Mohamed VI - the limits of power | DW Documentary
In 2019, Morocco celebrated 20 years since King Mohamed VI’s ascension to the throne. During these two decades, the king has asserted his personality. The successor to two iconic rulers, Mohamed V and Hassan II, the young king has imposed his own style, reforming the country of 36 million residents. Morocco is not yet a real democracy. Morocco is on the road to democracy. Who governs Morocco? The king, of course. It's not like in Spain or Britain.
The king makes all the important decisions of the country. A royal decree is like a roadmap. Mohammed VI rules a country rife with social inequalities. Though he’s willing to implement reforms, he must also reconcile the conflicting interests of tradition and customary law, which poses numerous challenges and considerable risks.
The job of the Moroccan king is a constant balancing act. The risks? Revolution, the fall of the monarchy, losing the throne. Mohammed VI is the 23rd king of the Alawid dynasty, which has ruled Morocco since the 17th century. From the moment he was crowned, he displayed a distinctly modern style.
But despite his moderate personality, one should not forget that the new king was trained to be a ruler from an early age. Following the family tradition, Mohammed VI attended the Quranic school at the Royal Palace ? his classmates were five sons of prestigious families and seven boys from humble backgrounds, selected from the best primary school graduates in the country. The heir to the throne is a shy man, standing in the shadow of his imposing father, Hassan II. Less familiar to the people, the king’s son obediently learned the rules of the monarchy. Mohammed VI was a mystery to many people. He was always in the shadow of his father.
But they accepted him, because Moroccans fully support the monarchy. Every so often, political or economic decisions are challenged, but the monarchy remains at the heart of Moroccan politics. The monarchy means continuity... Mohammed V, Hassan II, Mohamed VI... and on it goes. The Alawid monarchy has been the longest so far, because its rulers know how to respond to the people and be loved by them.
It’s a matter of national pride, of heritage. In a referendum, 99.9% of them would vote to keep it. The death of King Hassan II on July 23, 1999 caused great consternation and grief among the population, in spite of his authoritarian style of leadership. We were born with king Hassan II, we grew up with him... He was a king with a very strong personality and he carried the country through a very difficult and significant period in our history.
He left a strong mark on the country and its people. Everyone dreaded Hassan's death, because everyone wondered what would happen next. On July 30, 1999, King Mohammed VI was crowned.
Mohamed VI ascended the throne... with a clear conscience. He had not imprisoned or tortured anyone. He had not taken a stand on any sensitive issue.
For the Moroccan people, who regard the monarchy as a symbol of the country's stability, he embodied new hope. He was considered the king of the poor from the beginning. A king who was close to the people, who went out on the streets and greeted people, had his picture taken with them... This created this image of a modern king, which I think reflected his personality.
Mohamed VI isn’t a great orator. He prefers direct contact with the people, interaction with the population. This was evident right at the beginning of his reign.
He did not hesitate to approach the people. He conveyed strong messages with his actions instead of his words. It was a process with the country, with all of Morocco: Not just the aristocrats, but people who come from the bottom, the very very bottom.
You could feel he was sincere... and that made people hopeful. All this may seem trivial, as it’s not about big politics or major decisions. But it created a new style, a new way of governing. It was a different kind of monarchy; a monarchy in touch with the times.
The king’s private life also caused some surprise. This was the first time in the country's history that a monarch introduced his wife to his subjects. A real evolution. His marriage to a young middle-class computer engineer is a sign of change, especially for women in a Muslim country where their status is a major political issue. Reform-minded civil society, and feminists in particular, have been depending on the youth and modernity of the new monarch to drive social change.
We Moroccan women felt that our position had greatly improved. Because His Majesty demonstrated real political motivation to empower women. Progressive groups wanted more than just words. They wanted a real legal and social revolution that established equal rights for men and women ? including a change in family law. In 2000, they organized a demonstration in the capital of Rabat.
Family law was deeply discriminatory. It considered women inferior to men, and they were required to obey their husbands because they were financially dependent on them. Minors were married off and men could disown their wives at any time. You saw men and women, old and young, at the protests. For me, this sent an extremely important message because, until then, there had been an assumption that only westernized radical feminists cared about these issues. But after that, it became a general question of democracy and human rights.
That was a turning point. But there are also conservative forces. That same day, a counter-demonstration was organized in Casablanca, the economic metropolis of the country. The vast majority of the participants were Islamist sympathizers. The organization of the march in Casablanca reflected what we are about.
The men walked on one side, the women on the other. The demands were clear: No changes to family law. No to the application of western ideas in Moroccan society. This presented a dilemma for the monarchy.
He was progressive on social issues, but society was still predominantly conservative. As the head of the faithful, the king guarantees the freedom and practice of all religions, but his role as a descendant of the Prophet puts him in a difficult position. The king had a sincere desire for modernity, but at the same time he was also head of the faithful.
