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Morocco’s Mohammed VI: A King for All Seasons

Will Morocco’s king be able to re-establish calm amid the fiercest protests since the Arab Spring?

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King Mohammed VI. Photo SIPA Press

King Mohammed VI of Morocco is facing widespread protests in the Rif region, an issue he addressed implicitly and explicitly in a televised speech on 30 July 2017 to mark 18 years on the throne.

The Rif, a predominantly Amazigh (Berber) region, has been gripped by protests since last October 2016, after a fishmonger was crushed to death in a rubbish truck as he tried to retrieve a swordfish confiscated for being caught out of season. Demands for justice for the fishmonger later grew into social movement that is calling for jobs, development and an end to corruption.

In his speech, the king slammed politicians and officials for “mismanaging the interests of the citizens” by not addressing their problems. However, he made clear that he was not criticizing the security forces, which had “assumed their responsibilities with courage, patience, restraint and demonstrated great respect for the law”. He went on to pardon more than a thousand prisoners, including a number who had been arrested for taking part in the Rif protests. Whether this will put an end to the unrest remains to be seen.

Mohammed VI is the 23rd king of the Alaouite dynasty, whose reign goes back to the mid-17th century. The eldest son of the late King Hassan II, Mohammed VI was born on 21 August 1963 in the capital Rabat.

He came to the throne on 30 July 1999. His coronation formalized his position as amir al-mouminine (‘commander of the faithful’), making him the highest political and religious authority in Morocco. He marked the occasion by leading Friday prayers and delivering a speech, which he has continued to do annually on what has become Throne Day.

The king’s education and academic training prepared him for the tasks he was to assume. When he was four, his father enrolled him at the palace’s Koranic school. He received his primary and secondary education at the Royal Palace College, before entering the Mohammed V University in Rabat. There he received a bachelor’s degree in law in 1985 and, three years later, a master’s degree in public law. He then entered the University of Nice in France, where he received a doctorate in law in 1993. His doctoral thesis dealt with relations between the Arab Maghreb Union and the European Economic Community.

Mohammed VI’s role has several aspects: religious, social, political/diplomatic, economic and psychological.

Religiously, he is facilitating sensitive reform. For example, after the Casablanca terrorist attack on 16 May 2003, he actively promoted a moderate brand of Sufi Islam and appointed Ahmed Toufiq, a respected historian and novelist and an advocate of interfaith dialogue, as minister of Islamic affairs. In 2004, he announced substantial reforms to the Family Law, granting unprecedented rights to women, such as the right to divorce and custody. In 2006, he introduced the training of murshidats, female religious guides. In 2008, he ratified the Nationality Code, which gave women the right to pass on their nationality to their children. In 2011, he amended the constitution, giving greater power to elected politicians, notably the prime minister who had previously been appointed, although leaving the king with a firm grip on security, the army and religious matters. These and other reforms spared Morocco the mass uprisings of the Arab Spring, although scattered protests were common.

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King Mohammed VI waves a Moroccan flag. Photo Flickr

Socially, the king is known for advancing efforts to help the poor, which has greatly enhanced his popularity. After only three months on the throne, the 36-year-old emerged as a strong promoter of social change and modernization in a region that was experiencing a generational shift in monarchies from Morocco to Jordan. This was underlined by his televised wedding to Princess Lalla Salma on 21 March 2002. Never before had the royal family permitted such extensive media coverage of a private event. Under  Hassan II, who died two years earlier, rigid control of the media and an unforgiving security service had ensured the family’s privacy inside Morocco. Few people today can recall seeing a picture of Mohammed VI’s mother, nor was the public widely aware of her name (or that of Hassan’s other wife).

Politically, in addition to the issue of Western Sahara, a disputed territory of 266,000km² in north-west Africa, the king has had to address three main social movements: the Islamist movement, the Amazigh movement and the women’s movement. Under mounting pressure to tackle these movements, the king announced he wanted to promote ”a new concept of authority”. He has done this with calls to improve the lot of ordinary Moroccans, many of whom live in poverty.

Diplomatically, in the post-Arab Spring turmoil, Mohammed VI started to seek opportunities outside the region. He forged strong ties with Africa by rejoining the African Union on 31 January 2017, after an absence of more than 30 years. “It is time to return home,” he said of Morocco’s renewed membership.

Economically, he has given Morocco’s development special attention. His most notable achievement in this regard is the National Initiative of Human Development (INDH), which allowed thousands of Moroccan men and women from the poorer strata of society to secure a regular income.

Psychologically, the king’s role as a stabilizing force in Morocco and further afield is widely recognized. This function is often seen as a unifying factor because it precludes the multiplicity of religious voices and extremism. For example, numerous sensitive topics like contraception, abortion and women’s religious authority have been addressed within a moderate Islam framework, thereby avoiding social unrest.

In spite of this, the king, and Morocco as a whole, face important challenges, particularly the status of Western Sahara, widespread poverty and social inequalities. Youth unemployment remains above 20 per cent and corruption, according to US embassy cables released by WikiLeaks.