Morocco's King Mohammed VI: between tradition and modernity

AFP , Wednesday 29 Jun 2011

After nearly 12 years as king, Mohammed VI has brought modernity to his north African country but some believe the new roads and high-speed trains are not pulling Morocco fast enough into the 21st century

Thousands of protesters shout anti-government slogans during a rally organized by the 20th February, the Moroccan Arab Spring movement against a proposed new constitution in Casablanca, Morocco, Sunday, banner reads "Boycott the constitution imposed," at right "Free health" (AP).

When King Mohammed VI took the throne on July 23, 1999 at the age of 35, he promised to pursue the open politics initiated at the end of his father Hassan II's reign, which was tainted by a legacy of repression.

On Friday voters will cast ballots in a referendum on curbing his near absolute hold on power -- Mohammed VI's response after he faced with protests modelled on the Arab Spring uprisings that ousted long-serving leaders in Tunisia and Egypt.

During his reign he has projected the image of a contemporary monarch, with pop star friends, sports cars and ski holidays in the French Alps.

In 2002 he broke with tradition and married a 24-year-old commoner, computer engineer Lalla Salma Bennani, reinforcing the image of a modern Morocco on the move.
Over the past decade, Morocco has built an infrastructure that is the envy of its Maghreb neighbours.

Last year it obtained "advanced status" relations from the European Union, which will eventually give it greater access to Europe's single market.

On social issues, Morocco in 2004 adopted a new family code giving women better rights, despite protests from hardline Islamists.
With the title of Commander of the Faithful, Mohammed VI has also initiated religious reforms aiming to counter the rise of fundamentalist imams.

But he is a reserved figure. His speeches are rare and he remains a mystery to his subjects. An absolute secrecy surrounds events behind the walls of the Mechouar, the royal palace in Rabat.

Since February thousands of Moroccans have joined protest marches to signal that his efforts had not yet been enough, with human rights and development groups saying there needs to be more change.

Corruption permeates all levels of government; about 40 percent of the population is illiterate.
Morocco ranked 126th among world nations in the 2007-2008 UN Development Programme (UNDP) report on human development.

Newspapers can write freely as long as they do not criticise the monarchy, the official Sunni Malakite Muslim sect or Morocco's territorial integrity.
The Moroccan Association of Human Rights says that the justice system is not independent, there is still torture and many arbitrary arrests.

The king acted to end the abusive practices of the dark years of his father by setting up a special reconciliation commission. The victims of the repression have been indemnified, but no alleged torturer has been pursued.

Nabil Mouline, a specialist on Moroccan history at the Institute of Political Studies (IEP) in Paris, says he has in many ways returned to the traditional role of the Moroccan monarch.

"The king is present just about everywhere, omnipotent, reassuring the population. It is a return to the secular tradition of the Moroccan sultanate that goes back to the 16th century."

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