In other words, the country’s religious and spiritual leader. The root of Morocco’s power lies in its religious legitimacy. The king is given power because of his status as a descendant of the Prophet. Therefore, he cannot make rules according to his personal preferences or whims. The king’s new, progressive style, had to contend with a Moroccan population that was very concerned with the continuity of the monarchy. The birth of Crown Prince Moulay El-Hassan in the first years of Mohammed VI's reign, helped to reassure his people.
A monarch who has the prospect of bequeathing his throne to his son or even to his great-grandchildren thinks differently. He looks ahead, and the most important thing for him becomes the stability of the institution he represents. The Moroccan king is also the supreme political leader.
He has broad powers, but he also has to manage an elected parliament. Since the late 1990s, political Islam has been on the rise in the region. In the Kingdom of Morocco, the religion-focused Islamist Justice and Development Party presented itself as a solution to social problems and as a champion of righteousness. It succeeded. In the 2002 parliamentary elections, the party achieved a real breakthrough, becoming the country’s third strongest political force.
Despite the rise of the religious Justice and Development Party, Morocco was also plagued by religious fundamentalism. On May 16, 2003, a group of suicide bombers struck fear into the heart of Casablanca. The attacks came as a shock to everyone.
About 45 dead, attacks in five different locations, 12 suicide bombers... This was unprecedented. People had always thought this only happened in other places. We always thought that Morocco had a special religious status, as a moderate, tolerant Islamic country. Then it turned out that young Moroccans were behind the attacks.
One of the reasons why Morocco was targeted was its commitment to stand with the West in the fight against terrorism. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, Mohammed VI has been committed to making his country a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism in the Maghreb. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001 in the USA, the Kingdom of Morocco has unconditionally joined international efforts. Morocco coordinates certain actions and provides allies, like the USA, Europe, Arab and African countries, with the information and data needed to combat terrorism.
In his address to the nation, the King condemned a destructive ideology that threatens his people and his country. After the 2003 attacks, the King made a rather harsh speech clearly announcing the state’s new tough response. This was followed by a series of arrests, the likes of which the country had never seen before. The arrests made after the bloody attacks in Casablanca were perfectly legal. These people were members of terrorist cells that we dismantled.
According to the unofficial figures that were circulating at the time, between 3,000 and 10,000 people were said to have been arrested. Many of them had no connection whatsoever to the attacks. So the aim was not only to weaken Islamism, but also to restore the state’s authority. The King was then in a strong position to pass laws that were close to his heart.
First and foremost, was the reform of family law. But once again, he came up against age-old resistance... The conservatives in Moroccan society were opposed to any change in the moudawana, the family law that governs marriage, succession, divorce, and so on ? anything that affects personal status. Even for the descendant of a centuries-old dynasty and head of the faithful, it is difficult to change anything related to religion. Mohammed VI may be the king, but he is still subject to the will of a large part of the population.
The king had been waiting for a political opportunity, and that was the Casablanca attacks and their repercussions. The attacks had led to a weakening of the Islamist Justice and Development Party. Why? Because it was accused of having laid the ideological ground for terrorism, fanaticism etc. So the PJD kept a low profile during this period. And that was precisely when a breach opened up for this reform to be pushed through. In February 2004, the law reforming the family code was passed in parliament, marking a historic moment for Moroccan women. Until then, women were considered subordinate to men, even in the home.
This change was very important because the greatest inequality existed within the family unit. Suddenly, women were considered jointly responsible for the household. This opened the door for many more achievements. We were told time and again that this would never change, that the family law was sacred and based on religion. It could not be changed. But we got those changes! We have an institution that protects us.
Moroccan women see the king as their ally in asserting their rights. Another great achievement of Mohammed VI is the Truth Commission, founded in 2004 to investigate human rights violations ? especially those committed under the reign of his father, Hassan II. It was an extremely intelligent and wise way to tackle such a sensitive subject. He made it very clear: My father arrested, tortured and imprisoned dozens, hundreds, thousands of opposition members. I, as his son, want to reconcile this part of Morocco’s past and break that taboo and finally put that problem to rest.
In the early 1970s, a period of harsh state oppression began in Morocco. It was a response to two military coup attempts that nearly cost Hassan II his life. For three decades, political opponents and democratic activists were suppressed and subjected to unprecedented levels of violence. They are called the years of lead or the black years. It was the height of systematic oppression; Hassan II did not hold back.
I was detained in one of the so-called centers of the disappeared. This was not an official prison. You were held in one place, but no one knew where that place was. You had no contact with family or lawyers. There were no charges, no trial, absolutely nothing.
