The Muslim sovereign who needs our support

By Andrew Rosemarine, March 31, 2011

Shimon Peres used to say that the future of the Middle East peace process lay in the hands of three Kings of the Orient: the monarchs of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco.

This proved prescient. The Kings of Jordan - Hussain and Abdullah II - have been stalwart supporters of the peace process, not only their own, but also the Palestinian track. Saudi's Fahd and Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz designed peace plans, which received backing from the Arab League, and which have brought some of Israel's enemies closer to recognising it.

Hassan II of Morocco was active in fostering better relations between Israel and her neighbours, and Israel helped build his security wall in the desert. His son, Mohamed VI, however, has not been seen to have dealings with the Jewish state, although security co-operation between Israel and his Alaouite kingdom continues, when necessary, as it does with other moderate Arab regimes.

Mohamed has been a conspicuously conscientious leader to his own people, and has moved away from the oppression of his late father's "years of lead-shot", introducing many reforms. He is generally liked and respected and seen to care for his people. Daily, he opens new buildings, roads and infrastructure projects. In the 12 years, since he came to power, he has allowed a far greater degree of political freedom than did his late father, Hassan II, albeit while retaining immense power. Mohamed has given groups across the spectrum greater representation, released political prisoners, and allowed others back from exile, most notably the late Jewish Marxist dissident, Abraham Serfaty.

The past few years have witnessed many peaceful demonstrations. I have seen Communist materials openly displayed on campus, something unimaginable during the reign of Hassan. Mohamed VI has also greatly increased the rights of women --- notably in a new law code that many Moroccan men say gives women too much power.

Why, then, have tens of thousands protested nationwide? Why the lootings? Why arson? Why did vandals kill five bank employees in Al Hoceima ?

The demonstrators want jobs, better housing and social services. They have been inspired to act by TV images of other North Africans dramatically demanding greater rights. A few unemployed hoodlums have turned violent. Unlike in other countries, however, the police have usually responded with restraint. Some say with too much restraint. However, 10-year prison sentences have been handed down to some of the most violent looters in Tangiers.

Many protesters resent major corruption in the political elite, and the ever increasing wealth of the royal family. Nevertheless, Mohamed VI is a popular monarch. None of the protests called expressly for his end, though some sought "the overthrow of autocracy." Most targeted the government. The King has responded with promises of major constitutional reforms.

The Moroccan Jewish community, around 5,000 strong now, is by far the happiest of any Jewish community in the Arab World, even though it has shrunk by hundreds of thousands. Since Mohamed VI's grandfather came to power in the 1920s, the royal family has looked after its Jews, even to the extent of defying the Nazis' request to hand them over. Jews are free to worship and synagogues are protected by armed guards. The judgments of their courts are constitutionally guaranteed. Jews assist in government inside Morocco itself and abroad. Israeli tourist groups come and go without difficulty. Moroccan and Israeli security services co-operate in secret. Both indigenous Jewry and Moroccan Jews the world over love this King and fear revolution. Jacky Kadoch, president of the Jewish Communities of Marrakech-Essaouira, recently described the King as "Sacré" - Holy. Mr Kadoch knows about these things. In Hebrew, his own name means the same.

Some see an Iranian hand behind the recent demonstrations. This is plausible to a degree, as fundamentalist millenarian Shia Iran has an interest in sweeping away the progressive Sunni Alaouites. The King of Morocco is traditionally al Amir al Muaminiyn, the Emir of the Faithful, and therefore in theory competes for the souls of Muslims with the Ayatollahs of Tehran. Iran has been introducing its own version of Shia Islam into Morocco recently, so irritating the locals that the King sent home the Iranian Ambassador. The King's pro-Western foreign policy and moderate stand on Palestinian issues, are anathema to Iranian President Ahmedinajad but Tehran seems unlikely to be a major contributor to the demonstrations.

Mohamed VI's monarchy appears safe. Today, British Ministers are scurrying to disavow or pulverise potentates whom they and their predecessors embraced as partners yesterday. By comparison, Morocco is progressive and tolerant. We should raise our voices in its support, and boost its economy by enjoying its climate, cuisine and culture.

Andrew Rosemarine is an international lawyer

Last updated: 10:42am, March 31 2011