Morocco: back to the old ways

This photo, posted on Twitter, is said to show King Mohammed with a young Moroccan immigrant in Paris

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In 2011, amid fears that the Arab Spring could spread to Morocco, King Mohammed VI announced a programme of reforms and ushered in a new constitution that appeared, on the surface, to give more independence to parliament.

Among other things, the government would be "accountable only to parliament", parliament would "have the final say" in ratifying legislation and the prime minister would be "appointed from the party which wins the general elections".

Two years on, though, fears of a popular revolt have subsided and the kingdom is settling back into its old ways where nothing of significance can happen without the king's say-so.

Last month the conservative/secular Istiqlal party decided to pull out of the Islamist-led coalition government. AFP reported:

Overnight the king, who is on a private visit abroad, telephoned Istiqlal party chief Hamid Chabat "to exhort him to keep our ministers in the government," party spokesman Adil Benhamza told AFP.

"We will ask our ministers to carry on with current affairs until the king returns home," he added.

In an article for the New York Times website, Ursula Lindseywrites:

"Meanwhile, the embattled Justice and Development Party — the Islamist party that after years in opposition now leads the coalition government — has become isolated. Abdelilah Benkirane, its leader and the country’s prime minister, addressed a half-empty chamber of deputies last week; the opposition had boycotted the session.

"This is a bizarre deadlock, with all sides waiting for the king to come home and tell them where they stand. And it underscores the political class’s enduring subservience to the crown.

"In Morocco, elected politicians are outranked by the king’s personal advisers; it is they who conduct high-level meetings with foreign dignitaries. The ritual humiliation of the political class reinforces the king’s centrality and saps the public’s confidence in politics, lending credence to the accusation that most politicians are compromised."

In the midst of this political paralysis, King Mohammed – the only person with the power to sort it out – is away in France, where he has been for more than a month. The reason for his absence is unclear, though he has always spent a lot of time abroad.

Meanwhile, the official Moroccan news agency has been doing its best to give the impression he is busy with the affairs of state. The list of recent "royal activities", however, is mostly a collection of routine messages of congratulation or commiseration sent to other heads of state.

The agency also reported "the king's speech to the 7th World Environmental Education Congress" on 9 June – though a closer look at the report shows the speech was read on his behalf by Princess Lalla Hasna.

There are also rumours that the 49-year-old king may be ill and receiving medical treatment in France. Public discussion of the king's health is taboo in Morocco, however. Journalists have previously been jailed for writing about it but some discussion can be found here (in Arabic) on the Lakome news website.

The article, by Mohamed Amaziane, suggests the lack of transparency about the king's absence, and the resulting rumour-mill, is a "totalitarian" tactic intended to distract people from "the major problems of the country".

It also suggests that when the king goes abroad on holiday he should let Moroccans know when he will be back and specify who will be in charge in his absence.

Coincidentally, two other North African heads of state are also in France at the moment. Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has not been seen in public since April 17, is receiving medical treatment in France for what the authorities have now 
finally admitted was a full-scale stroke.

Mauritanian president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is in France for medical treatment too. He was shot and wounded last October – allegedly by accident when his car failed to stop at an army checkpoint.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 12 June 2013