September 17, 1999
Our Man in Morocco
By Jerry MeldonWhen referring to Arab leaders, official Washington holds few compliments higher than "moderate" and "Western-oriented," though the adjectives rarely attach to political values such as democracy, human rights or pluralism.
The death of King Hassan II of Morocco on July 24 was a case in point. U.S. government eulogies and press retrospectives hailed the late monarch for his long service as a reliable client of Western diplomacy, with little note of his autocratic, corrupt and bloody rule.
"Over his 38-year reign, King Hassan II demonstrated time and again his leadership, his courage and his willingness to embrace change," declared President Clinton.
In an editorial, The Washington Post hailed the deceased monarch as "a figure who earned a reputation far beyond his region for moderation and reason. His was an important contribution to regional stability." [WP, July 26, 1999]
During his life, Hassan also won high praise from President Bush for dispatching a contingent of royal Moroccan troops to join U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf War. At a White House dinner on Sept. 26, 1991, Bush praised Hassan's "commitment to shared ideals" and counted Hassan as a participant in "building a New World Order."
To his credit, Hassan did promote Arab-Israeli negotiations. He helped bring Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egypt's President Anwar Sadat to Camp David in 1978 and brokered other sensitive contacts between Middle Eastern antagonists.
But Morocco's 29 million people benefited little from Hassan's "moderation" and his "commitment to shared ideals." While Hassan ruled with an iron fist and accumulated vast wealth, one-third of his subjects lived in poverty, about one-quarter were unemployed and about half could not read or write.
Amid the backwardness and repression, Hassan lived a royal life as an international jet-setter. In a less-flattering tone than found in the U.S. press, the French newspaper, Le Monde, detailed Hassan's accumulated fortune which was estimated at $1.6 billion.
The king owned more than 20 palaces and villas scattered around Morocco, real-estate holdings in the United States and Europe, bulging stock portfolios and offshore bank accounts, many placed in the names of trusted advisers. Reportedly, Hassan's wealth also derived from the transiting of cocaine through Morocco and from the sale of homegrown cannabis. [Le Monde, July 26, 1999]
Little of this information was noted in the United States, however. Hassan earned this final wink apparently because U.S. officials appreciated his help on Washington's Middle East diplomacy and his collaboration on sensitive intelligence operations, such as funneling support to CIA-backed Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi.
But the urbane king, who studied in France and spoke several languages, also gained favor by indulging influential Americans in the romantic mystery of Morocco. He let them play out their "Arabian Nights" fantasies in luxurious desert settings.
One of the best known of these exotic galas was the 70th birthday party for publishing magnate Malcolm Forbes at his villa in Tangiers in 1989.
At an estimated cost of $2 million, Forbes -- calling himself "Ali-Dada" -- feted 800 of the world's leaders in business, media and government. The guest list glittered with the likes of The Washington Post's Katharine Graham, ABC's Barbara Walters, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
King Hassan spiced up the event by lending 200 horsemen in Moroccan costume and 750 folk performers. Hassan also hosted a lunch for the celebrants at the Tangier Country Club. (One of the organizers of this Moroccan bash was Malcolm Forbes's son, Steve, now a Republican candidate for president.) [People, Sept. 4, 1989]
Hassan's hospitality apparently earned him a warm spot in the hearts of many of the news executives who set the tone of U.S. press coverage.
Unlike the late Zairian dictator Mobutu Seke Zeto, another African leader who exploited his close ties with Washington to plunder his nation's wealth, the regal Hassan never suffered the harsh scrutiny that dogged Mobutu, a black African born in a humble village who came to power via the military.
Yet, Hassan ran Morocco almost as ruthlessly as Mobutu governed Zaire. Like Mobutu, Hassan crushed independence movements in outlying territories, eliminated political rivals with the help of Western intelligence services, and lived a life of luxury amid the poverty of his countrymen.
Born on July 9, 1929, Hassan was the oldest child of Sultan Sidi Mohammed ben Youssef.
At the time of Hassan's birth, most of Morocco was a French protectorate. After World War II, however, Hassan's father, the Sultan, supported a popular movement for independence.
The French responded by forcing the Sultan into exile in 1953. But the challenge to French rule was just beginning. In 1954-55, an independence movement known as the National Union of Popular Forces [UNFP] led uprisings across Morocco.
