The election of a ‘moderate’ Islamic politician in early May, and the growing influence of Islamically active students in Moroccan universities, have sparked widespread speculation and concern in Western and Arab capitals that one of the most impregnable citadels of secularism in the Muslim world may, after all, be vulnerable to the gathering forces of usuliah (‘Islamic fundamentalism’). But a rapidly unfolding scandal of corruption and feuds in ‘Hasan’s perfumed courts’, as one newspaper report puts it, may wrong-foot the self-styled Commander of the Faithful before the gradually expanding trickle of Islamic revivalism turns into a tide capable of engulfing his kingdom.
The 69-year-old King Hasan, the longest ruling head of State in the turbulent continent, has recently been showing signs of ailing. He even sent his heir, prince Sidi Muhammad, to represent him at the funeral of King Husain of Jordan. Had he felt equal to the task, he would have gone, to meet the US, French and British leaders attending the funeral.
At a time of political and economic difficulties, Hasan hardly needs the damaging effects of a major scandal. Reporting on the scandal, the London-based Sunday Times said on June 20 that “he may be fighting an ever-tougher battle to preserve his near-feudal regime”. And, according to French commentators, the scandal may even have serious ramifications for his successor’s reign.
There are three sources of this threat to the kingdom: Hisham Mandavi, a ‘well-connected former courtier’, a book by a prominent French journalist, and Malika Oufkir, the daughter of a general executed by Hasan for his role in the 1972 coup attempt.
Mandavi, ‘the nephew of one of the king’s female confidantes, who had access to royal cheque-books’, as media reports put it, publicly threatened the king with a scandal in mid-June, publishing an open letter to him as a paid advertisement in the Washington Post. After painting a lurid picture of violence, feuding and intrigue in Hasan’s court he threatened to reveal damaging documents in his possession. Mandavi said he had collected “certain documents and information...which would unfortunately prove damaging to your image around the world.” He threatened to distribute them to members of the American Senate and the British House of Lords.
According to Le Monde, the French daily, Mandavi has precise details of the king’s bank accounts and financial interests, and any revelations could prove extremely damaging. Mandavi was not only a nephew of the king’s ‘female confidante’, but was also a court advisor before fleeing Morocco last August after being charged with the falsification of royal accounts.
But although Mandavi’s threat is the most serious, the two books by the French journalist and Malika Oufkirs are also very damaging, as they depict equally lurid pictures of various aspects of court life. The French book makes allegations of torture and describes the king as the “emir of all the torturers who have operated in the country”. Oufkir’s book, a best-seller called The Prisoner, describes the years of imprisonment and deprivation she and her family suffered after her father’s execution, and the depravity of court life. She should know because she was brought up in the royal household.
Despite the sensational nature of these allegations, however, revealing unimagined levels of corruption, depravity and feuding in Hasan’s court, the Arab media appears to be totally ignoring them. This is no doubt partly because corruption is nothing new in Arab kingdoms, and partly because exposing the depraved nature of Morocco’s ruling family will play into the hands of the ‘Islamic extremists’.
The reports of the threat of usuliah in the Arab and western media indicate that Hasan and his friends - Arab and western - are more worried about the emerging Islamic revivalism in Morocco than about the existence of corruption, depravity and torture.
The same is suggested by last month’s joint Egyptian-Moroccan communiqu on ‘violence and extremism’. This, issued on June 13 following president Mubarak’s visit to Rabat, called for resistance to violence, extremism and efforts to distort the true image of Islam, and urged ‘the reinforcement of cooperation among Muslim states to eradicate the phenomenon, and the explanation of the true nature of Islam as the religion of co-existence and tolerance’.
But although it is clearly ridiculous for oppressive despots like Mubarak and Hasan to urge co-existence and tolerance, the exaggeration of the degree of Islamic revivalism in Morocco in the Arab and western media is equally ridiculous. The victory of a solitary ‘moderate’ Islamic politician in a by-election in May, and the recent gains by the Islamically oriented students in contests for seats on University student bodies, are clearly seen as a serious threat.
The Saudi-owned Al-Wasat weekly splashed its front cover on June 14 with the banner headline: ‘Morocco Islamists Invade Universities’. Inside, a four-page report darkly warned, among other things, of the web-like networks of Islamic activists in popular quarters of Moroccan cities. The students belong to the banned movement Adl wal Ihsan (Justice and Charity) led by Shaikh Adb al-Salam Yasin who is under house arrest since comparing king Hasan to the late, unlamented Shah of Iran. Adl wal Ihsan is the largest Islamic group in the country. Last December it demonstrated its following by calling 10,000 followers onto the streets of Rabat in defiance of an official ban on marching past parliament.
Al-Wasat also described the election of Abdullah bin Kiran in early May and his participation in the work of parliamentary committees, as a sea-change. Ben Kirane, described by the Economist of London on May 8, after the election as ‘offering a more amenable face of political Islam’, belongs to the Adala wa Tanmia (Justice and Development) party, a ‘moderate’ Islamic body. He was elected in a bye-election in Sale, the very city where Sheikh Yasin is held under house arrest. The Economist report even referred to speculation that Ben Kirane was helped by the government to win the by-election to take away support from Adl wal Ihsan.
But the victory of even a ‘moderate’ Islamic politician, who is willing to operate within the existing political system, is apparently too much for the magazine. It warned its readers that Bin Kiran’s party was after all an ‘Islamist movement’, and - perhaps even more seriously for a western audience - that ‘the sight of an unveiled woman is becoming a rarity’ in Morocco.
Muslimedia: July 1-15, 1999