And if we were caught trying to communicate with each other, we were severely punished. It was torture. For the victims of Hassan II, the Truth Commission was more than a symbol of recognition of their suffering. It also entitled them to compensation and, above all, an opportunity to tell the people of Morocco about their experience, so that it could never be forgotten. It was very meaningful to have the whole nation listening to the victims and sharing their pain. We succeeded in having that important educational moment. This is unimaginable ? a king making amends for his father's mistakes and wanting the country to move forward.
Modernizing a country also requires a free press, capable of analyzing strengths and weaknesses, and evaluating political action. One of the things that marked the beginning of his rule was the emergence of the independent press. Independent of rulers, of the state.
It was a pretty bold press that stood up for social issues, defending personal freedoms, and the rights of minorities ? LGBT minorities for example ? for women's rights and so on... It broke taboos. The last few years actually showed signs of positive development, announcing some liberalization of the regime, progress in building a rule of law. I was in charge of the politics section, where we also covered the links between money and power and the king's business interests, financial matters and so on... This was completely new for Moroccans. Publications, investigations about the king, about the royal family, and the king's fortune...
The first sensitive dossier the newspaper dealt with was the so-called Alawization of the Moroccan economy ? the links between the royal family and the economy. It was not just about the king's businesses, but about the fact that the royal fortune was very closely linked to the Moroccan economy. Direct links were shown between the royal dynasty, and money. The king's fortune was gradually made public in American business journals. In 2015, Forbes magazine estimated it to be at $5.7 billion. This marked a fivefold increase in less than ten years.
Meanwhile, the Moroccan economy was stagnating. We clearly saw the connections between those who managed the royal fortune and those who were running Morocco's public, financial, economic and administrative institutions. And that the king's banks were flourishing at the expense of the public banks. It was also clear that there were links between royal assets and state subsidies.
The people in power aren’t the only ones getting richer, they are also enriching a political clientele ? creating a base that supports and strengthens its political power. It’s logical both politically and economically. As in neighboring countries, the people rose up against the accumulation of wealth by a minority. The Arab Spring, which shook up the world in December 2010, continued in Morocco. In February 2011, young people throughout the country took to the streets to denounce the kingdom’s rampant corruption.
Clearly, the Arab Spring took everyone by surprise. Nobody saw it coming. The idea that these regimes, especially in the Maghreb, would fall like houses of cards, was unimaginable. For the first time in Morocco's history, thousands took to the streets. Not only in Casablanca and Rabat, but also in Marrakech and Tangier. And they were not concerned with wage increases, material demands or bread supply.
No, they took to the streets to demand rights and freedoms. This had never happened before. This was a thunderclap! The people were just demanding democracy, the end of corruption, the end of conflicts of interest, the end of mixing politics and business.
Corruption in politics and public contracting have always harmed the country. And the cost of it in Morocco is almost as high as the cost incurred each year to finance the general social security of Moroccans. It’s a real scourge. An endemic corruption that, according to the IMF and Transparency International, amounts to at least $2.5 billion each year. The demand wasn't to abolish the monarchy, but to end its absolutist power.
Absolutism means the concentration of power in the hands of one person. That's what the people were protesting against, not the king per se. People protested against certain practices of His Majesty's advisers, against certain government members, against famous businessmen ? people who have enriched themselves by appropriating resources and holding leading industry positions in business thanks to their connections. They were right to protest against this.
When we saw the effigies with an octopus in the middle, surrounded by the king's advisors, security generals and rich friends ? we all knew what that represented. The appropriation of authority and wealth, the incestuous marriage between power and wealth. A king always stakes his head. There have been kings who have simply been erased from history. It’s part of it. It is not like a simple election. Mohamed VI realized he had to appease his people.
On March 9, 2011, he addressed the country in a speech. The king’s response was very wise and intelligent. He was aware of the magnitude of the protests and the problems, and he promised to amend the constitution. He made great revolutionary promises.
He emphasized the importance of a socially, parliamentary, and democratic Moroccan monarchy, where state affairs are run not by the king, but by a responsible government, which must be accountable for its actions. Five months after the protests, the king held a referendum for a new Moroccan constitution ? winning massive popular support. Decidedly more modern than the previous constitution, it opened up a wider range of social and political issues. The preamble of the constitution already mentions the equality of men and women, the fight against any kind of discrimination based on race, religion or gender. Besides the monarchy, there is now popular sovereignty.
The King appoints the head of government from the ranks of the strongest political party: Meaning that the king is irrevocably constrained by elections. As in neighboring countries, political Islam was on the rise in Morocco too. After the adoption of the new constitution, the Justice and Development Party won the first parliamentary elections at the end of November 2011. It was no surprise that political Islam was able to win the elections. Things had gone differently in other countries ? in Tunisia with Ben Ali, in Algeria with the generals and in Egypt ? there, political Islam had lost, leading to civil wars and serious human rights violations.
