The recent parliamentary report on corruption under the late King Hassan II, the appointment of a judicial commission to examine it, and the limited political reforms introduced since his death in 1999 have given rise to widespread speculation that the new king, Muhammad V, is determined to distance himself from his father’s murky legacy. He may indeed be planning to introduce a constitutional monarchy in a country hitherto ruled by a royal iron grip, as some incurable optimists speculate. But the current crackdown by the armed forces on Islamic and human rights activists, and the banning of newspapers that criticise the late king or the present government, tend to confirm the historical lesson that absolute monarchs do not reform themselves out of absolute power if they can possibly help it.
Although Morocco’s 1992 constitution provided for the establishment of parliamentary commissions to enquire into allegations of malpractice, it was a criminal offence in the past to question the financial practice of palace officials, and no parliamentary or judicial investigation into sleaze was ever ordered. Now, under king Muhammad V, who succeeded his father in 1999, a parliamentary commission has completed an inquiry into the affairs of a state-owned bank managed by officials very close to Hassan, and issued a damning report that parliament has voted to be made public.
The report accuses the management of Credit Immobilier and Hotelier, a real estate bank, of responsibility for the diversion of more than $1 billion of state funds in one decade to friends of the political establishment. At the same time it accuses the management of “pathological arrogance and paternalism” towards less exalted customers. And Abdul-Rahman Youssouffi, the Moroccan prime minister, has set up a judicial investigation into the diversion of state funds. Both the scale of the investigation and the establishment of a judicial commission as follow-up are unprecedented in Morocco’s history.
King Muhammad V is also being given credit for introducing changes in other areas of public life, although originally it was his father who had initiated the reforms. Hassan introduced a set of changes in the 1990s, including the release of all political prisoners and the return of leading political refugees to the country. But his son immediately improved upon those reforms. For instance, on becoming king, he dismissed his father’s long-serving interior minister, Driss Basri, whose ruthlessness had underpinned Hassan’s repressive rule. He also approved a scheme of compensation worth millions of dollars for those political prisoners released as a result of his father’s reforms. And he devolved day-to-day decision-making to his government.
However, not only have the new reforms been found wanting on being tested, but their mere introduction has led to persistent demands for more far-reaching changes and greater openness. It soon became clear that the new freedoms of expression did not apply to Islamic activists, human-rights groups staging public rallies —which were quickly suppressed—or to newspapers that published information considered to be embarrassing to prime minister Youssoufi, or offensive to the memory of the late King Hassan. Periodicals that published such information were swiftly banned.
In November, for instance, the minister of information banned an Egyptian monthly, Kutub wa Wujuhad Nathar (‘books and points of view’) after it published an article by Muhammad H. Haykal, a well-known Egyptian writer, on king Hassan’s relations with Mossad, Israel’s secret intelligence agency. The December issue, which carries articles by Haykal on Mossad that do not mention the late king at all, is free to circulate in Morocco. More recently, the minister also banned a French weekly for publishing articles by Moroccan journalists which described the regime as “fascist”.
In December, the prime minister ordered the closure of three weekly newspapers for publishing details of a letter in which his party, the USFP (Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires), was implicated in a plot to assassinate Hassan in the 1970s.
Protesters who had staged rallies apparently encouraged by the new king also quickly found out that the new reforms could not be relied upon for protection against state repression. On UN Human Rights Day, for example, the king gave a televised address pledging to improve the country’s dismal record. But only four hours later his security forces banned all rallies to mark the occasion, and attacked anyone not complying with their order. In Rabat, the capital, policemen broke up a sit-in staged by human rights activists who had called for an investigation into the disappearances of political prisoners in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Those who dared to name generals as responsible for the disappearances were beaten up.
The two generals named are Hosni Benslimane, the head of the gendarmerie, and Hamid Laanigri, the chief of the DST (intelligence service). Both men were members of a small group close to the late king and still hold office under his son. In fact they now enjoy greater powers than they did under Hassan, who never allowed the generals to exercise control of both foreign and internal intelligence. Now the generals have control of both and appear to have usurped the day-to-day powers devolved by Muhammad V to the government. These powers are used to send military police and tanks to crush peaceful protests by Islamic activists and other demonstrators.
It is now clear that no investigation is likely into violations of human rights or financial malpractice in the past or present if they risk exposing the inner circle of Morocco’s ruling establishment. As always, powerful individuals are to remain unaccountable.