Tue, 08 Feb 2000

Moroccan king face Islamist challenge

By Ali Bouzerda

RABAT (Reuters): In a brief six months since coming to the Moroccan throne, King Mohammed has won widespread popularity with actions undreamt of under his autocratic father.

But analysts and diplomats say the 36-year-old monarch may face a challenge from radical Islamists unless he can deliver on government promises on long-awaited social and economic reforms.

The new monarch, 36, was enthroned last July after his father, King Hassan, died of a heart attack after a 38-year authoritarian rule.

"King Mohammed has so far gained the hearts of the poor and a large measure of support from Morocco's political class due to his courageous decisions," said a veteran European diplomat.

"But he could well face increasing protests from radical Islamists, unless social and economic reforms show concrete results."

Since his accession to the four-century-old Alawite throne, the king has released some 10,000 prisoners, allowed the return to Morocco of his father's foe, the Marxist-Leninist Abraham Serfaty, and the family of opponent Mehdi Ben Barka, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances in France in 1965.

He has also promised to compensate dozens of political activists and their relatives, who were victims of repression and forced disappearance since the 1960s.

For many ordinary Moroccans, and especially the young, King Mohammed has given hope after years of officials' empty words. And in a move vastly popular with all ages and classes, he has sacked the interior minister, who appeared unshakeable while King Hassan reigned.

"Since his enthronement, the king has managed to make not a single mistake, including firing (interior minister) Driss Basri in November, " said Mohamed Ziyane, a former human rights minister and editor of al-Hayat al-Yaoumiya weekly.

"Now, people are expecting him to move to end the privileges and tax exoneration which benefit a minority of the wealthy."

Basri, who held his portfolio for 25 years and directly controlled some 60 governors in Morocco's 16 regions, was seen as a real obstacle to political and administrative reforms.

The administration employs 750,000 civil servants and takes up 10 percent of total gross domestic product of US$36 billion.

Ziyane said state receipts were "too poor" to truly reflect the activity of productive sectors, due to tax breaks in fishing, agriculture, handicraft, tourism and exporting.

Ending this system would help the government to allocate more funds to sectors generating jobs, he said.

"We want real results from the reforms promised by Prime Minister (Abderrahmane El) Youssoufi, we want jobs not sweet words," a spokesman for the Graduate Jobless Association told the Casablanca-based 2M television in a live talk show.

"We don't trust politicians any more, we trust only His Majesty King Mohammed to solve our problems."

Unemployment is estimated at 23 percent of the 10-million workforce and some 300,000 unemployed jobless have held street demonstrations and hunger strikes to press for jobs.

Appointed in March 1998, the cabinet of Socialist Prime Minister Youssoufi has been harshly criticized by Islamists who say it has failed to tackle unemployment and poverty.

"These are fertile areas where Muslim fundamentalists were active and can mobilize supporters. But the king has already made a bold move on them, allocating billions of dirhams (millions of dollars) to erase poverty and create jobs," said Mohamed Tozy, analyst and expert on political Islam in Morocco.

"Now radical Islamists are trying to make more extravagant promises to catch attention," Tozy said, referring to a recent letter about rumored wealth abroad of the late King Hassan.

Sheikh Abdassalam Yassine, spiritual leader of the banned al- Adl Wal Ihsane (Justice and Charity) group, called in the letter to King Mohammed for the return of billion of dollars which Islamists presume King Hassan had stashed abroad.

Yassine, who leads the main opposition Islamist movement and has been under house arrest since 1989, said it should be brought back to repay Morocco's $18 billion foreign debt and help the poor.

Tozy said Yassine was using rumors of King Hassan's wealth to mobilize his group's members for his own political survival.

Yassine does not oppose the monarchy nor its claim of descent from the Prophet Mohammad, which provided King Hassan with a powerful shield against any religious attacks.

The new king also inherited the title of Amir al-Mumineen (Commander of the Faithful), which Abdelillah Benkirane, a moderate Islamic MP, said gives the monarchy "an historical Islamic legitimacy in Morocco".

Ahmed El Kohen, sociologist and university professor, said the king's powers would not be affected by Yassine's challenge but that fast economic changes were indeed needed.

"Morocco has a stable political system, a strong monarchy and this a fact...But the new king has to push more for an open economic environment to attract foreign investment and not rely mainly on agriculture as the economy's locomotive," he said.

"To prevent poor Moroccans being attracted by the sirens of the Islamists' speech, the government should help the king in implementing reforms and speeding change to ensure a sustainable growth of at least 6 percent per year," El Kohen added.