At the time, the French were reeling from other rebellions in their empire, losing in Indochina in 1954 and battling for control of Algeria. So, in 1956, the French chose to grant Morocco independence while maintaining close ties by installing a reactionary pro-French monarchy.
For that purpose, the Sultan returned from exile and became King Mohammed V. Prince Hassan, who was fast gaining a reputation as an international playboy, worked with his father to consolidate the monarchy's power. One of the chief goals was to neutralize the UNFP and its charismatic intellectual leader, Mehdi Ben Barka.
In 1957, Prince Hassan enhanced his personal power by assuming command of the Royal Moroccan Army which then was divided between officers who had favored independence and those who were pro-French. In 1960, the prince survived the first of several assassination attempts, an attack that the monarchy blamed on Ben Barka and the UNFP.
When King Mohammed V died a year later, the prince ascended to the throne as Hassan II. He pushed through a new constitution that guaranteed some political rights, but the king retained the power to dissolve the legislature and control the army.
In July 1963, Moroccan authorities caught wind of another plot to assassinate Hassan. Ben Barka, who had denounced the "theocratic and feudal regime" for re-imposing "the medieval structure of traditional Moroccan society," was again blamed. A year later, Ben Barka was sentenced to death in absentia, along with 10 other colleagues from the UNFP.
Amid bloody anti-government riots in June 1965, fires swept Rabat and Casablanca. Hassan dissolved Parliament, declared a state of emergency and assumed absolute power. Some opposition figures were executed and others fled abroad.
From his exile base in Geneva, Ben Barka had continued to criticize Hassan's rule. Ben Barka also emerged as an international leader of the Non-Aligned Movement of Third World nations, countries favoring neutrality in the Cold War. The United States, however, considered the Non-Aligned Movement a threat to Western solidarity and effectively a front for communist influence.
In 1965, Ben Barka was elected chairman of the movement's first Tricontinental Congress to be held Jan. 3-10, 1966. The United States was especially alarmed because the location for the Congress was Havana, Cuba, a choice that promised to enhance Fidel Castro's international stature.
Henry Tasca, U.S. ambassador to Morocco, held discussions with Moroccan Interior Minister, Gen. Mohammed Oufkir. Tasca then contacted the CIA's station in Paris about the possibility of facilitating Ben Barka's return to his home country. [Time, Dec. 29, 1975]
Yet, whether Washington really wanted Ben Barka back in Morocco, and if so, why, remain unanswered questions to this day.
As it turned out, a French journalist lured Ben Barka from Geneva to Paris with the prospect of speaking to a French film director working on a documentary about imperialism. On Oct. 29, 1965, Ben Barka and a friend were walking on Paris's busy Boulevard Saint-Germain-des-Pres, on their way to meet the filmmakers, when a patrol car pulled up and two men jumped out flashing badges.
The two Parisian police detectives pulled Ben Barka into the car, whose occupants also included a French narcotics officer and an agent of the SDECE, the French intelligence service.
The car took Ben Barka to a house in a Paris suburb. The building was owned by Georges Boucheseiche, a heroin-trafficking gangster on the SDECE payroll. There, Boucheseiche and other thugs interrogated and tortured Ben Barka.
According to some accounts, Oufkir was present during the interrogation, possibly seeking the combination to a safe containing records of the Non-Aligned Movement. However, some journalists, such as Henrik Kruger in The Great Heroin Coup, have cast doubt on Oukfir's personal involvement.
The following night, Ben Barka was flown out of Paris and disappeared. His body has never been recovered.
The incident, however, had international ramifications. It enraged French president Charles deGaulle, who dispatched a personal emissary to King Hassan. DeGaulle unsuccessfully demanded Oufkir's extradition.
"Someone has taken me for a complete idiot," deGaulle fumed.
Convinced of CIA involvement, deGaulle cracked down on French operatives whom he suspected were CIA lackeys. Several of these operatives received stiff jail sentences. But the precise role of the CIA in the Ben Barka case has never been clarified.
There was reason, however, to suspect an American hand in Ben Barka's disappearance. Besides Washington's sensitivity about Castro and the Non-Aligned Movement, the Johnson administration at the time was moving aggressively around the world to thwart perceived Third World adversaries.
