spurts, the rising disparity between rich and poor has left many more people frustrated. “If only a few people are better off as a result of economic growth, then strong GDP figures don’t make a country stable,” says Shadi Hamid, a Mideast expert with the Brookings Institution. “On the contrary, they can actually contribute to a revolutionary situation.”

Among Moroccan businessmen, the king’s direct involvement in the economy is no secret. (One of his holding companies is called Siger—an inversion of the Latin word regis, meaning “of the king.”) Many prefer to avoid investing in areas where the royal palace already has holdings, fearing the king’s power and influence would put them at a disadvantage. As a result, companies owned by the crown are often monopolies or near monopolies, says Aboubakr Jamai, who published the weekly Le Journal Hebdomadaire until it folded last year. “So even if you set aside the political aspect, the moral aspect, the ethical aspect, it’s not optimal economically,” he says. (Naciri responded that “the new constitution has also provided serious mechanisms to protect free competition and private initiatives.”)

The first big demonstrations in Morocco occurred on Feb. 20, five weeks after Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia and just nine days after Egyptians ousted Hosni Mubarak—a particularly euphoric moment that preceded fighting in Syria and Libya. Several Moroccan protesters told me they felt a little embarrassed about coming late to the party. Though firmly rooted in the Arab world, many Moroccans pride themselves on the fact that their country is more open and liberal than most others in the region. On more than one occasion while there, I heard people describe the Straits of Gibraltar, which separate Morocco from Spain, as a geographical accident. That other Arab countries might embrace a European-style democracy before Morocco seemed like an affront to many protesters.

In his speech just two and a half weeks after that first protest, Mohammed promised a new constitution that would guarantee “good governance, human rights, and the protection of liberties.” Members of the drafting committee he appointed took a full three months to formulate the document. By the time it was ready, Moroccans could see the results of other protests in the region: stalled revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and bloody wars of attrition elsewhere. On July 1, Mohammed’s revised constitution sailed through a referendum vote. In an email, Naciri described the reallocation of powers in the constitution as “very deep and serious.” But an issue of the privately owned magazine TelQuel summed it up with this cover line: “New constitution—more king than ever.”

Whether the vote marks the end of the revolutionary spasm in Morocco is now hotly debated. Tahar Ben Jelloun, the country’s most celebrated poet and writer, believes the protests have left an indelible mark on Morocco. He also thinks the king is committed to changing the system. “People are impatient. It’s normal they would want the kind of reforms that will rapidly change their lives. But democracy is a culture that needs time and education.” But Hamid, the Brookings analyst, disagrees. “I’m not going to deny there are reforms, but that’s the strategy these regimes use,” he told me. “They never end up redistributing power away from the king.”

On one of my last days in Morocco, Amar drove me to a parking lot in downtown Rabat to see Mohammed’s car collection. Behind the eucalyptus trees, I glimpsed a three-story building of marble and glass where hundreds of cars were kept, including Mohammed’s favored Ferrari and Aston Martin. When the Aston Martin needed servicing two years ago, Amar told me, Mohammed ordered the air force to fly it to London in a cargo plane, though there are plenty of able mechanics in his own country. We lingered for a few moments until a policeman emerged from a guard booth and motioned for us to leave. The details of Mohammed’s wealth are well covered in Amar’s book, a fact that led the regime to ban it. Yet incredibly, it has sold 30,000 copies in France, which has a large Moroccan population. Whenever Amar’s abroad, he lines his suitcase with copies and brings them back to Morocco, in a private battle against the government censor. A few months ago, a customs agent caught sight of the books in a scanner. But the punishment he imposed was reasonable—and perhaps telling: all he asked for was a copy of the book.

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