Why Mohammed VI Matters:
M6, as Mohammed VI is known, is Morocco’s third king since the country won independence from France in 1956. Mohammed is slightly less authoritarian than other Arab leaders, allowing token political participation. But Morocco is no democracy. Mohammed considers himself Morocco’s absolute authority and “leader of the faithful,” fostering a legend that he’s a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. He’s more interested in power than governance, barely involving himself in domestic or international affairs. Under Mohammed’s rule, Morocco has been stable but poor. Inequality is rife. Prospects for change are slight.
Early Life, Studies and Family:
Muhammad ibn al-Hasssan was born on Aug. 21, 1963, the son of then-King Hassan II and Lalla Latifa Hammou, descendant of a berber family. He studied in religious schools, went to law school in Rabat, earned a master’s in political science in 1987 and a doctorate in law from the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis
in France. In 2002 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from George Washington University in Washington. He has one brother and three sister and is married to Salma Bennani. They have a son and a daughter.
“As crown prince, Mohammed had been dismissed by some as a bachelor playboy,” The New York Times reported
a few months after Mohammed accession to the throne. “But in only three months, the 36-year-old king has emerged as a powerful advocate of social change in a region that is witnessing a generational shift in monarchies from Morocco to Jordan.” Those were the early hopes of Mohammed’s reign. He’s back to playboy ways, vacationing abroad more than ruling. In 2008, he had four vacations, one of them lasting seven weeks in Thailand, Vietnam, Brazil and France.
Cult of Personality:
When Mohammed VI became king in 1999, there was some hope that he would distance himself from his father’s more showy megalomania. He hasn’t. Mohammed is slowly and literally displacing his father’s cult of personality, as gigantic public portraits of Mohammed replace those of his father and grandfather. Once a year, on July 30, to commemorate the day he became king, Mohammed reigns over the Feast of the Throne, which doubles as a national holiday.
The country’s spiritual leaders, ministers, governors, mayors and dignitaries from around the world prostrate themselves and parade before the monarch, kissing his hand or his shoulder in a sign of obsequious respect. The most prominent face of royal power is the nightly television news, devoted almost exclusively to royal PR — new school openings, new pools, new parks, new roads, but no fundamental changes in the country’s social, economic and political structure.
Human Rights Under Mohammed VI:
M6 has done little to alter Morocco's image, blistered during his father's reign, as a human rights basket case. The country has moved on from its "black years" following independence, when torture, assassinations and political imprisonment were rampant. But after brief years of respite from the mid-1990s to 2003, Mohammed resumed political imprisonments and civil liberties abuses under the name of anti-terrorism. (Some 40 people were killed in suicide bombings on May 16, 2003, ending Morocco's self-image as a quiet, modern Islamic state). Critics are silenced. Conditions in the Western Sahara are dismal.
The Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM):
The Authenticity and Modernity Party was created in 2007. It had the sheen of an independent party. It is anything but. It was created by Fouad Ali Al-Himma, a friend of the king, essentially to consolidate Mohammed’s through the appearance of political pluralism. Looking to gain influence, several members of other political parties joined PAM—and several parties merged with it. The king’s maneuver worked: he diluted political opposition by giving the appearance of expanding it.
Many reforms had begun under Hassan. As the old king, who reigned for 38 years, was approaching death in the mid-1990s, he freed Morocco’s political prisoners and even summoned an opponent he’d condemned to death to run the government. Hassan rehabilitated the country’s economy, paid lip service to freedom of the press and women’s rights, and hinted at a possible referendum to grant autonomy to the Western Sahara. Mohammed was expected to go much further. That has not happened except in fits and starts. Morocco remains an authoritarian monarchy. Parliament is a showpiece, not an effective check on royal power.
Progress and Regress Under Mohammed VI:
Morocco is ranked 127th out of 177 countries on the United Nations’ Human Development Index. Illiteracy is still above 40% (54% in rural areas, and 46% for women overall), although there’s been some progress among younger people: 93% of children under 10 are in school, and 47% of university students’ ranks are women, suggesting increasing parity in higher education. In March 2007, Mohammed shortened the sentences of thousands of prisoners and pardoned some 9,000 to commemorate the birth of his daughter.
Still, Mohammed himself appears little interested in full and frank engagement with his country’s challenges. His physical absence from Morocco is a an obstacle to earnest reform. So is the king’s political machinations, designed to ensure his grip on power rather than favor constitutional changes.