Fit for a King, but How About the European Union?

Daniel Ben Simon
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Daniel Ben Simon

MARRAKECH - Many in Morocco wonder about the source of the personality cult that has developed around the king. There are those who confidently trace its roots to two attempted coups in the early 1970s. In the first, in the summer of 1971, King Hassan II faced down his would-be executioner in the restroom.

Suddenly, at a given signal, officers' school cadets opened fire on the hundreds of guests at the king's birthday banquet ambassadors, businessmen, army officers, political leaders from all over the world who had gathered in the palace at Sikharat, near the capital of Rabat.

Eyewitnesses related that people fell to the ground and bodies piled up on top of each other. Pools of blood filled the main tent where the great banquet was taking place. In the pandemonium, the king found himself helpless. The man who had never in his life known a moment of solitude fled toward the restroom.

One of the rebel officers was waiting for that moment. He had been chosen to do the deed, to go down in history as the man who put a bullet in the king's head. In the restroom, the king heard the footsteps of his intended executioner. The door opened. They looked at each other. The officer aimed his weapon at the king's head and was about to squeeze the trigger. He had prepared for this moment for months. From among the hundreds of rebels, he had been selected for this mission because of his courage and cool head. General Muhammed Medbouh, the leader of the coup, had assigned him the task.

Now the officer faced his king in the one room that even kings enter without an entourage. But the king managed to regain his composure and commanded the officer to kneel. "I am your king," he said, and held out his hand to be kissed. Later, the king would tell his biographer, the French journalist Eric Laurent, that he did not know whether the officer would obey his command.

But that is exactly what happened. The officer went down on his knees and kissed the king's hand. "Nam, ya sidi!" Yes, my lord he said. In that one dramatic moment, the coup was foiled. Hundreds of officers were executed, and others sent to the labor camp at Tazmamart, where they lived out their days in the most appalling conditions. "Do you know why he didn't shoot me?" the king asked his biographer. "Because I have the barakah, the good fortune given by Allah and the Prophet Mohammed to me and my family."

After his escape, the king told his people in a television broadcast that it was divine barakah that had saved his life. The Moroccans, who are known for their deep faith, were finally convinced that God's blessing rested on the king and his family.

Like Big Brother Against this background, one can perhaps understand the personality cult that developed around the Moroccan king, a cult that reached unprecedented proportions with his son and heir, Mohammed VI. How amazing it is that the new king, distinguished by his deeply introspective character, should now be idolized like a rock star. Alongside his father, he never opened his mouth: He was always emotionless and obedient. The Moroccans did not hear his voice until a short time before the death of his father, in July 1999.

Even after his coronation, he kept a low profile. He had a fear of crowds and stages, and had difficulty reading his speeches. He told military men and politicians that he intended to abolish the custom of kissing his hand, and the ostentatious receptions that once took place in dozens of palaces throughout the country. In pursuit of honor, his father would give orders to have hundreds of thousands of people line the sides of the road to cheer him as he came by. The Moroccans thought that with his death, the personality cult surrounding the king would dissipate, but it has only grown stronger. They feared Hassan II; they love Mohammed VI. The personality cult has remained; only the force behind it has changed.

A well-known Moroccan psychiatrist related that a woman in her 30s recently came to see him. She was consumed with unrequited love for a man. "I told her that she should forget him, get him out of her system, because he is not worthy of her love," he recalled. "She said that she was in love to the point of madness with King Mohammed VI." The psychiatrist told one of the newspapers that you could not insist that a woman like that shake off her incomprehensible love, because he is everywhere in every store, at the entrance to every building, on every billboard, on every street, in every house.

Like Big Brother, he is never out of sight. His likeness appears on coins and bills. His picture is on the front pages of every newspaper. He is at the beginning of every newscast on television and radio. Even while driving on highways, you will see written on the hills or mountainsides: "Allah, al-Watan, al-Malik" (God, Homeland, King).

And if that is not enough, next month Morocco marks the annual coronation holiday with a grand event, full of marches and celebrations, designed to exalt the king's standing even further. In preparation for the event, huge colored posters of Mohammed VI float over city streets, much like the megalomaniacal posters on Broadway.

Is this not excessive? Will this obsequiousness not undermine Morocco's efforts to be accepted into the European Union? In the last few years, EU leaders have intimated to Morocco that if it continues with its accelerated modernization and entrenchment of European values, it could expect to be admitted to the prestigious club.

It is true that the days of Hassan II's iron-fist policy toward his political opponents are gone. Morocco has donned liberal garb, but it remains mired in a personality cult that is unbecoming a country that aspires to be modern and progressive. Now the debate revolves around the custom of hand-kissing, and the need to do away with it. It is unclear who wants that more: the king who extends his hand to his subjects, or his subjects who seize the outstretched hand. Recently, there have been more and more examples of senior officials who have plucked up enough courage to shake the king's hand, rather than bending over to kiss it. Does this herald a revolution in kissing policy? Very doubtful.

Uprooting extremism In even the most remote corners of Morocco, the visitor will find the means to connect to the outside world. In the Atlas Mountains, in the Sahara, in Berber towns and in villages built into steep mountainsides, there are stores and cafes that offer Internet access.

Everything is conducted in French and Arabic. In Berber villages in the south of the country, French is the official second language, after Arabic. Children study French in first grade, and later French history, literature and poetry. In the past, the school curriculum was influenced by the presence of French forces in Morocco; now it is by choice, out of admiration for France and French culture.

Morocco is a moderate Muslim country, but when it comes to Ramadan, it demonstrates exceptional piety. Everybody fasts. Surveys show that 99 percent of all its citizens observe Ramadan. This year it fell in the middle of the scorching summer, which made fasting from sunrise to sunset very difficult. For this reason, of all the months of the year, the month of Ramadan is considered a write-off, economically. Everything stops, and even the parliament takes a recess.

Ramadan is the time of year for the rich to show compassion for the hungry and the poor. It is a well-known religious precept that during this month the haves are obliged to share with the have-nots. In the past, Islamic organizations exploited the opportunity to reach out to needy population groups. Now the state has wrenched the task away from them and taken it upon itself. In cities and towns across the nation, food centers have opened to provide meals for breaking the fast. It is done to feed the hungry, yes, but also to dry out the swamp that begets Islamic terrorists. Research has shown that the risk of putting on weight is higher during the month of Ramadan. It transpires that in order to prepare themselves for a day of fasting, people spend the night eating. They fast all right, but they also eat more.

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