In our country, a head of government was appointed from their ranks and people had to accept that. Basically, Morocco had to show that it had chosen democracy. The PJD marked a new beginning for many. They assumed the Islamist party was righteous and said to themselves, We've never tried these people before. They are probably not corrupt. They won over many people who were desperate to believe in change. I voted for them, although my political beliefs are usually much further to the left.
But at that time... we wanted anything but the past. Meanwhile, the king continued with major construction projects to renew Morocco's infrastructure that he started at the beginning of his reign: Tangier-Med, the largest port in Africa, motorways, airports, and a renewable energy policy, unique in the Arab world. There has been a lot of progress in the last 20 years. Rural electrification, access to clean drinking water. All of this is undeniable. From the beginning, Mohammed VI has promoted the development of new communication technologies throughout the country.
Morocco has also become a popular tourist destination, with almost 10 million tourists visiting every year. Over the last 20 years, Morocco has invested enormously in infrastructure. In 2006, we had just over 600 kilometers of highways. Today we have over 1,800. We have introduced the high-speed train.
Five or six ports have become more than 40. There are new airports... Honestly, can we afford to prioritize the bullet train, the motorway or the luxury resort while the rural population in the countryside is still missing the very basics? We should question if these decisions are appropriate. Has Mohammed VI forgotten the people, through his pursuit of economic success? The youth are angry; unemployment among 15-24 year olds is at 30%, and scarcity is rampant. The fans in the stadium wanted to send a strong and convincing message: We’re several tens of thousands of people in a stadium, you can't arrest us all. We’ll form a block and show you the strength of unity.
These stadium protests are an expression of the lack of future prospects for young people. Many young people tell me: We don’t know how we can build our future unless we immigrate. This shows that policy has failed on this point.
It is impossible to silence the people's anger. It is like water. If you block it on one side, it runs out the other. It is not possible to close the stadiums, shut down all social networks, and lock up all protesters.
There is only one way: To address the demands of the angry crowd. The situation in Morocco remains fragile ? due to the royal autocracy and the privileges of a minority. The slightest spark revives social tensions. In October 2016, a dramatic incident took place on the edge of the Rif Mountains in the town of Al Hoceima, causing the powder keg to explode...
The scene was filmed on a mobile phone and circulated on social media. It was a shock and quickly developed into the so-called Hirak protests. Hirak means people's movement.
The expectations, hopes, disappointments, anger, all of that was expressed in this movement. The people who took to the streets were ordinary, simple citizens with a lot of demands: More work in the cities, the construction of public hospitals so that people don't have to travel to other cities when they are sick, and establishing a regional university. People in power cracked down in response with repression and imprisonment. Young people ? especially leaders ? whose only crime was to demand basic rights, are still in prison today! After the the brutal suppression of the demonstrations ended, an unimaginably harsh legal process began. People were sentenced to 15, 20 years in prison. Why? They didn't kill or hurt anyone.
Many were eventually pardoned by the king, but not the movement’s leaders. I don't like the way the prisoners of the Hirak are being treated. Unfortunately, I don't know who advises the king, who decides on such anti-democratic, repressive and unjust measures. This would be a chance to close a chapter, which I believe has done great damage to Moroccans and to Morocco's image. In the first 10 years of Mohammed VI's rule, Morocco made impressive steps towards democracy. In the last 10 years, on the other hand, it has kept taking steps backwards.
This also applies to the press, whose freedom is seen as disruptive. Journalists are being targeted by the royal family, who are increasing arrests and convictions. Anyone who expresses an opinion or position at any time that displeases those in power can find themselves caught in a legal wheelhouse, imprisoned, and convicted of the worst offenses against morality or common law.
Those imprisoned are accused of sexually assaulting or raping women, so that they cannot portray themselves as victims of their ideas and political views. Essentially, it's about intimidating tens and hundreds of thousands of other people who might criticize the regime. And so far it has been pretty effective. I too have been pressured, harassed, and threatened.
Some of my relatives were called and told, Now that he lives in the countryside, an accident, an attack, an assault can happen quickly. In September 2021, with the country in economic strain, new parliamentary elections were held. To everyone's amazement, the Justice and Development Party, the strongest political force in the country, suffered a crushing defeat. Within five years, the Islamist party had shrunk from 125 to 17 parliamentary members. Benefiting from the Islamists' electoral debacle are the National Rally of Independents, or NRI, and the Party of Authenticity and Modernity, or PAM, both of which are said to be close to the royal family. With virtually no more political opposition, the Moroccan king is free to forge ahead with the reforms demanded by the people. Will Mohammed VI seize this historic opportunity?