Most notably, President Johnson was escalating U.S. involvement in Indochina. But he also dispatched Marines to the Dominican Republic, sent experts to improve the efficiency of Guatemalan security forces and allowed U.S. officials to hand over names of suspected communists to Indonesian generals engaged in exterminating hundreds of thousands of Indonesians.
In Morocco, Ben Barka's disappearance removed a thorn from Hassan's side. But the king's autocratic rule continued to inspire attempts to overthrow his regime.
On July 10, 1971, Hassan celebrated his 42nd birthday with a gala at his seaside palace near Rabat. With about 400 prominent Moroccans in attendance, a force of 1,000 rebellious troops attacked, killing nearly 100 guests, but missing the king who hid in a bathroom.
When Hassan emerged from the bathroom, he is reputed to have confronted a rebel leader and recited the first verse of the Koran. Supposedly, the rebel knelt and kissed the king's hand, sparing Hassan and giving loyal troops time to counterattack. More than 150 rebels died and a dozen senior officers linked to the plot were executed.
In 1972, Hassan was stunned again when his longtime henchman, Oufkir, turned on the monarch. Oufkir ordered Moroccan jet fighters to shoot down Hassan's plane as it was about to land.
The fighters knocked out one engine and continued to strafe the plane on the ground. This time, according to legend, the quick-thinking king survived by grabbing the radio and convincing the rebels that the "tyrant" was dead.
With that assassination plot foiled, Hassan meted out harsh justice to Oufkir. Loyalist Gen. Ahmed Dlimi reportedly shot the disloyal Oufkir in the stomach, and Hassan personally finished off Oufkir with a shot through the general's trademark sunglasses. Oufkir's widow and six children were placed under a house arrest that continued for nearly two decades.
In 1975, Hassan moved to assert Moroccan authority over the Western Sahara, where an active independence movement, called the Polisario, had been fighting for freedom from Spain.
Hassan wanted to add Western Sahara's phosphate deposits to Morocco's and thus dominate the world market. In pursuit of that goal, Hassan's air force bombed and napalmed camps set up for the war's refugees. [Inquiry, May 26, 1980]
Faced with the Moroccan repression, many residents of the Western Sahara fled to Algeria. Seeking to solidify Morocco's control, Hassan trucked 350,000 civilians into the disputed region to stage a march. Hassan also began a campaign to relocate enough Moroccans into the area so they would hold the majority in any referendum on sovereignty.
Meanwhile, on the international front, Hassan took steps to guarantee a secure conduit of U.S. weapons and a better reputation for Morocco in the halls of American power.
Morocco hired a P.R. firm headed by former U.S. Sen. Charles Goodell to "improve public understanding in the United States of the right of Morocco to purchase armaments in the U.S."
But bad press still plagued Hassan's government. The Belgian Association of Democratic Jurists sent a medical team to Morocco where it found that Moroccan political prisoners were left in total isolation, chained to the ground, suspended head down or beaten on the soles of their feet until they lost consciousness. [NYT, May 26, 1980]
Over the years, leading human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, documented numerous cases of abuses under Hassan's government: imprisonment without trial, suppression of political dissent, torture and murder of dissidents. Morocco was widely judged to have one of the worst human rights records in the Arab world.
Toward the end of his reign, Hassan did take some hesitant steps toward democracy and political tolerance. Abdurrahman Youssufi, a socialist and former political prisoner, became prime minister after his political bloc dominated recent elections.
But Hassan kept tight control over how much political freedom was permitted. Abraham Serfaty, another opposition leader, was refused permission to return to Morocco, and Islamic leader Abdessalam Yacine has remained under house arrest for 10 years.
Hassan insisted, too, that his longtime ally, Driss Basri, continue to control the powerful Interior Ministry as he has done for 20 years.
Before his death, Hassan commented that "in the long term, in the course of a reign, and in the conduct of governments, there are often obligations which are incompatible with [people's] rights." [Manchester Guardian Weekly, July 28, 1999]
Now, Hassan's death has passed the broad powers of Morocco's monarchy onto his son, King Mohammed VI, the 18th regent of the 333-year Alaouite dynasty.
U.S. officials and leading editorialists have expressed hope that the new king will continue the "moderate" and "Western-oriented" policies of his father.
Jerry Meldon, a contributing editor of iF Magazine, teaches chemistry at Tufts University in Massachusetts.